Checklists Not Routines

Updated: Oct 23

Checklists have made such an impact on our lives.

Anyone who struggles with routine might have some resistance to the idea of bringing checklists into your life. It may seem like a waste of time, because you have tried, time and time again, to stick to a routine. But I'm telling you, checklists have been the most effective alternative. I've discovered that the problem with routines for me is that they are rigid and unmoving. When someone tries to set daily routines, they typically decide what needs to be done, put it on a timeline, and use the same routine each and every day.

This brings about two points of contention:

  1. First is that we cannot stand to do the exact same thing at the same time. And in the same order each and every day. When we try to do this, we may be feeling bored to tears or wind up feeling like a failure because we can't hit the mark most days. Trying to do the same thing at the same time every day would be a disaster. And it leaves no room for deviation.

  2. Swapping out the idea of routines for checklists can give you much more flexibility.

The thought of having set routines may sound awful to me, our bodies simply will not conform for more than three days. But checklists, have an appeal for me as a person with ADHD that routines simply cannot bring.

Checklists are amazing at bringing those little hits of dopamine that our body is constantly searching for.

That little bit of thrill that you get when you try to get all the tasks done before, naptime is over, or the pure joy you get from checking off each and every item on your list. But probably the most important reason that I like checklists, as a person with ADHD is that my working memory is trash. I cannot keep all the things that life requires of me in my head.

There are only three things that I can actually remember to do each morning consistently without the help of a checklist. And they are literally the first three things that I do each morning, brush my teeth, brush my hair, and change my clothes for the day. But beyond these first few things that I do, as soon as I wake up, everything else is a gamble in my world without checklists. This may seem extreme to some of you. But to others, this probably makes total sense. If you know exactly what I mean, then checklists might be something you want to add to your life too.

Let me tell you about the different types that I use. Yes, you heard me right, I actually use three different types of checklists to accomplish all the things I have going on in my life.

Destination checklist

I use this for my kids and I use it anytime I have a list of items that I want to get done in a particular timeframe to get to a particular destination. For my kids, I use a destination checklist to get to bedtime, to get us out to the school bus on time, and to get through homework time without too much complaint. For myself, I use my destination checklist to start my day and end my day because these are the two blocks of time for me that are filled with items that I tried to do each and every day.

The morning checklist has things like taking vitamins, unloading the dishwasher, feeding the animals, etc. Because I really would forget to do these things without my Before Bed List.

Before Bed List has items like loading and starting the dishwasher, wiping down the kitchen counters, and planning out tomorrow on it, because I know that these items will start me on the right foot for the next day.

Options checklist

This 2nd checklist is sort of like a bank of options for each day in different categories. On my current list, I have options for getting in at least 15 minutes of exercise, different tasks that I might do for work, and different options for self-care. And then also my typical errands for the week. I go through this list, and I add items from each category that I need to get done that day.

Without this list, I will literally forget things like making a grocery order or scheduling my weekly emails to go out to my list. Because like I said before, my working memory is not so great.

Rolling checklist

This is the third and final type of checklist that I use. These are lists of items that you don't have to get done all at the same time, but that you would like to get done in a broader timeframe.

I typically use rolling checklists for all my cleaning and household maintenance-type things. In the past, I've tried to use weekly and monthly cleaning routines that you see all over the internet. But I just couldn't stick to something that told me that every single Monday, I had to clean my toilets, or that on the third Wednesday of every month, I was going to clean my microwave. It just wasn't practical for me.

So instead, I decided to create a list of all the cleaning items I wanted to try and do each and every week. I have things on there like cleaning the bathrooms, cleaning my stove, washing my clothes, folding my clothes, and putting away clothes. Yes, I have those as separate items, because, to me, those are three separate tasks. And then I made a cleaning and maintenance list of all the items that I want to get done less frequently. On this list, I had things like changing my air filters, cleaning out the microwave, and hosing off the back patio.

So once these lists were made, I started using them as my guide and what cleaning tasks to work on. I get items done whatever my schedule allows. But I gave myself one important rule, I can't repeat a task on either of these lists until all the items on that list have been done once.

This ensures all the tasks get done regularly.

Because without that rule, I would just keep skipping all the items that I hate to do. And now you probably think that I'm crazy pants, and you're probably picturing me running around with a stack of lists trying to mark off things from each one of them. But I promise that I am not actually utilizing my phone's Notes section to create one master daily list using all these checklists.

So both my morning and my nighttime destination list are permanently on there. And then I go in each day. And I add the items that I want to do from my rolling cleaning and maintenance checklists. And from my options list, it would probably be just as easy to use the checklist to write a master list on paper, I just find it easier to reference throughout the day all the information on my phone because I always have it close by.

So if you can't tell checklists are really important to me. And they've been a big contributor to my success. I've spent my whole life looking for ways to make the world seem less chaotic and more structured. But the conventional advice to just try harder and be more disciplined and routine has never worked for me. Even with checklists, I am not perfect. There are days when I don't even come close to doing all the things on my daily list.

Right now I have three big tasks on my rolling claiming list that have stopped me from starting over. And I really don't want to do it might take me a week to even convince myself just to do one of them. And let's not even get started on how bad we were with the kid's nighttime checklist over the summer.

But despite all this, having different checklists set up in our lives allows for forgiveness when we fall short once school starts, and there are consequences for all of us. If the nightly checklist wasn't done every day, it came right back. Once I finally find the motivation and get those three cleaning tasks done, I will get the start over and probably knock out five of my favorite items within the first week. And no, I don't do a great job of getting my 15 minutes of exercise each day. But having that item on my list has made me exercise more days than if I wouldn't write it down at all.

As a professional organizer, I think a lot of people think that I have my life all figured out. But that couldn't be further from the truth.

Because of my ADHD, I struggle with consistency every day in my life. And I'm constantly looking for ways to calm the chaos. So far, I haven't found the solution to doing life perfectly. But I will say that implementing checklists has helped me to suck at life a little less. Excuse me while I go check, record this week's podcast off my list!

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