For people with ADD/ADHD, how do you make task management software work for you?

I was professionally evaluated last year, at age 45, to have ADD (ADHD without the hyperactivity component – so, basically, ADHD without the fun part :joy:). To say that it has been a seismic and profound revelation is not an understatement. (I should also mention that, for the time being, I have decided to not pursue medication because of some other conflicting medical issues.)

However, it finally makes sense now why, for as long as I’ve been using task management software (which is as long as it has existed), I find myself unable to use the same system for more than about 6 months. Every six months (or less sometimes) I reach a point where I just start feeling constantly overwhelmed every day and I can’t bring myself to continue using said software.

At this point, I have used everything that is well-known and popular. I have full licenses for Omnifocus and Things and have also used Bulletjournalling, index cards, Todoist, Notion, Teuxdeux, Asana and Any.do. I am currently using TickTick.

In case you’re wondering, yes, it is exhausting and time consuming to move all of my tasks into the new system when I reach this point of frustration. But the reward is that I find myself in a very productive mindset for a couple months until I start banging my head against the limitations of said system and/or (more likely) my own brain.

The software I wish I could use the most is Omnifocus. I love how solid and stable it is and how easy it is to automate. I wish I could make Omnifocus work for me. The one feature that I feel like I need that I don’t know how to get around is the need for a daily, accomplishable list. Omnifocus’ infinite hierarchy and transparency into any and all aspects of possible activities I just find intensely overwhelming and I just do not know how to keep it all in check. Whenever I use Omnifocus, I feel like I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time managing omnifocus and not enough time actually getting things done. With Omnifocus, eventually I end up every day feeling like the mountain of what is left to do is amorphous and infinitely expanding and I am just a rat in a wheel.

Bulletjournalling was great at providing this “accomplishable daily list,” however, it also takes a lot of time to do every day (writing everything out by hand) and is very frustrating to use for larger projects with lots of moving parts. With bulletjournalling or index cards, I start to get the sense that balls are getting dropped (which, they are).

Things and TickTick are great at providing this needed daily list, however, Things’ daily list starts getting incredible long and it’s also very difficult to use to manage complex projects and has a number of head-scratching limitations that make it very frustrating to use after a while. I am currently enjoying TickTick, but I’m also finding it pretty ugly and buggy as hell. So, I currently have the dread of feeling like I’m going to have to switch horses mid-race again soon.

All this tirade to ask…are other ADD/ADHD people out there who have found a software-based task management system that brings you peace? Is there any hope? I have considered that my (for the moment necessary) resistance to medication is actually my real problem and the constant software switching is just a symptom.

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One app that I use that helps me complete mandatory tasks is https://www.dueapp.com

For me this has only one use: when I have to get something done add a certain time. It will remind you at a certain time to complete a task and you can set it to deliberately annoy you over and over until you complete the task. This works perfectly for specific tasks.

There was a time when I put many other items in this app however I eventually moved them to some of the other apps you mentioned.

In my case, I have also added a very long list non-urgent tasks that can easily also become overwhelming. So I simply moved most of these to a low priority list view - and look at it when I am in the mood which is not that often.

For me, what seems to be working better is to have just a few lists with a few items that are higher priority and also attainable goals. Those I can look at and deal with easier.

I can recommend David Sparks and his many ideas on the subject including his FOCUSED podcast and Nested Folders podcast.

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here’s a related thread…

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Oh yes. I love Due and could not do without it. It’s essential for bills, taking out the trash on time and not leaving my laundry wet in the washer for multiple days :sweat_smile:.

I have listened to both Focused and Nested Folders and other productivity podcasts. I wish listening to productivity podcasts would fix my head (sigh). Hmmm…are there are any productivity podcasts that are more ADHD related?

Anyways, it’s nice to hear from other people who are somewhat in the same boat. :slightly_smiling_face:

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I don’t know if he’ll strike a chord with you or not, but a google search for “Brett Terpstra ADHD” turns up lots of potential resources, including more podcasts. :slightly_smiling_face:

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+1 on Due for those things which MUST be done. Taking Medication, Feeding Animals, Putting the bins out to be emptied…

I’ve never been diagnosed, but I’d be amazed if I’m not ADD. Omnifocus has worked for me because you can slice and dice your tasks as you wish and mark some (Favourites or using a Today Tag) to pick things to do today and only see those tasks.

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Ahh, yes. I have taken many points from Terpstra regarding productivity, although I’m probably out of touch with his current mode. It seemed like he was using a lot of text files and Taskpaper (which I’ve also tried before).

