Person holding a tray on which the components of a sandwich are individually laid out

Surviving self-isolation part 6 – making sense of big goals with Trello

Here we are: the final post in my series on looking after my ADHD brain and still getting things done during self-isolation.

While I have no illusions about being my best or most productive self while living through a literal pandemic, the wonderful thing about these techniques I’ve been putting into practice is that none of them have to stop there. If I can make them my new normal, even as we all collectively figure out the world’s new normal, then I hope they can keep on helping me to be healthier, happier, and better able to get things done.

If you’re reading this, I hope some of them can help you too.

Anyway! Last week I wrote about using daily lists to keep myself focused on my the tasks I want to accomplish today, without becoming overwhelmed by options. But how do I know what tasks those are?

Tasks that are simple, or at least familiar – whoops, I need to get to the supermarket again before we run out of milk! – are easy enough to add to a daily list, get it done, and tick it off. The same can’t be said of the tasks required to achieve longer-term goals, or goals that take me out of my familiar routine. Those big goals, like move house or learn to make my own clothes contain far greater complexity than my daily lists can encompass.

For big goals, I need something more – that’s where Trello comes in.

Why are big goals so difficult?

Some time ago I ran across an amazing Twitter thread by Jana O’Conner, describing in neurological terms why her 8-year-old ADHD son had so much trouble making a sandwich.

If you want to go read it in full, I’ll wait. But to summarise, one of the things ADHD brains are badly wired for is nonverbal working memory. This is the kind of memory you use when you’re trying to visualise where you put down your keys, but it’s also used to visualise the immediate future.

According to Jana, if a neurotypical person wants to make a sandwich, the very first thing they do is visualise the sandwich they want to end up with. Then they can hold that image in their head while working through the steps required to achieve said sandwich.

I say “according to Jana”, because that was news to me. I have never visualised a sandwich in my life. I’m over thirty, and the only way I know to make a sandwich involves strict adherence to a pre-established routine: Get out bread, butter, cheese & tomato. Get out plate. Put bread on plate. Put butter on bread. Get out chopping board & knife. Slice cheese – 2 slices. Put cheese on bread. Slice tomato…

Does this mean I eat the exact same cheese and tomato sandwich every single day? Yes, yes it does.

But at least I get a sandwich to eat.

As Jana points out, if you struggle to imagine the goal you’re aiming for, you’re going to really struggle figuring out the steps required to achieve that goal. And if you can’t see what you’re aiming for and you don’t know how to get there, it’s very easy to get so overwhelmed by unknowns that you can’t even begin.

Thankfully, as an adult, I can usually handle making a sandwich (or going to the supermarket) without needing to know what the end result looks like. Thanks to my Brili morning routine, I can even handle a bigger “sandwich” like getting dressed & fed & ready for my day.

But that lack of future vision (well, desired-future vision) still makes it hugely overwhelming to face a sandwich the size of moving into a new home.

What is Trello and how does it help?

Trello is a free app/website for making project boards. Picture a big pinboard on which you pin a bunch of cards, each labelled with a task you have to complete. You have columns you can move the cards around in, which you can label things like To do, In progress, Need help, and so on. And then on each card you can write as much detail as you need for that task: due dates, checklists, notes, coloured categorisations, other people involved, etc, etc.

Now picture that, but not a gigantic unreadable mess – that’s Trello.

Sample Trello project board

Trello is designed as a project management tool for whole teams, but I’ve started using it just for myself. It’s exactly the kind of app I love: visually simple, easy to interact with (mmmm, drag & drop), but with plenty of options to customise it just how I want it.

Remember, poor nonverbal working memory means I struggle to visualise an end result and the steps require to reach. Trello allows me to externalise that process. Here’s how I do it:

  1. I have a single project board for big life goals. In theory I could make a new board for each goal, but for me that’s spreading them too thinly – I would quickly lose track of all those boards.
  2. My columns are Goals I need/want to achieve, Goals I’m actively working on, Goals I’m waiting on someone else for, Goals on hold for now, and Goals completed! Yes, with the exclamation mark – it’s important to celebrate my wins!
  3. Any time I find myself facing a new goal that feels big and scary, I make a Trello card for it. There’s no hard and fast rule for what counts as big and scary, but in practice it seems to be anything I can’t just think of, write on a daily list, and then go and do.
  4. On my new card, I make a checklist of the tasks I need to complete to reach that goal. I try to do this straight away, when the goal is still new and exciting/stressful (excitement and stress being just as good as each other for getting my brain to focus), and I take my time over it. Seeing the steps all written down helps me identify any gaps in my chain of logic (e.g. if my list contains Book in movers, it had better also contain Research possible movers and Compare moving quotes), and working digitally lets me insert and reorder checklist items as much as I need to without it becoming a mess.
  5. Optionally, I add other details to taste: a due date if there is one, colour coding for what kind of goal it is (not really necessary, but I love colour-coding), useful notes for later.

Here’s what my personal Trello board looks like at the moment:

My personal Trello board
Mmmm, colours
Trello card opened to see details (part 1)
And here’s what it looks like with a card open to show the notes I’ve made on it…
Trello card opened to see details (part 2)
…and the checklist of steps towards my goal

Sandwich-making made easy

Trello lets me bypass my deficit of nonverbal working memory by visualising those big, scary goals outside of my own head.

When I look at my personal board, I can easily see how many big projects I have on the go right now, and which others are sitting on hold or waiting in the wings. Even if I’m not working on them right now, I can’t lose track of any of them completely because they’re all right there.

And when I want to know how to work towards a particular goal, I just open that card and there are the steps I need to take, laid out in satisfying checklist format.

No more unknowns. No more pressure on my brain to hold on to my goals all by itself.

Trello doesn’t just make my goals look pretty on the outside – it makes them feel so much easier on the inside.

Featured image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
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