Supercharge To-Do List Functionality

Gettin’ UP and Gettin’ Going – Part IV

The last two of my TEN “Practices” that beat back
ACTIVATION struggles

©Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC

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The Trouble with Lists

How many lists have YOU made in your lifetime?

If you’re like many of us, the answer would probably be in the hundreds: grocery lists, Christmas lists, packing lists, clothing lists, book lists, homework lists – and a bazillion more, I’m sure.

There are as many different kinds of lists as there are reasons for list-making.

Expanding on the concept of Tip #3 – Write it down, write it down, write it down – this last part of Top Ten Tips to Combat “Laziness” is going to concentrate on the dreaded to-do list – and how to make it work better for you.

Let’s begin with four questions.  Take a moment to think about them.  We’ll handle them at the end of this article — after a couple more foundational concepts.

1. Why did you make a to-do list in the first place?
(If you answered with any version of “To get things done,” keep reading.)

By the way, did many of your to-do lists actually do what you wanted them to in that regard?

2. Did you accomplish every single item on most of your to-do lists?
(If you answered with any version of “Are you kidding?!” keep reading – we’ll handle this concept at the end of the article.)

3. Where are those lists now?
(If you answered “Somewhere” or “Who knows?!” keep reading.  You may find some new explanations for keeping your lists in a datebook or paper-based calendar.)

4. Do you begin or end almost every day by making or checking your to-list?
(No matter what you answered to this one, keep reading)

BUT FIRST lets do a quick review of the first eight tips before we go on to number nine.

In the first three sections of this article we covered the following eight of my Top Ten Tips to Combat “Laziness:”

1. Medication can help, but not by itself
2. Avoid shoulds and should-ers – and know why you must
3. Write it down, write it down, write it down
4. Distinguish Task Anxiety and begin there
5. Feed your head
6. Go like Glenda
7. Stay off the Slide
8. Best breathing for best focus

If you haven’t read part one, read it HERE.
Read part two HERE and
part three HERE

NOW we’re going to take a look at #9 and #10:

9.  Cross it off, cross it off, cross it off

10. RATE IT – both before and after

If on-screen reading is frustrating for you, even with the article broken into parts,
try taking it ONE Practice at a time.

Okay – lets get right back to it!

Be sure to checkout the sidebar for how links work on this site, they’re subtle ==>

Closing Open Loops

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I introduced the concept of open and closed loops in an earlier article,** along with the brain-based rationale behind the importance of closing open loops.

Let’s review some terms.

An “open loop” is my term referring to a step to be accomplished before an activity or thought process can be “put away.”

Only once a task has been “put away” does the Prefrontal Cortex [PFC] voluntarily let it go.

Until then, it continues to “ping” the stored reminder of where we were in the process – to keep it “active” in our [relatively limited] working memory banks, even when we are not “actively” thinking about it.

Completions are “closed loops” – whether we have completed an entire task or an identified portion – a “chunk” that we have set before ourselves – fulfilling our expectation that we will take the step or accomplish the task or activity, which “closes” the loop.

**Read ALL of Open Loops, Distractions and Attentional Dysregulation HERE.

Riding Standby is a Problem

Only once a task is “completed,” is the information about it moved into a different part of the brain, where it becomes more “stable,” less vulnerable to distractions and less distracting for you.

If, for any reason, the completion of a task is “bumped,” it remains as a stressful open loop. Every open loop adds to the items vying for our cognitive bandwidth and activating task anxiety — which leaves us more vulnerable to distractions (for similar, brain-based reasons).

To your brain, anything riding standby is an open loop.

Completions not only close loops, they also release serotonin and endorphins, which make us feel good.  They tend to serve as “wind beneath our wings” to help us move along to the next completion.

David Allen, the founder of GTD (Getting Things Done) says
“Most people’s productivity system consists of incomplete lists of unclear things.”

Phillip Martin, artist/educator

Recent incompletions continue to nag at us, even if we are not consciously aware of what it is, exactly, that we’re not doing. That chronic distraction makes it more difficult to accomplish the task at hand.

Our level of stress goes up as a consequence, waking Mr. Amygdala — an anthropomorphised older part of our brain that seems to have remained substantially unchanged since it evolved to keep our cave-ancestors alive.

