The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

Tag: calendaring

For a better to-do list, just add context.

I hate knowing I have tons to do, yet blanking when I try to think of specific tasks. This feeling defined my mid-20s, just before I started learning about and treating my ADHD.

I existed in a constant state of stress and anxiety, but I couldn’t articulate — even to myself — what exactly I needed to do.

Medication helped settle my thoughts. Next, I needed a system to organize them.

My salvation came in the form of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. If you haven’t tried GTD or if you find the whole system too rigid, allow me to share one of the most important concepts:

Context is everything.

Why traditional lists and planners failed me

To-do lists never worked for me until I sorted them by context — that is, the location or resources they require. This was a major paradigm shift. I spent years struggling with calendar-based personal planners and daily to-do lists, recopying incomplete tasks from one day to the next.

Of course, some tasks need to happen on a specific day, like paying rent or turning in kids’ summer camp registrations. I still write those on my calendar. Others just require the right environment: a phone, a quiet room, a computer, or a specific person. For those, I keep context-based to-do lists in an app called Toodledo. Toodledo’s web and mobile apps keep my lists at my fingertips everywhere I go. Here are my contexts:

I also generate contexts as needed for my mom, husband, grandmother, and anyone else I converse with regularly.

If you dislike apps, try a sheet of loose leaf paper or a page in a notebook for each context. Anything that keeps your lists separate will do just fine.

Still wondering how this beats one neat, centralized list?

Allen claims, and I agree, that a single list would make it “too difficult to see what you need to see; each time you got any window of time to do something, you’d have to do unproductive re-sorting.”

Consider this alongside ADHD’s inherent working memory weaknesses. As Russell Barkley explains in Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, we use working memory to organize and prioritize tasks, hold multiple things in mind, and figure out what to do next.

For someone with unreliable working memory, a poorly-organized to-do list isn’t just “unproductive,” it’s paralyzing.

to-do list context graphic“It’s not that you’re incapable of logical analysis or you lack intelligence…” Barkley writes, “it’s just that you need to make the process tangible and external…so your emotions don’t erupt with the frustration of trying to do it all in your head.”

Externalizing tasks into contextual ‘buckets’ takes a huge load off your working memory. This makes it easier to get into your productivity groove (sometimes known as hyperfocus).

Hyperfocus for good

Hyperfocus has a bad reputation in our household. It makes it hard for ADHD’ers to change gears and switch tasks. However, with context-based to-do lists, we can use hyperfocus to our advantage.

I may put phone calls off as long as possible, but by the time I force myself to do it (usually a deadline is looming), I settle in and finish them all at once. My husband calls this “task inertia.”

Here’s the thing: I’d freak out if I tried to comb through my to-do list (usually 60+ items long) for the three phone calls I need to make. A separate, ready-to-roll, phone-calls-only list enables me to make more than one of the dreaded calls. It removes obstacles to task inertia.

Reclaiming lost time

In Getting Things Done, Allen stresses the importance of capturing “weird little windows” of time. Most of us use 10 minutes in a waiting room to cruise our smart phone. What if you check two small items off your to-do list instead? My “any computer” (a definition that includes my phone) list contains tasks like “make dinner reservations” (easy with the OpenTable app), “look at calendar for game night dates,” and “use quilt tutorial to make a list for the fabric store.”

These are the baby steps that move me from Point A to Point B, from “we should get together soon” to “see you on Friday night for dinner and board games.” They’re also the details that can slip through my fingers and make me feel like a major flake. ADHD doesn’t change society’s expectations, but it sure makes it tough to keep up.

Experience has taught me, when I receive one of those “weird little windows,” I need to be ready. I need to know what one tiny thing I can get done with the resources at hand. Organizing my to-do list by context has been the key to making that happen — and to tricking people into thinking I have it together.

How do you organize your to-do list? Does it work for you? Please share in the comments!


Guest post: a calendar that works for our family

This guest post comes from Katy Rollins of 18 Channels: An ADHD Life.

Hi, I’m Katy

I’m a wife and a stepmother of three. I have an excellent relationship with my husband and stepchildren. Yes, there are challenges to raising kids between two households, but these days our family unit is pretty functional most of the time.

I’m in my 30s. I was diagnosed with ADHD five or six years ago, and so was my husband and one of our kids.

Why we needed a central calendar

It’s challenging enough trying to organize one household, never mind keeping everyone organized when your kids are living between two households. And they have activities. And so do you.

There are many ways for families to approach the task of “getting organized.” That’s part of the challenge for us ADHD’ers: that process requires too much executive functioning brainpower, something we aren’t well-stocked with.

Nonetheless, life became too stressful without a calendar for me to continue pretending we didn’t need one. This wasn’t completely out of the blue — I agonized over it for a long time. I hate using calendars. I get confused and I miss things and I forget the calendar exists. Yeah, I might have been avoiding this for a while…

Choosing a calendaring system

First, I had to figure out what kind of calendar we needed: paper? Dry erase? Electronic? Did my husband have any opinions on this?

We talked about electronic calendars — with hilarious, anxiety-provoking results. I ended up installing a dry erase calendar in the entryway to our house. Everyone has to walk past it when they go in and out of the house or up and down the stairs.

Our dry erase calendar is visual, easy to use, and accessible by everyone — of every age — in the household. Because everyone can use it, everyone can be expected to use it.

Getting information onto the family calendar

I needed access to all the necessary information for our calendar: Where could I find the kids’ soccer schedules? Could they be printed? How would we manage all the kids’ schedules, from acquisition to action? Could my husband access any of this information and help gather it?

As it turned out, he can print it all out for me. I write it into the dry erase calendar each week.

Katy Rollins family calendar

Katy’s calendaring solution in action.

I actually found a nice dry erase calendar at the dollar store near my house. I’ve set two of them up on an easel. The one on the bottom is a regular monthly calendar, and the one on the top is a weekly calendar, which is useful for us because we have the kids on different days each week. We need that weekly capsule of information.

Getting buy-in and making it happen

Now, how was I going to get my whole household on board? A good system requires buy-in from all (or at least most) participants.

I don’t know if this approach would work with every household, but I realized that this initiative could get really bogged down if I waited for everyone’s opinion. So I didn’t ask them. I decided we needed a system, I got some input from my husband, and I just did it.

I adore my husband and he’s smart at coming up with systems, but sometimes it’s hard to get him to sit down and engage in this type of thing. I decided I would just start thinking it through on my own and engage him at the points where I needed help.

Honestly, I had little confidence in my own ability to use a calendar, but we still needed one. My baggage didn’t matter. And I think the method I chose — the dry erase calendar in a central location — is probably the easiest option for everyone, at least to start. I can’t forget to look at it when it’s right there.

Challenges — and success!

My own confidence and willingness to assert myself ended up being my biggest obstacle. On top of my discomfort with calendars, I don’t like being ‘bossy.’ In a lot of ways I’m an assertive person, but I don’t always like telling others what to do.

The really important lesson I got from all of this is that I can’t let my ADHD issues or personality quirks keep me from doing what I need to do for my household to keep us all sane. I ultimately decided that it would be selfish to continue to let those anxieties get in the way.

We are a few weeks into using the new calendar system, and I hope we all stick with it. I still need to remind the kids to look at it when they ask, “do I have a soccer game tomorrow?” When my husband forgot to put a gig on the calendar — meaning a surprise for both of us — it was a good reminder of how important it is for us to use this tool.


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