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Do you make To Do lists but then don't follow them?

Contributed by: Ariane Benefit, M.S.Ed.

If you are like the hundreds of people who tell me they make lots of lists, but have difficulty following them or even finding them, you are not alone!

Difficulty following lists is very common among people with a creative or right-brain dominant personality style as well as with ADDers. In addition, people with certain kinds of brain injuries or head injuries may find it easy to “make” lists, but have much trouble “following” lists. There are many psychological, neurological, learning style, sensory, and even genetic reasons why some people are not good at “following” written instructions of any kind, including their own lists!

I’m going to spare you the theories, but promise me you’ll stopping beating yourself up! It’s not that you are lazy or procrastinating…it’s how you are wired. So let’s accept it and work with it. Even though it’s not easy for you…there are some tricks to making your lists easier to follow.

Here’s the thing about making lists. Writing itself is a very effective way to clarify what’s on your mind, process information and enhance your ability to remember things. So there is a good reason to keep on making your lists! They help you:

  • Remember things better (just like taking notes)
  • Slow down your brain to the speed of writing so that you can think more clearly and get your ideas out.
  • Articulate your ideas.
  • Reduce your fear that you will forget the items

Before we look at ways to make lists easier to follow… let’s look as some of the things that make them more difficult to follow. Lists may be harder to follow if:

  • There are too many items on it
  • Handwriting isn’t clear or the lettering is not big enough
  • You use light colored ink or pencil
  • The paper used is colored and does not provide a high contrast with the ink used
  • Action items aren’t listed in order of priority and you have to scan the whole list to decide which things to do next.
  • Item don’t list all the information you need to act on it, e.g. for some people, if they don’t write the phone number and have to hunt it down, they will skip write over that item on the list.
  • The spacing between the items is too close.
  • More than a day or 2 goes by before you look at it again (particularly if you have ADD, the list may lose all sense of urgency)
  • You have any kind of reading or vision difficulties such as a mild dyslexia
  • You are stressed when you look at the list
  • You have lots of other ideas going through your head when you look at
  • The items are so brief that you forget what was actually meant. For example, I have seen many examples of people writing things like “Call Doctor” and then forgetting which doctor and why.

There are many more items I could add, but I think you get the idea. Everyone is different in terms of what works best for them, but here are some tips that might help you make your lists easier to “follow”.

  • Limit the items to 4 – 6 short items on them
  • Use very clear large lettering, I use a black Sharpie for lists I really need to follow
  • Put lots of space between items. This makes it easier for your brain to focus on one item at a time.
  • Put a little box or circle in front of each item so that you can check it off when you are done
  • Put high priority items at the top, lower priority in the bottom half of the list.
  • Use color or other visual cues to help you highlight the highest priority items: e.g., highlighters or my personal fave is to draw “clouds” or “bubbles” around the most important things.
  • Use brightly colored paper with high contrast to your ink.
  • Use a TO DO notebook that is ONLY for Action Items. Put a removeable tab or post-it on pages with open items in your notebook.
  • Don’t mix things you would “like to do” with things that you really “will or must do”. One trick I’ve used is to turn the notebook upside down and use the back of the book to capture “brainstorms” and “ideas” or use a separate notebook all together.
  • Some people need “novelty” to help stimulate their brain to pay attention to their lists, so using different color paper and highlighters may be effective. So if you are the types that likes trying out new ways to make your lists, have fun with it, but be aware that if you try lots of complicated software to do lists you are probably wasting a ton of time learning and setting up new ways to do your lists. Try to restrain your “novelty needs” to simple, easy changes.

Alternatives to linear lists and paper may also help you follow lists better. I use different methods for different kinds of lists. Some of the tools I use:

  • Digital Recorder
  • Calling in to my Voice mail
  • White boards (I have a couple small ones that I use like pads of paper, and one on the wall fo rwhen I need to move around to think/)
  • Mind Mapping
  • Flip Chart that I hang on a nail on my office door
  • Post-it Flip Charts that I hang on my wall.
  • Magnetic pads for my refrigerator
  • Chalkboard in the kitchen

You may need to experiment with alternate ways to find the best way for you to make your lists, and you may need different kinds of lists for different things. Some people need to stick to one kind of list, others need the diversity. Give yourself permission to play and experiment till you find methods that not only attract you but are easy to read and follow later. Another option is to just give yourself permission to make lists with the intention of helping you get things off your mind without the expectation that you have to follow them! If they helped you remember, and you did the action item without looking at your list. That’s good enough.

© 2008 Ariane Benefit, M.S.Ed.

Would you like to simplify your life and get more organized? Get lots more organizing tips at http://www.neatandsimple.com plus get her free e-book, 100 Ways to Organize Your Busy Life!

Ariane Benefit is an organizing expert, author and coach who has been quoted in Psychology Today, the Wall Street Journal, and more. Visit her popular Neat & Simple Living Blog at http://blog.neatandsimple.com

Ariane has over 25 years experience helping businesses and individuals get the results they want. Take a peek inside her book, Neat & Simple Guide to Organizing Your Office at http://www.neatandsimple.com/organizingyouroffice.html

Posted on January 11, 2009