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Learning to Prioritize With ADHD

What is my plan, what's most important, and where do I begin?

Key points

  • The fundamental principles of prioritizing are urgency and importance.
  • The Eisenhower Matrix can be a useful prioritization tool for those living with ADHD.
  • Tips for improving prioritization skills include assigning importance levels to your tasks and having an accountability buddy.
 simona/Adobe Stock
Source: simona/Adobe Stock

Does it ever seem like you have too much to do and every task looks equally important? Many people with ADHD struggle to figure out the order of doing things and how to begin, which contributes to the common experience of feeling overwhelmed. There often needs to be a crisis or pressing deadline that determines what has to be done and provides you with the motivation to do it. Ultimately, this process is both stressful and ineffective, leaving you depleted and frustrated while you shift from one emergency to the next. Planning and prioritizing are executive functions that are closely related to organization, time management, and initiation. Improving these skills can reduce your stress and increase your productivity.

The Core Principles of Prioritizing

Before learning techniques to help you decide what to do, in which order, and when to start, let’s first 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. How we prioritize things and understand their relevance depends on two connected factors. The first involves cognition: comprehending the task, thinking about due dates, understanding what needs to be accomplished, and why we should do it. 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 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to assist him in choosing which of the many tasks to focus on each day and determining how to 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:

Sharon Saline, Psy.D.
Source: Sharon Saline, Psy.D.

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: Spending time in Q2 feels like being in the flow. You make progress on things and feel calmer because you deal with most issues before they become crises and ask for support from others if needed. You're setting goals for yourself, making plans, and following through.

Quadrant 3: Spending time in Q3 means having difficulty dealing with interruptions and struggling to set boundaries so you can focus on the task at hand. Q3 activities steer us away from our important tasks and break up our attention so it is progressively harder to accomplish things. Constant interruptions increase personal stress.

Quadrant 4: Spending time in Q4 means engaging with distractions to avoid doing the tasks you need to address. Q4 activities are the things you do to waste time and postpone necessary work. Since Q4 is about avoidance procrastination, you may feel good in the short-run but eventually your stress level increases until you wind up in Q1.

Take a moment and reflect on the following questions to learn more about your prioritization challenges:

  • Where do you spend your time?
  • Where would you like to spend less time? More time?
  • How can you spend more time in desirable Q2 and less time in stressful Q1, Q2, and Q4?
 Antonioguillem/Adobe Stock
Source: Antonioguillem/Adobe Stock

To improve the ability to prioritize, you have to strengthen your capacity to understand and apply time pressures (deadlines) without panic at the last minute and to learn how to schedule plans, work, homework, chores, and errands while allowing for adequate amounts of time. This means reasonably estimating how long something will really take and giving yourself at least 10 minutes more than you think you need. Consider what systems of organization make sense to you (color, alphabetical, frequency, etc.) and then break your tasks down into small enough, bite-sized chunks to start them. Of course, since this typically means using the exact executive functioning skills that are naturally challenging for ADHD brains, you'll benefit from tools that will support your choices.

4 Tools to Improve Planning and Prioritizing With ADHD

1. Do a brain dump. Many folks with ADHD attempt to hold all of their to-do items in their head or write them on several pieces of paper that 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.

Dr. Sharon Saline
Source: Dr. Sharon Saline

How do you determine a value to the priority? To figure what number to assign to an item so you can prioritize it, 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 it is 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. 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 teens 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.

 Flamingo Images/Adobe Stock
Source: Flamingo Images/Adobe Stock

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. Maybe a phone call with your cousin while you are actually doing the task or a text to your best friend, coach or parent when you begin and when finish something. If they don't know what being a body double is, explain what type of support you need. Sometimes just having someone around can be helpful.

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 setbacks as you embark on improving it. Instead of perfection, aim for steadiness. Notice any small (and big) steps you make towards effectively prioritizing and accomplishing tasks in your life and take pride in what you've done. No step is too small. Validating your efforts is what builds confidence and resilience.

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