The Backwards To-Do List

A Different Way
to Help you get UNSTUCK
Help for Activation, Hyperfocus & Scattered Energy

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Another article in the ACTIVATION Series

Expanding on a helpful concept

In last Monday’s article [How to STOP chasing your tail], I introduced a productivity tracking technique I call The Backwards To-Do List.

Over the years, I have received many requests to explain the idea. I hope this article will help those of you with similar questions.

I initially developed this technique for myself, a year or two after my own ADD diagnosis – several decades ago now. I figured it out after realizing that the “standard” advice about making To-Do lists left me DE-motivated, rather than it’s opposite.

Lacking a sense of time, I never could get the hang of how much to put on the darned thing. Plus, my high level of distractibility made it certain that there would be many items undone every day.

As I told you in Monday’s article:

Unlike our neurotypical friends and families, those of us in the ADD/EFD camp find it more difficult to “let it go” when we see a to-do list with items untouched.

  • Many of us who try the typical advice end up becoming so demotivated that we tend to conclude that “to-do lists don’t work.”
  • Others in our club feel so overwhelmed by day after day of undone to-dos that we end up doing practically nothing at all.

We need to do it another way


Figuring Things Out

Noticing that I always handled more than I anticipated doing on any particular day, although they were rarely the items on my list, I concluded that I needed to stop shutting myself down by beating myself up for doing nothing.

I decided it would be useful to track what I was doing with my time.  I tracked everything I did in my datebook — and crossed those items off for a hit of feel good.

It does feel good to cross things off as DONE, doesn’t it?  That turned out to be the wind beneath my wings that was needed for activation.

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My Technique in a BOOK!

Several years ago now, I contributed several of my ideas to the book at left: 365+1 ways to succeed with ADHD: A whole new year’s worth of tips and strategies from the world’s best ADHD Coaches and Experts.

A new edition was compiled yearly; my contributions were in the second edition.

Each one contains page after page of helpful “tips and tricks” from ADD Coaches and Therapists, compiled and edited by Laurie Dupar – a woman who wears both the Coach hat and the Therapist hat herself.

Below is the entry I submitted describing my Backward To-Do list.

Moving Forward by Tracking Backwards

To beat back overwhelm during periods when nothing on your To-Do List seems to get done, try it “backwards.” Instead of listing what you INTEND to do, record what you just did. Number each item. Then, cross them out – just as you would if you wrote today’s list yesterday. At the end of the day you’ll have a long list of “done”s.

Give yourself credit for every teensy thing you do and notice what it does to your mood and activation level. You’ll probably find yourself doing more just to have a longer list – but “more” is NOT the goal (avoid pressure that may shut you down!)

The Backwards To-Do List works because most brains subconsciously link cross-outs with completion. Completions release neurochemicals that make us feel more effective, the impetus to remain in action with intentionality. Action begets action: brain based!

Counter-intuitive, but it usually works. Try it.


I also trolled the web to locate some of my responses to questions through the years about activation, inspired by my Backward To-Do List – as well as questions about the technique itself.  I’ve compiled and edited a few of my answers below, in case they will be helpful to you as well.

One more time

Basically, you don’t write down what you WILL do, you track what you just DID. Number each item and cross them out, just as you would if you wrote today’s list yesterday.

Immediately afterwards, at the end of the day, or whenever you need a cumulative hit of feel good, cross them out — if you want to reinforce the completion from another modality, with every cross-out say aloud, DONE!

By the time you go to bed each night you’ll have a long list of Done-s.  It’s great.

If you’re anything like me (and my clients and students through the years), you’ll find yourself doing still more so that you can have a longer list, just so that you will have more to cross off!


Crossing off more is not the purpose of the technique. NO pressure – it will shut you down!

Simply give yourself “credit” for every teeny-tiny thing you do and watch what it does to your mood and self-esteem – as well as the likelihood that you will do more without consciously setting out to do so.

NUTS?  Probably, but it works.

Externalizing our Memories

While it’s certainly true that those of us in the neuro-A-typical crowd usually have short-term memory deficits, making it unlikely that we will recall much about how we spend our days unless we write it down, there’s another reason why we do it or why it works: externalization for focus and activation.

Most of us have found a great many ways to externalize already, without ever really understanding why it works.

