When I suggest making a to-do list and/or scheduling time to complete tasks on a calendar, the number one complaint I hear from people with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) is it “does not work” because once one thing doesn’t go as planned (i.e., a task takes longer than anticipated, something more urgent comes up), the entire plan gets messed up and cannot be followed. That is technically true in that if you have a set plan and something affects the timing of one thing, you cannot follow the rest of the plan exactly. However, what is often missing when people set up to-do lists or plans to complete tasks is incorporating flexibility into the plan as well as methods to adjust as needed.
Here are a variety of practical suggestions on how to set up a to-do list and plan for completing tasks while incorporating flexibility in case things interfere with your ability to follow the plan exactly.
1. Have a master to-do list of all tasks that need to be completed and due date for them.
Consider separating tasks into categories such as one-time, recurring, personal, and work.
2. Map out a plan for when you will complete each task by using an hour-by-hour calendar on paper or electronically (i.e., Google calendar).
Either list each task based on how much time it should take or organize tasks into categories and reserve specific blocks of time to complete tasks in a given category.
3. Do not fill your entire day with scheduled items.
- Leave two or three blocks of time of at least 15 to 30 minutes as unreserved.
- Schedule two to four 5-minute slots at different times during the day (especially in the morning, midday, and end of the day) to be used for adjusting your plan as well as planning for the next day.
4. Reserve blocks of time to check/return emails and phone calls.
5. Don’t forget to block out time for lunch.
6. It may be helpful to have a 20- to 30-minute period of time reserved during the workday for personal tasks such as making doctor’s appointments, figuring out logistics for the weekend, etc.
Adjusting on the Fly
Here is how to adjust your daily plan when things do not go as scheduled:
1. When one thing throws off your schedule, take one of the following actions:
- Continue completing items in the same order, especially if the extra 15- to 30-minute blocks will help make up for the time lost (if tasks took longer or you got interrupted unexpectedly).
- Skip the next item to stay on track with your plan. During the next planning block, reserve a new time to complete this task.
- Prioritize remaining tasks scheduled before the next planning block and do the most important ones first.
2. During planning periods:
- Reschedule times to complete tasks you did not get to.
- If new items come up, either schedule them as needed (and reschedule other tasks if necessary) or reserve a time on another day to complete them.
- At the beginning or end of a planning period, consider taking a minute or two to relax and decompress. You could do a mindfulness exercise, listen to guided visual imagery or music, or do something else that is time-limited before transitioning back to work.
Everyone functions differently and has different daily obligations, so these tools are general suggestions that may need to be adjusted on an individual basis. It is important to keep a task system as simple as possible and try to minimize the amount of time—especially during normal work hours—you are planning instead of actually completing tasks. I hope these suggestions yield increased productivity.
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