(originally published February 23, 2016, updated April 14, 2023 )
Do you find it hard to prioritize what you should be working on at any given moment and wonder why it is so hard for you to make these decisions? If you do, you’re not alone. Like other ADHD adults, you may find this hard for two common reasons.
One is that it may often feel as though everything on your plate is equally important. It may also feel as though it all needs to be done now, if not yesterday. Of course, this makes it hard to choose what to do each day and contributes to your feelings of overwhelming stress.
One of the ways you can turn this around is by learning how to be more of an essentialist. While definitely not an easy lift for ADHD adults, becoming more of an essentialist will help you to be more confident you are doing what is most meaningful each day.
Because you will be doing more of what is in alignment with your values and goals, rather than just busy work. Ready to dive in and learn how to do this?
How ADHD Symptoms Can Get in the Way of Prioritizing
To become an essentialist you likely will need to upgrade some of the executive functioning skills that are a challenge for you right now because of your ADHD.
One of the most obvious ones you’ll need to work on is your decision-making skills. So you can get better at differentiating between what to work on now, what to defer, and what you may want to drop entirely.
Your tendency to operate too much in the present at the expense of working towards your future goals because of your ADHD-related challenge of Time Blindness is also a factor. There is now and not now, right? So you may end up doing what feels most urgent now. But not necessarily what is most important.
Another reason you may find it hard to make these decisions is that you try to prioritize in your head. Even though your ADHD brain just isn’t equipped to hold, sort, and process all this information to come to a decision.
A fourth reason is, like many Adults with ADHD, there is just so much you’re interested in doing! So, even though you have a lot on your plate right now, it may be hard for you to resist the next shiny penny that comes along.
It is also possible you’re finding it hard to prioritize because you’re being asked to do too much. So it feels like you are drinking from a fire hose. And you can’t turn off the spigot because you’re not in control.
Last, prioritizing may be hard for you because you are not using your values and goals to guide you. Maybe because you are not clear on what these are or because you don’t have the support you need to use them as a guide.
Why do you think it’s hard for you to prioritize right now?
What Happens When You Don’t Prioritize?
Just as there are many reasons contributing to your challenges with prioritizing there are also many reasons you might want to get on top of this.
For one, you know that not having a sense of your priorities means that you are never quite confident you are spending your time in the right way. So, when you’re working on one task, you might wonder whether you should be doing something else. And this contributes to your stress.
In addition, you may spend your days jumping from task to task, not closing the loop, and maybe not doing your best work. So, at the end of each day, you may feel you didn’t do enough work. And some days you may even feel you didn’t do any work! Because you have a nagging sense you didn’t do what is most important.
Then, as the stress increases because of your multitasking, you may end up procrastinating and what is most important. Though you may engage in prograssivity, working on less important tasks, like cleaning your e-mail inbox, at the expense of doing what is most important to you based on your values and goals.
If this sounds familiar, and you’d like to turn this around, you can.
Where Do You Want to Go Big?
One of the first steps is to be more discerning about how you use your time and energy by deciding where you want to excel – go big. According to Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, these are the places where you want to make your highest contribution toward what really matters to you without stretching yourself too thin.
Some of the places people decide to play big are:
What are the essential areas in your life?
Why Doing Good Enough Can Help You Excel
To go big in the essential areas in your life you will likely need to limit your involvement in some of your current activities. While this may mean giving some of them up entirely, another option is to take a good enough approach to some activities.
One of the benefits of adopting this perspective is you can do tasks and participate in activities without investing the time and energy needed to excel at them. And this may help you invest in those areas you decide are essential and where you want to go big.
For example, you might take a good enough approach to writing emails. Though right now you may alternate between procrastinating or taking too much time to write the perfect e-mail. Taking a good enough approach to managing your e-mail can help you counter these tendencies.
More generally, when you decide to do something well enough you can:
- enjoy a hobby even if you will never be a pro.
- get work done in a timely way.
