Stop Wasting Time on To-Do Lists

by | Oct 15, 2019


to do lists suck

Stop wasting time with to-do lists. Just stop.

To-do lists are generally quite long, because they are aspirational.  Long lists lead to overwhelm and inaction when you have ADHD.

I should know, I used to make these super detailed to-do lists because I couldn’t depend on my working memory to recall what needed to be done in my house.

A list is a reminder of all the “shoulds” in your life. Shoulds suck.

On the other hand, a Big Three list is goal-directed and short. You can check out my big three on Instagram – I try to post it every day during the week.

On a logical level we know what needs to be done – cleaning, work, childcare etc. But those tasks are booorrring.

“Knowing” does not translate into behavior change for those of us with ADHD.

So stop wasting your time on to-do lists.

Instead, try implementing The Big Three.

The power of three

How do you feel when you make your giant to-do list?

Inspired? Or overwhelmed?

Sometimes it does feel good to write it all down. But then you are left with nothing but a two-sided piece of paper filled with all of your unfinished tasks staring you in the face.

That’s just real talk. Life is crazy so we might as well admit that it is very hard to prioritize.

But looking at a task list of three is much more manageable. Three feels doable, but it’s enough to make you feel like you actually got sh-t done.

THAT is the power of three.

Create categories for tasks

If you think about it, almost every task on your giant to-do list falls under one of the following categories:

  1. Personal care/health
  2. Family/childcare/relationships
  3. Household/personal finance
  4. Work and career

Spend a few minutes looking at your list and try to figure out what category each thing would fall under. You can create other categories – but I would keep it to less than six total categories.

Remember, this is meant to simplify. Don’t think too hard about it, just sort through your list.

Pay attention to which categories are dominating your list. This will help you to prioritize your big three each day.

Create motivation

With ADHD  we often lack motivation as well as the ability to persist in a task that we find difficult or unpleasant.

I do not enjoy housework, and I perceive it as difficult. Therefore, I am unlikely to wake up tomorrow with the sudden motivation to clean my entire house.

Because I have ADHD, but also because I am human.

But get this: I am actually happy to complete a load of laundry from start to finish in one day.

Why? Because I know I only have to wash, fold, and put away one load and I am DONE.

I am much more motivated because it is specific, the steps are easy, and I can see the clear end point.

Create small wins

You don’t have to clean your entire house in one day in order to feel accomplished.

I know your big list makes you feel that way, but it’s just not true.

It feels more natural to think about my top priorities – my family, my physical/mental health, and my work. So why not plan my day around those?

That is where intrinsic reward comes from, a sense of alignment with your values.

I am proving to myself that, “YES Liz you really can do this adulting thing.”

Every time I complete my BIG THREE I am experiencing a small win.

You and I both know that external rewards do not work. They’re like the gold stars teachers put on your homework in first grade. Meaningless.

The reward must come from an inner sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Small wins matter when it comes to ADHD, we need to feel rewarded. 

Choose your big three

Every day, either in the morning or before bed at night, sit down and think about the categories you have created for all the to-dos in your life.

Ask yourself what is most urgent, and what is most aligned with your personal priorities.

If you are really struggling to choose, narrow down your big three even more by choosing what categories you want to work with.

For example, I might choose to do one household task, one personal task, and then designate the rest of the day to family time.

It’s totally ok to list family time as a task on your Big Three list!

So my big three for the day would like like this:

  1. Personal – walk dog/workout

  2. Household – one load of laundry

  3. Family – spend time with Hubs and child


Be Patient and tweak

If you absolutely cannot motivate yourself to complete three big tasks per day, then start with one.

Show yourself you can set a goal and follow through. It’s more important to show yourself that, than it is to do all three.

In my experience, the satisfaction and sense of control that come with accomplishing my big three often motivates me to do more. Some days the positive energy builds to the point where I add a fourth task.

I still believe habits and routines are the key to managing ADHD, particularly at home.

Completing your Big Three is much more rewarding than making endless to-do lists and then feeling like a failure. 


So do yourself a favor and stop wasting time on to-do lists. You can thank me later.

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