How to Finish What You Start

A world-class ADHD coach explains why it’s so hard for you to stay on task — and how to finally master time management with a daily plan that’s neither daunting nor stressful.

A depiction of a clock to represent staying on task.
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Why It's Hard to Stay on Task

For adults with ADHD, keeping a mental to-do list just doesn't work. It takes up brain bandwidth you could be using for other things. You forget stuff, and then remember while you're in the middle of doing something else. You jump up to do it, and never go back to the original thing. Your natural tendency for impulsivity takes over, and that can be stressful. Detailed planning for how to stay on task is the answer.

An ADHD man at work struggles with executive function disorder which is common with ADHD
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1. Do Not Attempt While Under Pressure

Often, adults with ADHD only try new organizational and time management strategies when they feel immense pressure — at work, at home, in social situations — that makes them feel they need to change something, right away. But, organizing under pressure can't be done. You need to disconnect from feelings of, "If I screw this up..." and take some quiet time to do the organizational thinking.

A to-do list spells out how to get things done in five steps.
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2. Keep a Paper To-Do List

Staying on task starts with knowing what you're going to do, and then being intentional about how you spend your time. You can't make choices about how to spend your time until you figure out what absolutely, positively must get done. A good task management system starts with a to-do list. Write absolutely everything on it.

[Free Download: Keep Track of Your Time]

A drawing on a chalkboard of a plate with a question mark, a fork, and knife, a reminder to plan what to have for dinner
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3. Maintain a Master List

Make one running list of everything you need to accomplish. You might want to consider having a separate list for work and home tasks. Then, each day you should make a plan. Think of your master list as a buffet table. You're not going to eat everything today, but each day you are filling up your plate, making your daily to-do list. If you have a child with ADHD, you can encourage kids to follow a daily checklist, and put an item on yours to check in with them.

A person marking a checkbox for Now, instead of Later. Doing things right away helps to stay on task.
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4. Prioritize Your Tasks

Choose the most important and most urgent tasks for your plate first, and then the second most important and urgent. You'll need to learn the difference between important and urgent. Important is something that carries you closer to your long-term goals. Urgent tasks are time sensitive. Sometimes you'll need to pick projects that are important but not urgent, like working on a new website project, so you can make progress toward your dreams.

Two women with ADHD talk
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5. Know Your Limits

You can't do it all, and you definitely can't do it all in one day. Knowing when to say no, and delegating tasks to others are important ADHD time-management strategies. Some things don't need to be done at all. Make peace with the fact that you're not going to do it, and drop it from your list. Pick one thing that you can accomplish without stress, like finishing all the dishes each day, and make sure you complete it daily instead.

A woman rests her hand on a tablet and tries to stay on task reading a book while she drinks coffee.
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6. Prevent Procrastination

The Number One barrier to success for individuals with ADHD is procrastination. There are two reasons why you put things off: disorganization — you aren't clear on what you need to do — and disinterest — you don't feel like doing it. Combat them by breaking tasks into tiny pieces so you know where to start, and finding ways to make tasks interesting in the moment. Remind yourself why the task is important by using rewards and consequences. Or alternate "shoulds" with "wants" on your list so you have motivation to get through onerous tasks.

[What's the Hurry? 9 Time-Saving Tips]

A man practices staying on task while writing things in his address book.
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7. Practice Mindfulness

You have ADHD, so you're going to get distracted. Often, we don't even notice that email and Facebook are taking up enormous amounts of time and energy. Mindfulness is being aware of what you're doing in the present moment, and trying to correct it if you're not on course. Jot down the time you think each task should take, and set a timer when you begin. If you're not pacing well, figure out if a distraction is keeping you from your goal and shut it down.

An unfinished puzzle on a blue background is an example of when people with ADHD fail to stay on task.
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8. Stop Abandoning Tasks

Tell us the truth: Do you leave tasks unfinished? When you notice yourself doing this, use a drag and drop "To-Do" solution like Google Calendar to help you re-prioritize and move unfinished tasks. Then, put a limit on the number of unfinished tasks you leave open. Make a conscious effort to start and complete tasks. When you have too many, try working on tasks in 15-minute bursts and rotating through several until some are finished.

A mother and daughter use a shopping list in the fruit department of the grocery store to help stay on task while shopping.
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9. Invest in Good Prep Work

You can speed up tasks that seem to take forever by planning ahead. Work on your organization — having the tools and information you need to start before you get started. If it's grocery shopping, make sure you have recipes planned and a list of ingredients. Then, set a time you'll do it and block out distractions during that time.

A woman with ADHD opens the trunk of her car and tries to remember the task she went outside for.
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10. Schedule Backwards

To stop being late, you'll need to think backward. Don't plan based on when you need to be there; plan based on the time you need to walk out the door. Start with your arrival time. Then subtract time to get from the car to the door, your travel time, and time to get in the car with everything you need. Make sure you have gathered the items you'll need well in advance so you're not doubling back to get things. Be aware that you don't have time to squeeze in one more thing before you leave. That thing will make you late. Add buffer time to your estimates in case you hit every red light. If you know it takes you a while to start getting ready, build that extra time into your estimate.

An illustration of an ADHD brain with a heart inside
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11. Feed Your Brain

You can't get stuff done if you can't focus, and you can't focus if you're tired, hungry, or haven't moved all day. To improve your ADHD management, feed your brain by improving sleep, eating well, and exercising. Be intentional with your time, avoid distractions, and practice self care. Then you'll be on the road to task-management success.

[A Get-Things-Done Guide for the Overwhelmed and Overloaded]

2 Related Links

  1. I find it useful to keep trying to remember things and use my list as a backup because you just don’t get better if you never practice a skill. The fact that a skill is weak sometimes calls for more effort instead of abandoning the skill completely.

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