My work planning strategy helps me be productive with my time even though it is challenging for me to regulate my attention and direct my focus. It evolved over many years of working as part of a small but ambitious team at Lawyerist. Now I am using it to help me work with the small but ambitious LIT Lab team at Suffolk Law.

I started writing this article about work planning for everyone, but as I got deeper into explaining my strategy I realized how much it is built around my struggles with directing my attention and focus—my ADHD. We just didn’t know I had ADHD when we were developing it to help me manage my workload at Lawyerist so I didn’t think of it that way. But I have a diagnosis now and it is obvious we were working around my ADHD the whole time, so this is an article about work planning with ADHD.

If you don’t have ADHD I think you will still find this work planning strategy useful. But I am confident it can help people with ADHD and people who manage people with ADHD. It encourages ideas and gives you a way to collect them so they don’t get lost while helping you avoid getting distracted by every shiny new idea that comes along. And it offers you a variety of things to work on, all worthwhile, so that even when you get distracted it will be by something worth doing.

The inspiration for this work planning strategy

I was an entrepreneur full of ideas, and I started a business with another entrepreneur full of ideas. Later we teamed up with a third entrepreneur full of ideas. We were all constantly dropping in on each other to say “hey, you know what we should do ….” We would usually kick around the new idea for a while, and sometimes I would get so excited about the shiny new idea that I would drop everything and start working on it.

A lot of good things came from those ideas, but we also spent a lot of time (and money) getting distracted by shiny new ideas that didn’t work out. To help us avoid this we decided to quarantine all new ideas. That turned into the ideas inbox I will outline below.

At the same time I was struggling with focus. I didn’t know about my ADHD, yet, but I did know that I couldn’t just decide what I should work on and then work on that thing. Quarantining ideas stopped me from just adding things to my to-do list, but I would still pick whatever caught my interest, like sifting around for my favorite candy in a jar.

I had been following the Getting Things Done productivity system for years. I love the part about getting everything out of your head and into a trusted system. I can’t trust my head to remember things, but I can trust my organizational systems. But GTD also requires sifting through a list of “next actions” to decide what you should be doing right now. ADHD makes this a challenge, and sometimes I would spend hours on something interesting that could have waited instead of something we urgently needed done. I needed fewer options, filtered for worthiness.

We worked around my unpredictable focus by carefully curating my to-do list. We made sure everything on my to-do list was a good use of my time now, realistic for the time I had available, and that there was a variety of things so I wouldn’t get bored. Everything else got moved to a separate list.

The core components

The core components of this system are three lists and a weekly work-planning session. They are easy to understand, use, and maintain—hopefully even intuitive. It can be adapted to many list-making tools, but I have shared my Notion work planning templates to help you get started.

The three core lists are:

  • Inbox (stuff)
  • Backlog (stuff worth doing)
  • To-do list (stuff worth doing now)

(As you will see in my templates I use some additional lists that I will explain below, but they are optional.)

You will also need to set aside time for a weekly work planning session. If you have a manager or business partner, they should join you for this.

Inbox

The inbox is a list for capturing every idea, task, project, question, problem, issue, request, proposal, book to read, etc. (I’ll generally use tasks and projects more or less interchangeably to mean anything that you might have on any of these lists.) Get them all out of your head and into your inbox until your next work planning session.

The point is to introduce a pause between the idea and the decision to do it. If it was a good idea at 2:34am on Saturday morning or 4:59pm on Wednesday it will still be a good idea when you consider it again on Monday.

The only time you should skip the inbox is for an actual drop-everything emergency, and those should be few and far between once you have gotten organized.

Backlog

The backlog is list of tasks and projects worth doing, scoped and prioritized during your work planning sessions. Everything in the backlog should be ready to pick up and work on, with an actionable title, size estimate, checklists, notes, dates, etc.

I keep my inbox and backlog separate from my to-do list so they don’t distract me from getting work done.

To-do

This is the list of things worth doing now, limited to what you can realistically accomplish between one work planning session and the next. This is the “candy jar” you will work from.

Weekly work-planning session

The weekly work-planning session is where the system comes together. Make it a “sacred” one-hour time block at the start of each work week, and if you have a manager or business partner they should join you.

Here is the agenda:

  1. Review the previous week
  2. Scope and prioritize the backlog
  3. Populate the to-do list

Review the previous week

Start by taking a few minutes to look back. What can you learn from the state of your to-do list at the end of the week?

When populating my to-do list I try to add slightly more than I think I can do that week, so I like to see one or two small tasks or projects left over. And obviously some projects are too big to get done in one week. Otherwise I must have under- or over-estimated one or more of these:

  • The size of things on my to-do list
  • The number of things on my to-do list
  • The hours I would be able to work

Also, look for things that weren’t on your to-do list at the start of the previous week. If they were emergencies, consider whether you can anticipate similar emergencies in the future. If you get through your entire to-do list and pulled tasks from your backlog, decide whether one of the above applies.

This part of the work-planning session should only take a few minutes, but it will help you do a better job populating your to-do list going forward.

