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How People With ADHD Prioritize Tasks Differently

Most of the tasks we do fall into one of three categories:

  1. Things we want to do
  2. Things we need to do
  3. Things we should do

When it comes to the first category, things we genuinely enjoy doing, those of us with ADHD can usually hold our own against non-ADHDers. In some cases, we might even be more focused on these tasks, hence the idea of “hyperfocus.”

As far as the second category, things we have to do to avoid major consequences, we’re more or less OK here too. We pay our taxes, and we put on clothes before we leave home in the morning. If it’s the night before the final exam, we probably are going to get some studying done.

Paper PileIt’s the third category, though, where things get dicey. For many people, having tasks that they should do translates into action: “I should do this task, so I’m going to do it.” For people with ADHD, that second clause is often missing…

“I should do this task…”

…or replaced with a different clause:

“I should do this task, but hey, look, there’s a bright, shiny, interesting thing!”

A lot of tasks fall into this category. Cleaning off your desk. Scheduling ahead how you’re going to manage your time. Doing laundry. Not leaving that project you have to do for the last possible minute.

So why do people with and without ADHD treat “should” tasks differently? Partly it’s because “should” tasks require deliberately planning ahead and delaying gratification. “Want” tasks are easy because they’re fun. With “need” tasks, there’s a pressure to do them that can get be a good motivator.

With “should” tasks, however, there’s no reason you have to do these things now. The choice is yours. People without ADHD will weigh the potential consequences of doing or not doing these tasks, and they’ll choose one way or the other. But for people with ADHD, who have brains that are always seeking out rewards and stimulation, there’s often no choice that takes place at all.

Instead, ADHDers ignore “should” tasks until these things graduate into “need” tasks. Many “should” tasks do become “need” tasks in the end – you might not have to start that project today, or tomorrow for that matter, but eventually you’ll reach the deadline when you absolutely have to get it done.

That’s why procrastination is one of ADHDers’ favorite tools – we often can’t focus on “should” tasks, so we run down the clock until these things become “need” tasks, at which point we can concentrate better.

When you look at things in these terms, though, you see that there’s another way. Instead of always letting “should” tasks become “need” tasks, you can proactively try to turn some of your “should” tasks into “want” tasks.

Finding some good music or a podcast to listen to while cleaning your house can move the needle considerably from “should” toward “want.” And sometimes bigger changes are in order: if your job is an endless succession of “should” and “need” tasks, it might be time to take a look at your options.

Once you’ve noticed you have a tendency to avoid “should” tasks, you can try to counteract this pattern – for example, by allocating a specific block of time to spend only on “should” tasks. There’s a good chance this approach by itself won’t be enough though: just because you force yourself to do these things doesn’t mean your ADHD brain is going to be a good sport about concentrating on them.

But with some trial and error, you can find a good mix of strategically letting “should” tasks evolve into “need” tasks, turning “should” tasks into “want” tasks, and being mindful of habitually putting off “should” tasks. Much less chaotic and stressful than the default ADHD MO of letting all “should” tasks become “need” tasks, then feeling guilty and frustrated about it!

Image: Dudley

How People With ADHD Prioritize Tasks Differently

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2016). How People With ADHD Prioritize Tasks Differently. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Sep 2016
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