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Specialisterne Foundation

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If you’re an ADHDer, you probably find that your to-do list regularly gets chaotic and even unmanageable, with the same items sitting on your list day after day, week after week, or even month after month.

And once you get around to working on your list, how many times do you get started on one task, but after a while, you realize that instead of finishing that single task, you completed random things that didn’t even need done or a half dozen other tasks, but only halfway?

I’ve definitely been there.

I’ve tried e-books (that have sat unfinished after one try) and I’ve downloaded all the apps, only to leave them unused too.

So, why’s it so difficult to see things to completion when you’re an ADHDer? For neurotypicals or non-ADHDers, if you provide them with a list of tasks that need to be completed, they can order them according to importance and begin tackling them fairly quickly.

It doesn’t tend to work that way for the ADHD brain. For us, it tends to be a clash between trying to get everything done at once or prioritizing things that really don’t need to get done right away over the ones that do. This makes it difficult to get from point A to point B, seeing things through to completion.

We simply don’t tend to manage our time in the same ways as neurotypicals, nor do we prioritize things in the same way. We might start reorganizing our desk, only to find a paper that reminds us of another task, and when we go to do that other task, we remember that we need to do yet another task. Before we know it, there are papers and items strewn about, with nothing really done. This leaves us losing two hours of our time, and all we have to show for it is disarray. 

This is because rather than being able to prioritize which task is most important, the ADHD brain acknowledges every task at once and gives priority to each task as they’re remembered, disregarding any order of importance. As such, we are often left with many unfinished tasks. We understand that things need to get done. Actually getting them done is the issue.

It’s also often a matter of overwhelm. Getting started on tasks can be really difficult for ADHDers, and we can easily become overwhelmed thinking about all the possibilities and everything that needs to get done. So, we prioritize the tasks that we want to do first, the ones we think we can most easily get out of the way, even if they aren’t realistically a top priority. Or we prioritize the ones that induce the most panic, like completing a task just before the deadline. After all, there’s nothing more motivating than that countdown, right?

Difficulties prioritizing and with time management can definitely impact things like work performance, but there are steps ADHDers can take to work through these challenges.

Create a Brain Dump Style List

The first step to tackling your to-do list is to actually create one. Don’t overthink it (I know, easier said than done, right?). Just do a complete brain dump, but in a list format, using numbers, bullet points, whatever works for you. Write down anything that comes to mind that you feel needs to be done.

Once everything is laid out in front of you, ask yourself:

  • Which items have deadlines? 
  • Do any tasks need to be completed before moving on to other tasks?
  • Can any tasks be blended with preferred tasks (like listening to music or messing with a fidget)?
  • Do any tasks have consequences if left incomplete and what are those consequences?
  • When are you most likely to try to tackle the task (a certain time of day, day of the week, etc.)? 

Be sure to write out your answers, so you can reference them later.

Make Your Calendar Work for You

Now, it’s time to actually organize your list in a more manageable way. Begin by putting your tasks into your calendar based on your answers to the previous questions. For example, if you know you’re more likely to write a report in the middle of the day and the report’s deadline is the end of the day on Friday, you might want to block out time on your calendar in the middle of the day on Wednesday (to give yourself extra time, just in case). 

For ADHDers, it can be more helpful to break our days down according to slots in the day, rather than time slots, such as morning, mid-morning, mid-day, and evening. Then, you can look at your calendar and see which items can go in which slots.This seems to be less daunting than thinking something needs to get done by exactly 2:30pm, because you’ll likely just spend all day going in all different directions in anticipation of 2:30pm, without actually completing anything. 

Flexibility is key though, because as well-meaning as we might be, life happens. Don’t forget to set aside one day or at least one ‘day slot’ per week, depending on the tasks at hand, to serve as a ‘catch up’ day. That way, you can re-adjust your schedule as things come up.

If, however, you find that you’re overbooked and won’t have the time to get everything done, then it’s time to revisit your schedule. Keep everything that has a deadline for that week or that has a large consequence and remove everything else, keeping it in mind for the following week. 

Some guiding questions to help you navigate through this process are:

  • What tasks must be completed, even if nothing else gets done?
  • What are some ways to make some of the tasks more manageable? 
  • Is it possible to let go of any of the tasks and just not bother with them anymore?
  • What tasks are on the list that are okay to leave for later, if everything else gets accomplished?

Once you’ve completed all of the aforementioned steps (creating a brain dump list and making your calendar work for you), you have a somewhat flexible plan you can move forward with. In Part 2 of Completing To-do Lists as an ADHDer, I will discuss strategies to help ADHDers follow through on these plans.