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How To-Do Lists Are Saving My Life. Really.

An ADHD adult recovering from alcoholism explains how the 12-step program keeps him from feeling overwhelmed and exhausted

One of the great and simple tools I’ve learned to help me manage my attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) is the to-do list.

I’m not super-organized (obviously) and am very low tech. My lists at work are usually scratched out on whatever pad is sitting closest to the top of a pile on my chaotic desk. Once its there though, the list acts like a beacon, a lighthouse I can spot in the fog. I turn to it throughout the day, hoping to cross something off, but at least remembering what my priorities were at the start of the day.

Having a list simplifies things. It doesn’t make completing the tasks any easier, but it gives me a framework to battle the extremes of distraction and obsession. Like my list of work tasks, the steps boil things down to what’s of primary importance.

Sure, those two entries seem a world apart. Needless to say, they wouldn’t be on the same list. The important thing is that each task, or suggestion (which is how the steps are described) is on a list. A work list keeps me on track through a morning of distractions or boredom and helps me remember to do what I need to do. For me, the steps-as-list are to keep my sanity.

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Sanity? Pretty extreme?

Not really.

The steps are a spiritual program for facing myself honestly and learning to deal with my shortcomings without resorting to alcohol. The second step, which is right after the above admission of powerlessness, is to come to believe that a higher power can restore my sanity. That’s the goal of the remaining 10 steps – freedom from the insanity of alcoholism.

It can be overwhelming though and, like with the issues that need addressing under the swirl of paper and my cluttered email inbox, when there seems like too much to do, I tend to want to do something else altogether. The list calls me back.

I met with sponsor for coffee this morning. He knows my stuff. He heard my fifth step. That’s the part where you tell your whole story to another person, which, by the way, I managed to get out through lists. He knows the list that grew out of that process – my character defects.

He helps me keep to the list of the steps. Though they are written down and repeated at meetings until memorized, it is not always so easy just to cross things off the step list. Like, how do I know when I’ve become “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” (step 6)? Not so clear cut. And, the steps are in an order of progression but I double back, revisit, skip ahead. My sponsor helps me look at the list and see where I am. He shares his list and how he moved from one step to another. A lot of the work of the steps is intangible and tough to spot except in hindsight or, for me, through the sounding board of other people in recovery.

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It’s tough stuff but the list helps keep it simple. For my life, be it with ADHD or alcoholism, simple is sanity.

3 Comments & Reviews

  1. I use a similar method. Steps 8 and 9 are perfect for this, because we literally make a list, take action, and cross off items on the list. I told my old sponsor and will tell my new sponsor that I work best with having lists and goals. When there are tasks that I have and deadlines to make I work much better. I say the serenity prayer multiple times a day and I say that I am powerless over my alcoholism and my ADHD. When I put my sobriety and management of my ADHD first my life gets significantly better.

  2. Hello Bill,
    Thank you, your article is spot-on. I grew up in AA (Mom was the alcoholic, and also the ADHDer in my early life. Who knew? 🙂 She sobered in 1965, and passed away in 2008, with 43 years of sobriety!)
    I’m very familiar with the 12 steps, and I appreciate the way you also apply them to manage your ADHD. One of my favorite acronyms is HALT: Don’t get too Hungry, too Angry, too Lonely, or too Tired. All of these also apply to ADHDers, because my symptoms worsen tremendously when I ignore these 4 rules.
    Again – thanks for your article!
    ~ Rita

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