Time & Productivity

The Daily To Do List System for ADHD Brains

The ADHD brain responds aggressively to stimulation. If it triggers our neurotransmitters, we will follow it — and often that means starting tasks but never finishing them, losing track of time, and working on what interests us — not what is most important. Use this daily to do list system (and lots of practice) to remedy these common challenges.

To Do Lists That Work for ADHD Brains

Many people with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) have a great deal of trouble managing time and staying on task to completion. I have recommended the following time-management and organization system with many adults with ADHD, and they’ve largely found it effective — some have even called it life-changing.

This ADHD brain-oriented system is based on carrying at all times a:

  • personal notebook,
  • journal,
  • or organizer

You will also need four different types of lists — each one of which is described in detail below.

The Notebook: Everything starts with choosing the right notebook, which will travel with you everywhere you go, quite literally. You need to train yourself to develop the habit of picking up your notebook any time you move from one place to another. I recommend keeping the notebook in or within reach of your non-dominant hand at nearly all times. The importance of keeping your notebook with you at all times cannot be overstated. Ideally, you will find a notebook, journal, or organizer with a calendar that has plenty of room to write down multiple things on each day.

In the journal must also go these four critical lists:

The Short List: This is a list of only your highest priority tasks that absolutely must be done that day — not the next day, but that exact day. By the end of that day, this stuff must be complete.

The Calendar: Anything appointment or project with an associated date (or dates) must go on the calendar. Do not log only the due dates, but also add to the calendar any preparation you need to complete. For example, if a student has a test on a Friday, he or she will note both the test on Friday and a study session on Thursday.

[Click to Read: ADDitude Readers’ Favorite Planners, Timers, and Watches]

The Long List: Anything you want to do or need to do that does not go on The Short List or the Calendar goes on The Long List.

The Routine List: This is where you will log the things you need to do at certain times or in certain situations. For example, if you want to develop a morning routine or an evening routine, this is where you would plan that out. When you find you need to make adjustments, you can replace these lists with new ones. They not only help you develop routines and habits, but they can also help you remember things you may have forgotten to do because you can always look back at your lists. You can also make lists like what to pack for a trip or the steps to doing a project. This section of your notebook can be pretty versatile.

How to use your notebook and these lists to organize your ADHD life.

1. You need to pick a time of day when you will work on your time management. People usually choose the evening or early in the morning. It is crucial that you do this step every single day and never skip days. Consistency is required for this system to work.

2. Start with your Short List. If there is anything you did not accomplish the day before, put that on your new Short List for that day. If you implement this system properly, that will almost never happen.

3. Next, look on your Calendar to see if there is anything else you need to add to your Short List for that day.

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4. Next, look at your Long List. Whenever you think of something you either need to do, want to do, or might do, you immediately write it on your Long List so you don’t forget it, and then immediately read your Short List again to remind yourself of the day’s top priorities. Put only items that absolutely must be done that day on your new Short List, crossing them off The Long List. The Short List needs to be very short — only the things that you for certain must do and will do that day, and not some other day. The Long List tends to be very long in comparison.

5. Immediately after your daily morning routine, read your Short List again. You will be continually reading this throughout the day. The purpose of the Short List is to remind you of exactly what you need to be doing at that time. If you think of something else you need to do, want to do, or might do, immediately write it on the Long List, then immediately read your Short List again, redirecting your attention to what you need to be doing at that time. You spend your day working on items on your Short List only until you finish everything on your Short List. Also, if anything interrupts you, no matter what it is, immediately read your Short List again and get back on track working on your Short List. You need to read your Short List a minimum of once per hour, preferably more.

6. If you finish all items on your Short List before it is time for your evening routine, then you look at your calendar and Long List again, and add new items onto your Short List, but only if you will complete them that day.

7. The key to the system is your constant use of your Short List to keep your mind focused on your highest priority items so that you will continue working on them until you complete them, and not forget them due to being distracted. It is normal (and advisable) to continually look at your Short List throughout the whole day, keeping yourself focused only on today.

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15 Comments & Reviews

  1. This Daily To Do List System with 4 lists..

    How does it work in one notebook? While the separate lists are logical, I cannot see how to set it up. The Short List is daily, right? But the other three seem to be rolling lists. If so, how do I know how many pages to allocate to each list? Or are all four lists truly daily lists? If so, that would be so much copying at the end of the day to maintain the Long, Routine, and Calendar Lists. About the Calendar, is it a list to be migrated to an actual calendar? (Mine is on my phone now.) Or are you suggesting that an actual calendar be imbedded in the notebook?!