  • Some of us talk ourselves through activities, aloud – which links cerebral, audial and verbal modalities to assist in recall and focus:

“Now where did I put my cellphone?”
“You really need to reorganize where you store the glasses and dishes.”
“Don’t forget to sign the kid’s permission slips this time.”

  • Many of us litter our homes with sticky notes, reminding ourselves of things we don’t want to forget.  While I don’t recommend that method, it does externalize multiple times from several different modalities: visual, cognitive, tactile and kinesthetic.
  • Sometimes we ask others for those reminders, even though many report that being reminded is more than a bit annoying.

Part of the reason we externalize, practically “automatically,” is because it works!  Yes, as shown above and explained by many of the “gurus,” externalization does help to reduce memory [over]load, which is certainly important.

However, the primary reason it works is because externalizing is activating
as long as the people around us don’t shut us down through their lack of understanding, that is.

Tracking spaghetti

With impaired cognitive filtering and so many thoughts swirling around in our heads, it can become really tough to follow through.

There is simply too large a mass of tangled “strands” for us to easily be able . . .

…to decide which strand to follow, and
…to stay tracked on ONE through all the other strands confusing the issue, tending to set us off on the wrong “strand.”

Then we agonize: Where did we go wrong? How do we get back to the “strand” we meant to be following?  Why am I such a procrastinator?!  What do I do NOW?

Externalizing gets us out of our heads and into action

It also provides accountability. (NOT that we need nagging – that does NOT work). Externalization is a self-regulation aid that gives us a relatively friendly “outsider” to kick us into gear – outside our own brain, that is.

It’s why coaching works, its why body-doubling works, it’s ESPECIALLY why planning a party to clean up your house works. Nobody calls to “helpfully” remind you to stay on track with that house-cleaning project so you don’t have to cancel the party – yet still you stay on track.

Bottom line: let yourself use whatever works!  

Try not to worry about the people you fear might leave you (or “kill” you, as so many of you say) – at least not from THAT angle.  Populate your life so you have “support” – whether they realize they are supporters or not.  That’s what, back in the day, my first [vanilla] coaching mentor, Thomas J. Leonard referred to as “upgrading community.”

In ADD Coaching terms that means:

  • Spend more time with friends with high levels of empathy and great listening skills – and keep your distance from anyone who thinks that you need a bit of their idea of a push to get you going.
  • Get rid of the people who “shame and should” – that’s the polar opposite of motivating.  It will shut you down.  If you MUST interact with some of those people, memorize some quick getaway phrases so you limit your exposure.
  • Learn as much as you can about your personal “flavor” of ADD/EFD, to help you stop beating yourself up over “vanilla” concepts that don’t really apply.
  • Hire or enroll a comprehensively-trained ADD/EFD-literate coach.  If you can’t afford a professional coach, find a good partner with similar Challenges, learn how to Peer Coach, and put THAT in place.

ONE LAST THING:  It makes perfect sense that we tend to “drift” – not that understanding alone is particularly helpful to us, but it IS helpful to know that it is understandable.

Since a number of us struggle with anxiety as well, when we delay getting started on a task, many of us are subconsciously trying to protect ourselves from MORE of the same.

Deciding is pre-frontal cortex intensive. The PFC is an area that is already limping a bit in the brain’s of those of us with ADD/EFD/TBI/PTSD.  Consequently, for those of us who aren’t neurotypical, the choosing and prioritizing that most of the to-do lists formats advise create “anxiety chemicals.”  So many of us simply drift along – taking life as it comes – putting out brushfires only when they burst into flames that threaten to engulf our lives.

On the front end, taking life as it comes lowers anxiety.
But oooooh that back end rumination!

Action begets action.  What you focus on increases – so focus on what you DO, not on what you haven’t yet gotten around to doing. NOBODY does “nothing.” Track what you’re doing with your days.

Make your to-do lists “backwards” – after you do any little thing at all – then cross it off.  DONE! Completions give you a neurochemical hit that will leave you feeling better, as well as better able to do increasingly more without sticking a gun in your own back.

It would take me an entire book to explain the neurochemistry, and this is already too long for some of you — but trust me on this, okay?  Give it a try.  As long as you don’t beat yourself up for not doing MORE, I’m fairly certain that most of you will find that it works!

Let us ALL know how it works for you – and how you work it – in the comments section below.

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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 The Backwards To-Do List

  1. Pingback: Moving Past Task Anxiety to stop “procrastinating” | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Pingback: Productivity, Focus & Follow-through | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

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