The Reverse To-Do List

You have checks that need to be deposited, your living room is lacking a place to sit because the accumulated clutter has outgrown the coffee table and is now taking over your couch, you are wondering if you can wear this pair of pants just one more time as you haven’t done laundry in a while, and you need to wash a single plate and fork for your next meal as there are no clean dishes in the cupboard.

The Reverse to Do List is a game and a challenge. Instead of beginning with a list of everything you need to accomplish, begin with a blank piece of paper and your favorite writing utensil. The goal? Accomplish as many tasks as you can within a set period of time. Write down each thing you get done AFTER you do it, put a box next to the item, then check it off. How many things will end up on your list before the timer runs out?

Learn more about this rewarding challenge by reading the article below.

My Early Days: Before the Reverse To-Do List

Like many autistic people, I struggled with executive function (getting things done) for most of my life. This is still a challenge that comes up in some areas. At times, especially before I developed systems for myself, I would experience mental blocks that felt impossible to pull through. I was paralyzed and doing nothing because the list of things I needed to do was so great!

It somehow didn’t feel safe to transition from my comfortable state of just being into a state of action, especially when there were so many things I knew I ought to do that I didn’t know where to start. It was often so debilitating that I would spend hours trying to will myself into action when I could have used those hours to accomplish big goals.

The Inception of the Reverse To-Do List

One day I sat at home knowing that I needed to act. I had lessons to plan for my students, I had a home that was embarrassingly cluttered and messy, I needed to make dinner and plan lunches for my children, and I had about a million tasks I needed to keep up with to manage a household, including bills to pay, insurances to renew, and taxes to pay.

I decided I needed to make a to-do list. I was proud of myself for having already gone to the store to purchase dog food that day. I got an idea. I wrote “buy dog food” on blank list paper with my favorite mechanical pencil, drew a box to the left of it, and checked the box. There! I had accomplished everything on my to-do list!

Immediately I decided to make getting things done into a game. I decided that for the next three hours, I would see how many completed tasks I could add to my to-do list. That way, by the end of my focus period, I would have a 100% completed to-do list rather than a couple of checked boxes out of 15 or so items, which was my usual.

Playing the Reverse To-Do Game

I decided I wanted to grow my list quickly to feel very accomplished, so I started small. I took out the bathroom trash, wrote it down, and checked it off. This was much more motivating than staring at “clean the bathroom” on a traditional to-do list. It felt good to have a second item on the list, and I did want to make progress in the bathroom, so I cleaned the countertop and sink next.

Bam! On the to-do list and already marked off!

By the time I was done with my three hours, which was an arbitrary time limit I decided for myself in the moment, I had 28 things marked off on an entirely complete to-do list, and it felt great!

Breaking Tasks into Smaller Parts

Part of what makes the reverse to-do list so motivating is creating a long list of items on your entirely completed list. It is also much more doable to “fold laundry,” “pick trash off the bedroom floor,” and “declutter the desktop” than having the huge task of “clean the bedroom” stand alone.

Breaking tasks into smaller parts not only makes each item feel more manageable, but it also gives you credit where credit is due! Whenever you begin your reverse to-do list, I encourage you to look at the smallest parts of anything you wish to complete. It is far less overwhelming to focus on one small task at a time, and it makes it ok if you do not complete the entire larger task.

You added and crossed a few things off your list even if the larger project still needs work. And that is legitimate progress to celebrate!

Setting Goals for the Reverse To-Do List Challenge

Before you begin the reverse to-do list, set a goal. Your goal may be time-based or item based, depending on your preference. Some people may not want to set a specific number of items to complete as this may kill the motivation to get started, the same way an extensive to-do list can. Other people may enjoy the challenge. Perhaps it will just depend on your level of energy and motivation that day.

Setting a timer may be a more attractive option. With a timer, there is no pressure to get any number of tasks completed. As I mentioned, the first time I did this, I set a three-hour timer! I do not recommend starting off this way, as burnout is real and may happen with such a long work block.

Set your timer conservatively in the beginning. If it is too easy, you can always make the challenge more extensive next time. You may want to begin with just 15 or 20 minutes. If that sounds too daunting, begin with only ten minutes, and focus on the little tasks first to really grow your list of accomplishments for the day.

You may find that shifting your thinking about getting things done into a game gives you an unexpected boost of energy. Use that energy to get a few more minutes in of adding to your list or use it to celebrate!

Celebrating Your Success

Whether you set a specific reward for meeting your goal before you begin or do something to honor the work you put in after you have finished the challenge, be sure to celebrate and reward yourself!

A reward does not have to be big. The important thing to remember when deciding how to celebrate is that whatever you choose, your celebration should support your health and well-being. Dark chocolate, a walk in nature, taking time to read the book you always feel too guilty to dedicate any time to, or soaking in the tub with some Epsom salts and essential oils may be just what the doctor ordered!

Take some time now to make a list of what nourishes you. What are things you deeply enjoy that not only support your well-being, but also do not make it into your daily activities frequently? Use this list to decide how you will honor your efforts after each reverse to-do list session. Add to the list as more ideas come to you.

Final Thoughts on the Reverse To-Do List

Getting things done can be tricky, especially when you struggle with executive functioning skills. Changing the way you think about the things that you need to accomplish can have a major impact on your energy and ability to follow through on actually doing the work.

Making a reverse to-do list when you have a million things to do, but don’t know where to start, can make the process of getting things done more gratifying as your list only grows with what you have accomplished. So mark a time on your calendar for your first reverse to-do list session!


Autistic Perspectives is dedicated to giving first-hand accounts of life and useful tips through an autistic perspective.

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