The Art of the To-Do List

 ADHD Weekly, October 20, 2022

You’re settling into bed at the end of the day and your eyes snap open—and you realize you didn’t do half the things you wanted to do that day. Did you finish anything you wanted to get done?

Whether the activities are “have-tos,” such as cleaning the bathroom or getting your tax information together, or “want-tos,” like buying a new pair of running shoes or writing to an old friend, they can add up. Maybe you just want to get a better morning or evening routine, to help start your day right or put you in a better mental space for a good night’s sleep.

It can be hard for anybody to juggle their to-do list, but for people with ADHD, the challenges can be greater. The good news is there are lots of ways to help you get and stay on track with your day. You can find online checklists that are a great starting point—or, even better, make your own. You might want a checklist for daily tasks, another for weekly or monthly tasks, and still another for annual projects. For special occasions such as holidays, financial planning, and goal setting, you’ll need different kinds of lists. You might want a checklist just for a single activity, such as packing for a trip or cleaning your house.

How to make your to-do list

It’s up to you how you do it—on paper, on your computer or smartphone using word processing or a special app, on a whiteboard that you erase every day, or by keeping an audio list going. Pick whichever methods work for you—you may find one is best for daily while another is great for your long-term goals.

“To-dos should be actionable, specific,” says Kara Benz, a guest contributor to “Tasks such as ‘work on research paper’—while actionable—are much too vague. Instead, write specific and manageable tasks that you can do in one sitting” or one block of time.

What you decide to put on your sheet or list will depend on which areas of your life you are trying to organize. There is no right or wrong way to do this—it’s all about finding what helps you get things done on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. Keep in mind that for the shorter-term periods (days, weeks), you should be listing tasks rather than projects. Many people with ADHD find that just listing projects makes it unlikely they’ll get things done. Break big projects into tasks that together will add up to a completed project (take summer clothes out of bureau, put summer clothes in box in basement, bring up winter sweaters from basement equals change over clothes). Small steps you can act on are what will get those items checked off your list.

“Once I have carefully crafted my to-do list for the following day, I look it over and decide which tasks will be my ‘top three’ for the day,” Ms. Benz says. “To determine my top three tasks for the day, I ask myself the following questions:

  • What task(s) will have the most impact on my day?
  • What task(s) needs to get done today?
  • If I get nothing else done today, what task(s) will make me feel the most accomplished?

“Once I’ve figured out which tasks are the most important, I number them 1, 2, and 3,” says Ms. Benz. “It’s important to note that I do not necessarily tackle them in that order. I may start with number three because it’s quick and easy. Getting those important and time-sensitive tasks out of the way first—while you have a full tank of energy—will free you up to do the smaller, easier tasks later when your energy starts to run low.”

Keep in mind

  • Use action words and be as specific as possible. Clean is too broad and you probably won’t ever start. Wipe down kitchen counter, however, is something you can do, and you’ll know when you’re done with that task. Keep tasks simple when you’re getting started with to-do lists.
  • Be sure to keep your lists somewhere you can easily find them. Held on your fridge with a magnet or on an app on your phone is a good place.
  • Break big projects into smaller tasks. That will give you more structure to getting the project done. It will also give you a feeling of accomplishment as you check off each item.
  • Review master list and short list weekly. What is working well? What is not? Are there ways you can make your lists be more helpful tools?
  • Don’t be afraid to ask a family member or friend for help. He or she might have good ideas for the kinds of things you should be tracking on a checklist. You could also check in with him or her regularly, to say how things are going each day or week.

Common to-do lists

You can arrange your lists any number of ways. One might be by task. On a piece of paper, list the days of the week, down the left side. Divide the paper into columns that you title things like things to buy, things to do, appointments to schedule, calls to make/emails to send, bills to pay. Take some time in the evening and write your brief plan and to-do list for the next day based on this master list.

“Every night before bed, I sit down with my bullet journal and plan out my to-do list for the following day,” Ms. Benz says. “I analyze what I accomplished that day, move tasks forward, and add in tasks from my master list as needed. Waking up each morning and already having a clear vision of what you need to accomplish that day is invaluable. Rather than scrambling in the morning to figure out what you need to do, you can hit the ground running on your most important tasks right away.”

  • Focus on one project, which you write at the top of the page. Then, divide the page into blocks, one for each of the project’s major tasks, which you can list along with dates you need to get them done. Florida State University provides several good examples of time management sheets, including this project to-do list. The sample is for a written assignment, but you could use it with any project—at work or at home.
  • Spend a few minutes deciding which projects are highest priority for you in the coming day or week. It doesn’t mean you don’t want to get everything done, but you’ll know the tasks at the top of the list absolutely have to get done. Using a numbered list gives you a visual reminder of your priorities.

Need more ideas for your organizing and managing a to-do list?

Join the discussion: What are some of the best tools you’ve found for keeping track of your day?