    1. I’ve never used this system but here’s my thoughts…

      Option 1: Use a 3 (or more) section notebook.

      Option 2: Use a thin loose leaf binder with dividers.

      Option 3: Use a standard, one subject notebook and have your last page as your routine (if you won’t revise it, otherwise leave a few blank pages) and the second to last page as the start of your long list. Put a paper clip on that page as a bookmark. Basically you’d work backwards in the notebook for your long list. The third to last page would be your next page of long list. Your short list, however, would start at the front and continue like normal towards the back. I would just print off a calendar from the Internet, fold it neatly and store it in the notebook. Some notebooks even have pockets in them.

      Just my thoughts. I find this “one notebook, four lists” system appealing. I may try it!

      1. Thank you for this! I was also struggling to figure out how to do this in the notebook, and my brain immediately tried to over-complicate it. Great suggestions!

    2. My system is basically the same as described, although I’ve evolved it over time. I use a 3 ring binder right now, but have used composition books in the past. When I used a one-notebook system with fixed pages, I numbered all the pages, and started at the front like a bullet journal – index, one or two page calendar for the month, plus key tasks for the month, and then daily running pages that acted like a short list and a brain dump. In the back of the book, I started my running task list on the very last page, and went backwards into the book. That way I didn’t have to figure out in advance how many pages I’d need.

      After a few years of using the above setup, I found that I need a daily calendar layout that goes through all the hours and lets me plan out my day. It’s a little too fluid in a bullet journal for me – I forget to do it. So I made myself insert pages for a 3 ring binder that lay out a whole work week on 2 facing pages (MTW on one page, ThF on second page, plus a third column that is 2/3 tasks (for ad hoc things that come up that I want to capture immediately) and 1/3 notes (ad hoc things that aren’t actions). Weekends are on the next left hand page, with a weekly review sheet on the facing page as a reminder to balance my checkbook and do some tracking and planning for the next week. For each day’s column, half is taken up by an hourly appointment calendar, and then I have a “top 5” short list and a secondary short list of 3 lines. The top 5 usually ends up being work tasks and the secondary “Other” list is usually personal tasks, but it’s flexible. The next 3 lines are “good stuff” – neat stuff that happened during the day. And the last 8 lines of the column are “notes”, which are usually where I capture spending, but also phone numbers or random bits of flotsam relevant to that day. Or comments about my sleep. I track two habits a week, that I write in the margin above the first half of the week and track by coloring in 7 little circles. In that notebook, I have a standard two-page a month calendar layout (with boxes like a regular calendar) as the beginning of the month, plus a 2 page layout after it that is more like a list of the days on the left page (including habit planning and the budget for the month), with a blank page on the right that mostly works out to be calculations for the budget and other miscellaneous planning for the month.

      My long task list is in Microsoft To-Do, because I get it on my phone and home computer, and it’s the only online program allowed by my work’s IT department. The Brain Dump I used to do in-line in my notebook has moved to my morning routine and is in Evernote, because I can also access it on my phone if I need to look at it or add to it later in the day. I found that I prefer an electronic long list because I can search it and tag items to create sub-lists if I need to. Can’t do that on paper, so after a few pages it gets unwieldy for me personally. There’s a guy named Mark Forster who has perfected the long list on paper, and you can see how he does it on his blog.

      Hope that helps with the visualization of how the pieces fit together. The real key to this whole thing, though, is to set aside some time every week to review whatever you’ve captured, in what ever form you’ve captured it. The long and short lists by themselves don’t help – it’s the daily and weekly act of reviewing those lists and acting on them that is where the relief from chaos comes in. Even if you only manage to capture 40% of all the stuff you have to do, and only manage to do one or two items a day, that’s a million times better than having everything be a giant amorphous blob of un-knowing. And really, if all you ever manage to do is have a monthly calendar where you scribble to do lists in the margin but you capture all your recurring stuff, appointments and meetings, and assign tasks to days, that’s massively awesome and will make your life better. Something is better than nothing, KWIM?

    3. I have a Happy Planner planner I got this year because it’s pretty, fun and “I was really going to use it this time” lol. I’m giving it another try using these suggestions. It has the monthly overview calendar, which I’ll use for appointments, and am planning on adding a page to keep the long list. Then, in the weekly layouts, each day has 3 rectangles, which I’m going to use for the short list, the calendar, and routines.

  2. Notebook, really? I am reading this in a coffee house on my tablet! We all (ok, 99.99 % of us) carry cell phones in our pockets or purses! Why not have an app instead of a physical notebook organizer from the eighties?!?

