5 types of lists that help the ADHD brain, part one

an introduction

I want to spend some time talking about how lists can be really helpful when you have ADHD and share some general ideas about how lists can be “tweaked” to work better for you. How can lists help you succeed?

Before I get into talking about the types of lists I’ve used to help myself, and my clients, manage ADHD I want to also acknowledge that a lot of us can build up a resistance to or a fear of using lists. Why is that? And why is it still useful to make apply these tools and invest some time and energy in experimenting with them?

Visual thinking can guide and constrain how we explore topics and approach project execution.

I’ve been pretty obsessed with visual thinking, thinking on paper, and design methods to make our lives easier. I’ve been exploring this on and off all of my life. This will hopefully become the first of a whole set of blog series on how we can enhance our neurodivergent brains with simple and creative tools to achieve our highly personal goals.

Before you read on, please check out my Note on Strategy communication elsewhere on the site, if you have not already…

Why we resists the lists

  • Lists can be hard to make unless we are super clear on two things “what is this a list of?” and “how will I use this list?” Our associative, creative mind will come up with anything and everything that comes into our brain, based on the moment, the previous items, random associations, and any distractions that happen as we are making the list. And so the list becomes messy and overwhelming without this clarity.
  • Writing a list is one thing, but then using it to take the next steps is another. We have often experienced a lot of failure around lists. Because of the above-mentioned unclarity of what the list is for and what the next step is, the list becomes a source of stress. We lose them, don’t follow up on them, ignore them or actively work against them. Therefore exhaustion can creep in – a sneaky type of resistance – based on our previous experiences with lists. Our brain is trying to save us from more bad experiences… Writer and ADHD expert James Ochoa calls this intervention fatigue…
Lady sitting in front of a laptop anxiously biting a pencil
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Why lists can still be a saving grace for us despite all these issues? It’s all about working memory! Lists are a way to free up our limited working memory slots, that are sorely needed for us to EXECUTE tasks, rather than for KEEPING TRACK of what we need to do in the future or need to remember about the past. Jessica Mc Cabe explains…

On the other end of this “failure to leverage lists” is a vision of what can happen when we manage to deploy list-making in our favor. Adam Savage (of Mythbuster fame) writes extensively on the power of lists in his book “Every Tool is a Hammer” . He is a master at making his lists work FOR him. He uses them to tackle everything from simple, one-man projects to complex group collaborations. He is dedicated to a growth mindset approach and scientific discovery. He has been tweaking his lists over the years to give him an overview of the situation. They will always represent: what needs to be done, positive feedback on what is getting done, and a way to notice (and then tackle and problem-solve) where he is experiencing stuckness.

I found a short preview of his thoughts on lists in this article in Wired Magazine. Well worth reading if you can’t afford the book, or are unlikely to read a longer text. I especially like this quote which really explains well what the powers of to-do lists are for the ADHD brain:

The value of a list is that it frees you up to think more creatively, by defining a project’s scope and scale for you on the page, so your brain doesn’t have to hold on to so much information.

The beauty of the checkbox is that it does the same thing with regard to progress, allowing you to monitor the status of your project, without having to mentally keep track of everything.

Adam Savage “Adam Savage on Lists, More Lists, and the Power of Checkboxes -The ‘Mythbusters’ star and author of the new book ‘Every Tool’s a Hammer’ explains the magic of the colored-in checkbox. in Wired Magazine.

What Savage hits on here is that:

  1. We have to be super clear on the role the list is fulfilling as a memory aid. In other words: what exactly are we outsourcing from our memory to paper?
  2. We have to know whether we are using the list to track progress, to determine next steps or something else. And then we need to ask ourselves: what sort of feedback is useful to our brain to this end?

Lists in general, while handy, are still pretty free form. Adding a specific name, that helps us define what should, or should NOT, be on the list. Another way to do this is to make a list that is more “form-like” with predetermined sections to fill in.

