ADHD and Priorities: Making a List, Checking it Once

by Dr. Thor Bergersen

When you have a lot of important things to do, it may seem impossible to prioritize. In fact, when everything on your list is a high priority, you may feel paralyzed, unable to make the choice of what to tackle first. This, of course, feels very bad indeed. So many tasks to check off that list, but no progress made.

Because prioritizing, or ranking things in order of their importance, is a component of our brains’ executive functioning, it is very often lacking in people with ADHD. The time and effort required to make those choices, of deciding what to place first, second and so on, can be burdensome to say the least. When everything seems to be equally important, choosing where to begin might seem an insurmountable obstacle.

Criteria usually used to decide any given task’s priority level include time, importance, and interest. When a deadline is looming, that job is bumped up the list. When the negative or positive consequences to completing something are huge, it moves up the ranks. If an activity is very interesting, fun or exciting, then that “job” will naturally float to the top. These factors can generally be agreed upon.

When the situation is less clear-cut, however, the degree of prioritizing difficulty increases. Other factors come into play, such as relative location of errands, efficiency of movement between tasks, how much getting something done means to someone else, self confidence riding on the successful completion of a project, and short versus long term benefit gained from crossing a particular item off the list.

It is important to remember that prioritizing is not an exact science. Whether you’re putting out fires or making long-term plans, the variables requiring consideration when determining the relative importance of a task can seem infinite. No choice will be perfect. Priority lists can always be revised, but not too frequently. The time it takes to reconsider every choice point leads to inefficiency and lack of productivity. There is something to be said for making a list and sticking with it.

Your daily priority list can be looked at a few times per day. Your weekly list can be revised a couple of times per week, the monthly list maybe once a month, and year to year list, quarterly. Making choices about choices should be a restricted activity, because reconsidering infinite variables is a slippery slope leading to frustration and, ultimately, inaction.

So, prioritize quickly based upon a limited number of definable variables and trust your list.