  • Mr. Amygdala has the authority, according to science’s current understanding, to pull cognitive resources from the prefrontal cortex [PFC] to be able to ready all resources to fight, flee or freeze.  That decreases the number of items we can handle effectively.
  • With our PFC effectively “shut-down,” we lack the resources we need to complete the tasks before us
  • Which increases our level of stress — AND THE BEAT GOES ON!

IN OTHER WORDS, incompletions are “open loops” and create “open loops” — unless we can convince (or trick!) our brains into believing that we have “handled” a particular task  (if only for now).

THAT’s where identifying what we need to do,
breaking down tasks into chunks and writing them down is GOLD!

As I explained in Tip #3, Write it down, write it down, write it down, having a written plan keeps us on-track, focused  and relatively calm.

Mr. Amygdala likes his naps, which he cannot take when he senses we are stressed.

  • Consolidating the decision-making portions of our to-do lives into a single session, before we attempt to act on anything at all, frees us from the stress of having to make on-the-spot decisions.
  • Chunking tasks into their smallest components gives us lots of completions.
  • Each completion makes it that much more likely we will continue on to complete the next item on our list, which further decreases our level of stress.  It also makes it easier to activate again, should we be pulled away from our current objective for any reason.

But we have to give ourselves credit for each completion for this nifty trick to work — which is the reason behind tip number nine.

arrowgold9. Cross it off, cross it off, cross it off

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Completion rituals are time-honored ways of giving ourselves credit, and many of us reward ourselves at the completion of an important goal or task.

  • We go out to dinner to celebrate
  • We allow ourselves to buy a new electronic toy we’ve been lusting for – or that new pair of shoes
  • Or to allow ourselves some much deserved time off to read or watch a movie or favorite television show, or luxuriate in the thrill of doing nothing at all – guilt free!

Sometimes the only way we can get ourselves to work on our own goals and keep ourselves on the completion treadmill is “bribery” — holding the image of that big reward firmly in mind.

It seems that getting around to doing something for ourselves struggles to make it to the top of our to-do lists.

I’m sure you’ve noticed how most of us tend to be more likely to do something when someone else is part of the picture – a boss or spouse or one of our children – than we are to do something for ourselves.  Outside (extrinsic) motivators are powerful.

Completion rituals of any sort increase what is called intrinsic motivation (inside) by making it feel more like extrinsic motivation. They prime the brain to expect that completion cookie – and to work for it – even when nobody cares about the task but you.

However, it doesn’t have to be a BIG reward if you reward yourself for smaller accomplishments. In fact, a greater number of smaller rewards are even more effective, because you are priming the completion pump more often – which makes it all the easier to avoid lack-of-activation quicksand.

Crossing things off your list

One of the easiest, quickest (and cheapest!) ways to “give ourselves credit” for a completion is to cross it off our list the moment we have done it.

I’m sure you have already noticed how good it feel to cross things off your to-do list.

I’m equally sure you have never fully understood why it makes you feel good, or you would never skip this neat little trick.  Yet somehow, when we feel that we have way too much to do with way too little time, crossing things off a list seems like a horrible waste of that time.  FALSE ECONOMY.

Not only that, crossing things off keeps you partnered with your list, reducing the decision agita that is likely to arouse Mr. Amygdala.  This becomes especially important for those of us who have trouble with transitions.  Working from a list can become the pole that vaults you over that dreaded gap between pieces of a task. (Click on Trouble with Transitions for more on this concept)

Try it!  And be sure to leave me a comment to let me know how it’s working for you.  Evidence that what I share is helping is one of MY favorite rewards!

If you have other effective ways of rewarding yourselves, I’m sure we’d ALL love to hear about those too.  (I know I would — I struggle with this stuff too. I can use all the help I can get!)

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arrowgold8.  RATE IT – both before and after

Those of us with Executive Functioning struggles tend to fall victim to black and white thinking more easily than those who don’t.  It seems that ANY problem with activation quickly becomes, in our minds, a HUGE problem with activation.

That’s why it’s important to get specific.

The NLP field (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) has a great technique to help us get specific to help us combat our black and white thinking problems: rating the extent of a problem.

They use the rating technique in all sorts of ways for all sorts of things, but we’re going to tweak it a bit to help our particular problems gettin’ up and gettin’ TO it.

