Time & Productivity

The Power of a Well-Crafted To-Do List

Creating a master list is the first step to combating symptoms of ADHD, says master organizer Judith Kolberg. Use this time-management system to turn your stagnant to-do list into a daily action plan.

Getting things done with ADHD on the job

People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) experience time and time management differently than people without ADHD.

Rather than a series of discrete moments following one another in predictable fashion, people with ADHD sense time as one long NOW. That’s great when it comes to solving problems and handling crises — and it certainly makes the day go faster. But the ADHD way of experiencing and managing time complicates things if you’re trying to complete the items on your to-do list.

My client Julia explained her time-sense this way: “Each day goes along like a rudderless boat, lurching through rapids, bashing up against rocks, and then finally landing on shore. I wind up completing only one or two to-dos from my list. It’s very frustrating.”

To accomplish everything you need to do each day with maximum efficiency and minimum hassle, you need more than a calendar or a to-do list. I’ve had clients who were meticulous about maintaining their calendars — and yet were habitually late to meetings and events, if they showed up at all. And I’ve had clients with to-do lists so long it would take them two lifetimes to get everything done.

What you need is my simple, three-step “system with a rhythm.” Here’s how it works:

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Step 1: Create your master to-do list.

A master to-do list should capture everything that’s currently on your plate. I’m talking about big things, like planning a wedding or moving, all the way down to simple tasks, like hanging a picture.

To create the master list, gather all the reminders you’ve written yourself in recent days — the scraps of paper, sticky notes, napkins, envelopes, and so on — and compile them into a single list. Transcribe the list into a single word-processing document; a computerized master list is much easier to update than a master list on paper.

Each task added to your master list should be a simple one. By that, I mean something that takes only a single step — making a phone call, buying a hammer, or sending an R.S.V.P. This means you’ll have to break large-scale projects into smaller units. Instead of “buy new car,” for instance, create separate entries, such as “research options,” “calculate how much to spend,” “determine trade-in value of old car,” and so on.

Your master list might contain scores of tasks and events. Obviously, you won’t be able to do everything; you’ll have to set priorities. I recommend the “A-B-C” system: Mark high-priority items (things you absolutely must attend to) with an “A.” Lower-priority items get marked with a “B” (if I have the time) or “C” (fat chance).

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Of course, you can use numbers (1-2-3), symbols (3 stars, 2 stars, 1 star), or colors (red-yellow-blue). One of my clients prioritizes her master list using the terms “Now,” “Later,” and “Parking Lot.”

Step 2: Prep your planner.

What you’re able to accomplish depends on how much time is available to you. Sounds simple, right? Yet many adults with ADHD overestimate the amount of time they have — because they fail to recognize how many hours of each day are already “booked” with regular obligations, appointments, events, and tasks.

Sit down with your calendar, smartphone, or daily planner, and enter all the time- and date-specific items, such as events, birthdays, anniversaries, due dates, meetings, or appointments, one week at a time. Schedule in all the daily and weekly chores you routinely do, as well — shopping for groceries, exercising, balancing your checkbook, and so on.

Once you’ve entered all your time-sensitive and everyday tasks in your calendar, you’ll be able to see, at a glance, how much time you really have to work with.

Step 3: Put it all together.

Now you have two things: a master list of everything you need to do AND a calendar that tells you how much time is available to you each day.

People with ADHD often have unrealistic expectations of what they can accomplish in a single day. But biting off more than you can chew sets you up for failure. To figure out your daily action plan, look at today’s page in your calendar or planner and then review the A- and B-priorities on your master list.

Estimate how many high-priority master-list items you can fit around your scheduled tasks. Ask yourself, “Given the things I already have scheduled today, is my plan practical?” Consider these points:

  • Plan to do less than you think you might be able to accomplish. That way, you’ll have a “cushion” in case you’re waylaid by heavy traffic, a sick child, or some other unforeseeable problem.
  • Remember to leave enough time for meals, as well as travel to and from appointments and errands.
  • Be sure that each day includes a mix of “high-brain” and “low-brain” tasks; if your day is taken up solely by things that are hard to do or that require lots of decision-making, you’ll be exhausted.
  • Each day should include time outdoors; “green time” has been shown to improve focus and mood.

