To-do lists that work for ADHD brains

The right way to make a to-do list is the way that helps you get things done.

To-do list

I am an unabashed and committed to-do list fanatic. There’s just something so viscerally satisfying about crossing off a completed task from my list. My color-coded, lovingly handwritten, painstakingly detailed collection of to-do lists helps to quiet my obsessive, anxious, ADHD-powered brain.

And — oh yeah! — my to-do lists also ensure I remember all the stuff I gotta do. A to-do list is simple in concept: it’s a list of things you need to do. Welp, that’s it, article over, thanks for reading!

Just kidding.

Prepare yourself, because I am going to dive deep into the exciting, nerdy world of to-do lists. My aim is to dissect the craft of creating effective to-do lists, teach you different list-making methods, and ultimately how to make these lists less scary. Let’s do this, brave reader!

To-do list techniques

Bullet journaling

Because I'm a Bullet Journal evangelist, I can’t talk about to-do lists without talking about bullet journaling. In short, a Bullet Journal (“BuJo” for short) is a DIY, customizable planner.

Rapid logging: the “official” BuJo way

My to-do lists live in my BuJo, and they begin with “rapid logging.” Rapid logging is a fancy way of saying “write down all your to-dos/reminders/whatevers in simple lists, and organize them later.” Your lists may include events like doctors’ appointments, basic tasks like “return library book”, or notes like “check out Squid Game on Netflix.”

In BuJo speak, each entry is called a “bullet” and they can be categorized by using different symbols: dots for tasks, open circles for events, dashes for notes, etc. Frankly, I personally find that too complicated, so I just use bullets for every task. Your usage may vary; check out the official BuJo site for detailed instructions and more examples.

The three traditional forms of rapid logging are:

  1. Monthly log
  2. Weekly log
  3. Daily log

Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Ahhhh, which one?!?!

monthly planner with pens

The answer... is yes.

I recommend all three! Using rapid logging as a guide, I keep monthly, weekly, and daily to-do lists. The beauty of rapid logging is once you write it down, you don’t have to think about it anymore; the list does the remembering for you.

Monthly to-dos

Each calendar month has a dedicated page in my BuJo. When an appointment is scheduled or a future task arises, I log the details in the appropriate monthly list.

Weekly To-Dos

Every Sunday, I set aside time to create a simple calendar for the week, known as a “weekly spread” in BuJo-speak. I review my long-term and monthly to-do lists to find that week’s daily obligations, appointments, deadlines, etc. I also make a general post-it list of stuff I need to do that week.

Daily To-Dos

Each day, I use my weekly tasks to inform my daily post-it to-do list. I like post-its because they’re small, which helps me avoid over-committing myself. Referencing yesterday’s post-it makes it simple to move unfinished tasks to today’s list: any not-done tasks from yesterday get moved to today’s list. If I don’t finish my weekly post-it list, I can easily transfer it to the next week, until I (hopefully) finish those tasks and start a new weekly list.

a wall full of post-it notes

Of course, you don’t need post-its — or a BuJo, for that matter. Bullet journaling and the tactile sensations of sticking and un-sticking post-its work for me. Maybe you prefer a regular planner, a lined notebook, a spreadsheet or an app. Keep your lists wherever feels right to you.

Future log, a.k.a. the long-term to-do list

GIF from Back to the Future. "Great Scott"

I have a looooong, running to-do list of things I need to get done eventually, but not immediately. In BuJo terms, this is a “future log,” but I just call it “long-term to-dos.” Anytime a non-urgent task or reminder comes up, add it to your long-term list. Reference this long-term list when making your monthly, weekly, and daily logs.

What goes on a long-term to-do list? Anything you want to remember to do beyond the current month:

  • Mandatory stuff, like filing taxes
  • Aspirational goals like joining a gym
  • Loved ones’ birthdays
  • Fun stuff, like a funny quote you want to remember
  • Anything non-urgent!

Done lists

To-do lists aren’t for everyone. While they soothe my anxiety, they have the opposite effect on others. If you feel overwhelmed and less motivated when faced with a list of tasks to be completed, try upending the concept of to-do lists entirely: make a “done list.”

Instead of focusing on a list of things that need to be done, a done list is a record of all you’ve accomplished today (or this week, this month, etc). This way, you can celebrate your accomplishments instead of focusing on what you didn’t do yet. At the end of each day, take a moment to reflect on your done list. Look at all that stuff you did! A “done list” is like a pat on the back from yourself.

