Delusional To Do Lists VS Realistic To Do Lists For ADHD Adults

Many ADHD adults have love/ hate / deep loathing relationships with their to do lists.

It’s very, very rare that I have a new adult ADHD coaching client who doesn’t have problems with their to do lists.

To do list tattoo. For forgetful adhd adults

Creative solution by Rob and Stephanie Levy

Many adults with ADHD have:

  • Very long to do lists
  • Multiple to do lists that are unmanageable
  • To do lists scattered in many places.
  • Often can’t find some of their to do lists
  • Have items they keep recopying from one list to another seemingly endlessly. Or from one day’s to do list to another day’s to do lists, sometimes for weeks
  • Often at the end of the day the ratio of completed tasks to uncompleted tasks are sadly in favour of the later

Have you ever had any of those to do list problems?

I’ve seen those patterns in my adult ADHD coaching clients and sometimes in myself. I have ADHD too.

Most of the time I find that adults with ADHD don’t actually write to do lists, but they think they’re writing to do lists.

They’re actually writing wish lists. Doing idea dumps. Delusional to do lists. And deluding themselves that they’re doing creating doable to do lists.

ADHD adults frequently don’t apply reality filters to the their to do lists, and, consequently they often don’t get completed. Hence the irritation, frustration, and assorted negative consequences that follow. Including creating longer undoable to do lists. Rinse and repeat.

A non ADHD adult can think of 2-3 times as many tasks to do as they can actually do in a day. An ADHD adult can think of 5-10 times as many tasks to do in a day as they can actually do. Without breaking a sweat:)

Then, that ADHD adult will often try to put far too many of those wishes/thoughts/ideas/possibilities on a to do list. And have the delusion that they will all get done.

I often tell the members of my Vancouver Adult ADD Support Group that pragmatic optimism is useful. Delusional optimism isn’t.

I.e., I only got 6 things done on my to do list the last 3 days, yet today I’m putting on 12. Today will be different!

A wish list is just random wishes that you write down. I.e., I wish I’ll get this done. I hope I’ll get this done. We ADDers are wired for yes. Yes is stimulating. Yes cranks up dopamine. We’re wired to think it’s always possible.

That’s why ADHD adults often can be great entrepreneurs.

Saying no to others or to ourselves is not as easy in the short term but is easier in the long term. It maybe always possible to get some things done but it’s not always possible for ALL things in a short period of time.

A real to do list has at least one level of reality filters to it, or secondary processing to it. It’s the reality filters that make the difference. They add reality to our to do lists that frequently lack it.

There are many ways to add reality filters to your to do lists. You don’t need to do every single one all the time for every item on your task list.

But quite often, the more you apply to your initial wish list, they more likely you’ll turn it into a real to do list. Then the more likely you’ll get most, if not all, the tasks on it completed.

Here are some reality filters you can apply to your to do list to increase the odds of you finishing the items on your list.

5 Reality Filters To Apply To Your To Do List To Increase Success

1. Is this a task or a project?

Is this a specific doable task that you can do at one place and one time? Or is this a project, which is a series of specific doable tasks? This is a very common mistake people make confusing the two. You can’t do a project; you can only do a task.

Put a project on the to do list, and you’ll often procrastinate because you often don’t know where to begin. Or you start to think of ALL the different tasks in the project, you then get overloaded, overwhelmed, stressed out, and want to escape. Hello Internet, I’ll just spend a few minutes with you:)

If it’s a project, the first thing to do is to break it down into individual doable tasks. This is crucial, and often overlooked.

Breaking larger projects down to smaller individual tasks are not always easy for adults with ADHD. But you’re far more likely to get started on a project if you’ve broken it down to non overwhelming steps and you know where the first step is.

2. How long do I think this task will take?

How much time do I usually estimate it takes me to complete different tasks? How does that compare to how long they really take? Generally we ADDers aren’t so good at this, so maybe double or triple the time.

One of my ADHD coaching clients quadrupled it and it worked for him. Do whatever works for you.

3. How much time to I have that’s not already committed today?

Do you have enough free time to do all the tasks on your to do list? Have you listed out all the other tasks, appointments, meals, preparation for meals, commuting, errands etc. that you’ve already committed to? In a realistic vs a delusionally optimistic  manner?

4. How much energy and preparation will the tasks take?

Will you have enough to do them all today? It’s not just time that’s required to complete tasks on your to do list, it’s also energy in some cases.

