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Prioritizing With ADHD

A key part of how we plan and organize our lives is how we prioritize tasks.

Prioritizing tasks involves deciding what order we do them in and how much time we give them. But at the most basic level, prioritizing tasks always comes down to one decision: selecting what task we are going to do now.

Finding a system for prioritizing tasks that works for you can be a good way of cutting back on the stress and chaos that are sometimes part of life with ADHD. But before we get to that, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on how people with ADHD naturally tend to prioritize tasks.

ScheduleGenerally, the ADHD brain gives the highest priority to whichever task is most interesting and rewarding. One of the problems with having ADHD is that even when you want to prioritize a different task, your brain might still automatically gravitate to the task that offers an immediate reward.

With that said, we can make some deliberate decisions about which tasks we prioritize, which to some extent can help with managing ADHD symptoms.

The most common time we choose to prioritize a task that isn’t naturally interesting is when that task needs to be done soon and we have no choice but to prioritize it. Think night before a school or work deadline.

A nice thing about this kind of prioritization is that sometimes the last-minute pressure of having an immediate deadline can give the ADHD brain a shot of adrenaline that helps with concentration and motivation. Some people with ADHD might even flourish in environments that offer lots of these short-term deadlines and therefore take away the burden of having to plan ahead.

With that said, while last-minute pressure can help with compensating for ADHD symptoms, frantically trying to finish everything with the clock counting down is also stressful. Hence why having a system for prioritizing tasks in the medium- to long-term is useful.

The best rule I’ve found when I have multiple tasks to choose from is to start with the task that is least rewarding and most difficult. In other words, explicitly identify the task that I least want to do and would be most likely to procrastinate on – then do that task first.

There are a few reasons to do the biggest headache of a task first:

  1. You can tackle it with a fresh mind. If you wait until later, it’ll only get more difficult.
  2. If you start with the most difficult tasks and move on to the easier tasks, you can get a good momentum going.
  3. The prospect of moving on to a more rewarding task can be good motivation to finish the less rewarding task.

I’ve found this approach to prioritizing tasks helpful. Of course, in practice, I’m not always successful at prioritizing tasks on this way, just like I’m never perfect in implementing any coping strategy. Moreover, it’s important to be able to recognize times when starting with the most difficult task would just lead to frustration, such as when you’re tired or if there’s some other (productive) task that you’re really feeling a lot of enthusiasm for.

But despite those exceptions, I’ve still found this prioritization system good as a general rule, such as when scheduling multiple back-to-back work tasks.

When you have ADHD, there’s the way your brain naturally prioritizes tasks, the way you want to prioritize tasks, and the way reality unfolds in terms of how deadlines line up. Somehow, you navigate between these variables and hopefully find a system that kind of works. If you have other tips on prioritizing tasks, please share them below!

Image: Flickr/Open Colorado

Prioritizing With ADHD


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. (2019). Prioritizing With ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 12, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/adhd-millennial/2019/10/prioritizing-with-adhd/

 

Last updated: 21 Oct 2019
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