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Yeah, that is the promise of Omnifocus, isn’t it? I feel like I MUST be doing it wrong, but, like, I’ve literally tried to use it many many times, and I’ve always ended up feeling overwhelmed and like under a weight of crushing anxiety. These focus lists you speak of always start off small and always end up huge and unmanageable for me…the the point of I am spending hours trying to curate them. Still, I keep hoping that one day I will figure it out. I’m sure I’ll try Omnifocus again someday. Hopefully one day it will click and I will figure out what tweaks I need to make it work for me.

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An interesting, very smart guy, but his stuff is very particular to his needs.

As a side note, Mr.Terpstra’s recent email of Feb 12 says the long wait may be over …“We’re currently working on the final steps toward releasing nvUltra 1.0” :slightly_smiling_face:

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It’s interesting to see what his software would bring. Although I see Obsidian, logseq and Roam Research pretty much have overtaken this space.

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I’ve been through all of this myself, and I empathize.
Since you’ve tried all the apps, and they don’t consistently work for you, … that means it’s not the apps :slightly_smiling_face:

I do understand you’re looking for something that will help.

One of the most helpful things I’ve found is the book linked below. It’s full of practical and actionable advice, not the BS you’ve probably read elsewhere like “be intentional.” (Yeah, thanks for that.I had no idea.)

When you’ve studied the book for a while, start to think about your own System. How do you do things? What happens in this situation, or that situation? Write it down and make yourself instructions. If something works, make a note that it is working. If something can be improved, rather than jettisoning the whole system, think about how it can be improved. If your task manager app becomes overwhelming after six months of use, try to find a strategy to prevent that from happening. (Such as weekly and monthly reviews.) I even have templates for meetings with prompts like, “What do I need to do to avoid being blindsided?”

As I’ve said, I’ve been through this myself, and am practicing this method. (I like that lawyers, doctors, etc. say they “practice law”, or they “practice medicine.” I guess I practice being a grad student, and practice being John. I call this The System (to myself, and in my notes). Anyway, so the beginning of last week, I noticed I wasn’t getting much done. I thought about this for a while, trying to think about why I was struggling. One of my previous gotos might have been to try a new task manager, but since I’m now working on The System, I just thought things through. I finally arrived on my office being a mess (picture posted elsewhere). I cleaned up, and things are returning to normal.

There are a few apps and services I use that I find helpful:

  • NotePlan - this is where I take notes, schedule things for the day, list next actions for projects, and do my reviews (some projects as often as daily, but usually weekly). There are a couple of things I would like for it to do that it doesn’t, but I’m sticking with it because the grass is not greener elsewhere, it’s just different grass. Maybe even with cow pies in it.
  • Freedom - block MPU, and Twitter, and email, and Teams and Slack and all those other places you go for a little hit of dopamine. I’ve learned that even if I’m waiting for data to process, switching over to, say, Twitter for a quick update is detrimental to my overall focus. So now I just sit and wait, take a bio break, etc.
  • Timing - tracks where my time goes. It is very granular too. You can easily create rules so that time spent on, say, my school’s website goes to Teaching, and time spent on MPU goes to Social. You can also assign degrees of productivity to projects, so some things are figured as more productive than others. Daily, weekly, etc. reports show where your times goes, and gives a productivity percentage. These numbers let you gamify it, which ADHD brains seem to like.
  • How to ADHD - short, informative videos

Finally, this is about learning to understand yourself and work with yourself. So above all, be good to yourself. Try not to beat yourself up about things - you’re learning.

As may be apparent, I’m an open book, and open to questions here, or by direct message (from anyone).

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I don’t have ADD, but have traveled the same road as you with trying OmniFocus, Things, Todoist, Workflowy and probably more that I don’t remember. I’m now happily using the Tasks plugin in Obsidian – which offers more power than any of the others. Obsidian also has the advantage of both doing much more than task management and being free for personal use.

Like you, one software product that I rely on is Due. Due offers a clue to what I found works more generally. The clue – which took me decades to internalize was this:

(1) Nearly everything that I did today is something I’ve done recently.
(2) Nearly everything that I will do tomorrow is something that I’ve done recently – most of it things I’ve done today.

The power of this “revelation” was revealed to me in an MPU podcast from a number of years ago, when David Sparks described how he used recurring projects to automate the generation of actions for OmniFocus. If I recall correctly he said that the majority of what he needed to get done could be scheduled using recurring projects – where due dates were created using offsets from key event dates.

