A white coffee mug sits on a wooden table; printed on it is the word "begin"

Surviving self-isolation part 1 – building a morning routine with Brili

We are living through some very strange and scary times right now. Like many people, I am staying home – compulsorily, since New Zealand has entered total lockdown as of today. The good news is that I do still have a job; but since it’s a non-essential, outdoor job, for now I have no actual work.

Like many ADHDers, I find the complete freedom to do what I like with my time a bit of an executive dysfunction nightmare. It’s all too easy in this situation to end up doing nothing, while thinking about everything.

Luckily, I have some experience with managing long periods of unstructured time. I’ve developed a few tools and tricks for such situations, to help me stay sane and even get things done. So I’m going to devote my next few blog posts to sharing these, and hope that they help other people too.

First up: using Brili to get going in the morning.

Why are mornings so hard?

It’s a well-established fact that when you’re working from home (or self-isolating), you still want to have a morning routine. This is especially true for us ADHDers, for whom routine is vital to our wellbeing.

But, look – mornings are the worst. Waking up in bed is basically as far from “ready to do things” as it is possible to be, and my brain is usually too foggy to compute the many steps between where I am and the end state of being dressed, fed, and ready to begin the day proper. Or else I’m already hyper-focusing on something cool I want to do, in which case I want to do that, not think about boring minutiae like showering or breakfast.

And either state is made far worse by me not having anywhere to be, or any deadlines putting pressure on me to get up and get moving. Without external motivation, it’s all too easy to just give up altogether on the difficult business of looking after myself, and disappear into depression and cat videos for the entire day.

So how do I make and stick to a morning routine, without getting overwhelmed by the steps involved or distracted by more interesting tasks?

Brili to the rescue

Brili is a phone app (Android & iPhone) that’s actually designed for the parents of ADHD kids, to help them help their kids stay on track. But as Jessica McCabe points out in the How To ADHD video that introduced me to Brili, ADHD adults still need help staying on track; we’re just our own parents now.

With Brili, you create daily routines in the form of a series of individual activity cards. Each card has the name of the task and the maximum time allowed to complete it. Optionally, you can also designate a required finish time for the entire routine if you want to be ready to start the day (or go to bed) by a certain time.

Whenever you’re ready to begin a routine, just select the one you want(if you only have, say, a morning and an evening routine, the right one usually comes up automatically; you can also set different routines to appear on different days) and hit ‘Let’s Get Started’.

The first task card will pop up, and the timer on it will start counting down. When you finish a task, swipe the card to the left with a very satisfying swishing sound, and the next task will pop up. If you need to postpone one task in favour of another, swipe it right instead and it will drop in at the end of the task queue.

The app gives you a fairly gentle warning sound when you’re getting close to the end of time for a task (don’t have your volume up too high!), and another if the timer hits zero, but it won’t move on without you – the current task will remain until you swipe left to tell Brili you’re done with it.

You can use it for other routines as well, of course, but for me mornings are where routine is just vital. Here’s what my main set of morning cards (for when I have plenty of time in the morning) looks like:

Screenshot of all the tasks in my morning routine: neck stretches, make breakfast, check email and deal with quick ones, write journal entry, play Upwords, take medication, practise Anki, choose clothes, take shower, get dressed, put pocket items in my pockets

Why is Brili so good for ADHD brains?

I’ve written before about my struggle with routine. Since diagnosis, I’ve learned that what I was describing is actually an inherent challenge of the ADHD brain: we hate routine, but we need it.

My brain needs routine because it helps me remember all the forgettable daily necessities that keep me healthy, happy, and on top of my life. At the same time, my brain hates routine; the repetition of small, boring tasks is impossible to stay focused on, and attempting to hold them all in my head so I don’t forget something is just overwhelming.

But Brili is the perfect solution to avoiding both distraction and overwhelm. Now when I roll out of bed in the morning, I don’t have to try to force my brain to stay focused on the complex dance that is preparing for my day. I just fire up Brili and let it tell me what to do.

Brili’s card system is simple and structured – I can see at a glance what I should be doing right now, while the rest of my routine is tucked away to keep me focused on the task at hand. The time limit on each card applies enough pressure to activate my interest-based nervous system; meanwhile,having my routines programmed in removes the unhelpful pressure of trying to keep track of everything myself.

Some tips on getting started

1. Feel free to use my morning routine as inspiration, but be prepared to monitor your progress with your new routine and to play around with it if something isn’t working for you. Simplicity is key when keeping the ADHD brain focused on routine activities – think about whether you need to break one big task down into several smaller ones, or reorder your routine so it’s easier to follow.

I started out trying to shower before breakfast, but because I don’t tend to get out of bed until I’m already hungry, the prospect of having to wait to eat just short-circuited my desire to get out of bed at all. Now I eat breakfast in my pyjamas, and shower after. It may sound silly, but it’s what works for me. Which leads me to…

2. Don’t judge yourself by what you “should” be able to do – look at what you’re actually doing, accept that that’s how your brain works, and adjust your routine to suit. Trust me – it’s a lot quicker and a lot kinder to yourself than trying to make your brain work differently.

3. Think about whether you want to use rewards. Brili comes with a system for awarding stars for tasks completed within the set time, and then “spending” them on rewards of your choice – a tasty treat, a movie outing, whatever works for you. I don’t do anything with my stars, since I like my app experience as uncomplicated as possible (and the satisfaction of actually getting going in the morning is reward enough for me), but the option is there if you do better with tangible goals to work towards.

Are there any downsides?

Well, yes, a couple of minor ones.

First, it’s not free. You can trial it for a month to see if it works for you, but if you like it you’ll need to subscribe to keep using it. Thankfully subscription isn’t too pricey – your options range from US$4.17-$7.99 per month.

Second, because Brili is designed for parents with ADHD kids, to use it you have to set up two identities within the app – one as the “parent” and one as the “child”. Once you’re all set up you can just stay in “child” mode, but you will have to switch back into “parent” mode to make any changes to your routines. There may possibly be a for-adults version of Brili on its way, but it isn’t here just yet.

Finally, I really wish the routines came with a pause button, for when you get a phone call or otherwise have to step out of routine mode and don’t want your timer to keep running down. But I can see how that would be less ideal for a parent trying to keep their child on-task.

For all that it’s not perfect, Brili is very good at what I need it to be good at. It’s simple, it’s user friendly – and most importantly it provides reliable structure to get me up in the morning, even when I can’t leave the house.

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