The Benefits of Working Backwards

As the days grow shorter and we face turning our clocks back an hour, it seems like a great ‘time’ to talk about the benefits of working backwards in the service of moving forwards. Alarm ClockBackwards design means planning in reverse so that you can get to where you want to be in the future. Most people with ADHD have a great deal of trouble managing their time: they are often late, lose track of time or can’t estimate how long a task will take. These problems can be very frustrating to them and to the other people in their lives. The following tips for backwards design can improve time management painlessly and successfully!

1. Stop trying to plan your time from the front end. What this means is that you can’t begin thinking about how to arrive at an event from your current starting point. If it is 6:45 a.m. and you have to leave for school or work until 7:45 a.m., don’t think about how much you can do from now until then. “Oh, I have 30 minutes to get dressed, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, feed the cat and get my backpack (or briefcase) together. I have plenty of time to watch some tv first.” When you think about time in a forward manner, inevitably you underestimate how long things take and then run late.

2. In a calm moment, not in the midst of rushing around but likely afterwards, think about your targeted time for arriving at or departing from an event or completing a task. Then, starting with THAT time, work backwards, assigning increments of time to the various steps that you have to do. If we use the example from Step 1, this would look like: “Ok, I need to leave by 7:45 and before that I have to pack my backpack (or briefcase) which takes about 5 minutes, feed the cat which takes about 5 minutes, brush my teeth which takes about 5 minutes, make and eat breakfast which takes about 15 minutes, get dressed which takes 20 minutes (including my hair and make-up) so that totals 50 minutes. That means that I have 10 extra minutes if I wake up at 6:45. Is that enough? If so, what should I do with those 10 minutes? Do I need those 10 minutes for unpredictable things or returning phone calls or checking my email or Facebook or twitter?” Using backwards design requires an honest assessment of how long tasks actually take, not how long you think they should take.

3. Create a list or chart to remind you to use the steps that you have created. checklist paper with pen on clipboard isolate on white Once you have tried this plan, you can alter it in any way that would make it more effective for you. You can also set an alarm on your phone to remind you when you have 5, 10 or 15 minutes to keep you on track. Remember, things often take longer than we anticipate so leave yourself some ‘just in case’ time to deal with the unexpected. When you have succeeded at doing this with one thing in your life, then you can apply it to others such as getting to the dentist’s office on time, arriving at a concert before it starts or showing up for soccer practice when you are supposed to arrive.

Being on time (or close to it) can be hard work and yet quite rewarding. Be sure to take pride in your accomplishment or to praise the success of a loved one with ADHD who is trying this. Next week, when you lose an hour to Daylight Saving Time, you can really ‘fall back to spring forward’ as the adage commands by using backwards design!!


Talking About the Teenage Brain at Versan Conference in Montego Bay and Kingston, Jamaica

Versan Seminar-Dr Sharon SalineLast month, I had the great privilege to travel to Jamaica to present my talk, “What were you thinking? Understanding the Teen Brain,”at the “Recession-Proofing Your Education” Conferences in Kingston and Montego Bay sponsored by Versan Educational Services. Versan is an international educational organization that advises, places and trains students for boarding schools and colleges around the world. Ms. Sandra Bramwell, the founder and director, is one of the most energetic, eloquent and kind-hearted women whom I have ever met. She is also a visionary. The conferences were attended by over 175 parents, teens and guidance counselors as well as radio stations. 

Versan Seminar-Mrs Bramwell
Dr. Saline with Ms. Sandra Bramwell, founder and director of Versan Educational Services.

Each time I give this talk, I am always curious what the audience members will find most interesting and relevant to their lives. Sometimes people are curious about the recent findings in brain research that the pre-frontal cortex continues to develop until the mid-twenties. Sometimes people are interested in learning more about teens and sleep. And sometimes, people would just like to what is ‘normal’ teen behavior and what is not.

Versan Seminar-Dr Sharon Saline Lecture







At both of my talks in Jamaica, the attendees were especially interested by two issues that are related to executive functioning skills.

1. A 2011 NIMH-funded study about emotional recognition found that adolescents showed a 50% accuracy of correctly naming emotions versus the adults in the study who showed 100% accuracy. This finding means that adolescents misinterpreted the facial expressions that they were shown in half the cases. When I emphasized that this result implies that teens are reading situations incorrectly about half of the time and then responding to that misreading, people were amused but also concerned. We talked about how understanding facial expressions correctly relies on executive functioning skills which are still developing. Teens wondered if they could speed up the course of development. “Miss,” on young man asked, “Is there any way to speed up the development process if I work really hard? I would like it to be finished by the time I am 20, not 25.” “Well,” I said, “You can work hard on strengthening your executive functioning skills like planning, organizing, judgment and self-awareness but your brain will grow at its own rate and you can’t really make that go any faster.”  He was visibly disappointed.

2.Time management: I talked about backwards design, which seemed to be a new concept. We looked at how challenging it can be to get ready and out of the house on time for school in the morning. With the eager participation of one mother and daughter, we traced their morning routine as it unfolds now with all of its bumps and then rearranged it by going backwards from the time of arrival at school. The audience found this technique very useful.

Versan Seminar StudentsI really appreciated the frank feedback that the Jamaicans gave right after my talk—“I liked the part about learning how to make better decisions but not so much about the brain cells”—and their warmth and humor. It was refreshing (and a bit comforting) to see that parents and teens in the Caribbean have many of the same questions and concerns that we have here in the USA.