Planning and Prioritizing Practices for ADHD Brains: What’s the plan, and when do you start?!

A team of three neurodiverse adults organizing sticky notes on a glass window, picture is from the point of view behind the glass and sticky notes.Does it ever seem like you have way too much to do, and every task looks equally important and daunting? Many kids and adults with ADHD struggle to figure out what the order of doing things should look like and how to get started. This contributes to the common experience of feeling overwhelmed. There often needs to be a crisis or something unpleasant will occur if you don’t do the task right now. Planning and prioritizing are executive functions that are closely related to organization, time management and initiation. However, these skills can be improved individually, and here are some practices to help get you started.  

The Core Principles of Prioritizing

Before learning techniques to help you (and your kids) decide what to do, in which order and when to begin, let’s look at the fundamental principles of prioritizing: urgency and importance. Urgent tasks cause us to react immediately and stop whatever else we are doing to attend to them. Urgency reflects a time pressure or a deadline. Important tasks represent the significance we attribute to something. They also reflect our life values and guide us towards our purpose and goals.

Teen with ADHD planning and drawing out a blueprint in a woodworking shop at school

How we prioritize things, and understand their relevance, depends on two connected factors:

      1. The first revolves around when something needs to be accomplished and why it needs to be accomplished, based on what we know about it.
      2. The second factor involves emotion: our brain calls up any conscious or unconscious memories about this task (or something like it) from our lived experience. The feelings that go with these memories contribute to how we rate the significance of the task, its interest to us and its inherent rewards.

When we are faced with prioritizing activities, these two factors work together to engage or bore us.

Urgent and Important: Learning the Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix was developed my President Dwight D. Eisenhower to assist him in choosing which of the many tasks to focus on each day and make difficult decisions. This matrix can be very useful to folks living with ADHD as a tool to help them think about the ways that they prioritize certain items while putting others off.

Here is my adaptation of The Eisenhower Matrix:

    • Quadrant 1: Spending time in Q1 means living in crisis mode. Many kids and adults with ADHD live here or put things off until they wind up with emergencies. The intensity of urgency and importance helps motivate them to get things done, but they wind up with lots of stress.
    • Quadrant 2: Time in Q2 feels like being in the flow; you are setting goals for yourself, making plans and following through.
    • Quadrant 3: When you struggle with managing interruptions and setting boundaries, you probably spend time in Q3.
    • Quadrant 4: Q4 is the home of distractions–everything you do to avoid the task at hand.

Stressed out professional adult with ADHD looking down at a desk of colorful sticky notes in front of her laptop while holding her head in her hands

Spend time reflecting on the following questions:

– Where do you spend your time?
– In which quadrant does your child or teen hang out?
– How can you spend more time in Q2 and less time in Q1 and Q4?

To improve the ability to prioritize, we have to strengthen our capacity to determine time pressures (deadlines); schedule plans, work, homework, personal projects, chores and errands, and then reasonably estimate how long something will take and rely on a system of organization. Then, you’ll have to break tasks down into small enough, bite-sized chunks to get started on them. This typically means using the exact executive functioning skills that are naturally challenging for ADHD brains.

4 Steps To Approach Planning and Prioritizing with ADHD:

1. Do a brain dump:

A person standing with her arms out to the side, palms facing up like she is overwhelmed and not sure what do. Her eyes are wide open in overwhlem. In an arch circling around her body is a bunch of objects floating in the air resembling what's on her mind - a clock, computer, baby bottle, house, dollar and more.

Many folks with ADHD attempt to hold all of their to-do items in their head or write them on several pieces of paper which they then cannot find. Centralize this process. Pick one location for your lists: your phone, your computer or iPad or a notebook. Sit down and take two deep breaths: breathe in for 4, hold for 4 and breathe out for 6. Now, write down everything you can recall that you need to do. You probably won’t get everything in one sitting–that’s fine. You can come back and add things as necessary. 

2. Assign time and importance values to your tasks:

Pick a time value (when is this due?) and an importance value (how critical or significant is this?) for each of these items in order to prioritize them. This is where most kids and adults with ADHD get stuck. Everything seems equally critical, unless there’s a real emergency that’s pressing. I’ve created this chart with some examples to help you create your own. You can also use Post-it notes to help you move things around and schedule them.

Laundry None I have no clean socks 2
Work Report/History Project Friday – in 2 days Performance/50% grade 1
Making dentist appointment Haven’t had a teeth cleaning in 2 years Cavities, gum disease or other concerns 3

To decide the priority number, ask yourself these questions:

– What will happen if I don’t do this?
– What will happen if I do this?
– Which task am I leaning towards avoiding?

The more you don’t want to do something, the more likely that it’s important to start. These answers are usually very personal. Some people might rank making the dental appointment over the socks and will wear a used pair again. For me, I prefer clean socks and I can make the dental appointment when I’ve started the laundry. 

3. Make an accountability buddy, or be a body double:

Couple with ADHD smiling and having a good time helping each other stay on task as one holds the baby and one folds laundry in their laundry. room.It’s usually easier to determine your priorities when you have support. Having someone to discuss ideas with or talk through urgent and important issues can be extremely helpful to kids and adults with ADHD. Planning and prioritizing are executive functioning skills that really benefit from direct instruction, so having another person there to assist you is essential.

As adults, think about a friend or family member who can support you as you do the laundry, clean up the kitchen or break down the steps to approach your work report. With kids, you are that buddy.

Become a body double: sit with them while they pick up their clothes from the floor and fold the clean stuff. Or, review their brain dump and talk through how to choose where to start.

4. Be patient and persistent:

Planning and prioritizing on a regular basis takes practice and time. Expect to stumble and feel frustrated. This is a tough skill to learn and practice makes progress! Most people, with and without ADHD, struggle with this skill so be kind to yourself and compassionate with your kids as you embark on improving it.

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Deeper dive:

Harness GRIT and Get It Done! (Handout)

Home Study Seminar: What Your Child With ADHD Wishes You Knew and How You Can Help