In other instances making a more freeform list, like a chaos map or a brain dump, will lead to different follow-up steps in other media, i.e. prioritizing, then scheduling items you need to tackle into your calendar, or checking off sections of an essay as you write them.

Keeping all of this as simple as it can be, yet as complex as it needs to be to help you make progress, is key. This is an individual process. Meaning that you can benefit from looking at other people’s systems, but you are not likely to do well when you 100% copy someone else’s system.

After reading Adam Savage’s excellent book “Every Tool is a Hammer” I observed my own habits and best practices. I concluded that I use 5 basic lists to manage my ADHD better. I’ll go into those in detail, one by one, in the next blogs.

These lists help me manage overwhelm, tackle anxiety, stay positive, and they keep me taking action. They also help me honor where my productivity was focused lately. This is often crucial to beginning to recognize your strengths: finding the places where you engage without a lot of effort, and easily stay in flow.

Here are my five lists:

  • To do list
  • Done list
  • Don’t do list
  • Gratitude list
  • Running brain dump list

I’ll go into each of these, and how I use them in detail. Suffice it to say that these lists, when I manage to get them all smoothly working together as part of my daily habits, greatly enhance and simplify my life. They keep me focussed on:

  • what needs to be handled
  • what I am getting done (sometimes completely outside of the scope of what NEEDS to be handled)
  • what I need to avoid doing, so as not to sabotage or undermine myself
  • what I can be thankful for and proud of
  • what comes up during the day that I need to figure out what to do about, later on…

I’m sharing the system as it works for me, with plenty of suggestions and alternatives along the way. Still: this might not be the system that works for you. These lists are a part of my planning strategy, but they do not stand on their own. They work in tandem with regular attention paid to what makes me tick, motivates me, and inspires me. I also don’t use ALL of these lists ALL of the time. Else I would be spending my entire day writing and rewriting lists. I have used all of these regularly and by now I’ve gathered a series of clues to when I need what list most. They all have personal cues that help me notice that I need to use them NOW.

Some people do a lot better paying attention to their energy levels and curiosity first, before even considering listmaking, planning or scheduling… There are whole planning systems available based on how you want to feel every day, or prioritizing sleep, exercise, and bio-rhythms as a starting point, instead of projects and tasks- something this lists system tends towards. Any system that supports you requires you to get clear on where you want to go and what you want to achieve and center that. As always: these are just ideas. Explore what works best for you.

You will most likely need to handle it more than once…

A little side note on that last list: the running brain dump. Through my own work -and in working with my clients- I’ve come to the conclusion that the David Allen Getting things Done method rule of “only handle it once” is dangerous territory for people with ADHD.

We need to give ourselves permission to ‘handle’ tasks -that often randomly pop up in our mind during the day- multiple times. Or we will be sucked into rabbit holes that take us away from our priorities. Park them in a brain dump or “to do later” list, and move on. You can come back to them and assess how urgent and important they are later in the day. That way you can stay focused on your current priority now!

If you are sticking to the ‘handle it once’ and the ‘if it only takes 5 minutes do it right now’ rules with an ADHD brain, you are likely to get sucked into a lot of rabbit-holes and side tasks that are actually not a priority. We often need to build some space between planning and doing in order to really assess what is a priority, and what is not.

To be continued…

In the next blog in this series I’ll go deeper into that much maligned number one list: the TO DO list.

See you then….


This article contains some affiliate links to the Book Depository. Meaning: if you order the books mentioned directly after clicking on the link, I get a tiny fee in compensation for my referral. While I appreciate this support for my writing I also want to say: Do not hesitate to order with your local bookstore if you can! It’s important we keep those alive.

Would you like to work on creating your own supporting system of lists with me in coaching? I’m happy to support you! We can troubleshoot your current system, or design a new one. We will experiment and reflect until you have something that works for you… Book a free coaching consultation here

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I’m thinking of building a short online course around this blog series. Shoot me an email or book a coffee call with me to give me some input, if you are interested in getting access to that as part of a pilot group.

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