Time & Productivity

Why ADD To-Do Lists Backfire or Languish

When your ADHD brain is swirling with deadlines, ideas, and tasks, logging them in a to-do list often feels cathartic. But keeping an ADD to-do list is only productive if you create and maintain it effectively. Avoid these common to-do list pitfalls to improve your productivity and get more done every day.

Don't When Making To-Do Lists

ADHD brains are busy — and chaotic. Thoughts, desires, and aspirations swirl around like a hurricane until released. We try to give these ideas structure by codifying them as a list of goals or actions, or by drafting a to-do list to work from. But creating a to-do list requires recognizing — and avoiding — common culprits that undermine our attempts at time management.

Here are seven common mistakes to avoid when building an effective to-do list — and getting things done — with ADHD.

To-Do List Problem 1: Making the List Too Long

Adding everything that needs to be done to your to-do list makes the list confusing, hard to prioritize, and easier to avoid using.

  • Daily tasks, like doing dishes, should never be on the list.
  • Tasks that take two minutes or less should be done right away and never make the list.
  • List only those tasks that have deadlines and can be completed in a reasonable amount of time, according to your daily and weekly schedule (not monthly).
  • Large projects with many steps should be kept in a separate project file, where you outline and sequence the steps and assign dates for completion. Pick individual tasks from that list to accomplish each week and make your choices daily.
  • There are many things we would like to do, but don’t have the time to tackle, so keep a separate “great idea” list for those wonderful ideas you want to remember. Choose to start those projects when the time is right. Starting too many things at the same time sets you up for failure.

To-Do List Problem 2: Making the List, But Not Looking At It

Look at your list morning, noon, and night, or at least on a daily basis. Pick what you want to get done by lunch, and what you want to get done before leaving work. Look again to see if there is something you want to do when you get home. The weekend may be the time to do some personal tasks. Pick one day a week to add to the list from your project folders, and review your calendar monthly to plan around vacations and travel for work.

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To-Do List Problem 3: Having Too Many Lists, Or Misplacing Your Main List

Organization is hard for most of us with ADHD, but it is essential when developing a to-do list system that works for you. Since our phone is almost always with us, our calendar, project lists, great ideas, and to-do list should be synced with our computer, so we can access everything we need, no matter where we are. There are numerous ADHD-friendly apps and software systems to help us do this, but keep in mind that less is more and simple is best. Too many bells and whistles can be cumbersome to manage.

To-Do List Problem 4: Fretting/Agonizing Over the List

Celebrate what you get done each day instead of bemoaning what you didn’t. There will always be more to do, and our list will never go away, so take a moment each day to pat yourself on the back for your accomplishments, no matter how small they seem. It’s the little things we do each day that add up to make the big things a reality.

To-Do List Problem 5: Not Defining the Task on the List

Describe each task well enough that you know what it means later. A word or two may not be enough to jog our memory on one of those scattered ADHD days! Instead of making a note to “Call Bill,” add “about his vacation dates.” If you have several contacts named Bill or Robert, add the last name. A note that reminds you to go to Home Depot or the grocery store won’t remind you to get everything you need if you don’t list it all.

To-Do List Problem 6: Not Scheduling Time for Longer Tasks

Simply listing a big project as one of many items on a to-do list almost guarantees it won’t get done. Instead, block out the chunk of time when you will tackle this task. Overestimate the time you think it will take, so you will be sure to finish it. Not every to-do needs to be scheduled, but scheduling larger projects that require large chunks of time and/or our full attention will help to ensure they get finished.

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To-Do List Problem 7: Getting Sidetracked

We are easily distracted, so random events and the Internet interfere when working on an item on our to-do list. Do what you can to identify distractions and eliminate or minimize them. If the to-do requires research on the Internet, set limits on the time you will spend researching or the number of sites you will look at.

A to-do list is a great tool for getting things done and achieving all those things you want to accomplish, so choose your goals based on what you value. You will have a meaningful, manageable to-do list.

[Read This Next: Popular Productivity Advice That Torpedoes the ADHD Brain]

Updated on December 4, 2019

6 Related Links

  1. The GTD rule about 2 minutes is the part of the system that I have trouble with. I can’t even open a new tab in a browser and remember what I was doing before…or sometimes why I opened the tab in the first place. I also have trouble knowing what will take 2 minutes. So, if I go on a 2-minute distraction I risk never coming back. I find it better to just capture the thing as another task so I stay focused on making the list. Maybe it would work to put a star or an underline on those items so that I can claim a quick victory by doing them when I’m done making the list.