Rate this way . . .

When you first notice that you are having trouble getting started, rate the extent of the trouble on a scale of one to ten.

  • Ten represents the worst trouble you have EVER had “making” yourself do a task (or the most you have EVER wanted to avoid doing a task).
  • One is the opposite end of the scale: just a touch of the “I don’t wanna’s.”
  • Five is smack dab in the middle: bad enough, but neither the most nor the least trouble with activation we’ve ever experienced.

The other numbers help you to get even more specific, so don’t ignore them.

If you’ve been smart enough to use Tip #3 (Write it down, write it down, write it down), note your rating in front of task #1.  In any case, write down your rating somewhere.

Then try one of these tips and take your lack-of-activation quicksand rating again.  You may well note that activations seems just a little less daunting when you compare the two numbers.

Write the new rating down next to your first rating.  If you’re still struggling to “make” yourself begin, try another tip, and rate yourself again.

What’s really fun about this technique is that, eventually, it starts to look easier to tackle the task than to keep going through the darned rating exercises.  Before you know it, you actually have something to cross off your list.

If you’ll work down your list of task-chunks, rating before and after, you will probably find that the rating numbers decrease as you go (meaning that activation is causing you less trouble) .  Action begets action.


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NOW, about those questions at the top of the article:

1. Why did you make a to-do list in the first place?

Click HERE to [re]read more in Part 1 about why and how writing things down in a  list really makes a difference for those of us struggling with ACTIVATION – it still applies.

2. Did you accomplish every single item on most of your to-do lists?

  • If the imbalance is slight, CONGRATULATIONS! You’re doing better than most of us already.  To increase your productivity further, take some time to figure out why any undone items remain undone.

Unrealistic take on how much you can squeeze into a day?
— Certain types of to-dos are still beyond your activation abilities?
Allowing someone else’s “urgent”s to co opt your own “important”s?
Tweak from what you discover.

  • If the imbalance is large, you either have extreme activation issues or you are clearly expecting more than YOU can accomplish in a day (and maybe more than anyone could squeeze into a day).  Just as action begets action inaction leads to more of the same. Don’t do that to yourself.

For #1 above (unrealistic take)Start with Tip #1 (from Part 1 of these Top Ten Tips) and work your way down, employing each and every one of them.  TRACK what seems to be working, then shuffle the order of the tips so that you do the most effective ones first.  Don’t forget to RATE before and after each shuffle — how else will you distinguish the most effective?

For #2 above (beyond your activation abilities) – Tweak your to-do list as much as you need to – so that you can do EVERYTHING you write down, even if it’s a small list.  That will ignite your completion expectations.

If you are worried that you won’t get enough DONE without that gargantuan list, let me ask you a question:  How is that different from what’s happening now? Take the coaching!

For #3 (someone else’s “urgents” co opt your own “importants”)Click HERE to read (or review) Priorities-101:Yes means No, which may give you a perspective on the issue that will make it possible for you to say no!

Anything else?  Use the menubar or the search box in the site-header to search for an article on your issue or problem.  With over 400 comprehensive pages and posts, chances are good I’ve written about it.

If NOT (or even if so), use the comments section below to ask me about it.  (Be sure to let me know what you’ve read so I don’t send you back to where you’ve already been)

3. Where are those lists now?

  • If you make your lists on a legal pad, note card, sticky-note, etc. — grab a clean sheet of whatever and rewrite any open issues to jumpstart the next day’s list. Then pitch the first in the trash.

If it helps to see what you did get done, try this tip: write the completed items IN your datebook or [paper-based!] calendar system as you do them. Then put a line through each one to indicate that it is DONE.  A bit silly?  Maybe, but pay attention to how surprisingly good that feels.

  • Do the same for anything else you accomplished that was NOT on your list.  Sherlock whats going on here (see first point under the first question above for an example). Notice that you also get a hit of feel-good crossing those out too — it’s what I call the backwards to-do list (giving yourself credit for everything you did, rather than beating yourself up for “not getting anything done”)
  • If you wrote your list in your your datebook or [paper-based!] calendar system to begin with, GOOD FOR YOU!  Most of you will find that is the best way.  It builds the habit of always looking in the same place for activation tracking. Even when you move the datebook itself, your brain links the datebook, not the place.  (Those “single sheet” solutions CAN work, but only if you keep them in the same place every time, and how likely are you to do that?)
  • Rewrite the undone items on the next day (yes, really!)  If that idea makes you crazy, put a sticky-note in your datebook on the correct day first, then write your list on the sticky-note.  You can now simply move it to the next day without re-writing the undone items.

