The Keys to Time-Management (Part 5): Tame Your To-Do List
blank checklist with marker

In this final article in my series on time management, I’ll explore how you can tame your To-do list so that you can actually get done the things you intend to get done when you intend to do them and follow through consistently!

As I explained in the previous article [here], having some sort of reliable system where you can record and manage the things you need to do in your life is essential. It is impossible for anyone, especially someone with ADHD or ADD tendencies and our typical memory challenges, to manage all the moving parts and pieces that comprise our lives. If you have been following along, and are creating good, solid habits about using your list, it’s important next to think about how you are putting things on your list.

Regardless of the system, you use to manage the things you need to do in your life, you want to make sure you’re actually tackling the tasks on the list so that you can keep it from growing exponentially!  Surprisingly, how you record the tasks on your list really does make a difference in your ability to execute those tasks!

My clients who struggle with Time Management often have a problem executing the things on their To-do list, partially because of the way they are recording those things. A typical to-do list for a client might look something like this:

  • Buy groceries;
  • Get the car serviced;
  • Redecorate living room;
  • Call a plumber to fix the gushing leak in bathroom;
  • Look into Master’s Degree program;
  • Take out the trash.

Of course, a new client’s list would also be much longer (which is a problem in itself)! But if you look at this list, what you will see is a combination of things that are single-action items, more complex projects, things that are urgent or timely, and things that are more what I call “someday, maybe” things to do.

Some simple To-Do List Principles to Keep In Mind:

  1. Clear is always Easier. We are always more likely to execute things on our lists when they are noted as single action items. True tasks. When we list things that require multiple steps and are more like projects than actual tasks, it makes it harder for us to execute, because it requires more Executive Functioning. Those multi-step projects require working memory; organizing information, time, and space; they require prioritization, and they require a whole lot of mental processing energy.When we record only single action items or the next action step in a multi-step project, we free our minds up to simply execute without requiring so much Executive Functioning to get them done. This makes it much more likely for us to do the things that we need to do when we do them.Even the first task listed, “Buy groceries,” can be more like a project than a single action item. To buy groceries, we need to have some sort of an inventory of what we need. We also need to have some sort of a plan for what kinds of groceries we’re going to need: a meal plan of some sort. That’s a whole lot of executive functioning! Unless you have systems in place for meal planning and pantry inventory, buying groceries is actually not a simple, single-action item! So it’s no wonder that we had to the store and pick up things we don’t need and failed to get the things we do.Even a task that looks simple and looks as though it’s a single action item can be something that requires multiple steps and increased Executive Functioning. For example, the second task, “Get car serviced,” may be more of a multi-step project than it might seem! If you don’t have a mechanic who regularly services your vehicle, you’ll need to find one. Where do you look for one? Would you ask? How do you know who you can trust? If you don’t know exactly what service your car is going to require, you’ll need to get your owner’s manual and figure it out. Maybe you’ll need to look through your records to see when your last service was performed. If finances are an issue, not only do you need to know what service is going to be performed, you need to figure out how much it’s going to cost so that you know whether you can cover the bill. Then, of course, you need to be on top of your calendar to be able to schedule the appointment for service once you do make the call! So, it’s no wonder our cars go un-serviced at times!When you find yourself not executing something that on your task list, it’s important to look at it and see whether there are multiple steps to that thing that are causing you to be stuck. I always suggested that my clients record the next, logical action step to those tasks that are not single action items. When you cross that first step off, you simply add the next action step. Beware: if you force yourself to list ALL the action steps to a project, you are likely to get stuck and also to overwhelm yourself with the volume of things on your task list. If our lists grow to be too long, that can shut us down as well and make it harder for us to get anything done. So, at most list the next one or two logical steps in the project. If you feel you need to do some more detailed planning on a project, I recommend my clients do that somewhere other than their primary task list. A separate notebook, a new computer document, or some other place to record it can be helpful.
  2. Build Around Dates. The sample list above contains timely tasks that should be high-priority items, such as getting the leak fixed, among “someday, maybe” items like, “Look into Master’s degree program”.  Higher priority items do not belong alongside things that don’t really need to be executed in a particularly timely fashion.  Accenting or highlighting in some way the tasks that have greater urgency is really important as well and should be part of the daily list review, as we set ourselves up for what needs to be done the next day.Many of my clients struggle with prioritization, and I think sometimes that is because we make it harder than it has to be! The simplest place to start when setting priorities is to look at any hard, external dates associated with those tasks. Sometimes the date is a real deadline of some sort, like a due date or the date at which something expires. Obviously, you wouldn’t bother to RSVP to a party after the party has already happened! Likewise, there are other dates that are more implied in many of the things we need to do. So after hard external deadlines, we want to look for dates after which either something negative will happen, like a late fee or embarrassment, or after which it doesn’t make sense to bother with the task at all. For example, if you have on your to-do list to send a thank you note to someone for a gift, you may need to give that some sort of a deadline or it can float on your to-do list indefinitely. So think about a date after which it no longer becomes appropriate to send a thank-you note. What is that for you? A month? Six months? You figure out what that real date is, and listed along with the task. That makes it much easier to prioritize. Likewise, if you don’t get that leak on the list fixed soon, you may have some significant damage that will be very costly in the long–run. Associate the date with that task as well. Orienting your “priorities” on dates can make it so much easier for you to figure out what needs to be done next.
  3. Find your 100% Likely Action. Even when we do manage prioritize well, sometimes we find ourselves letting tasks repeat and not executing them when we intend to. When this happens, I always advise my clients to look at the task and see what small piece of it they can, with 100% certainty, do today. Right now. I always asked my clients, “What is the smallest piece of that you can do right now?” And then I ask them, “On a scale from 1 to 100, how likely are you to do that task today? Honestly.” If I get anything less than 100%, I”m going to have them break it down even further. You know, if you’ve been reading my articles, that the “Activation” (or getting started) part of our Executive Functioning can be very hard for those of us with ADD and ADHD. Once we get started and passed that activation stage, we are often good to keep going and can keep up our momentum. So, what’s the smallest part that you can do today to get you moving?

Managing your to-do list effectively by creating habits around your list and being vigilant about how you record the items on your list can make a big difference in making sure your list doesn’t grow faster than you can execute the items on it. Managing your to-do list effectively is an important part of managing your time effectively. It frees you up to be able to pursue the things in life that you enjoy, and are good at. And that’s what this is all about, really.

There is more to life than feeling like you are constantly struggling to keep up with the demands on your time. And that’s what all this hard work is really for, isn’t it?  Making more room in your life for the things that bring you joy!

YOU are more than your to-do list!  You need to control your list so it doesn’t control you.

And, as always, I’m here to help if you need it!

Until next time,


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