Scope and prioritize the backlog

Go through your inbox, one task or project at a time. Decide what to do with it:

  1. If it is worth doing, move it to the backlog, scope it, and prioritize it.
  2. If it might be worth doing but you can’t decide now, leave it in the inbox or move it to a someday/maybe list.
  3. If it is not worth doing, delete it or move it to a list of abandoned ideas.

Scoping means clarifying what the task or project is and estimating the time required to do it. To scope a task or project:

  • Make the title actionable. In other words, the title should be a complete sentence that describes the work to be done.
  • Add sub-tasks (also with actionable titles) for each step necessary to complete the primary task.
  • Add any notes, links, and attachments that will help you get the task done.
  • Add a size/time estimate for the task or project.

When it comes to estimating the size of a task or project, I use “T-shirt sizes.” Here are the rough time equivalents to T-shirt sizes as I think of them:

  • XS = less than 1 hour
  • SM = 1–4 hours (half a day or less)
  • MD = 4–8 hours (1 day or less)
  • LG = 8 hours to 1 week
  • XL = more than 1 week

Obviously any of these might stretch over multiple days, weeks, or months. The T-shirt size is just a starting point to help you keep your to-do list (and by extension, your manager’s expectations) reasonable.

Prioritizing a task or project just means deciding where it falls among other tasks that may be more or less important. Move it up or down the list so that everything above it is more important, and everything below it is less important.

If it is not obvious which of several tasks is the most important, it is probably not critical to get right. Just get close.

Keep going until you get through your inbox, or until you have ten or fifteen minutes left in your work planning session. Make sure you have enough time to populate your to-do list.

Populate the to-do list

The goal when populating your to-do list is to fill it with a variety of tasks and projects, all worth doing now, but only as much as you can realistically do over the next week. Or maybe just a little bit more so you don’t run out of things to do.

First, you need to know how much time you actually have to get work done during the coming week. Start with your total work hours (i.e., 40), subtract meetings, meeting prep time, and a reasonable estimate of the time you’ll spend taking breaks and doing administrative tasks like, email, team chat, etc. What’s left is a rough estimate of the time you will have to be productive during the week ahead.

Now you can populate your to-do list. As you do, consider more than just time. Consider your brain’s need for variety.

I think a reasonable to-do list should have one or two big projects to work on but not necessarily finish, plus a handful of smaller things that definitely can be done all in one week. But not so many that you could use up all your time doing them and nothing else!

My goal is to have a variety of worthwhile things to do. The small tasks give me a sense of accomplishment that helps me stay motivated so I can keep the big, important projects moving forward. I know that’s important for my ADHD brain, but I think it’s probably good for any kind of brain.

Optional lists

If you checked out my Notion templates you will notice a few lists I didn’t mention above. I don’t think they are essential, but I do think they are useful. Here is what they are for.

On my Work plan board: Blocked/waiting, Doing, Done, and Archive I prefer Kanban-style project boards, and these additional lists help me transform my to-do list into a Kanban-style productivity dashboard.

  • The Doing list helps me remember what I was working on when I open my computer in the morning or after lunch.
  • The Blocked/waiting list reminds me of things I can’t move forward on or might need to nudge someone else about.
  • Moving cards to the Done list releases a hit of dopamine and reminds me that I am getting shit done!
  • After I review last week’s tasks I move the cards to the Archive so I have a record of what I did. (You could also just delete them.)

On my Inbox & backlog board: Scheduled, Someday/later, and Abandoned.

  • I use the Scheduled list for projects with a deadline because tasks or projects with deadlines have a different kind of priority than importance alone.
  • I prefer using the Someday/maybe list over leaving things in the inbox. It is hidden because I don’t look at it every week. Occasionally I look through it to see if anything should move back to the inbox.
  • The Abandoned list is for ideas I’m not quite ready to delete, or that made it to the backlog or to-do list but were later dropped. I never look through this list, but sometimes my notes about the project or why I dropped it are useful later on.

External projects

In order for work planning to be effective, everything you have to do must be represented on your work plan. But you will often have “external” tasks and projects that live somewhere else. Here are some examples from my own experience.

  • A podcast production workflow on a Trello board shared with staff and an independent contractor.
  • A conference planning project in Microsoft Planner, shared with managers and other staff.
  • Independent contractor projects involving GitHub repositories and issues, shared communication channels in Microsoft Teams, and meeting notes in Notion, but no shared project board.

Each requires my time and attention, so I make sure they are represented on my work plan.

For example, on my work planning board I have a task for each external project, and in the notes I link to the external project board, Teams channel, etc. I assign it a size based on the time I expect to devote to it during a typical week.

This is imperfect, but it ensures that external projects are accounted for on my work plan.

Now, get to work!

When you sit down to work, start by opening up your work plan. After all, this only works if you use it.

Keep your work plan open in an app or browser tab all day. Start your day by reminding yourself of what you are working on (the Doing column). If you get bored with what you are doing, check the To do column for something else you could work on. Or send a round of nudges for the projects stuck in your Blocked/waiting column.

If you commit to work planning every week and make it your trusted productivity system, you will see results! Even if you have ADHD.

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