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Learn How to Prioritize With ADHD

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 13, 2022

If you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, you might find it easier to zero in on and prioritize what you need to get done. Shiny new ideas, electronic alerts, and other interruptions can derail your focus and plans for the day.

ADHD can cause a lack of executive functioning skills. This means the part of your brain that regulates how you approach and order your life doesn’t work as well as it should.

Why Is It Hard to Prioritize With ADHD?

A big challenge you may face with ADHD when trying to check off key tasks is remembering and focusing on what you want to do in the first place. “If you forget a couple of things, unfortunately later they come screaming back into your awareness,” says Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in West Chester, PA. “They [the tasks] fall off the list, and then they’re gone.”

So the first hurdle is to remember what’s actually on your list. Many tools these days can help you, from to-do lists – best turned into actionable items on a calendar or schedule – to sticky notes and reminder alerts. You can learn to prioritize and manage tasks more effectively with new habits, too.

Remembering to Stick to Your Top Priority

If you have ADHD, it’s harder to stop and pause before you act on something, Tuckman says. “Folks with ADHD will tend to react to whatever the last thing is, or whatever is most interesting in the moment.” However, he notes, “It’s usually not the most important thing.”

For example, the tasks that tend to slip are often “big and important and boring and quiet – things like saving receipts for taxes, or following up on medical testing. It drops off the radar and is gone,” he says.

Tips to Prioritizing Your Tasks With ADHD

  • Medication can sharpen your focus. For example, when you’re at work, you’ll have your to-do list, calendar, notes, reminder alarms, and so on to make the important stuff stand out more. But save the biggest or hardest tasks for when your meds are working best and you feel ready to tackle them.
  • Technology loves to compete for our attention. Avoid unneeded alerts on your computer, phone, tablet, and so on. Close your email and social media windows – and your office door, if you're at work – to cut out excess noise.
  • Take a moment. “It’s helpful to pause, consider everything, and not just react to everything,” Tuckman says. “Having a bit of breathing room in your day or week to actually be able to sit down and think about what you’re trying to accomplish” can work wonders. If tasks and info are overwhelming you, it’s easy to react to whatever’s making the most noise.
  • Spend a few minutes deciding what has to be done, and what would just be nice to have done. “Be intentional and think about it,” Tuckman advises.

“You have to have a sense of what you’re working towards, to really get clear on what it is you’re trying to do. … It’s also the ability to make decisions, i.e., ‘This is a lovely thought, but that’s not going to happen.’”

Keeping extra stuff even on the back burner “just in case” can make handling the big picture even harder.

Make Your Planning Intentional

It’s a good idea for everyone, not just those with ADHD, to have a to-do list. “Intentional planning,” though, according to Tuckman, means taking the items off a vague, kitchen-sink to-do list and putting them on your schedule at specific times. “Cross off the stuff that’s not going to be done. … It makes you aware that knowing [a task] and doing it are not the same thing,” he says.

Give each task the “real-world” litmus test. Not only does it help you get rid of off-topic tasks, it makes key ones rise to the surface. “One of the ways to make it more likely you’re going to do (something) is think about it and remind yourself: 'Why does this task matter? What makes it more important?'”

“Feel the Future.”

People with ADHD tend to not “feel” the future as much as people who don’t have ADHD, Tuckman says. “They feel the present.”

To put things in a future context, ask yourself: "If I do this now, how will I feel in the future, when the situation is actually happening?" Instead of “Do I want to do this now?”

  • Meet with your spouse or partner at least once a week, with a to-do list and calendar – electronic or hard copy – in hand. Discuss who’s doing what. Check in with each other throughout the week. Use calendar invites and other planning tools to stay on the same page. If you’ve got the plan set up, it’s easy to note dates, follow-ups, and any changes of plans.
  • Keep social media notifications off (unless it happens to be your job and the alerts are directly related to it). Realize they exist to steal your attention, and resist it.

Trust Your System

Once you figure out what works for you, whether it’s high-tech or pen-and-notepad – or both – you can sprinkle other helpful habits into your routine.

  • Break down bigger tasks into smaller, manageable bites where possible. Create a checklist for the task and note your progress.
  • Notice when you’re doing too much, and move less important tasks to a later date if you can.
  • Write yourself sticky notes and post them on your dashboard, refrigerator, or desk to catch your eye and keep yourself on track.
  • Work out a system of filing and organization. You might use both paper and electronic versions. Describe your systems to family and friends. When people know you’re working hard, they’ll be more forgiving if you slip up now and then.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Ari Tuckman, PsyD, MBA, co-chair, CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) National Conference Committee, West Chester, PA.

Mayo Clinic: “Adult Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).”

The A.D.D. Resource Center: “The Effects of ADHD on Communication.”

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