I understand to do lists. I really do. You write down the things you have to do and then you do them. If you can’t do something now, you write it on the list so you can do it later. If you have time to do things, you consult the list and then do them.
But, just like the advice of “do a little each day and then you don’t have to rush at the end,” the simple to do list is beyond my capabilities in the long term.
I’ve had times when I’ve been able to successfully complete a to-do list. For instance, I worked as a secretary at a large pharmaceutical company for a few months as a contract worker. You’d think that was a terrible job for an AD(H)D’er, but I did pretty well at it. I had clearly defined jobs, I didn’t have to take work home with me, and the job was varied enough to be interesting, but not so difficult as to be overwhelming. I kept a small list of things to work on each day when I had time. Also, there was the “body double” effect; I was always around people who expected me to work, so I worked. I also didn’t work there long enough for the newness to wear off.
Also I’ve worked with many different types of task-management systems. Franklin planners, Day Timer, Palm Pilot, and various incarnations of Getting Things Done, everything from Hipster PDA to full-blown GTD software suites. It always works well for awhile, and then it slides into disarray. Right now, I sort of use Wunderlist, and sort of use little notes on my desk and my pockets and above the coffee maker at home, and mostly lose track of things. I fully understand what a person needs to do to keep up a good to-do list, but I don’t do it.
Here are the things that happen when my to do listing heads south:
- I don’t need no stinkin’ list! After something starts working for awhile, I feel like I’ve gotten smarter, so I don’t need the support anymore. I get tempted to turn off pop-up notices from my Google calendar, for example.
- Holy crap, what a long list! On a mood downswing, that long list that I felt in control of yesterday seems Byzantine today.
- Busy busy! I get caught up in doing things that I ignore my list. This is a subtle trap: at any moment, there are a number of things that I both could and should do, but that can slide into things that I don’t need to do. If I update the website for the class I’m teaching now, that gives me an idea for next semester, and suddenly I’ve spent two hours drafting ideas about something that doesn’t start for three months. I also arrive at work and all these triggers file about things I need to do and I feel compelled to do something right now (other than manage my list).
- Listing is not doing. Writing a to do list feels like an accomplishment, so sometimes I’ve fooled my brain into thinking I’ve “worked” on a project when I’ve just really made a list. If I don’t get back to the project, suddenly the list is out of date.
- Maintenance. If there’s one thing I’m not good at, it’s regular maintenance. Cars, houses, dental work, bills, exercise, lawns, anything that requires regular effort and monitoring. Not good for me, unless there’s something “making” me do it. I learned to play the piano by practicing every day from the age of seven to seventeen, but my parents “made” me do it. I practiced first thing in the morning before school, or if I skipped, I had to do it that night, or twice as long the next day. Same thing with sports in high school: I got into decent shape and became somewhat accomplished as a hurdler in track because there was practice every day and coaches to tell me what to do. I lucked out in graduate school for a year and had a neighbor who also became a close friend who always called me up to go walking or go swim laps or ride the bike or hike. We got into good shape and completed some intense adventures: a bike tour and a backpacking trip. I couldn’t have done it alone.
- Miasma. I “heap.” When things get bad, everything seems foul and undoable. AKA dysthymia, the blues, Eeyore syndrome.
- Shiny toys. New projects are fun. Old ones are boring. Lists are old projects.
- Life. With two special-needs kids and an old house to take care of, shtuff happens. The sewer line clogs. Someone gets the flu or pees on the carpet. We’ve battled bats, chipmunks, snakes, opossum, deer, box-elder bugs, turkeys, and earwigs invading our space. And I technically live in the “city.” (I love nature, just when I go visit it on it’s terms. Not when it eats my garbage and leaves it all over the back yard.) My internal monologue says See! The world is conspiring against you and your attempt to get it together!
- But first . . . . I have full intention on working on my list every day. But first, I have to check the news, research guitar amps, eat lunch, fill my stapler, chat with my co-workers, and then, oops, time to go home already.
- Shiny toys #2. It’s fun to research all the tools out there for productivity, all the books, philosophies, pens, notebooks, software programs, laptops and tablets and what not. Way more fun then using them to actually accomplish something.
Many people have offered the advice to just do it or try harder. That doesn’t work. I’m 40 years old. If effort was all that was required, I would have done it by now. In fact my favorite non-helpful self help book about avoiding procrastination is titled DO IT NOW, and you know everything you need to know about the book by the title. It’s filled with belittling and simplistic advice. I don’t know how someone actually makes money from this book.
In fact, I might come out with a whole line of books using this strategy. Here are my book ideas:
- SPEND LESS THAN YOU EARN
- DON’T SMOKE
- PUT DOWN THE DONUT
- YOU WORRY TOO MUCH
- JUST BE HAPPY, ALREADY
- BOO FRICKIN’ HOO
- HE’S DEAD: GET OVER IT
The advice I’ve found that actually helps is to either change the task or change the conditions of the task. Way back when I was a secretary, having people around doing work professionally (but not maniacally) really helped me do my work. It was a hard-working but friendly office setting. Doing work with other people helps me to work—even if it’s going to a coffee bar or something. Likewise, I’ve accepted that there are certain tasks I am not good at and I should get help on those. I will never keep up with mowing the lawn, so I pay someone else to do it.
Of course, our lawn isn’t mowed right now because I can’t find the contract to sign and mail . . .