Why to-do lists don’t work for people with ADHD

I have four to-do lists. One is called Right Now, one is called Now, one is Later, and one is Projects. Here’s the problem. My Right Now list was written long enough ago that the Right Now the list is actually stuff that I really, really needed to do before. So is the Now list, which has basically now turned itself into the Right Now list. The Later list is actually now the Now list also because all of those things really needed to be done now because later was a long time ago. And then the Projects list is just a list of things that are probably never gonna get done unless a magical fairy shows up to my house. This is not a good system. If you, like many people with ADHD, have a hard time getting stuff done and organizing tasks, you are not alone. Why do we do this?

Well, for me, a lot of it comes from my fear of forgetting something. I’m terrified I’m gonna make a mistake and I’m gonna miss something important, so I make lists, a lot of lists. I list big things like “hire a new sales team.” I put on little things like “check my email.” I put on things that I’m always doing just in the rotation because that’s what it takes to run a house like a laundry, washing, drying, and folding, and sorting, all of those are on the list. Then I put things on the list that I really don’t like to do but know I should do, so I put them on there, like mopping. And then I put things on there that I would love to do someday because in theory, they need to get done, but I’m probably not ever gonna do them, like sorting through the Craftsman for my latest hyper fixation. What this means is I have lists of hundreds of tasks. It’s very difficult for me to find the truly urgent things, no matter how I try to label things, I’m constantly missing items, and as I put things on these lists that I know I will get to, I failed before I’ve even started.

What does that mean? Well, it means that I have lists of just shame that I look at every single day and let myself know that I’m truly not good enough because any adult would be able to get this stuff done. And the ADHD spiral continues. So what can we do? Well, I recommend something called “pick two.” At the beginning of the day, pick two things, just two things that you are gonna accomplish that day. The only rule is, it has to be something that you will get done in that day, so it has to be able to be things that you can do in that 24-hour or 12-hour time frame that is covered by your list. Okay. Why only two if you have hundreds of things to do? Well, we’ve already established that no matter how much time I have during the day, there is no way I’m going to get all of those tasks done. We already know also that I’m behind on a lot of different things. So picking two allows me to focus on the two most timely things which really helps narrow down the criticality and the urgency of said tasks. Also, most of us can get two things done. So that’s all you need to do in the day to be successful.

Now, if you do those two things and you are totally out of energy points and you really just need to be done, your day was still a success because you did those two things. If you do those two things and that dopamine hit carries you forward and you’ve got some momentum and you do more things, then great, that day is a success also ’cause you did your two things. If you’d like an extra hit of accountability, I recommend reaching out to someone and letting them know what your two things are. This can be very, very simple. Something like edit the presentation and preparing for my one-on-one. That’s it. And then at the end of the day, you simply let that person know “yes” if you got those things done and “no” if you didn’t. I like to think of this as a miniature version of body doubling. You’re just using that other person knowing what you’re working on like that little bit of accountability that can help jumpstart your ability to do tasks when needed. For me, my two things today were to write this video and record this video. Now, I still have some other meetings and things that I’m going to attend throughout the day, and I might tackle something else from those lists, but it doesn’t matter because no matter what happens, I’ve accomplished my two things, my day is a success. And as for consolidating all of those lists and all of those tasks, we’ll just see if it makes my two things for tomorrow.