    1. Because smartphones and tablets are actually linked with worsening of adult ADHD. Using a notebook that won’t ding at you, with no pop-ups or distractions, and that is organized well is far safer and more logical for the ADHD mind to use as a tool.

    2. I do enjoy my Note9 with the note/pen feature. That has helped me clear my thoughts and get them jotted down and out of my head. I’ve immediately identified that as an alternative, but now I’m figuring out how I could possibly keep track of 4 different lists without cluttering my mind even more trying to compartmentalize several thoughts into separate lists.

  3. I am always on the look out for suggestions for organising all the random thoughts and to do lists in my head.
    I like the sound of this and I do have a notebook already that I take everywhere. What I find hard though is remembering to look at it! I could have the most useful lists in the world in there but it doesn’t help me if I don’t look at them! Sometimes I feel like if something is not physically in front of me eg on the wall or memo board I won’t ever remember it,
    How can I remember to make myself check all the notebook lists?

  4. You lost me at four separate lists, and a book to remember to keep close. “You need to train yourself to develop the habit of…”….this makes me feel like I should be able to do this, and defeated when it becomes too daunting to achieve. I applaud those who are able to easily plan, organize and delegate such as this list suggests, but I am not able to do that. I can’t keep track of my phone or my watch let alone a notebook with multiple lists, in my non-dominant hand. Hopefully someday I’ll be well enough to be the person this article suggests I should be. Oh well.

  5. For me, I just have to laugh reading this. Do you know how many defunct planners I have laying around? Year after year, I would try. Like another reader said, it is cumbersome to have to write it down. I would start out strong and then just lose interest and it was so taxing to think just about it and keep up with it. The only thing I found that has helped me is Amazon Alexa. I just discovered the most awesome way to do a food list. When the food item pops in my head, I just tell Alexa to put it on my shopping list which is kinda funny because my name is Alexa. Then when I go shopping, I just tap on my Amazon Alexa app and there is my shopping list with a dot next to it to check it off after I put it in my basket. The app then moves the item down below to the completed list. It’s been a life changer for me. I might try to make different lists now I Alexa based on this article like the short and long list. Because I definitely think having a short list to do that day is paramount. It makes sense. My short list has always been embedded in my long list on my phone. I like the idea of creating a short and long one. I feel I could be more successful at completing tasks if I was focusing on one absolute list for that day.

  6. I’ve recently started doing the 4 squares system… at the top of my page, make a bigger + sign… top left is UI- Urgent(Timely) and Important. Top right, Urgent/not important. Bottom left non-urgent/Important, bottom right, not urgent or important (this is a lot of times my “long list” like above)… My creative things I want to do and love… The top left keeps me on track and even if I have most (or even a couple) of them done and am burned out… I can choose more enjoyable things that are still productive from another box… I keep my big list on a clipboard and usually in pencil… take that and do an index card the night before or in the morning- night before is better, but you all know how that goes, sometimes! Is a version of the above but has worked for me recently… pretty sure I read it somewhere here… so thought I’d share! xoxo

  7. This is so close to the system that I use it’s uncanny. Mine is a mash-up of a weekly planner spread & bullet journal & I have all of these pieces built in. The part where mine differs is in the pressure I put on myself to constantly use it. If life is slowish & I’m doing ok, I don’t use it at all or only use the short list for a while. & that’s ok. When more things come up & I’m feeling overwhelmed or if I start being late & missing stuff, I always have this to come back to.

    There are some negative comments… I know it’s overwhelming when you’re brain is already failing you multiple times a day, & this feels like such a big thing to add. I suggest starting small, with just a short list for each day & you might find that you end up adding some other parts later. Or not. It’s OK to find what works for YOU. Also, for the techies… I discovered, for me, even though I LOVE apps, gadgets & new tech, my ADD brain does much better when my life & especially my outside brain (planner) is more analog. It helps to quiet the “noise” rather than adding to it.

  8. Yeah, no. While the notebook/planner methods seem to work best for me (bullet journals, etc.), I constantly forget them. These methods only work if you have the notebook with you all the time. Even when I do somehow remember it for any span of days, the next time I forget it it throws my whole day off and I beat myself up for forgetting, which raises my anxiety level, which renders the system useless.

    My point is, I don’t always think it’s helpful for people who are extremely forgetful to tell them to plan out their lives in a book they always need to remember to have with them. If you’re not good at remembering, the journal could end up causing you more anxiety rather than relieving any.

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