So, “Business Trip to Chicago” might generate a dozen scheduled tasks (offset from start and return dates). Those tasks reflected a process he had refined over time, giving him confidence that what needed to be done would be on his schedule. Moreover, the dozen or more scheduled tasks required for a business trip could be generated in OmniFocus in under a minute. His process for generating these scheduled tasks relies (or at least once relied) upon Shortcuts. I do the same thing using Excel.

Even when a project seems to be unique it generally involves start-up tasks and completion tasks that have been used in many other projects. Take “publish a quarterly newsletter” for example. Each newsletter’s content is different, but the planning, layout schedule, editing requirements, printing, mailing, etc. are the same.

Recurring projects become more valuable when they are used infrequently and are complex. What is required need not be reinvented.

I don’t think it is far wrong to guess that, for the average person, 80+% of the working day is spent doing things that fit into this recurring project or recurring action (think Due) category.

By coincidence, I listened to an excellent YouTube video by Tiago Forte this morning. In about 12 minutes he describes how he uses Standard Operating Procedures (lots of them) to run his business. His use of SOPs is restricted to the checklist variety – not as advanced as David Spark’s method of actually scheduling the tasks for a recurring project. But, Forte is happy with his system and is clearly dependent upon it to make sense of a very busy life.

IMO, the specific software you use (David Sparks uses OmniFocus, Tiago Forte uses Notion and I’m using Obsidian) is not nearly as important as is a laser focus on recurring actions and recurring projects. If those actions and projects are brought “under management control” any remaining requirements will be much easier to deal with. Error rates will go down, re-work will be minimized – and, I think, you will be much happier.

There is nothing magic about this approach – it is really just an extension of what you are doing with Due already.

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I’ve bounced around with task managers a lot. Like you, they usually seem to stop “working” after a while.

My approach:

  1. I’m embracing the idea that no one system will work indefinitely. I’ll probably keep changing periodically and that’s ok. (And if I finally find the One True Task Manager, well great; it doesn’t undermine anything else I’m doing.)

  2. I’ve concluded that tasks are ephemeral — I don’t need to keep them indefinitely. I can scrap everything and start over — I’ll move the most important stuff when I switch and, like Napoleon’s correspondence, the rest will take care of itself (resurfacing when it becomes important, or vanishing if it never does).

  3. I keep my tasks for today (or any particular day) and my tasks for specific projects in different places.

Project tasks live with the project (and almost everything is a project). That way when I come back to a project after a long time, the next steps are there, and the many future steps of a big project don’t overwhelm the stuff I have to do more immediately.

Daily tasks live in NotePlan. I add things there as I think of them, and copy tasks from projects as they come up. I move unfinished tasks to future days, if they remain important, or delete them if they don’t (after adding them to project-specific task lists if they aren’t there already).

  1. As a result, I look at and move (or add/delete) tasks a lot. That’s ok. My priorities shift, tasks become more or less important… no automated system is going to capture that adequately. I have to manage them, or they’re going to overwhelm me. Managing tasks is part of getting the important stuff done.

The result is something like digital bullet journaling (copy pasting is a lot faster than rewriting!). I’m sure it isn’t for everyone. But I think for people who find themselves bouncing around task managers, it can help at least to separate “what I need to do now” (daily tasks) from “stuff that needs to get done to complete a project” (and incidentally from lists, which are different again).

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Are you familiar with this podcast? It’s actually a companion to his book:
He has several sections about using technology that you might find helpful.

The Drummer and the Great Mountain - A Guidebook to Transforming Adult ADD/ADHD The Drummer and the Great Mountain - A Guidebook to Transforming Adult ADD/ADHD: Ferguson, Michael Joseph: 9780615999890: Amazon.com: Books

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I feel your pain…

I have always been super organized, and that’s basically how I managed to postpone my diagnosis: until it was just too much.

I’ve tried them all (the apps). And I’ve given up on trying to find the « perfect » task management app: I don’t think it exists. I’ve come up with some kind of dynamic system that I adjust when things are not working to my liking. It really depends on what type of work/projects I am doing: I use what makes more sense at that time, and change it when I am not productive, without throwing everything out the window.

OmniFocus is where I enter everything, especially if it has a deadline. Mainly long term stuff that needs to surface at specific dates, and long term projects with many steps so they don’t get lost. But I’ve changed the way I track some projects in OmniFocus. Instead of creating a bunch of tasks in a project, I have a few main tasks in each project (Writing, Revising, etc.), and I enter more specific details in the task’s notes as bullets. For example if I have to write a paper, I’ll have a main task named « Paper: write draft », and enter the rest in the Notes as:

○ Introduction

○ Methods

○ Results

etc…

and check them as I complete them. I find it’s much more manageable to just deal with « Paper: write draft » than it is to have all the specific tasks clutter my Today list, which is just overwhelming. I feel it helps me to have fewer « tasks », and I don’t need to keep adjusting dates, tags, etc… when it takes longer than intended. But of course, it all depends on the type of work I’m doing. Some writing might have a very specific deadline, and then I would use a single task with a due date.

