To Do Lists and the ADHD Brain

I recently had a moment of insight into the ADHD brain:

Per the suggestion of our counselor, I gave my 13-year-old ADHD son a check-list for school preparation and nighttime tasks. He HATED it, argued, thrashed, moaned, etc.

Later, when debriefing the incident with my ADHD husband, he said that if I had given him such a list, he would feel "attacked." He would feel that I didn't trust him to be responsible. Also, just looking at the list would make him feel like a failure b/c it would show him everything he hadn't accomplished.  

I was shocked! To-do lists as attacks? That never, ever crossed my mind. To me, a to-do list is just a to-do list. It holds no hidden message nor is it fraught with emotion. Its words on paper. His perspective is so completely opposite of my own! I have about 6 lists/calendars/charts/ledgers that keep me organized. It helps me prevent failure. For me, to-do lists are all about responsibility and organization.

This was a light-hearted conversation (no tension). After his explanation, I said "I just find that [opinion of task lists] immature." His response: "Well, I think I have the more grown-up version of that immaturity."  :)

BTW, I gave all four of my kids their own checklists. The child who needs it the least loves it the most. Go figure.

My husband would say the same

Hates lists, always has, makes me feel like I am torturing kittens if I ask for a list of 1 item in priority order.

He has a whiteboard in his office, it has a small list (7 items) written in very small letters in the middle (as though if he wrote it in larger letters it would be more threatening somehow but with tiny letters he can at least show that he does have a list).   Most items are 6-7 years old, some more.  And guess what, some of the items have been done.  But wiping them off the list is work and non-rewarding, so it doesn't happen.

Now I - no ADHD - I hate lists too, deeply.  So I felt as though *I* was being tortured when some of the techniques bandied about to 'help' ADHD people included lists, and I was supposed to help. Yuk.  ADHD doesn't over-ride or substitute for personality, that is my conclusion.

For me, the interesting point is the "attacked" feeling

The "to-do" list incident was more of an example of communication--and how it can get so skewed. I really don't understand how the ADHD brain hears information. It seems like such a foreign land. I read about it on this board a lot. The ADHD'r accuses the spouse of being critical, negative, attacking, nagging. I know my spouse feels defensive about a lot of things.  But most of the time, I don't have a critical intent (and I don't have a "tone"). Like, I may bring up a neutral (to me) subject, but he hears a criticism. It can lead to a lot of unnecessary conflict. I just don't know how to get past some of that stuff. It really is two different languages.

Look at it another way

"For me, to-do lists are all about responsibility and organization."
"After his explanation, I said "I just find that [opinion of task lists] immature." "

So you are tying responsibility and organization together, so lack of organization is necessarily irresponsible?  And "you don't agree with my opinion of lists" means "your opinion is immature" ?  That may be what he is hearing regardless of what you meant. I, no ADHD, would feel those words highly and un-necessarily judgemental. Since an ADHD person often gets stimulation from wherever it's offered, this in future might be where a push-back could come from given how it might have entered his brain.

You have one opinion on lists and he has another.  Neither is more "mature" than the other.  You might not have had "tone" but considering that with ADHD he may (may, only he knows) have spent a fair part of his life feeling "inferior", "blamed", "not good enough", "inadequate", "wrong" then it might be expected that he could see your attitude to lists as an attack on his "way of being". After all, he pointed out "looking at the list would make him feel like a failure b/c it would show him everything he hadn't accomplished" and all that happened for giving his point of view was not "thanks, I"ll think about that" but rather he earned an "immature" grade.

That's all I was trying to point out.

I think I giving the wrong impression

I'm just trying to show how two people can look at the same supposedly inanimate, neutral object with completely different perspectives/emotions.  (My example was a to-do list but you can substitute any other object or topic.) 

My husband was explaining my son's possible point of view b/c I was dumbfounded that my son took such offense to a checklist. (I did not give my husband a to-do list.)  My perspective is that lists are helpful and useful. His perspective is that lists can represent failure. (Me: lists good. He: lists bad.)  But prior to our conversation, I never knew that. That thought never crossed my mind. The point of my story was to share a moment of insight that I had into the ADHD brain. (I really don't have a moral imperative that everyone use lists.)

