Updated: Apr 17, 2022
Do your to-dos relentlessly keep piling up? Is other people's advice not helpful and you don't understand why? You're not alone. Common tips usually don't work for people with ADHD or are even counterproductive.
We need just the right combination of structure and flexibility. That way, we work with our neurobiology, not against it. Read on to learn how to calm your ADHD brain and gain control with my proven three-part to-do list. Download it now and start making your life easier today with ADHD friendly planning.
Over 1000 tasks from my brain onto paper
When I finally finished my Ph.D. thesis, I realized that I'd pretty much neglected everything else in my life for the time being. So in an attempt to get back on track, I decided to list all my to-dos. Just as it is recommended in books like "How I get things done: self-management for everyday life" by David Allen.
I wrote and wrote and wrote and collected and collected. I kept coming up with more and more things to put on the list. My brain just produced more and more things it thought were indispensable and just had to be done. At some point, I honestly had over 1000 to-dos on my list.
Instead of finding peace of mind came, I became desperate. Never would I be able to do this. Never would I have order in my life. I would always be behind. A loser with a Ph.D. who couldn't even get her everyday life in order.
Understanding ADHD brought me to the solution
After my ADHD diagnosis, I read everything that helped me understand our brains. Now it finally made sense. Of course, my creative ADHD brain had endless ideas of what I needed to do, should do, could do.
We lack the filter that - in neurotypical people - sorts out many things before they turn into a to-do. And the fact that with ADHD, we also have problems distinguishing between important and unimportant things, makes everything much worse.
Also, we often find it difficult to start even small tasks. Moving from one task to the next is exhausting for us. And if we get distracted by one of the 100,000 possible stimuli, our concentration is shot.
That's why to-do lists with 40 things on them are complete nonsense neurobiologically for someone with ADHD. That's too many stimuli for our brain to process and so we get stuck and often don't get any of it done.
Once I understood all that, the solution was obvious. It has three parts and I'll tell you what it looks like in a sec.
Trick nr. 1: the ultra-short daily to-do list
First, write down what's super important today. If you're strict about logic, there can really only ever be one priority considering the meaning of the word, not a whole mountain of them. So in the first box of our ADHD-friendly daily to-do list you only put what is really super important.
In the next box, you write what you will work on next - if possible. That takes the pressure off. And often additional tasks can be tackled this way.
A secret tip: sometimes our ADHD brain just doesn't want to tackle the super important things. Then it can help if you first do something from the second box so that you have a sense of achievement. Then it's often easier to get the first box done.
The third box is there to write down the things that come to your mind while doing your tasks from boxes one and two. Instead of doing those new tasks right away and finding yourself immersed in a completely unplanned activity hours later (if you have ADHD, you know exactly what I mean, don't you?), write the thought in the third box and get back to your actual current task.
Trick nr. 2: But where to put all the other tasks? on the parking lot
This is where you put everything else that needs to be done. You also transfer the things from box three above to the parking lot. That is, if they are still relevant (it's amazing how many to-dos disappear on their own if you don't let yourself be distracted by them and let them rest for a while).
Are you wondering why there is no structure in the parking lot? No division into the four quadrants urgent/important, not urgent/important, not important/urgent, and not important/not urgent? Or priorities 1, 2, 3? If those work for you, cool, by all means, use them.
However, I know too many people with ADHD who can spend hours trying to figure out what categories their to-dos belong in, what needs to be done in which order, and so on.
I'm a fan of keeping it simple. Even if it looks messy, no one has to get it but you. When you create your daily list, you first think about what really needs to be done off the top of your head, and then you look on the parking lot to see if there is something that deserves the space on your to-do list for today.
Now, where to put the things that are cluttering up the parking lot or all the creative ideas we're dying to try?
Trick nr. 3: The Not To-Do List
You'll find there are to-dos that remain on the parking lot forever. You carry them from parking lot to parking lot when the mess gets too big and you transfer everything to a new sheet of paper.
You also probably have a lot of things on there that you "finally want to get done." Every time you read them, you feel a bit guilty (thinking "I never finish anything" or something like that).
And then there are all the creative ideas that just seem to pour out of people with ADHD.
Put everything from the above categories on the Not To-Do List. That is, of course, unless you're willing to walk away from the task or project entirely and just delete it.
But because many of us have trouble remembering, it's often very comforting to have all the open stuff still archived somewhere. With this tactic, we're also accepting that we have problems distinguishing the important from the unimportant, so the not to-do list helps prevent decision fatigue and overwhelm.
That's not all, yet...
With these three tricks, you'll reduce the number of open tabs in your brain's browser window. And that calms the ADHD brain more than you can probably imagine. That the method I developed works is of course not scientifically proven ;-) Try it out and let me know how it works for you.
But we're not quite there yet: Almost 100 years ago, the researcher Bluma Zeigarnik's experiments (ref 1) proved that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. Our mountains of diffuse to-dos consume brainpower. The three steps outlined here already help enormously, but the to-dos on the daily list and on the parking lot are of course still uncompleted tasks.
There is research (ref 2) that shows that writing down tasks relieves our brain, but it says that we have to be quite specific when describing the to-do.
That's what the next post (showing you tricks so that you - actually - start and finish the to-dos you've planned) will be about.
You can download the three-part template for your ADHD-compatible to-do list here and try the method right away - I'm excited to know how it works for you!
Zeigarnik, B. Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen. 1927, Psychologische Forschung 9, 1-85. - accessible in Metz-Göckel H. Gestalttheorie und kognitive Psychologie, Springer, 2016. Link to book
Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Masicampo EJ, Baumeister RF.J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Oct;101(4):667-83. doi: 10.1037/a0024192. Link to publication showing benefit of quite detailed plan-making