Once the high-priority items and your scheduled activities are put together, you have that day’s action plan. You can write this list right onto your calendar or planner, enter it into your smartphone, or write your list on a separate piece of paper.

As you go about your day, keep your day-planner or smartphone handy so you can “capture” new to-do items as they occur to you. When you get home, transfer these to your computerized master list. Once a week or so, re-prioritize the items on your updated master list, and start the entire process anew.

With this system, you’ll be able to accomplish all of your A-priorities, and quite a few of your Bs. What about your Cs? Every once in a while, review your master list. You’ll probably decide that many of the Cs aren’t worth bothering with. That’s a good thing. After all, life isn’t entirely reducible to to-do lists.

[Get the Most Out of Your To-Do List]

21 Comments & Reviews

  1. Love many of your ideas here, and its so true about making sure we schedule time for the everyday routines – I started doing this with a habit tracker and for the first time realized just how much time they take! One way I diverge from your system is that I do use a paper based bullet journal thst neverbleaves my home as my main gathering place for my lists, and complement it with electronic devices. My journal is colorful and creative and pretty and totally my own design, which seems to alleviate the problem with boredom and vast numbers of unused pages that I realize now was why I abandoned every other system I tried to use. I have tried electronic, and though it is more “practical” the reality for me is that going back to paper and pens (colorful pens, because color energizes) has resulted in a system that has had a huge positive impact on my life this past year! Its something to consider for those that have tried electronic lists and find themselves losing interest.

  2. I use a similar method as Smam60…a bullet journal that lives at home and is my master list for the day, along with a calendar and a to-do list app on my phone. One thing that has helped greatly is time-blocking my day. I have the days of the week across the top of my bullet journal and times of the day down the side (i.e. 8am – 9pm). Each morning I draw a box for anything I’m scheduled to do (work, appointments, dinner, exercise), as well as – and this is VERY important – time to get ready/gather things I need and travel time to/from. Once those things are blocked in, I can really see the available time in my day. I can then decide what I have time to take care of (phone calls, errands, projects… maybe even something fun?). It is little bit more work than writing out a simple to-do list, but I’m more organized and productive when I take the time to do it this way.

  3. This article makes me want to blow my brains out. I can’t keep track of one list let alone three or four with different information on each one. I would last three days, max.
    Do you have something tailored to those of us with a serious case of ADD?

  4. You lost me the moment you went down the to-do list road. Nothing throws me into greater overwhelm than a to-do list. In my experience it’s the least effective way to get things done with ADHD. I typically cannot finish making the to-do list if I break everything down into discrete tasks. It short circuits my brain. Also one of the major components of ADHD is the challenge with executive function. We struggle to prioritize and weed out what is truly important. A long to-do list is a recipe for disaster. Frankly I’m surprised this advice is offered here.

    Instead, I focus on the bigger picture OUTCOMES I am aiming for. I take all the little items and ask “what’s the result I want here?” And in that, I can usually find a better way that bypasses many of the tasks. There’s a difference between getting things done and getting the right things done. Getting out of to-do lists to focus on what’s truly important helps me get results, not just “get things done.”

  5. I’ve tried every one of the suggested apps, lists, systems and attitudes discussed here and elsewhere. I agree with penguindrooster. The only time I get things done is when I am hyper-focused on one thing. I have so many apps on my phone and computer to “help” me that have not worked because I cannot keep up the updating. I have expensive electronic pens with paper that syncs with my computer. That is gathering dust, of course. The help I’ve gotten here is to know I am not alone, not the only person with this committee in my head screaming at me every waking moment unless I am meditating or buried in a project with singular attention. I co-own a real estate firm and am starting an online business but cannot take the first steps some days!! But I’ll keep trying because that is what we do!

  6. Hi guys,

    Need a bit of help. Just yesterday I was going through a video on my phone and I have lost it. It was by a lady expert, about an hour long, where part of what she explained was how to “not just motivation but activation”.

    Can anyone help me find that video?

    Appreciate it,

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