How much energy will you have left over today to devote to your new tasks on your to do list after you’ve completed your existing tasks? You know, the ones you’ve made that you may have forgotten?

Is enough energy to complete all your new to dos? Some of them? Which ones? Do you need to delete the others?

Do I need to prepare things for some of the tasks?

In some cases you need to buy supplies, get other things ready, make some phone calls, get someone else’s input, approval or help etc. before you do the actual task on your to do list. Are you clear on the preparatory tasks some, not all, of your tasks will take?

Do you list the preparatory tasks as actual tasks on your to do list? Preparing for work IS work, often the most important part. We ADHD adults often forget this, often we don’t control our ADHD impulsivity, or consider the future and just dive in without thinking.

5. An idea or thought is not a to do.

Clearly differentiate between ideas or thoughts and committed to dos. They are very, very different. Maybe create a someday maybe list like Getting Things Done author David Allen suggests.

Someday, maybe I’ll get this done. Or maybe not. This is where your idea dumps go. It’s possible raw material for your to do list, not your actual to do list.

You can call it other things like an ideas list, a possibilities list etc. Make it as big as you want, you’re not committed to doing the items on it, only to reviewing it once a week or so. If you don’t review it, you won’t trust the system and it will be useless.

If you have the time for new to dos, you can look here to grab one. One, not 10:)

If you’d like customized help in learning how to make your to do list more doable, I may be able to help you with that and other ways to manage ADHD more effectively with less frustration and stress.

What things have you learned that work for you to increase the odds of you completing your to do lists?

28 thoughts on “Delusional To Do Lists VS Realistic To Do Lists For ADHD Adults”

  1. Pete Quily

    Thanks Doug,

    glad you liked it. Thanks for the link too, we bloggers always appreciate those

  2. This is a perfect summary of my daily m.o. It’s very difficult to make changes to it.

    It is very helpful — thank you.

  3. Pete Quily

    You’re welcome Adrian. Maybe try and make just one doable change. Only one change for a few days or a week. Then if you’re feeling comfortable with that one change, go enjoy a guilt free reward, then add another change. But just one at a time.

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  7. Your articles are wonderful to read Pete, the content is all so relevant. Most of the info about ADD online is recycled information that I already know about myself. I’ve really enjoyed reading about all the positives about ADD, which is something I haven’t felt for years. Keep the great articles coming.

  8. You hit the nail right on the head! I hate that feeling of waking up and saying, “Today will be productive”, then making a long list and getting discouraged at the end of the day because, some days, I don’t get one damned thing on that list done. Something always gets in the way, and whoops! there goes all my time.

    I’ve started a routine over the past few days. The first thing I do each morning is to step out on my porch with my coffee, juice, whatever, stand tall, plant my feet firmly, and take deep breaths. Then I look up at the sky, and the tops of the trees, and the hills in the distance, and remind myself that whatever challenges I face that day will be insignificant in the over-all scheme of things.

    Then I set my intentions – three realistic goals that I want to achieve that day. It could be something as small as making a phone call or making my bed (that last one’s always on the list, because it’s the one thing I know I can accomplish quickly). Or, it might be something that takes a lot of time, like getting the yard mowed, or washing the car.

    So far so good, I find it easier to get these things done and not feel guilty about not getting more accomplished. And if I happen to get it all done and have some time to spare, I can get something else done, or, I don’t feel guilty about indulging in one of my hobbies for awhile.

    And when I finish a major project (the most recent being cleaning out and reorganizing my kitchen cabinets), I reward myself. Once I got massage. Last time, I got a mani-pedi. Sometimes I buy myself a new CD.

    I started a list titled “Long Term” in my notebook at least two years ago. This has specifics, like “till the garden” and “clean desk”, as well as projects like “clean out main filing cabinet” and “clean and organize the main shed”. The list kept getting longer and longer, but I did feel some satisfaction in moving some items to my daily chores list and marking them off. It became several pages long, and I started putting months I needed to do some things beside the items (especially gardening and landscaping related items that have to be done in certain months.)

    Now if I could only find that notebook…

  9. Pete Quily

    thanks Connie. Those sound like good ideas, esp limiting them to 3 & the guilt reduction part

  10. Love the last line Connie. That sums it up well:). I have killed more trees than I’d like to admit by regularly buying a new notebook for my to do’s. I’d say, maybe a bigger notebook will keep me in check – no, maybe a huge one – no, maybe smaller, maybe a bright colored one – no, maybe one with a built in calendar – no, maybe a tiny one – no….you get my drift.

