Planning, Underestimating and ADHD

Whoever came up with the warning to “expect the unexpected” probably didn’t have everyday organizational and time management tasks in mind.

Those are the tasks that, when done right, go pretty much exactly how you expect them to. Your domestic to-do list isn’t supposed to be an unpredictable adventure.

The thing is, those of us with ADHD often don’t do these tasks right. After all, ADHDers frequently struggle with planning ahead (see this study or this one, for example). Challenges with planning tie in with with a tendency toward impulsivity and ADHD-related deficits in executive functioning, the brain’s ability to regulate behavior. As a result, people with ADHD can see mundane tasks that involve planning spiral into unforeseen directions.

A common thread I’ve seen come up in tasks that ADHDers mis-plan is a tendency to underestimate.

Underestimating the amount of time required for something is a classic example.

This type of planning mistake can involve underestimating how long a particular task will take, leading you to fall behind schedule. Or it might involve underestimating the amount of time needed to get between places, setting up a pattern of chronic lateness. It can also occur on a larger time scale, such as underestimating how long completing a major project or reaching a medium-term life goal will take.

Related to underestimating time is underestimating the commitment or amount of work required for a particular project.

You’ll see this mistake made by ADHDers who enthusiastically jump into multiple commitments at work, in their social lives, in their hobbies, etc. only to find that they’ve taken on more than they can juggle.

Then there’s the possibility of underestimating not time, but money. Impulsivity and a failure to plan can rear their heads in the financial affairs of people with ADHD. For example, ADHDers might be prone to underestimating how much of their budget they’ve spent, how much they’ve added on their credit card bill this month, how long will be needed to pay off debt, how much they’ll have to save to meet future needs, and so on.

As if that’s not enough, things are about to get meta, because it turns out that those with ADHD also tend to underestimate their own ADHD symptoms.

That type of ADHD underestimation happens in two senses. First, as many an ADHDer has learned from experience, it’s easy not to foresee how much your ADHD symptoms will interfere with your undertakings -— not to realize how even your best-laid plans can be ruthlessly sabotaged by inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity.

Beyond that, though, people with ADHD often underestimate the severity of their own symptoms and lack insight into how much their symptoms interfere in their lives. Researchers have found that both teenagers and adults with ADHD seem not to be aware of the extent of their symptoms. If you think about it, that finding isn’t necessarily even so surprising: people with ADHD have been living with the condition all their lives, so the symptoms that come with it just feel normal.

Whether it’s underestimating time, underestimating commitments, underestimating financial expenses, or underestimating ADHD symptoms themselves, underestimating is such a recurring type of ADHD mis-planning in my own life that I’ve come to anticipate it. You can’t always stop yourself from underestimating things when you plan ahead, but if you’re aware of this tendency you can try to compensate for it.

And that’s why I’ve learned that in order to manage ADHD symptoms you have to expect the underestimated.


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