  2. Seems like this was written by someone with a little familiarity with ADD / ADHD from the outside but not with familiarity from the inside. Some of these tips look like the basic productivity tips that may be less effective for people with ADHD and can sometimes make things worse. It’s very interesting to read this other article which says some of the opposite things to this one. That makes me wonder how well the editors screen these articles. https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-brain-productivity-advice/

  3. I keep my tasks, projects, lists, trackers, etc. in a bullet-style-ish journal book. Regarding #1, I have found it helpful to have one page at the beginning of a month as my Monthly Brain “Download,” where I list all the things I would love to do (from mundane chores, to business stuff, to life goals) in that month, knowing and accepting that I won’t get them all done. Then I keep short lists on a day to day (or whenever I need a list – it isn’t set in stone that it MUST be daily) or weekly basis. For me, items that don’t get done and that I’m going to migrate to the next month’s download are an opportunity for me to ask myself why I didn’t do them. Is it because I didn’t break them down into manageable chunks? Is it because I left it too obtuse? Is it because I wrote it and forgot it (neglected to revisit my main list)? Or maybe it’s because it’s not a priority to me and I can let it go. The biggest shift for me in learning that I have ADHD is accepting that I don’t have to punish myself for these mistakes. It’s an opportunity for me to learn how I better can mitigate my nature, where to ask for help, and what really matters.

  4. I keep a master list for grocery shopping on Microsoft OneNote. This has worked quite well for me. I list everything I purchase when I grocery shop. If there are items I won’t need I cross them off but don’t remove. Then I never have to make another grocery list.

    A single master list in four sections does the job for Household Chores & Laundry, Outdoor Chores, Errands for the Week, Appointments to Make. I insert the small check boxes before the task so I can check them off as completed. I keep this saved so I will always be able to print out a copy if necessary. Using OneNote for myself has been a huge help because I keep everything in there. Medical Records, New ADHD Treatments, Supplements I want to try, Recipes, Pharmacy, Notes for next Doctor’s visit, Medication Lists for each family member, Tax Information, List of plants or bushes planted and how to care for them…well you get the picture. That way I never have to go in search of the information.

    I also have a detailed list for cleaning along with the cleaning hacks I pick up along the way. Again, this is a master list that can be checked off after completion.

    I actually have a file for ADDITUDE so I can copy and paste information and lists that I want to keep or to share with my three ADHD sons. When I don’t have time to read the article I copy and paste then read when I have time. It is so nice and helpful to have everything at the touch of a finger.

  5. Ugh! That two minute thing again. So not realistic. Has the author ever opened their inbox at work to 50 two minute tasks that will suck up the entire day and keep big high impact tasks and projects from getting done? I add two minute tasks to my to-do lists all the time. I prioritise and try to get about ten of them taken care of each day. The fact they are quicker and easier also allows me to enjoy the satisfaction of scratching several things off the list if a big task hits a roadblock. Also, because those of us with ADD are bad at estimating the time it takes to do something, most of my two minute tasks actually end up taking much longer. Don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole of trying to get them all done immediately. Other than the two minute thing, there is a lot of good advice in this article.

  6. ‘Daily tasks, like dishes, should not be on the list’ Trust me if they’re not written down I’m not going to remember to do them. Most of the time I don’t remember when I do have them written down. Let’s not forget that people with ADHD have difficulty with tasks that don’t interest them. Chores don’t interest me.

    ‘Tasks that take less than 2 minutes should be done right away and not put on the list’ – Didn’t I read another article on this site that said this method rarely works for people with ADHD? If I stop doing what I’m doing to do a 2 minute task a) it throws me out and I can’t get back into what I was doing or b) it will definitely take longer than 2 minutes or I’ll get distracted by something else. I have my Alexa To Do lists linked to my ToDoist via IFTTT so that when I think of something that needs doing that I can’t do right now I can add it to the list without the distraction of a screen.

    ‘Look at your list morning, noon, and night’ – this might work for neurotypical people but it does not work for me. To do something regular relies on it having become a habit (something which from experience takes me at least 6 months) or having some kind of signal or reminder, which most of the time I don’t even notice.

    I agree with many points in the article but still have no idea how to be more organised because the typical methods just don’t work for me.

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