The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Tag: to-do lists

Managing GTD contexts as a stay-at-home mom with ADHD

I received this message from a reader struggling to set up David Allen’s Getting Things Done system:

I’ve tried to set [GTD] up so many times, but I get hung up on contexts. Since I’m a full-time homemaker, everything happens at home. I’ve tried dividing my list based on my priorities, and I’ve tried setting it up based on the different rooms of my house. I’m guessing my perfectionism is kicking in, because I can’t settle on anything. I get stuck on the contexts and can’t make it any further.

What can I do right now? That’s a context

I write about GTD a lot, including a book review and a previous post about contexts. Today, I want to talk specifically about contexts in my life as a full-time parent and homemaker.

I’m not just the primary caregiver for my four-year-old son, R. I also maintain our family’s home, finances, and social life. Where my obligations to my home and family end, my life as a blogger and fiction writer begins. It’s a lot.

Contexts sort my next actions list (aka to-do list) based on what I’m actually capable of accomplishing right here and now. This is critical for anyone, but even more so for me. My kiddo doesn’t run the show, but he does impact my ability to get things done at any given time.

Some contexts depend on others

My GTD contexts have evolved to suit my family’s needs. For example, our tools and sewing machines live in our semi-finished basement. Once my son was old enough to play down there, I added a Basement/Crafting context. I’d previously waited to do this stuff until nap or bedtime, and categorized these tasks as House (R. asleep).

Contexts that can refer to others’ status include:

  • House (anytime), House (R. asleep), and House (R. awake), for tasks that require my kid to be awake or asleep (or can be done anytime)
  • Outdoors, which I pull out while I’m watching R. ride his bike
  • Weekend, for when I need a lot of uninterrupted time, and/or I can’t include R. in the project
  • Basement/Crafting

Within reason, I can respond to what R. wants to do. If he’s asleep, awake, wants to go outside for the afternoon, or wants to play in the basement, I have a list of next actions for that.

Some contexts are all about me

As a stay-at-home/work-at-home parent, I make my own day. This is both beautiful and challenging, especially with ADHD. I’ve learned to observe my level of energy and focus and adjust accordingly. Sometimes I’m good to sit at my desk and organize our finances. Sometimes I need to burn off steam by mowing the lawn. Once I force myself to make a dreaded phone call, I find it easier to knock out all the calls on my list.

With that in mind, several contexts describe where I am, either physically or mentally:

  • Computer (any), Computer (desktop PC), and Computer (MacBook), because I have different software on each device
  • Phone (talking) and Phone (texting)
  • Desk
  • Errands

Who am I talking to?

The stay-at-home spouse usually shoulders the bulk of what some call “kin-keeping” duties. I schedule our vacations, plan holidays with family, and keep tabs on what’s happening with our friends and relatives.

Adults with ADHD need to manage this outside our heads. Otherwise, we’ll lose track of something, and someone will feel angry or slighted. I have contexts for each of my parents, my husband, and my grandmother. When I think, “oh, I need to remember to ask Mom about planning a visit,” I enter it as a next action in the Mom context. I reference this list during our weekly Skype call. (Side note: I will forget to check the list unless I make a note on my calendar in capital letters.)

Above all, be responsive

For some people, “home” is its own, complete GTD context. For me, “home” is an environment that changes hourly. Sometimes I’m too tired to sit in my office and work, so I take my tablet to the couch (the Computer (any) context). I can do Phone (texting) while my four-year-old plays with his Legos, but it’s better to wait until he’s at school for Phone (talking) if I can. Sometimes, when I entice R. to the basement because I need to mend a few pieces of clothing, he gets in the zone with his toys down there. Then, I consult my Basement/Crafting list.

I do have a catch-all Anywhere context, but I use it sparingly, and only for tasks I could truly do anywhere. Example: sketching design ideas for ADHD Homestead stickers (keep an eye out for a Kickstarter campaign featuring those this fall). I always have my notebook, so I can do this in a train station, coffee shop, or even on the beach.

Bottom line: I need to take advantage of whatever kind of productive time I have right now. Contexts ensure I have something to do, regardless of my home’s mood and status. That’s a big deal, and it’s a reason to get my contexts right.

Are you at home full-time? Have you tried GTD? How do you make the most of your day?

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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!

Product highlight: David Seah’s productivity tools

Do you struggle with traditional to-do lists?

We recently stumbled upon some innovative (and free!) task management tools courtesy of designer David Seah. If the standard approach to daily to-do lists doesn’t work for you, you need to check these out.

David Seah productivity printable - Concrete Goals Tracker

Image credit: davidseah.com

 

Seah has refined his collection of goal-setting, list-making, and time-tracking tools to support his work as a self-employed designer and developer. While most of the free printables on his site can be applied to any situation, some — like the National Novel Writing Month word count calendar — are more specific.

Feeling hesitant to adopt yet another new system? Don’t worry, these tools require no startup investment. No book to read, no special file folders to buy.

David Seah productivity printable - Emergent Task Timer

Image credit: davidseah.com

“While the tools share similar principles and elements,” Seah writes on his site, “they were not made to be a single integrated system, or even used on a regular basis. Use them when you feel the need to feel more focused, to find out where your time is going, or to just get a different look on your work.” In other words, no pressure. Experiment, find out what works for you, and decide when and how often you use it.

So far, I’ve enjoyed using the Emergent Task Planner to tackle an especially overwhelming day. The Day Grid Balancer gave me lots of insights into my week: how much little stuff I actually got done, how well I balanced time spent on each area of responsibility, and, sadly, how little time I invested in my own happiness. When I went out of town for a few days, I left my husband a stack of Seah’s clever Task Order Ups.

David Seah productivity printable - Emergent Task Planner

Image credit: davidseah.com

My husband, meanwhile, employed the Emergent Task Timer to help him record and reflect on how long individual tasks took to complete. Time blind ADHD’ers, this one’s for you!

Seah intends to include stationary in his business model, and I’m excited to see where he takes it. So far his productivity tools are fun, clever, and useful. Because they’re free and printable from anywhere, it’s easy to choose when and how many to use without cluttering up your office or spending money on a new gimmick.

I have a well-established GTD-based system, and I was happy to find Seah’s tools won’t infringe upon or distract from an existing setup. Instead, they pinch-hit in a time of specific need, when your brain needs a little something extra to avoid complete overwhelm.

Take a look, try them out, and let me know what’s working for you!

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