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.

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