Wednesday, November 14, 2012

ADHD: Two Ways To Trounce ToDo Lists

Unrealistic List courtesy of Clear app for iOS
There I am, the glow of my iPhone deep in my face, as I snuggle into my pillow and update my task list for the next day. There are a lot of uncompleted items from today, so I dutifully move them into the new list.

It's a long list.

But I'm fully convinced that we accomplish great things when we make great goals, so onwards and huzzah!

By the end of the week, however, my list is larger than the national deficit, and I'm not feeling very "huzzah!" anymore. There is an overall sense of failure. Sure. I have checked off dozens of items on my list, but there are hundreds left undone! Look at that! I haven't done my 3 hours of daily Japanese study yet. And there is the 1 hour of sketching uncompleted. 5 hours of web design…that site isn't going to code itself. I still have to write thousands of words today. Also, I haven't run yet, the kids need dinner, and there's a new episode of Grimm. Can't miss that.

No matter how many times I live through this scenario, I am invariably panicking by the end of the week, despairing by Saturday, and declaring task bankruptcy by Sunday just so I can start the week without a planet-sized weight over my shoulders. The only way to complete these lists is by having access to a time machine.

Hallowell and Ratey describe this phenomenon as a key component for adults with ADHD. It's NUMBER ONE on their list:


1. A sense of underachievement, of not meeting one's goals (regardless of how much one has actually accomplished).


I've written before about how adults with ADHD often discount the great amount of work they have accomplished because of the few things they haven't. A sense of underachievement is certainly the result, but why do we feel this way? If we've completed six out of ten things for the day, why do we feel so down about it?

Maybe it's the lists' fault. We should do away with them! Yeah! Burn them all!! Or delete them, which isn't nearly as dramatic, but DOWN WITH TODO LISTS!

Unfortunately, we need those lists. How else are we to supposed to get back on track after getting distracted all day on Minecraft? The problem isn't the list, per se, but what we expect of them.

I've come to the conclusion that adults with ADHD have little idea how long it will take to actually complete a task, either because they fail to account for distraction, or because they have an alarmingly poor concept of time. Consequently, they over-plan. They can create lists of intricate detail and depth, mostly because they excel at rumination and panic, but they generally fail to do one important thing: Account for how much time it will take to finish all those tasks. The end result is always frustration and failure because there is only so much time in the day or week, and time will always be eaten up by unforseen events, namely distractions.

To offset this problem, I have recently begun to make two lists—one for everything I don't want to forget about and one for what must be done today. Then I try to create time estimates for each of today's tasks. This is training me to estimate time better, but it also helps me to stop over-planning. I find these timed lists leave me with a greater sense of accomplishment. I may not have mastered Japanese and scaled the Himalaya that day, but the important things were done for a change.

Yes, this requires a bit of work, and a new habit, but it's either that or more trillion item lists with one certain outcome: feelings of failure. That is, unless you have a time machine.


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