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Conquer Idea Overload Even with ADHD: A Guide to Managing To-Do Lists

ADHD productivity

Do you have lists?

Like to-do lists or lists of ideas or goals?

What about lists of lists?

Have you ever made a to-do list and then lost it, whether physically or somewhere in the digital ether?

Do you try to get your to-dos or ideas organized but feel like your organization system itself is disorganized?

Have you ever sat down and given serious thought to your goals (if so, good job) and written them out and then. . . misplaced what you wrote?!

If so, stay tuned, as today we’re going to talk about something that will help you get your thoughts, ideas, and things you want to do more organized, so you can . . . well, you know, stress a bit less and have a cooler life!

We’re going to talk about:

1. Why it can be particularly hard for those of us with ADHD to do this kind of meta-organization, but why it’s important to do

2. How to do it – I promise it’s simple. Maybe not easy, but simple!

3. What you should do at the end of this podcast. What I say may come as a bit of a shock

Alright let’s get down to it. 

So, the goal is to have our to-do lists, ideas, goals, really all that future-oriented stuff organized enough - yes organized enough it does not have to be perfect - so that it actually serves us

If you already have an organized system in place, then, goodbye! I’ll catch you in another episode. Class dismissed.

If not, let’s take a moment to think about this.

What is your current system like?

What problems does it have?

For example, do you have several different notebooks with lists in them and therefore don’t know which list is where?

Do you have a physical planner that you like using but sometimes forget to bring with you?

Do you have a combination of paper notes and digital ones, and have trouble reconciling or combining the lists?

Do you have the same thing written in various places?

Do you not have a system at all? (No judgment, I’ve been there myself.)

Now, I’m sorry if I brought up any icky feelings with those questions.

It wasn’t my intention to bum you out, just to get you to realize that this thing we do to help ourselves - creating lists - can actually stress us out more if we go about it haphazardly.

And we’ve got enough stress, haven’t we? 

How would you feel if you had a nice, easy-to-access, relatively organized system that showed you the things you needed to do, ideas you’d had, goals you’d set, and so on?

Take a minute to really feel that.

Imagine yourself using your well-organized system to help you manage your time and energy.

How does that sound?

If it sounds good, then let’s talk about how to actually get this system in place.

There’s a step that you might be missing, that will make all the difference if you implement it. And that step is: Making an actual appointment with yourself regularly to organize your organization system.

Wait, what? I have to organize my organization system regularly? Isn’t that kind of meta? Yes, it is, but I highly recommend doing it. Here’s why: 

In real life, things pop up at random moments.

You might be cleaning out your pet hamster’s cage and suddenly get an idea for a project you’d like to do. Or you might be in the middle of writing an email and realize you have something stuck in your teeth and then - Oh my God! - realize you haven’t been to the dentist in over a year and you need to make an appointment. 

So, if you decide to make a note of it, but you don’t have a good working system in place, one of two things is likely to happen.

Either you just jot it down wherever, which opens you up to potentially losing the idea altogether, or, you put it onto a big scary list that makes you nauseated just thinking about.

I just made myself a little queasy thinking of some of the big ol’ lists I used to have. . . 

They just seemed to expand, and made me have the same feeling that you feel when you’re about to lose Tetris, like, “Ahhhh. . . it’s all piling up! Help! I’m doomed!”

And then in order to deal with your feelings, you actually play Tetris for seven hours straight and nearly pee your pants and forget to drink water instead of doing any of the things. True story.

So take a second to ask yourself if either of those things applies to you. Do you tend to

A. Make lists and then lose them?


B. Make one big scary list that you don’t even want to look at any more?

Again, my apologies if I’ve made you feel bad thinking about this. I know it can be a very sore subject for some of us. It certainly was for me. 

Let’s talk briefly about why doing this kind of “organizing of organizing” can be difficult for us as ADHDers.