When it comes to to-do lists versus done lists, you don’t have to pick one or the other. You can do both! While I prefer to-do lists, I also have a “done list” for my paid writing work. My weekly BuJo spreads include a Post-it list of the writing I complete each week. This reminds me that I am working hard and getting stuff done, even when it doesn’t feel that way (and it nudges me to get typing if I'm behind).

To-do lists on the fly

Slowing down and being present do not come naturally to me. My brain refuses to shut up. “Do this, you forgot to do that, send that thing, write to that person, DO IT DO IT DO IT NOW.” This constant inner monologue of to-dos is stressful and ultimately not helpful for doing, well, anything. To combat my brain’s nagging, I invented my own to-do method.

Every time I think of something I need to do (like pay my student loan or reschedule physical therapy) I send myself a blank email with the task as the subject (e.g. “call Callie back”). I leave these emails unread until I’m ready to transfer them to my lists.

GIF of AOL internet dial-up

I call this transfer process “culling to-dos;” I even put “cull to-dos” on my daily lists. Emailing myself each task allows my brain to let go, and move on to its next obsessive thought. I know the reminder is safely waiting in my inbox, so I don’t need to keep it in front of mind (or scrawled in pen on my hand).

Tips and tricks for to-do lists

1. Color-coding

My beloved Sakura gel pens are put to good use with my personal color-coding system:

  • Purple is self-care, like meditation and bubble baths.
  • Light blue is cleaning/household tasks like laundry or dishes.
  • Pink is writing assignments.
  • Orange is money, bills, and taxes.
  • Green is errands.
  • Red is bills or urgent tasks that must be done today.

Color-coding may sound a little perfectionist-y (and maybe it is) but it helps me prioritize. If there are red tasks on my list, I know they need to be done ASAP.  

2. Make like Elsa and let it go

My years-long commitment to detailed to-do lists gave me a wonderful gift: permission to let go of stuff. If something sits on my to-do list for a year without getting done...maybe it’s because I don’t need to do it. Of course, this doesn’t apply to necessities, like filing taxes (but, oh, wouldn’t that be nice?).

Maybe you keep skipping yoga class because you don’t actually like yoga. Perhaps you’re putting off applying for that job because you don’t really want to work for that company. Becoming mindful of procrastination patterns that emerge in your lists can help you clarify your current priorities.

Elsa from Frozen

3. Incorporate to-do lists into your daily routine

The more you use your to-do lists, the more you’ll get done. Making lists is helpful, but only if you keep them updated and make headway on what needs to be done. Aim to accomplish one or two of your weekly tasks each day, and one or two monthly tasks each week. If you keep that up, you won’t end up frantically scrambling to cram in all your neglected tasks in one day.

4. Make it yours (and make it fun!)

Your to-do lists are yours and yours alone. That means they can be as messy, neat, complicated, simple, colorful, minimalist or [insert your adjective here] as you want it to be. The examples above are tried-and-true for me, but you’re probably aware that you are not me. What’s going to motivate you to actually tackle your to-dos? For me, it’s making my lists pretty and colorful.

I am all about washi tape, brightly colored gel pens, assorted Post-its, and hand lettering. But enough about me — what is pleasing to your eyes? What feels doable? And how do you find the to-do version(s) that works best for you? You figure it out by trying lots of options. Did one of the above methods pique your interest? Awesome, give it a try! Did none of them resonate with you? That’s okay, too! Think about what would resonate with you, and give that a try. What’s missing from my suggestions? How can you insert your own personality and needs into your list-making?

Give yourself permission to try it all and only keep what works. It’s okay if your methods change! What works in March 2022 might not be helpful in June 2022. Change your list-making style accordingly.

Final thoughts

Remember: There is no right or wrong way to make to-do lists. A to-do list is not a mandate; you can always change it. You are not being graded.

The right way to make a to-do list is the way that helps you actually get things done. Experiment with different methods, keep what works, and discard the rest. You can also check out apps like Inflow, which provides guides and ideas for bullet journaling, for beginners and veterans alike. Now, go forth and start your to-do list! You can start by writing “read that nerdy to-do list Inflow blog,” then triumphantly crossing it off.

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