Also, I feel OmniFocus is not good at giving me the « big picture » of all I have to do, so I also use QuickPlan to estimate and plan my projects and what I’ll focus on for the upcoming months. I also use this app to keep track progress with % of work done. It’s funny because it felt counterintuitive to « multiply » the number of apps to manage my tasks and projects! And I have have been looking for an app that does it all for so long!! But I’ve realized it just doesn’t exist, and also that my needs change with time…. So I have finally given up on the perfect app, and embraced the best of each one instead :slight_smile:

For day-to-day stuff, what works for me is blocking time in Calendar (30 to 60 minutes blocks, planned every morning or the night before), and I use a white board right in front of my computer where I write what I’ll be working on in the next few blocks of time. That’s the only thing that lets me track and keep me focused on what I have to do NOW. Plus Vitamin-R as a Pomodoro technique so I don’t spend 3 hours on something that should take 1 hour (regular breaks brings me back to the essentials of what I have to do).

Oh, and I also have a notebook (physical, paper notebook), that is always open on my desk, and where I can just jot down notes on whatever comes through my head that I don’t want to forget but can’t (shouldn’t) work on right now.

So there it is, hope it helps. But as JohnAtl suggested, you really have to find your own system…

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Naw, you’re experimenting to discover what works for you and what doesn’t. That’s the growing pains. But I’ve discovered that my task management needs will change over time depending on my life situation. I’m not afraid to set aside a method and use another method that will work. Personal Kanban works at different times of my life and I’ll use it wheb appropriate.

I’m an advocate of developing a system. A system is a series of habits that can be easily replicated with predictable results on hopefully 80-90% of the time. Habits or routines gives me comfort. I know what I’m doing. I’m not scatterbrained in the middle of a busy day. I already know what I want to do and work on my pre-planned work for the day. Of course I allow a little bit of wiggle room to be flexible but I generally have a good idea of what I want done.

Checklists

Using ideas from the book “The Checklist Manifesto”, I have a daily review checklist, a weekly review checklist, a monthly review checklist, and a quarterly review checklist.

I took time to figure out what went into each checklist and fine tuned it to fit my needs. I never got it right the first dozen times. And I’m tweaking it little by little to fit my current needs.

I’ve seen my system break down because I skipped something in my checklist. Go through the checklist and I’ll have fixed 90% of my errors. Prior to designing my checklists, I’ve always had the urge to just reboot and restart my OmniFocus database from scratch. It gave me temporary relief until I started bogging down again when I stopped using my checklists.

I kept my checklist out of my task manager. I’ll have it in an outline document and most often printed out and placed on a clipboard on my desk. When I need a particular checklist, I’ll bring it the front of the clipboard. I don’t clutter up my OmniFocus database with these “meta” checklists.

Atomic Habits

One thing I’ve learned is to build habits. Habits gives me a sense of comfort and relief. I’m more secure knowing that I have most of my projects and tasks in OmniFocus (or whatever task manager you prefer).

I build up habits or routines throughout the week. Mondays are my admin work days focusing on administrative paperwork and meetings that needs to be taken care of for the week. Tuesdays are my errands day. Wednesdays and Thursdays are my deep work days where I can dive deep into a project and make progress. Fridays are my days to wrap up work, check in with the bosses about project status and other pending work, and finally to do my weekly preview for next week.

I build up a habit and schedule a time block for my end-of-day daily review. Friday afternoons or evening have a time block for my weekly preview. Four days before the end of the month, I’ll have my monthly preview to plan next month’s Big Rocks.

Develop a habit to use the checklists have kept me sane.

Get a system first and then find a tool second.

I’ve been there where I’m constantly flitting between task managers thinking that I’ll figure it out “this time around.” But if I develop poor habits to do my checklists, my problems still carry over to the new tool. Develop the system, habits, and checklists and I can take it to almost any task manager. When I went to work for a company, they used Asana. I was able to apply many of my systems and habits and use Asana as the hammer/drill/saw/whatever-tool. I had my fundamentals down pat. It was easy to transfer to Asana. I just had to learn how to use Asana’s capabilities to apply my system. When I transferred to another office, Todoist was the tool of choice. I applied my system there. I was able to apply 80-85% of my system to Asana and Todoist and then used other apps to fill in the gaps. Currently, I have OmniFocus for 75% of my system, Due app for another 5%, iThoughts for another 5% (higher level goal planning), Fantastical for my calendar needs (5%) and DEVONthink for my notes needs (the remaining 5%).