I’m telling you about the reasons not because I want to show you how smart I am and how much I “get” you. I’m telling you about them because if we understand our difficulties then . . . well . . . you’re smart you know what I’m about to say . . . it’s easier to handle them

So why might we be loathe to sit down and organize our lists? Well, there are lots of reasons!

One is plain old crappy feelings.

What’s that old song?

Feelings . . . nothing more than feelings. Trying to forget my feelings of not wanting to look at this list and organize it because that seems like the most boring thing ever and also I very often feel like a lazy and incapable person so taking a focused look at my to-do list and what have you makes me feel terrible I don’t want to do it let’s play on social media instead ok thank you bye.

Or something to that effect.

Does this apply to you? Let’s think about it. When you think about organizing your list or lists, what feelings pop up?

Do you for example feel dread, shame, anxiety, sadness, or something else?

If you don’t feel any negative feelings - awesome!

If you do feel negative feelings - also awesome!

Why? Because that means you have a clue about an obstacle that you might face when trying to organize your lists. 

And as they say, knowing is half the battle.

So if you know that creating this practice of putting your thoughts together in a written format and then organizing all of that produces a kind of yucky feeling in you, then you can think of ways to combat it so that you get it done anyways.

We won’t go into that now as that’s a whole other topic - how to do things that aren’t necessarily interesting or pleasant - but just know that that might be what you’re up against so you can handle it accordingly. 

Another reason we might not want to do this is that we don’t see the point.

What’s the point in organizing my freaking lists?

Well, hopefully I’ve done a bit to change your mind about that already.

However, if you still think it’s pointless, I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably not going to do it. So, if you still feel like that, ask yourself why you think it’s pointless.

In answering that question, you may encounter other issues that need to be addressed.

In the interest of not going all over the place, let’s just leave it at that: If you feel like organizing your thoughts is useless, please ask yourself why and maybe even talk about it with someone or write down your thoughts about it, just to see if you discover anything about yourself. 

Another reason, which is also a feelings thing, is that, well, organizing your thoughts, ideas, goals, and to-do lists might sound like something very interesting to do, or it might sound a little boring!

If it sounds interesting, hopefully you won’t need too much of a push to give it a shot.

If it sounds boring, then we need to fix that.

What solutions can you come up with to make it less boring? 

Yet another reason, which is also a feelings thing, that appears to be a theme here, is that it just might feel totally overwhelming, especially if you have lots of lists, or you have one or more really long lists.

The task in and of itself might feel really difficult and overwhelming, so you might feel paralyzed at the thought of trying to do this.

In this case, you want to employ strategies for dealing with overwhelm or overwhelming tasks. 

In addition, we might really have no idea how long this task, of organizing our lists and ideas, is going to take, especially if we’ve never done it before.

So this might make us hesitant to put it on the calendar because we don’t know how much time we’ll need, or we’re afraid that we might hyperfocus on it and spend all day doing it, which is fine, but not if you have other things to do that day of course.

My advice is to think of this as a regular practice, instead of a big mountain that you have to climb all at once.

Set aside an amount of time that you feel comfortable devoting to this each week, month, whatever, even if it’s only a few minutes to start.

Just see what you can get done in that time period, and give yourself permission not to finish it all in one go.

Remember, this is an ongoing thing.

New things will crop up constantly that will later need to be organized in your thought management system, so even if you do it all in one sitting, you’re going to have to do it again and again. 

The last reason I’ll mention why we might not want to undertake the task is because we might feel we won’t do it perfectly.

To which I’ll ask you, how important is it to do this task perfectly?

Would doing it in a kind of sloppy way still have some benefit?

What do you think? I bet you can guess what I think. 

I’d like to reiterate that I’m talking about all this because I want you to realize the importance of having a good system to keep your thoughts organized.

This scaffolding, if you will, can really help us a lot if done right. 

So, I’d like to encourage you to adopt the following belief:

In order to have an organized organizational system, we want to regularly organize our organizing.

Did I just short-circuit your brain with that sentence? I’ll say it again a different way just in case.

