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.

[Click to Download This Free Resource: Better Time Management with Adult ADHD]

Updated on March 3, 2020