Black and white weekly planner on a desk

Surviving self-isolation part 5 – daily task lists

We’ve nearly reached the end of my series on how I’m keeping my ADHD brain (relatively) healthy and productive through self-isolation.

That’s not to say that the isolation itself is, or should be, ending – even here in New Zealand we’re far from out of the coronavirus woods, and we’re doing a whole lot better than certain other nations. We still need to do everything we can to slow the virus’s spread, to reduce pressure on our medical systems, and to keep each other, and especially our most vulnerable, safe. And that means staying home as much as humanly possible.

But as far as this series is concerned, this is my second-last post. I’ve already talked about how I get myself going in the morning; how I keep the stress of a messy home at bay; the importance first and foremost of being kind to ourselves right now; and how I use scheduled check-ins to combat loneliness while keeping myself on-task and on time.

To finish off, this week and next week I will be looking at two techniques I use, in combination, to combat the biggest challenges of trying to be productive while self-isolating with an ADHD brain: overwhelm, difficulty getting started, difficulty finishing, overwhelm, lack of deadlines/priorities, and did I mention overwhelm?

This week, a strategy I’m really excited to talk about: daily task lists.

So much to do, so ADHD

Like I said in the intro, I face a few big challenges when trying to be productive at home – but for convenience, for the rest of this post I will refer to them collectively as overwhelm. And the biggest factor making productivity at home so overwhelming is that, at home, I’m surrounded by things to do.

My favourite thing about going to work has always been leaving everything else behind, physically and mentally, so I can just focus on work. Now I have no escape from any of it: the housework that needs doing; the side-projects sitting around waiting to be finished; the stuff I bought weeks ago for a project I haven’t even started yet; the messages on my phone and in my inbox that are still waiting for replies (technically I take that last one to work with me too, but you get the idea).

None of these things are urgent – but like I said last week, because they aren’t urgent my ADHD brain doesn’t know how to prioritise between them. And being constantly surrounded by reminders of them thoroughly amplifies the downsides of a couple of my most ADHD traits: impulsiveness and inability to shut out the world around me.

Try as I might to focus on the work in font of me, all it takes is getting up for some water or the inevitable notification ping from my phone, and suddenly all I can see are other things I could be doing. Oh hey, says my brain, better get X done now while I’m thinking of it – oh but I can’t finish X until I hear back from Ywait that reminds me I still haven’t replied to Y’s email

And there goes any hope I had of getting the original work finished.

If I’m lucky, I’ll at least get those other random tasks completed because they caught my attention. If I’m unlucky, I’ll be so distracted and pulled in different directions by all the things I could be doing that I lose the ability to start doing anything at all. That’s when it all gets so overwhelming that I wind up numbing out on Facebook or YouTube for hours, trying to distract myself from what feels like an avalanche of tasks and choices and guilt.

None of this is new, of course – it’s just massively exacerbated by occupying the same space all day, every day.

So how do I make sense of all those potential tasks vying for my attention? How do I stay focused enough to actually achieve anything?

Daily lists – not to-do lists

Let’s be clear: daily task lists are not to-do lists. I’ve tried using to-do lists to manage overwhelm in the past, and they have failed me every time.

I would start out well, scribbling down all the tasks I kept spotting, reassured that now they were on paper I could be sure I would, eventually, get to them. But the longer I went on, the more my list would balloon. I just kept coming up with more things I wanted to do, at a far faster rate than I ever managed to get things done. Eventually those lists got so long I didn’t even want to look at them anymore – they just felt depressing and impossible.

But after a long time eschewing to-do lists entirely, recently I hit on the idea of making a separate task list for each day of the working week. After some trial and error, my daily lists still look a bit like to-do lists – but they follow a very strict set of rules:

  1. No day’s list is allowed to contain more than four items. Ever.
  2. That includes socialising and other planned fun. If I’ve agreed to play Portal 2 with a friend on Friday night, that goes on Friday’s list.
  3. I don’t fill out the whole week’s lists in advance. At the start of the week I put in whatever’s already on my mind, over however many days I want to split the tasks up. Then, if I think of something else to do and today’s list already contains four items, I’ll flip forward and find a day that hasn’t yet reached its limit, and add it to that list. Likewise, any tasks on today’s list that I don’t manage to achieve today, I can add to a day that hasn’t reached its limit.
  4. On Friday I can start thinking about what I want to do next week – but up until then I’m not allowed to make any lists beyond the end of the current week. So if all my daily lists for this week are full and I want to add another task, the only way to do it is to cross out an existing task.

That last part is absolutely crucial. It keeps my daily lists from just becoming another form of never-ending to-do list, because it forces me to stop and think: What’s more important? What do I really want to focus on – and what can I let go of?

Two pages of a small yearly planner, with a list of tasks on each day. The first day has three tasks ticked off, one circled, and two crossed out. The second day has two tasks ticked (the same tasks that were crossed out on the previous page), one task crossed out, and one untouched. This last task is "Post blog post."
An example of my daily task lists, from a fairly organised couple of days…
A different two pages of a small yearly planner, with a list of tasks on each day. The first day has two tasks ticked off and three crossed out. There is a circle aroundone of the ticked items, and an arrow leading from one of the crossed out items to the next page. The second day has one task ticked, three tasks crossed out, and two with no markings. The task with the tick is circled and has an arrow leading back to the previous page. Two other tasks are circled, including one of the crossed out tasks. Basically it's a mess.
…and from a couple of days when I was doing less well.

Four tasks, not four hundred

Making me think about my priorities is one way the daily lists keep me from getting overwhelmed – but their other big advantage is that they give me a small, pre-determined set of tasks to focus on each day. Any time I feel myself getting side-tracked, I just take another look at that day’s list and remind myself: this is what I want to achieve today.

Four tasks to a day seems to be my sweet spot (note: it doesn’t have to be yours). That’s enough items to make me feel like I’m getting a decent amount done; it also feels like a big enough daily workload to put some pressure on me, since pressure is what I need to keep myself focused.

At the same time, four is not so many items that I’m constantly falling behind. I don’t manage all four tasks every day, but I usually manage at least three – and choosing three out of four, instead of three out of a hypothetical four hundred, makes it so much easier to decide what to de-prioritise if I’m running short on time.

I do try not to have more than one big job on any given day, but I also don’t let myself get too caught up in figuring out in advance what counts as a big job. If occasionally a task turns out to be much more involved than I expected, I can deal with that when it happens by reshuffling my lists to make more time for it.

P.S. I have a four-item list for the weekend too, because I like having things to do, but I treat Sat/Sun as a single day with a single list and usually make sure they aren’t big tasks, because I also want the weekend to be more relaxed.

The magic of structured flexibility

Daily lists give me structure (which is what ADHD brains need), but also allow me to be flexible within that structure (which is what ADHD brains crave).

If I’m not supposed to be doing laundry until tomorrow, but I just can’t sit at the computer any longer, I can do laundry today and postpone one of today’s tasks to tomorrow instead. If something unexpected comes up that I absolutely need to deal with right now! then that becomes one of my tasks for today, and something else gets moved along.

I can fiddle with and rearrange my lists as much as I like, so long as I never end up with more than four items on a single day.

I’ve only been using them for a few months, but so far daily lists have been brilliant for my ADHD brain. More than any other of the productivity hacks I have tried, they have turned me from an overwhelmed blob into a moderately functional human being – although they work best when combined with the Trello trick that is the subject of next week’s post.

I hope daily lists help you too! Let me know in the comments if you’re trying them out.

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