  11. I found your blog by doing a search for ‘to do’ lists and adult adhd–thanks so much for the original and detailed information, it is very helpful. I have to laugh at the all too familiar traps and tendencies you discuss; it is always good to relate to others with adult adhd and remember we are not alone in the daily struggle. I could use additional help with how to deal with multiple lists–ie, grocery, errands, work, household, correspondence. Do you recommend all of these items go onto one list, or just in one place (ie the same notebook)? When I actually try to write to dos it gets so overwhelming so quickly because I’m forever trying to over-organize the lists (probably why I don’t write to do lists); it takes too much time and mental energy (some of your suggestions about applying reality filters will help, tho). I look forward to exploring your blog and finding more good info. Thank you for taking the time to do this work, it makes a difference.

  12. Pete Quily

    Thanks Mary, you have to segement them some meaningful useful doable way for you, otherwise it will be overwhelming. and maybe limit your time on the organizing and set limits on the items of list. ie only x items on list a, y on list b etc.

  13. Thanks for these tips, very useful.

    I don’t have an ADHD diagnosis, but I’m pretty sure (in my 40s now) that I’m somewhere on the spectrum, so I’m trying to help myself with reading and applying “tips and tricks”, finding the ones that work for me.

    And all of those 6 points at the beginning… yes. Totally true. I’ve discovered one “to-do list” today. In a notebook. Have forgotten all about it.

  14. This is an insightful summary! Helps me reevaluate what I put on my to do list. Do you also find adults with ADD often break down to do lists to idiot proof them for themselves? Like instead of clean apartment, I’ll put every task related to accomplishing a clean apartment so I get it done. IE dishes, trash, vacuum, mail, laundry, etc. I can’t seem to find a more simple way to break tasks like this down to keep my adult ADD brain focused. How I found this article googling “add adults why do they love to do lists”. Thanks for your insights!

  15. Thanks PJ. I call it more being practical vs vague & delusional. Clean appt is vague and delusional and non specific. could mean so many things so unless you break that project down into tasks and apply reality filters you’re more likely to procrastinate on it. I’d also suggest deciding if you have the time, energy and dopamine to do an entire appt cleaning at once, respect your dopamaine levels, maybe do it in sections with a few tasks in each sections and decide which one to do first etc

  16. I am working with my daughter so she won’t have this problem in the future. After school we make a 3 things list. It has 3 things she has to do before bed. Usually it is homework, a workbook page and 20 minutes spent on a chore. She is really excited to complete it and all I have to say if it is not getting done is are you done with your list. It gets her right back on task.

  17. Good Jen, good to teach them at a young age. And limiting what you put on your to do list is one of the most important habits to have.

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  19. Thank you so much for this article. It was a light bulb moment for me, the part about the to do list being a wish list and an ideas dump especially rang true.

    I get told all the time how to do my to do list but it just never makes sense but your article made the penny drop for me. Thank you

  20. Thanks for writing this. You clearly know your subject, writing from personal experience.

    I studied the GTD system years ago for tracking money because I was thinking of starting a business. I did not know it was the GTD system at the time. Then I learned about it recently again, due to the same problems of needing to control and organize my time, projects, ideas, and the related. I read the GTD book, and studied it thoroughly. It’s a great system, but even though I just said it is great, I just can’t seem to implement it into my life. I’m an guy centered around ideas, thoughts, and knowledge. I have been attempting to build a business that helps people bring imagination to life is how i’ll word it. I believe the problem is amplified for me even among ADHD folks due to my life being dedicated to ideas. It’s like this huge mountain in my life. Right now it seems like I can’t handle my own personal life let alone a business due to these problems.

    Do you have any advice for me and whoever else that may be reading this?

    Mr. PR
    (Mr. Preston Racette)

  21. Stacey Taylor

    This is so very helpful, thank you!!! I see from all the comments on this post that many others really needed this info as well. Thank you! <3

  22. I have been working hard to make the best use of my time during the day as I am a stay at home mom (with ADD) I constantly find myself trying to prioritize what is the most important thing on my never ending to do list that I should work on today. needless to say, I usually dont get much done as I set myself up for failure with too many “tasks.” This article was so incredibly helpful to me and I can’t thank you enough for writing it! I am 31 and have read many articles on ADD time management and nothing has resonated with me like yours!

  23. You’re welcome Natalie, please spread the word. The way to more completed tasks is with more reality filters and more no’s.

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