You would be well served to follow my first advice about how to handle the items that were done (including the “backwards” ones) — i.e., write the items (and chunks) you accomplished IN your datebook or [paper-based!] calendar system, then put a line through them to remind yourself that they were DONE.

Not only does it begin to change your inner dialogue about what you can and cannot accomplish, it’s extremely activating, when you get stuck, to thumb through a calendar when you see ALL those crossed out items!

4. Do you begin or end almost every day by making or checking your to-list?

Believe it or not, the most productive people do BOTH – strategizing in the morning and tweaking before they go to bed.

To-Do List-making itself goes at whichever “end” of the day works best for the individual.

  • Some people like to start the day having already decided what they plan to do with it, and love to end the day with that inner glow that comes from the accomplishment they feel doing their “backwards to-do list.”
  • Others prefer to make their daily lists at the front end of each day as part of their activation process (and are just fine “glowing” at that time of day too).
  • There are also those who like to make their backwards list on the fly – writing down what they just did to be able to experience the boost in functioning that crossing it out provides. When you do that, use that boost to at least look at the items on your original to-do list.

If you can pick one of them off next, DO that.

More than a few of us need to “change to-do list direction” in an alternating fashion.

Try it as many different ways as you can think of as long as you adhere to Tip #3: write it down, write it down, write it down before you make sure you ALSO adhere to both tips in this conclusion to this four-part article.  You really do need to capture the data to be able to figure out how to tweak the system to fit you [practically] perfectly.

So that’s all folks!  Do let me know how these tips are working for YOU – down there in the comments section – what you’ve tried, how it worked, tweaks you’ve come up with, and anything else you want to share about your own productivity processes.

ALSO, keep your eyes open for those “unusually short articles” that expand on some of the points introduced in this four-part article that I promised at the top of Part 1.

Don’t forget that I’ll be expanding on many of these concepts in a more comprehensive manner in Activation Series articles to come later, beginning with the ones that generate the greatest number of comments or questions — so ring in below if you want what amounts to free coaching (and/or you want me to keep the Activation Series at the top of my own extensive to-do list).

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No TIME to read all this stuff? Want more help?

man-on-phoneOnce my own life recovers from a protracted repair deficit situation where even the ability to use the systems I have put in place was taken from me, watch for the announcement of an upcoming 12-week TeleClass on Modular Success Systems.

It will help you sort through a great many of the “functional modules” so that you can design an action plan guaranteed to be easier than what most of you are currently attempting to work with.

Classes are a much cheaper alternative to hiring my personal coaching services (and the FIRST time I offer a new class is always your least expensive option by far!). As always, class size will be small to allow for personal attention, so don’t miss the announcement if you want to make sure you sign up before the first class fills.

If you already know that this is something you are going to want to be part of, let me know in a comment below and I’ll make sure you have advanced notice (don’t forget to fill in your name and email on the comment form or I won’t be able to contact you).

Meanwhile, keep reading as often as you can! Until my own life recovers, I won’t have the time to post as often as I have in the past, but there is A LOT already on the site. Don’t waste this free resource – and I’d REALLY appreciate it if you would help me out by taking a few moments from your own life to spread the word about the blog and the upcoming TeleClass, OK?

To double the benefit, whenever you read a new article, make it a habit to pick at least one of the Related Content links to read at the same time (embedded in the text and duplicated in the Related Links at the bottom of every post).

If you’ll “like” or comment after the pages you’ve read, it will help you keep track and will point others to posts you find especially helpful (as well as helping ME to know what you want me to write about).

As always, if you want notification of new articles in the Time & Task Management Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy.

Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this Series (one-on-one couples or group), click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end (or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page). Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!). 

You might also be interested in some of the following articles
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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

2 Responses to Supercharge To-Do List Functionality

  1. Pingback: 12 Tips to help you Take Back your TIME | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Pingback: Listening for Time Troubles | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

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