Small wins list vs. To do list – ADHD systems and harmful mindsets

Every ADHD person has probably been told to write stuff down, make a to do list, make a schedule, create a routine, start a system, manage your time.

Every ADHD person also struggles to do all those things in their mind, so often making an external variation of it will help. Some ADHD people have a system or routine that does work for them, and have managed to implement into their lives as part of a life-style.

The rest of us, not so much, the rest of us tend to start and never stick to these systems, or have intentions of starting one they created but never start them at all. They just become something else we wasted money on, time on, thoughts and intentions on. And when you do that, over and over – it feels very defeating, distressing, like you will never get on top of your life.

There is a couple of issues I have with all this that is not discussed as often as it should be and I think is being talked about more and more as us ADHDers connect more and have generated more community, as we are able to reach out to each other easier thanks to the internet. Times have certainly changed. We can even share what does and doesn’t work for us. Many different things we can be inspired to try and see if we can implement it into our every day lives.

But my first issue is that, ADHD at it’s very core with executive function issues being usually the driving force followed with issues with working memory too – asking us to stick to a routine or process or system is basically asking us to constantly fight our very nature all the time. And this is also the number one complaint I read or hear all the time from my peers. Yes, we do need to try and help ourselves and do what we can, as all humans should take accountability for their actions – but this failed understanding of ‘how life is actually like for a person with ADHD’ – this request to say this is the way to make our lives better, only reaffirms to us that we are the problem some how.

This idea, that we need to be fixed – it’s denying that the way society is, doesn’t do much to accommodate us – we must constantly adjust, shift and change to fit in, to achieve, to get ahead in a world that is basically an obstacle for us – On top of all the others that living with mental health gives you. I feel like we already meet everyone half way, and often ALL the way.

My second issue, which is a follow on – that constant failure to commit to anything, to finish, to start. Isn’t healthy. A vulnerable person, that which we often are, could have those failures build inside themselves, that impacts so much of your sense of self. Not only does it paralyse you from even bothering in the first place, because you feel you will fail every time, it’s mentally exhausting to have that in your head too – to carry it with you, it hurts your confidence, it hurts your ability to be with your family and friends, it hurts your finances, it can even impact other parts of your overall health and well being. There is not much that this wont impact because it truly is part of the every day life experience of having mental health obstacles. Of being an ADHD person.

To do list’s are especially impacting on my mind space. If I fail to complete a task on my list, it is yet another failure on my list of things I cannot do or struggle to do. Because it was having such a negative impact on my mindset I stopped using them all together. Same with every other failed system.

Although, I will praise ANY system of it’s ability to help me temporarily (which is probably another worthy mental trick/tip) so you can have many and switch and maybe that triggers hyper focus for you and you can get things done. However, that does nothing to resolve the issues long term, and is also exhausting and still can feed into a negative self talk loop.

The other problem with To do lists is not just remembering the list, but remembering to bring it with you or to add to it or to make one in the first place.

This is what I propose instead – it’s a good gratitude and mindfulness practice and is definitely a flip on the whole “to do” list. It’s more of a list of daily achievements. A Small wins list, is a list of what you did manage today. Often, for a lot of us who are paralysed, getting out of that mental loop is very difficult – I find this effective in building myself back up. It’s also about seeing your achievements and your value in a different way. Even if you wrote 1 thing on your list. That is 1 thing you did manage, and that’s awesome. There is always something you can list too – I know the cynic in my head could argue, OK, but seeing 1 thing on your list done isn’t that the same as not being able to tick off your to do list. Or, “I literally did nothing today to add to my list”.

I can guarantee there is always something you can add. And having anything on there is always going to help you track your moods and over a small period of time, like a week – you can say, “Well, I didn’t do much, but I did do this much” and we need to tell ourselves to be OK with that. The world is always telling us to race to the finish line, that we must be doing this and doing that to feel happy. The other great thing about Small win lists is that if you don’t do the list, it doesn’t matter, there is no mental consequence.

The fact you are even sitting there considering what you could add to your list is a small win, because you are thinking about your mental health. Just doing that kind of background work. Processing, taking time out, noticing your energies, resting, taking your meds, thinking about your mental well being are all wins. Those are bigger wins than most realize, in the way – some people never take the time out. Even reading this article is a win for your mental health, because you are acknowledging it, looking for answers, doing your best.

Don’t write yourself off, maybe you are just someone who isn’t great at to-do list’s. Don’t worry, I am too! We can’t be great at everything! And it’s OK, because there is plenty of things we are good at. And I think it is important to prioritize how we think about how our ADHD presents and how to accommodate it, don’t be at war with yourself. Keep exploring what can work for you, but do at least keep trying to switch up that mental language and the way we think of achievements and failures. ADHD isn’t an excuse, it’s an explanation – and it’s also debilitating in a world that doesn’t consider us very often, and that part isn’t your fault, that’s the world’s system failing you, that’s society not acknowledging our autonomy on their to do list.

Edit:- I don’t feel like I closed off on my point well, and also want to address –

Having an external tool is the best type of tool to supplement what is happening for a person with ADHD and not everyone has no luck with these things. But because it is an internal issue even an external version is often not enough, a to-do list, in particular, is a solid system for many but for others almost every system is more or less another type of to-do list, so nothing sticks when it’s a system at its core is only goal-oriented which is part of the other issue we have with ADHD, the reward of ticking off a checkbox will definitely not entertain many neurodivergent minds. So persisting at it thinking this is the solution only feedbacks this negative self-talk loop and can be something that is meant to be positive actually being a quite damaging type of self-care or therapy.

Thinking about the language the systems you use – keep in mind what energy you use towards how you spend your time, not the other way round. Small wins are a great way to think of the way you used your time and validates the energy you had for it. And some other systems only set you up for failure because it does not reward that very crucial part that a neurodivergent brain needs to sustain interest or to finish a task. And to maintain general well being and mental health.


Published by Jenn has ADHD

Jenn Parker, New Zealand. ADHD Advocate and Peer.

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