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Reality checking your plan

How to make sure your plan actually works

Learning how to create realistic plans takes practice.  There are some common areas that DRS students frequently find useful to monitor and work on improving, including:

  • Determining how long something will take to complete
  • Accounting for flare-ups
  • Considering your unique strengths and challenges
  • Taking into account your whole life

How long will it take?

First, assess if the time you have allocated for each task is reasonable. If you have a hard time finishing things on time, you may struggle with estimating time accurately. This is a common difficulty for people diagnosed with ADHD, learning disorders, and autism (but plenty of folks without these diagnoses also find it challenging!). Many students don’t realize that it’s a problem for themselves until they intentionally test out their time estimation skills.

We strongly recommend using our time estimation worksheet to gather data about your ability to estimate time. Here’s an example of a completed sheet:

time estimation worksheet example

Improving Time Estimation

You can get better at time estimation but you’ll need to work at it. Make time visual. Try using a Time Timer. It’s designed to make it easier to track the passing of time.

a time timer

If you’re not ready to invest in a Time Timer, then surround yourself with analog clocks. They make it much easier to visualize time than digital clocks.

an analog clock

Practice improving your time estimation skills. Use our time estimation worksheet to get better at predicting how long important tasks will take. We also recommend that you use it whenever you start something new so you have that data right from the start.

Have you accounted for flare-ups?

If you have a psychological or physical condition that flares up occasionally, then you may need to account for that in your planning. The more you know about your symptom patterns, the easier it will be to plan around them.

Keep in mind that stress often increases many different physical and mental symptoms. That means that you may find it harder to work efficiently during periods when you have the most to do. A realistic plan will take that into account. We’ve got more information on identifying flare-up patterns and accounting for flare-ups in planning.

Have you considered (and accepted) your strengths and challenges?

The better you know yourself, the better you can create plans and use strategies that maximize your strengths and compensate for weaknesses. Be a scientist and study yourself. Gather as much data as you can about how you work best.
Keep in mind, what’s realistic for you is going to be different than what is realistic for someone else. People have different experiences, brains, societal privilege, and past and present resources. Being more accepting and realistic in your self-assessment will free you up to maximize your own potential and focus on your strengths.

Replace “should” with “want”

One of the best ways to catch unrealistic planning is to look out for “shoulds.” We tend to use the word “should” when there’s a difference between our expectations for ourselves and reality. “I should be able to stay focused on studying.” “It should be easy to get to classes on time.” “I should not procrastinate.”

When you plan from a place of “should,” you are more likely to set unrealistic goals. You may also miss an opportunity to strategize how to achieve your goals.

For example, if you think, “I should be able to take three science classes this quarter,” your conversation with yourself may end there. “Should” implies that the goal is attainable. If a goal is attainable, then you don’t have to do any more work planning for it. But hard-to-reach goals require solid strategies in place to succeed. “Should” may lead you to skip the strategizing step, thus increasing your chances of being unsuccessful.

If, on the other hand, you think “I want to take three science classes this quarter,” it’s easier to follow up with “Is that a reasonable goal for me? What challenges do I anticipate? What would I need to have in place in order to make sure I succeed.”

Learn from the past

Compare your plan to similar plans you’ve made in the past. Consider where you succeeded and where you ran into trouble. Then repeat the successful strategies and address any factors that contributed to past problems. It’s very important that you take time to understand anything that went wrong.

Many students hope to fix low grades by working harder or taking on more work. But this tends to backfire if the underlying factors are not addressed first.

Grow your ability to adapt

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to take information that you’ve learned and apply it to a new situation. In planning, it helps you adjust your plans and goals as new information is gained. It’s also critical to problem solving.

Many mental health issues impact cognitive flexibility. Some signs to look out for:

  • Sticking with a plan despite signs that it’s not working
  • Regularly resisting input given by others
  • Difficulty compromising in any area of life (i.e. planning on taking a harder course load without letting go of extracurriculars, social obligations, grade expectations, etc.)

To increase cognitive flexibility, consider learning about growth mindset.

Does your plan take into account your whole life?

School is a major part of your life, but it’s not everything. A realistic plan needs to consider your other activities and commitments. Take into account both time and energy demands. Stressful events may not take much time but they can use up a lot of cognitive or emotional energy. Also, make sure to consider things like the time it takes to commute and eat.