Are you still wasting time on to-do lists?


to-do lists waste time

“Forget big change, start with a tiny habit.” -BJ Fogg, PhD

I don’t waste time on to-do lists anymore.

There is a difference between a to-do list, and a task list. To-do lists are aspirational and generally quite long, which leads to overwhelm and inaction. I should know, I used to make these super detailed to-do lists because I couldn’t depend on my working memory to recall what needed to be done in my house.

My brain looks at a to-do list and recoils. A to-do list is a reminder of all the “shoulds” in my life. Shoulds suck.

On the other hand a task list is goal-directed and short. My daily task list has no more than three items.

On a logical level we know what needs to be done – cleaning, laundry, cooking etc. But those tasks are booorrring.

“Knowing” does not translate into behavior change for those of us with ADHD.


While complaining to my husband one night he said, “There are certain things you do on autopilot. If you can figure out how that works you’re on to something.”

The very next day I started researching habit formation and behavior change because so many people email me about it, and I genuinely wanted to understand.

I read this book, which I really liked. (affiliate link – see my disclosure) And I wrote this post.

I also started taking note of activities that I seemingly performed without even thinking, like brushing my teeth.

How was I able to do this so easily, but yet I would walk past a full laundry basket without even seeing it?

And then I found a TED talk by Stanford researcher BJ Fogg, PhD.

In his Ted Talk, Dr Fogg explains that 3 things must be present for there to be a behavior:

  • some level of motivation;
  • ability to perform the behavior;
  • and a trigger.

With ADHD  we often lack motivation as well as the ability to persist in a task that we find difficult or unpleasant. We also don’t like tasks with no reward.

I am not motivated to do housework, so doing it is unpleasant and I perceive it as difficult. Therefore, I am unlikely to wake up tomorrow with the sudden motivation to clean my entire house.

Because I have ADHD, but also because I am human.

Small wins are the secret to lasting behavior change when you have ADHD. (Not to-do lists.)


Are you still wasting your time on to-do lists?

 small wins matter

You wouldn’t believe how happy I am with when I grab a pair of my husband’s underwear and carry them to his dresser. Not because of the action itself, but because I didn’t just walk past the laundry basket and ignore it.

Every time I walk down the hallway in my house I pick up 1 piece of clean laundry to put away.  And every single time it is a small win in my head.

According to Dr. Fogg I should be saying “I’m awesome!”  But that doesn’t feel natural to me, so I tell myself, “you are making progress.”

The next time you grab that piece of mail that requires filing, or you pick up that sock your child left on the floor, celebrate.  It’s a small win.

If you want a new behavior to stick, you have to make it easy to perform and easy to celebrate.


Trigger Yourself

Determine what behavior you are trying to produce.  Is it unloading the dishwasher each night? Sorting the mail each day?

Whatever it is, you need to think long and hard about what other habits you already perform right before, or around, your desired behavior. Look at existing behaviors, the things already in place.

For example, if you want to empty the dishwasher you have to physically stand there and pick up a plate to start. What are you doing right before?

Preparing dinner? Doing homework with the kids? START THERE.

Put away a plate while waiting for water to boil. Then put away a handful of silverware while the pasta cooks. Continue putting away 1-2 items as you move about the kitchen.

See below. (stolen from BJ Fogg’s Tedtalk)


Big Changes start with Tiny habits

Using the dishwasher example, “After I turn on the oven, I will put 1or 2 dishes away.”

For my laundry situation it goes like this: “As I walk past the laundry basket, I will put away 1 item.”

Fill in the blank keeping it really tiny. Your tiny habit should take no more than 30 seconds.

After I _________________________, I will __________________________________.

Start with just one

When I enrolled in the tiny habits program I chose 3 tiny habits to start.  My habits were as follows:

  • After I wake up, I will take 3 deep calming breaths.
  • After I walk past the laundry basket, I will put away 1 item.
  • After I get to my desk at work, I will fill my water bottle.

Each day I got an email and I recorded how I did with my tiny habits.  Every time I performed my new behaviors I achieved a small win.

Over 5 days I became motivated to keep going. Persisting in a new habit is a big deal for me.

***Update 11/2018 I believe in tiny habits, but for my clients I recommend trying only one new tiny habit at a time.***

Be Patient and tweak your tiny habits

I still believe habits and routines are the key to managing ADHD, particularly at home.

Forming tiny habits is much more manageable than making endless to-do lists and then feeling like a failure. 


Each time you choose to add a new habit, you might have to tweak it a little. You might have to make it even tinier or adjust the trigger.

Small wins are the secret to lasting behavior change when you have ADHD. (Not to-do lists.)

Here is a clip of BJ Fogg explaining his tiny habits at a Ted Talk. It’s kinda long but worth it!

Tiny Habits Website

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