Time & Productivity

Is Your To-Do List Out of Sync with Your Values? That’s a Problem.

Time tyrants rule our lives. They bombard us with nagging reminders about to-dos, responsibilities, and schedules. They also obscure from view the things in life that are truly important. And when those values no longer influence how and where you spend your time, bad things happen. Use these 6 strategies to take back control.

Post-its on a car steering wheel representing time management stress
post-its on car steering wheel

When to-dos pile up and busyness corrodes every aspect of life, “time” feels less like a ticking clock and more like an oppressive, cruel tyrant hell-bent on misery. The time tyrant is always pushing us to work harder, move faster, and do more, more, more — even though we rarely have enough hours in the day to accomplish anything at all.

In our bustling world, almost everyone is under the thumb of the time tyrant. But people with ADHD — who frequently struggle with the broad set of skills known as “time management” — feel more oppressed than do their peers. On top of that, negative external messages — being criticized for being “lazy” or “not trying,” for starters — infiltrate the ADHD brain, creating additional pressure to work even faster, take on more responsibilities, and get even more done. This pressure is more than just mental; if left unchecked, it can seriously impact a person’s physical and emotional health.

We’re human beings, not human doings — and obeying the time tyrant’s every whim won’t fulfill us. But how can you throw off the yoke of time and rediscover what really makes you happy? It’s about much more than just time-saving tips and tricks — though those can certainly be useful. Before you can apply them, however, you must reframe your relationship to time and ponder what truly gives your life meaning. Here are 6 ways to get started.

1. Examine Your Thoughts

Thoughts marinate in our heads every waking moment, morphing into feelings, assumptions, and actions. The problem is that these thoughts aren’t always rooted in reality. When our feelings or actions follow an unfair or incorrect thought, we forfeit the chance to live according to our truth.

People with ADHD get stuck in negative thought cycles. These thoughts build up over years of external messaging from parents, teachers, and peers, but they aren’t necessarily true. And in order to break the cycle, you must look critically at your negative thoughts and replace them with fairer, more encouraging mantras.

[Free Resource: How Are You Spending Your Time?]

The next time you catch yourself thinking, “I’ll never get this done in time” — step back and consider the root of that thought. Is it objective reality, or is it the result of years of negative messaging? Pay particular attention to your thoughts surrounding time, and try your best to reframe negative thoughts. “I always procrastinate” can be turned into “I haven’t always managed my time well in the past, but I can take steps to do better this time.”

This won’t be easy — negative thought patterns run deep! Sometimes, your brain just won’t allow you to positively reframe a negative thought. That’s okay; even attempting to examine the thought, and regularly checking in on negative spirals, can put your brain on the path to more positive and productive thinking patterns.

2. Rethink Your To-Do List

A well-maintained to-do list is a critical tool for keeping track of responsibilities and day-to-day tasks. But it’s easy for someone with ADHD to become a slave to a to-do list — either by allowing it to remove all spontaneity from life, or by letting it grow so large that it becomes an unmanageable burden. It was a wake-up call for me, for instance, when my daughter glanced at my to-do list — and was shocked to discover that it contained 92 items. At that point, I realized I was no longer using my list as a way to manage my time. It had trapped me.

When we rush around obeying a to-do list, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to reflect on our choices and find meaning in our lives. Take a few minutes to look at your to-do list and consider how it’s being used. Are most of the items things you want to do, or are they things you have to do? Are they things you neither want nor need to do, but have convinced yourself you should do? Purge the “shoulds” from your to-do list whenever possible — and make sure there’s a healthy balance between tasks you must do and those you desire to do.

If a to-do list helps you, there’s no reason to abandon it — or even dramatically change how you use it. The purpose of this exercise is simply to examine your priorities and reframe how you manage your time.

[Free Webinar Replay: It’s About Time: Understanding the Science of Time Management with ADHD

The velocity of daily life can force us to live reactively, rather than proactively and in the intentional pursuit of growth. Interrupting this velocity takes work — particularly for someone with ADHD, who faces additional internal and external challenges when it comes to slowing down.

Unplugging from the speed of daily life doesn’t need to mean a retreat on a remote mountaintop. It can be a five-minute “vacation,” where you don’t look at your phone or check your email. I encourage my clients to spend at least one hour a week outdoors, doing nothing at all. Watching the clouds go by for an hour will allow you to notice things about yourself — a passion you gave up, or a dream that got buried under daily busyness.

4. Write It Out

Taking the time to write in a journal — without rules, goals, or even a specific agenda — can help you better understand what you want from your life and how your energy could be better spent. Even 10 minutes of writing, 2 or 3 times a week, can make a big impact on your well-being and strengthen your sense of self. 

If you’re not a natural writer, don’t force yourself to slog through a daily session of journaling. Instead, try other ways to gather and express your thoughts, like designing a collage or joining a local support group. Even something as simple as starting a Pinterest board of your favorite inspirational quotes can work magic for organizing or uncovering your deep-seated feelings.

5. Reframe Mistakes

A mistake is not a black mark on your soul. In a perfect world, a mistake is a chance to learn and grow. Unfortunately, our results-driven culture has little patience for mistakes, and anyone with ADHD who has made her fair share may understandably feel that her mistakes make her a failure.

But you’re not a failure, and there’s no need to beat yourself up over past mistakes. Instead, work to reframe them as opportunities — opportunities to recognize patterns, opportunities to make better choices, opportunities to better understand your needs. If you’re hung up on a past mistake, step back and ask, “How could I think about this differently? What can I learn from this?”

Often, this reframing will help you realize that holding on to an ancient error is only holding you back. Deciding to let go of past mistakes is a freeing feeling, and opens the door for positivity, self-improvement, and increased self-esteem.

6. Let Go of “Strategies”

Most time-management advice for people with ADHD revolves around “tips and tricks” — designing the perfect to-do list system, or finding the one app that will solve your productivity problems. These tools have their place, and can help people who struggle to take control of their time. But they’re not the end-all, be-all of life, and relying too much on them can distract us from our higher purpose.

My advice? Don’t start with “strategies.” Start instead with your values. What are your biggest priorities? What do you want from life? Who do you hope to become? Asking yourself, “If everything else went away, what would I not want to lose?” is intentional to self-growth. Strategies can (and will) come later — but only the discovery of your values can put you on the path to your most ideal self.

[Getting Things Done — Without Getting Bogged Down]

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