Don’t hop between apps frequently

I haven’t switched from OmniFocus in the last 12 years. There’s just too much overhead and time spent transferring tasks and projects from one app to another. There’s that sense of relief I get when I do a complete rebuild because I forced myself into reviewing everything on my plate. But that feeling goes away quickly because I didn’t keep up the habits of maintaining my task manager lists. Doing the different reviews (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly) has kept me fine-tuned. I haven’t had to reboot in a long time. I try yo make sure my reviews usually hover around 15 minutes to 45 minutes. If any of the reviews takes longer than 45 minutes, I might break it up into different days to work on parts of it. My quarterly review might take up 30 minutes on Monday and another 30 minutes on Tuesday. I suspect I have ADHD because anything longer than 45 minutes is soul-crushing to me. I become unfocused and would rather do something else.

Then I feel like dog poop because I’m unfocused and don’t feel like maintaining my system any longer. But breaking it up into bite-sized chunks (15-30 minutes) have made things easier. Nibbling away at my tasks has helped me immensely.

I’ve looked at other task managers that have popped up and loved many of their features -Things’ beautiful UI, the Kanban in Todoist, the flexibility in Amazing Marvin are among some of the features I wished OmniFocus had. But I’ve been able to look at many of those features and figured out how to do them in OmniFocus or with other complementary tools. Thus, I’ve never had to stray from OmniFocus in the last 12 years.

It’s ok to hop from app to app but I don’t want to make it a habit. The tool is not the answer. The system is.

This will take time to develop the habits, develop the system, and develop the checklists but I think you’ll get there. I’ve been where you’re at but I’m glad to come out alive…

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Being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, I have tried, and am still trying out many things to find out what works best for me.

One app that I started recently has changed a lot for me, and that is Due, which has been named many times. Because of the persistent reminders I will not forget things as easily, which did happen with other apps or when putting stuff in the calendar.

As for choosing a system and app is agree with everything @Wilson_Ng writes. The book Atomic Habits is a great book to read. Building up healthy habits and routines is very important for someone with ADHD.

I do struggle with not switching task managers, because ADHD makes me very susceptible for ‘the next best thing’ and although sometimes switching an app gives new energy, most of the time I will switch back within a few weeks… I keep fighting this, but this is hard for me, I’m easily bored when the challenging element is fading.

Because computer can also be very distracting I use pen and paper more in situations where I need to capture things but do not want to be sucked in the distractions on my computer. Situation like this are: long and ‘boring’ meetings, social events (notebook instead of phone), 1-on-1 meetings, while doing focussed work I write task on paper.

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Hi, @jmayhugh,
While I don’t suffer from ADD or ADHD, I wanted to pipe in here about OmniFocus and the today list. You say that you liked Things’ daily lists but that it ended up getting long. What if you created a similar approach in OmniFocus using a custom perspective (requires OmniFocus Pro)?

I’ve created a “Focus” perspective, which is essentially a daily to-do list that only includes available flagged items, and available BUT due soon items. This really chunks down what is manageable in the short term as I changed my settings to say that “Due soon” means Today. The trick is to really only use due date where items are due, and do a regular weekly review to ensure that you’re not missing anything upcoming.

Here is a screen shot of the perspective settings. By the way the “—” Tag that I exclude is due to the fact that my Someday/Maybe single action list has that tag inherently. Hope this helps.

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Huge fan of this software. Can’t wait for the new version. :slightly_smiling_face:

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100%. This is how I am able to get anything done. For me, it was a few books back in the day that helped this click … “The Checklist Manifesto,” by Atul Gawandere, “Work the System”, by Sam Carpenter, and “Work Clean” by Dan Charnas. I’m also a developer, by profession, so thinking of everything in terms of repeatable patterns and system interactions is an easy way for me to think.

However, I absolutely take this to an extreme, in that I literally have checklists for everything from daily routines to seemingly simple chores like vacuuming or cleaning out the fridge. It’s also one of the reasons that switching back and forth between software is so painful for me. By now, most of these (literally hundreds) of checklists live in all of these softwares, so that it’s more a matter of updating the checklists whenever I switch, but it’s also a matter of migrating ongoing projects. It’s just kind of a nightmare of chaos that takes a couple weeks and then the dust settles and I’m productive again. I hate it (the switching), and I wish I could find another way.

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