As I said, this was a light-hearted conversation between the two of us, but it was also a moment of new understanding between us.  I only included the (simplified) version of the immature/mature comment because it was funny. (I realize it doesn't translate well in text.)  In my defense, it was my husband who was the first to laugh at his illogical statement.

we hate the most what helps the most...

Sigh.  Yes.  This has gotta be another symptom, and I'm talking more than just a psychological side-effect of ADD experiences.  It strikes across the board with everyone.  I am so so so so SOSOSO defensive against anyone else's suggestions & ideas.  I'll keep it to the narrow topic of to-do lists, but it's the same when my DH suggests asking people for help, job opportunities, limited-time offers, the list goes on for miles.  All too often I'll ignore his ideas until I come up with the same ones days/weeks later.

One thought, which you still have to get your son in exactly the right mood, but it might come across better if you work with him to make a personalized list (with full power to add items you know need to be there) rather than hand him something he's had no hand in.  Having my own hand in my success is, in a way, the only way it feels authentic and the only way I'll invest effort into it.  When I'm not in one of the "I never accomplish anything so I'm certainly not starting anything new" moods, of course.

In the next paragraph I'm describing my thought process, I just want to make it 100% clear these aren't accusations or anything of the sort!  

Any externally imposed structure reminds me that I failed, am failing, am expected to fail.  (Gulp.)  Someone thinks I can't do it myself (which is likely true and maybe shouldn't hurt but it DOES) and I can't meet their standards, or mine, or society's, whatever.  Someone doesn't trust me, yet AGAIN, and for good reason, because I've let them down so many times before that I've finally gone and stoppered up their internal wellspring of hope, any chance that I might do it myself, and now they have to intervene for any chance of progress.  My loved ones trying to help bypasses any kind of altruism-receptors and goes straight to "You are judging me and think I'm not good enough."  Worst part is, history shows that the helpful stuff they want to give me usually does help and I think that further reinforces my internal sense of worthlessness.  But it makes me feel weak to accept help.  Catch-22.  Like I said a few paragraphs ago, it doesn't feel authentic and that is really hard to get my head around.  

To-do lists are SUPER tickly because we are always on the brink between success and failure, and unpredictable about which way we're gonna fall any particular time.  The times when they work are exhilarating.  The times when I notice a spider on the wall (which leads to... which leads to...) or feel the pull to reorganize my closet instead, then come back to this empty list staring at me after 6 hours of not doing what I was supposed to be doing feels like a slap in the face and another tally mark in the catalog of failures/wasted days/not being able to "just do what I'm supposed to/said I would/need to."  It hurts so much, and I'm only 28 years into life, I can't imagine how much emotional buildup there might be after 50 or 60 years!  I'm just about to start treatment with my DH, so hopefully it won't look that way forever.

I survived on strictly scheduled to-do lists through high school and college, but fell out of using them when I didn't have clubs or activities that needed specific time chunks.  I finally came up with my very own personal to-do list (for the office) this past spring, which has space for maximum 6 items, and columns for the task, who it's for, reward (stuff like a cup of tea or 10 minutes on Pinterest or a workout... after many moons of failing to complete tasks with abstract rewards like "customers are updated" and "sense of completeness" I've just shifted to tangible stuff this week, we'll see how it goes), deadlines for today and final deadline (including time and day), how much time today, and a vital one "It's done when..." so I don't disengage two steps from the finish line.  Reminding myself of the last step has been REALLY reassuring; for longer-term projects, seeing the end of each day's step as well as the end of the project means I don't approach endings with fear........ as much as before.  I have concrete goals to work towards and little fun things I treat myself with, and it's always right there behind my computer monitor so I can glance up at it any time.  But I can't just suggest you go and show this idea to your LOWA's (loved ones with ADHD!) precisely because of everything I said in the last paragraph.  

Just now I'm dealing with the impact my understanding has on communication.  Half the time I'll try to rephrase my DH's words - or take his thought to the logical(-to-me) next step, to show I'm engaged and focusing - and he will yell out "Sometimes when I say something, I mean EXACTLY the words I said, nothing more" while other times, and this part is documented all over the place, we ADDers are absolutely blind to hints.  That inconsistency of my subtlety-detection system is infuriating!  Sometimes the simplest statements convey worlds of emotion to me, like with your DH and the to-do lists, while other times I can't see, touch, hear, taste or smell emotions that are right under my nose...