How to tackle your to-do list when your ADHD brain won’t comply

Planning, prioritising and getting things done on time, are key challenges for ADHD brains and, when you need to get something done (that you don’t really want to do), it can feel like there's a battle raging in your head. So, if you’re struggling to get started and don't know where to begin, use this handy guide to set you and your brain up for success today.


Don’t start until you’re ready

Taking time to prepare before diving into your to-do list, and having the right structure in place helps minimise distractions, giving you a clear starting place and keeping you on task.

Create the right environment

Remove visual clutter from your working area, turn off notifications, get a drink and a snack and nip to the loo, so you are ready to work

Write out the key steps to complete the task in order

If you find this tricky, write “Start” on one side of your page and “End” at the other. Brainstorm what needs to happen to take you from one side to the other, and then put them in order.

Get everything you need at hand

If you need specific tools, files, notes, books, paper, pens - or whatever else - get them to hand before you try to begin.

Identify the 'entry point' of the task

What is the very first thing you need to do? Focus on the very first thing you need to do and put everything else out of your brain. If necessary, put on a timer for five or 10 minutes and commit to working on your entry point until the timer goes off.

Get turned on by your task list

ADHD brains thrive on interest and stimulation. Dr Thomas E. Brown explains in his article The Mystery of ADHD Motivation, Solved that if a task doesn’t turn your ADHD brain on, you’re not going to be able to perform.

Good qualities (turn-ons):

  • sincerely interesting
  • has an attractive end goal
  • the time/effort required is known
  • the end goal is clear

Bad qualities (turn-offs):

  • it's boring or monotonous
  • you have negative thoughts or fears about it
  • it's new and challenging
  • has a woolly start or ending

Ask yourself how you can maximise the turn-on qualities of each task and minimise the turn-offs.

Choose the prioritisation method that works for you

If you just don’t know where to start and find it hard to prioritise your to-do list, try these techniques to help identify what is most important:

  • Rewards and consequences - Identify the reward for completing and the consequence of not to help you narrow down your options. Rewards are usually best when they are inherent: will feel good, more prepared, or freer - rather than a fake reward attached to make you do something.
  • Use urgency - Try asking yourself “What most needs my attention right now?” Use the answer to rank your list.
  • Draw from previous success - You know your own brain; you’ve lived with it all your life.  What has worked for you in the past when it comes to prioritising your task list? Try that again. Or come up with your own ideas to try.

Use your strengths to tackle the task

When I’m struggling with a specific task and I just can’t get it started, I try to see how I can use my key strengths to move it forward.

  • Strategic thinking - I like to find multiple paths forward, so I can see the patterns and issues with each one, then use that to narrow down my options, choose one and crack on.
  • Collaborating - If you are a natural collaborator, find a willing volunteer to work with you on the task, as a sounding board to come up with potential ways to (even better if helping others is their strength!).
  • Problem-solving - Are you a great problem solver? Ask yourself “What is the problem that needs to be solved here?” and see if that gets your juices flowing.

If you’re not sure of your strengths, there are plenty of free resources online to help you uncover them, just go and ask Google.

Although having ADHD means planning, prioritising and time management aren’t naturally easy, putting the right scaffolding in place can encourage your brain to comply more often, and help you get more important things done.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Staines-upon-Thames TW18 & Cardiff CF11
Written by Helen Unwin, Confidence Coach | ADHD & Executive Function Coach (ACC)
Staines-upon-Thames TW18 & Cardiff CF11

Helen is a qualified and ICF Accredited Coach specialising in Confidence and ADHD Coaching. Her mission is to help folks understand their unique brain and create a life that plays to their strengths. If you are feeling overwhelmed and need some support to shift out of survival mode and into a life of joy and passion, book a call to find out more.

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