Not All To-Do Lists Look the Same

By Jeff Copper, MBA, PCC, PCAC, CPCC, ACG – August 14, 2023

Jane, a woman with attention deficit disorder (ADD), came to coaching, wanting help with organ­i­zation, specifically, getting things done. So, we focused our work on paying attention to what she pays attention to. Now, understand that this means we focused on her natural tendencies and habits, not necessarily on what she was consciously thinking of.

After a short time of working together, a pattern emerged. We discovered that Jane is very visual, which means that pictures seem to serve as reminders for her that in turn lead to associations to other things and concepts.

Once we understood that this is how Jane naturally works, we turned to organization. I asked her how she currently organized herself. As she explained what wasn’t working,

I asked her to think about times when she had successfully gotten things done and what she was doing leading up to the completion of the accomplished task. It seemed each time she achieved success, there was a visual reminder present slightly before or at the time she accomplished the task.

Next, I asked her how she thought she was supposed to be organized. She responded with what most people believe to be the obvious solution: to make a to-do list. When I asked if that had worked for her in the past, she said it had not.

I asked her what it would be like if she made a to-do list but, instead of using words to define the task, she drew a picture representing what the task was. After an awkward pause, she said she didn’t know because she had never tried it before. I challenged her to try it for a week as an experiment, and she happily agreed.

Jane returned a week later, reporting that the experiment was a success. It seemed that she was able to hyper focus on what she was paying attention to. She witnessed back to me the following:

Me:     So, how did it go?

Jane:  It went great! I realized a traditional to-do list does not work for me.

Me:     Really? Why is that?

Jane:   While a to-do list is a visual sheet of paper, it is full of symbols. Letters are symbols used to construct words. Words are symbols used to construct phrases or sentences. Sentences describe the picture. I realize that I formulate a picture in my head around what I have to do. When I forget or lose the picture, it is a lot of work to reassemble the letters, words, and sentences to construct the picture in my mind. Because of my ADD, I get distracted; thus, I find myself having to go back to the list again and again, which exhausts me. Before long, I ignore the list and focus on other things.

Me:     Wow, that is one heck of a realization! How did our experiment help?

Jane: The picture-based to-do list was easy. All I had to do was look at the picture and I could connect or associate, or reconnect the image in my mind, relieving me of the burden of having to reconstruct the picture in my head from scratch. If I got distracted, all I had to do was glance at the picture and it would quickly come back to me. Thus, it was easy to reference my list and get things done.

I’m sharing Jane’s story because it’s a powerful illustration of my philosophy as an attention coach. I pay attention to HOW individuals actually work and then work with them to find a natural solution based on HOW they work. This method is counter to conventional wisdom. All too often, consultants, mentors, leaders, and, to some extent, other coaches who come to individuals (and businesses) with a ready-made solution, effectively looking to change HOW the person naturally does things to get them to fit the solution.

Can you see how Jane’s visual to-do list is a more natural solution for HER? Can you see how awkward (and hard) the traditional to-do list was for Jane? Her paradigm shift came when she stopped believing how a to-do list is supposed to look and started thinking about designing a to-do list based on how she is naturally programmed (i.e., learning, processing, and organizing information via images). In that moment, HER to-do list was revealed and she moved forward!

The next time you notice you are stuck on something… PAUSE. Pay attention to the solution you are paying attention to. Ask yourself: Is this MY solution or THE OBVIOUS solution? If it isn’t working, there is a good chance THE OBVIOUS solution is not YOUR solution, simply because it is not based on HOW you work!

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