- experiment along as you learn and improve in an area.
- minimize your overwhelm when you have too much on your plate.
And have the time and energy you need to spend on activities in the areas where you want to go big.
Choosing Where To Excel
To see how you can do this, let’s look at the example of Aisha, a married professor with two school-aged kids. She is also very active in her Mosque, helps her elderly parents who live nearby, and volunteers at her kids’ school.
Aisha’s initial goal was to figure out how to fit it all in and feel less stressed. She was not spending as much time with her family as she wanted, her work was slipping through the cracks, and she was not taking care of herself. Finding the time to do everything she wanted seemed impossible to her.
When she was with her family, she felt guilty about not working. And when she was working, she was worried she wasn’t spending enough time with her family. Sleep? What was that? She also wasn’t eating well and rarely exercised. You get the picture. Maybe it sounds familiar.
In fact, Aisha was stretched so thin everything seemed like a fire drill, and she felt like she was constantly putting out fires. While it was hard to accept, eventually, she acknowledged it was impossible to do everything she wanted to do. Though, really, she already knew this. 😉
But, with this newfound acceptance, she could accept the trade-offs entailed in deciding how to spend her time and energy. First, she decided, in this season of her life, she would go big in 3 main areas — her family work and self-care.
Choosing The Right Activities to Go Big
Then she needed to identify the right activities that would allow her to excel in these areas, as well as learn how to better follow through. I know this may seem obvious to you. But, if you want to excel in certain areas and haven’t made these decisions, as McKeown notes, you may be:
- always in motion.
- busy, but not necessarily productive or getting anywhere.
- stretched too thin.
- majoring in minor activities.
For example, to spend more time with her family Aisha began by making three commitments. First, family dinners would be sacred. Second, when she went to her daughter’s soccer games, she watched the game rather than multitasking. The third commitment was to plan family outings on Saturday and not work at all.
Sure, Aisha felt good making these initial commitments. But she wasn’t confident she could keep these promises to herself or her family. Because this wasn’t her first rodeo. She had tried making commitments to spend more time with her family before. But it never seemed to work.
How To Maximize Your Chances of Following Through
To maximize the chances she would be able to honor her word to herself and her family she looked closely at what might help her follow through and what might get in her way. Then she created an execution plan to help her follow through on her commitments.
For example, in Aisha’s first iteration of her execution plan, she decided to:
- put her phone on do not disturb and sat with other parents at the soccer game. So she wasn’t tempted to work.
- volunteer with a friend who is also a parent at her kids’ school so she would have accountability to show up.
- add family dinners to her calendar so no one would schedule over this time.
- schedule meetings to end no later than 4:30
- schedule a shutdown routine from 4:30 – 5:00 so she could feel better about ending her day.
Initially, when you create your execution plan it will be an experiment. As you see what works and what doesn’t, you will likely need to refine it. But having an execution plan to start will enhance your chances of being able to follow through on the activities you’ve chosen.
You Need to Do Less to Be Able to Excel
To have the time and energy to do the above Aisha also needed to do less in some areas.
To start, she put boundaries around how much she would volunteer. For one, she stepped off the leadership team at her Mosque. And she offered to help lead services 1x a month. She also declined the constant request to volunteer at her kids’ school, but made a firm commitment to volunteer 2x a month.
She also started to decline consulting opportunities as she decided consulting would only take up to 15 hours of her week. This was a hard decision for her. As there was so much going on in her field, and she wanted to be a part of it!
She also hired outside help for her parents. Though she was ambivalent about doing this, as she thought she should be helping them out and not some strangers.
As she leaned into being an essentialist, she continued to refine how she spent her time and energy and stopped acting by default. So she could excel in her chosen areas — family, work, and self-care.
How ADHD Adults Prioritize
Becoming an essentialist can be a heavy lift for ADHD adults. No doubt. But it also can reduce your stress and overwhelm. And maybe even allow you to enjoy the journey a little bit more.
What do you think? Are you up for trying?