We want to set aside time to clean up our lists. 

Here’s the important part: We want to set aside time for this.

So, yes, we want to schedule an appointment with ourselves on our calendars to focus on doing this.

How frequently and for how long? That’s up to you.

I confess I’ve only just recently started doing this.

I got the idea from Alan P. Brown, a brilliant thought leader in the ADHD world. He makes an appointment on his calendar and calls it “idea management.”

Myself I’m trying to do this once a week.

I find it’s one of those tasks that I can sneak in to those small gaps in my schedule, so for example if I have a couple of meetings with a break in between, that’s a great time for me to take a look at it.

It also limits the time I can spend on it, which is a plus, as I can definitely turn it into an all day thing if I don’t set aside a specific end time for it.

Now, how to do this is totally up to you! If you feel stuck, it can help to think about why you’re doing this. So, for example, in my case, there are a few things I want to do, and each has a “why” behind it: 

For one, I have a list of ideas for podcasts and blogs. I’m pretty good about putting ideas directly onto the list, but the list is starting to get too long and I know there are some things on there that I’ve already done or no longer want to do, so in my next thought management session, I’m going to clean that list up so it doesn’t take so long to go through.

So in this case, the “why” is making the list shorter and easier to read so that it doesn’t take up so much time. 

I’m also trying to avoid having very similar or repetitive things in different places.

So, last time I did my idea clean-up, I noticed that I had an outline of something written out in one folder, and had basically done the same outline again and put it in another folder. Thanks brain! Very efficient (sarcasm)! So I put both of them into the same folder.

I haven’t taken the time to go through and compare the two documents yet, because I’m trying not to spend more than 25 minutes a week on this, personally, but I think I’ll have time to look at the two documents in my next thought management session.

So in this case, the “why” is getting rid of redundancy so that I don’t waste time doing the same thing twice

It all sounds very official, doesn’t it? And if you think about it, it kind of is.

Think about how a large corporation functions.

They sometimes have to have meetings to organize meetings, plans to organize plans, they schedule time to make the schedule.

And, yeah, I know, you’re just one person, but, I have a feeling you have probably figured out by now that life can feel pretty complicated sometimes.

We’re constantly juggling tons of things and even on days when there’s not so much to do you still have to do the basics like brush your teeth and sleep, you know?

You are a marvelous and complex creature with marvelous ideas and complex needs.

Choosing to do this higher-level work for yourself is something that, in my humble yet firm opinion, you deserve.

You’re worth it.

You’re worth taking the time to step back, breathe, and put a decent system into place for yourself so that you can live the life you want to. 

And yes, it’s a system.

This is not a weekend “fix it and forget it” project, okay?

So, the recommendation here is to systematize it so you don’t spend even more energy deciding when to do it.

The easiest way to do this is to pick a regular time when you’re going to do this and put it on your calendar as a recurring reminder.

If the thought of doing that makes you go, “ugh,” I would like to gently counter that by saying, yes, it’s one more thing on the calendar, but the idea is to do this thing to reduce your stress levels and ultimately free up more of your time by having this regular practice.

So we’re putting in a bit of time, energy, and focus up front to give us even more time, energy, and focus down the line. It’s like an investment in yourself.

So we’re almost at the end of this blog post, and I’d like to tell you what to do when you finish reading, if I may be so bold!

I myself was listening to a podcast today by a psychiatrist who goes by Dr. K, who runs a site called Healthy Gamer.

He was talking about how sometimes, and I’m one hundred percent guilty of this myself, we binge self-help or self-improvement content and then don’t really do anything with the information we’ve receive.

Oh, Lordy, have I done that - gone for a three-hour walk and listened to all the podcasts and then maybe done like one thing they suggested in one of the podcasts, if at all. 

So I usually end my podcasts and blogs by reminding you to check out another page on my site and all that good stuff, but today I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to invite you to take action on what we’ve looked at today.

I’m going to invite you to get out your calendar right now and schedule a time for your thought management session.