Todos, Reminders and Lists of Lists

6 minute read

Paper-based todo list
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters ( on Unsplash

Like notifications, lists are both a vital tool for Neurodivergent people, and a stick to beat ourselves with. I’ve not yet met someone with ADHD, Autism or Dyslexia who doesn’t maintain some form of todo or reminder list and yet they can be a source of anxiety and despair. A colleague with ADHD referred to their todo list as “the list of shame” due to the vast number of items on it that they know they will never complete.

My todo list(s) have been a permanent fixture throughout my working life for the simple reason that the moment I have an idea to do something, or someone asks me to do something for them, if I don’t write it down there’s a fair chance that I’ll completely forget about it. Possibly no more than two minutes later.

Having a single list that everything goes on means that I know I won’t forget anything but it doesn’t mean I will actually do everything I need to. The list rapidly balloons and as I get hyperfocused on a task I forget to review the list for other - perhaps more important - things I should be doing. So the list grows and grows and quickly becomes unmanageable until I become overwhelmed, declare ‘todo bankruptcy’, and start all over again; usually swiftly followed by someone politely or pointedly asking me why I haven’t done that thing I said I would.

I’ve tried many different techniques to manage my list over the years and the one I’ve settled on is to maintain two-and-a-half lists.

The Todo Today list

One of the most destructive things about maintaining a single todo list is that the list itself, and the maintenance of it, becomes a source of distraction and concern. The Todo Today list is super-short and should only contain things that I can realistically do (or at least move significantly forwards) today. On days where I have a lot of meetings there may only be one or two small tasks on it and on meeting-free days it might have a decent number of admin tasks or a couple of substantial tasks.

At the start of every day I review the list. If yesterday went well it will be empty, often there will be some tasks still on it. In that review I ask the questions:

  1. Are these tasks the most important things I could be working on today?
  2. Can I realistically complete or significantly move forwards all these tasks today?
  3. Could I add some more tasks to the list and still complete them all today?
  4. What is the priority for these tasks today?

Anything not important or that doesn’t fit goes on the Todo Later list and new tasks to look at today are picked from that list. I prioritise based on the need to complete the task that day: top priority for tasks I absolutely must do today through to the lowest priority for tasks it would be nice to conclude but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get around to it, even for a few days.

As people ask me to do stuff or I think of new stuff I definitely have to do, these go on the Todo Today list. I know I won’t necessarily get new stuff done that same day but I will at least do something about them, even if that’s just to decide to move them onto the Todo Later list.

The Todo Later list

The Todo Later list is my personal backlog. On it will be long-running tasks that move on to and back off the Todo Today list and tasks I want or have agreed to do that don’t need to be dealt with right away. I try to keep the list manageably short but I don’t worry if it becomes a bit too long because these aren’t, by definition, things I need to do right now.

I review the list whenever the Todo Today list is empty or I have more time to do stuff than I have tasks on the Todo Today list to do. It’s prioritised by how valuable each item is so I don’t have to read the whole list to find the best thing to do next but occasionally I’ll do a full read-through to see if there is low-priority stuff that has a looming deadline or stuff that is no longer relevant. But I don’t worry if I don’t review it for days or even weeks at a time. I used to worry about low-value items that had a deadline or were for someone else because I didn’t want to miss deadlines or let people down. But that meant I often got distracted from really important stuff and that would create bigger problems. So now I just accept that I can’t do everything and keep everyone happy. That may cause some problems or disappoint people, but that’s life.

The Todo Maybe list

The Todo Maybe list is only ‘half a list’ because it’s really a dumping ground for the many random things that pop into my head on a daily basis rather than an actual list of things to do. My coach calls it a ‘distraction list’.

In a conversation about ChatGPT and how that conversational style of interface could be used in our product it occurs to me I’d like to understand all about Transformers and Word Embeddings. Of course I would but it’s not all that important that I do as we have a specialist ML/AI team and it’s highly unlikely that I’ll find the time to do the research. So it goes on the Todo Maybe list because if I don’t put it somewhere it will distract me … up to the point I end up spending time I don’t have to do something I don’t need to do just so I can move on from it.

I never actively review the Todo Maybe list but on the odd occasion it occurs to me to go and have a look at it I usually find that it contains items that fall into one of two categories: stuff I no longer want to do and stuff I have already done something about. In the latter case it’s because something has come up that I actually need to do that gives the original idea some more value or immediacy; e.g. we started working with Transformers and I asked the developers to walk me through how they work as we actually embed a conversational interface in the product.

As an aside, something my coach prompted me to do is to put things onto the Todo Maybe list if they’re keeping me awake at night. Like a lot of Autistic and ADHD people, rumination can ruin a night’s sleep for me and I’ve found that actually adding whatever it is that’s bugging me to the list in the middle of the night helps me get back to sleep!

Coping strategies for Neurodivergents in the workplace

I was diagnosed with ADHD and Autism shortly after my 50th birthday. For the 25+ years prior to that diagnosis it’s been obvious to me that I have a large number of habits, rules, techniques and repetitive ways of working that I am absolutely lost without. Everybody has some of these, of course, but it was the sheer number of them and the degree to which I had to adhere to them - even when that seemed unreasonable or unhelpful to others - that puzzled me. Why do I need all of these habits and rules? Why do others seem to not need them?

I only learned the phrase “coping strategy” after I was diagnosed but immediately recognised it. All Neurodivergents have to adopt a number of strategies to survive and, perhaps, prosper in a world that is organised around the typical. Of course there is great divergence in neurodivergency but this strategy (and others) has worked for me and it, or something like it, might work for you.