Monday, May 26, 2008

ToDo Lists For The Win (Unless They Make You Feel Like a Loser)

Winding up the month, I take a look at one of my ToDo lists that induces more terror than self-satisfaction.

Goat spotting at Temple QuarryAs I've detailed here for the past month, people with ADHD have a tendency to pile on projects. Over time it becomes necessary to prune these projects before they take on a density that threatens to collapse into a black hole. People with ADHD aren't really any different than most people, however. We all find the excitement of a new project exhilarating. Opportunities abound in life to start new projects while we trudge along with our current ones.

Blogger Chris Brogan recently wrote about this problem with his post "Saying No". Chris described how he had to clear off his plate to make room for the most important projects. That involved telling many people "No". Saying "No" to others is not difficult for me, however. It is saying "No" to myself I fail at spectacularly.

Hallowell and Ratey described the process succinctly:
4. Many projects going simultaneously; trouble with follow-through.

A corollary of number 3. As one task is put off, another is taken up. By the end of the day, or week, or year, countless projects have been undertaken, while few have found completion.

Years ago when I began to tackle my Panic Anxiety Disorder, it was recommended to me to keep a notepad by my bedside so that I could jot down things that came to my mind as I tried to fall asleep. Since I tended to keep myself up working on all the things I knew needed to be done before I forgot about them, this seemed like a good idea. So I jotted and jotted and jotted and jotted.

For the first little while this little gimmick did the trick. Every time my eyes bolted open in horror as I remembered yet another task I had forgotten to finish I could roll over and jot it down. This process became even more productive for me when I purchased a Palm Pilot. Soon I was checking off tasks and creating new ones each and every night before I drifted off to sleep. I no longer leapt out of my bed in a flash of steamy sweat to get at the work I suddenly remembered I had failed to get at earlier. ToDo lists were saving my life.

Then things went horribly wrong.

My nightly ToDo list was filled with unfinished projects dutifully jotted down so that I could remember to do them later. All 9000 of them. Each uncompleted task represented to me what a failure I was. In a short period of time I discovered my ToDo list didn't so much induce the anxiety it was meant to prevent as much as pour gasoline on it and light the fire with a road flare. I had to help myself understand that I couldn't do it all, and that some projects were more important than others. Eventually, I learned to let that anxiety go by filtering the list to only focus on the most important tasks and goals. At least, I thought I had.

It seems I have transferred that nightly panic into a yearly one centered around my birthday. Without realizing it, I have turned my birthday goal list into a heart-clenching, ambulance ride of impending doom. Let's look at how the list was before I pruned it. Because of ADHD, each item on that list has a pressing do-it-or-die intensity for me. However, it's not a bad list per se. In fact, it's completely achievable. All I need to do is leave my family, live in a hut deep in the Wasatch mountains with a solar powered generator, and squeeze 25 hours into each and every day. I may get tired of drinking unpasteurized mountain goat milk, but you can't make goals without sacrifice.

It is also possible that the list is just in need of a good pruning. I am five months into my goals and there simply isn't enough time to get them all done before I turn 42. In fact, I question whether I would ever complete them. Part of the list were daily goals that carved time out of each and every day, leaving no time for family, friends, full time parenting, homeschooling, and disability, nevermind the most important goals.

The first thing I did was remove the daily music goals. They were already part of my daily ToDo list and they were only supposed to be for fun. I recommitted to one main instrument and chose one goal for the year. I also removed the more vague goals and kept one personal goal (which I am working through this month), as well as a family goal. My writing goals were my most important for the year and were fine as they stood, but the drawing goals needed something more concrete so I added two.

By identifying the most important goals I was able to whittle the list down to something more manageable. The end result is a tighter, more focused list that will help me achieve great things without giving me a complex. Jotting down ideas is a great idea for those who have a hard time remembering, but there comes a time when one must say "No" to the long list in favor of a shorter one without all the distractions. It is both tragic and funny that I need to teach myself this lesson over and over again.

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