There’s Art to Creating a To-Do List

 ADHD Weekly, November 2, 2023

All your errands, obligations, and tasks can seem to jumble together in your mind—especially when you’re preparing to start the day or when you’re heading to bed at night. Everything is important and needs to get done, but what is important enough to be done first?

Anyone can find it hard to juggle their to-do list, but for people who have ADHD, the challenges can be greater. There are lots of tools to help you get and stay on track. Online checklists 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. The truth is, you can create multiple to-do lists and checklists—and thankfully, you don’t need to tackle them all at the same time.

How to make your to-do list

“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 include on your 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 smaller tasks that together will add up to a completed project. 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,” says Benz. “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,” she says. “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

  • Describe the action—wipe counters, put clothes in closet—and be as specific as possible. Keep tasks simple. List steps that can be done in the time you have rather than larger, vague projects.
  • 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 your master to-do list and create shorter weekly or daily to-do lists. It’s better to underestimate what you can get done in the time you have than try to get everything done at once.
  • Delegate! Ask other people in your life to take over tasks you’re not able to do or finish. If your budget allows, it’s helpful to hire someone to tackle tasks or errands that you can get to or you’re able to accomplish in the time you have.

Organizing your list

Having two or three lists can help you break down the things that need to be done. On a master or complete list, jot down everything that you need and want to accomplish. Don’t worry about prioritizing the list—it’s the “bucket” of all your to-dos and it’s meant to hold them for you.

From there, you might create a monthly or weekly list drawn from the items on the master list. Select only the things that must be done that month or that week or the components of a larger project you are working toward. Often it is helpful to use that list to create your daily, much shorter, to-do list. These are the items that can be accomplished in one day; very often it will be a short list of one, two, or three tasks.

As you accomplish a task, cross it off the daily list and remove it from the weekly or monthly list. When you review your master list—once a week or once a month—cross off your accomplishments. Start the process again from your now shorter master list.

“Every night before bed, I sit down with my bullet journal and plan out my to-do list for the following day,” 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.”

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