Making decisions is a challenge for adults with ADHD. The symptom of distraction is one reason decision-making is difficult. Adults with ADHD get distracted by both external cues (such as background noise) and internal cues (such as thoughts and feelings).
“When it’s time to make a decision, a person with ADHD might not be able to filter out all the possibilities there are,” according to Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and coach who specializes in ADHD.
They also have a tough time prioritizing tasks and projects, because all the options seem equally significant, she said.
Adults with ADHD often have a history of making impulsive decisions with bad results, said Mindy Schwartz Katz, MS, ACC, a coach who empowers clients with ADHD to get over, around and through the obstacles that get in the way of living their unique life.
Over time, they start viewing themselves as terrible decision-makers and stop trusting their instincts, she said. They worry about failing, making a mistake or disappointing others, Matlen said.
Inattentive adults may ruminate about the range of options and the potential ramifications of every possible choice, she said.
Plus, decision-making requires a healthy working memory, which is impaired in adults with ADHD. Take the example of picking a car. According to Matlen, “if car A has x,y,z accessories at the cost of x dollars and car B has different accessories at x dollars, it can be hard to keep all of these facts in one’s memory long enough to figure out the best decision to make.”
While making decisions may be a challenge, you can use strategies to simplify the process. Below, Matlen and Katz shared their suggestions.
Write it down.
Writing down what you’re working on makes it more tangible and manageable, Katz said. (It also remedies the issue with working memory.)
For example, Katz was working with a client who took a week off from work to tackle projects at home. Together they made a list of everything she wanted to do along with how much time she had per day.
Then they divided the list into several groups based on how long the tasks would take (e.g., tasks that took 15 minutes were grouped together). This way when her client had 15 minutes, she knew what projects to work on. When she had more time, she could address the other tasks.
List the pros and cons.
When you need to make a major decision, such as taking a different job or starting a family, make a list of the benefits and drawbacks, Matlen said. This helps your brain stop racing and see the big picture, she said.
List-making also is helpful for navigating impulsivity. “This helps to stall the impulsivity long enough to think through consequences of a particular decision.”
Focus on your values.
When making a major decision, it also helps to consider your values, Katz said. What matters to you? What’s most important?
For instance, one of her clients was being pressured to move closer to her family. She and Katz generated a list of her values. Being close to family was important for the client, but so was having time to think through big decisions. Her client decided that she could move when she wanted to – just not right then.
Make a gut decision.
If you tend to ruminate about your options, go with your gut for less important decisions, such as what you’d like to eat for dinner, said Matlen, also author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD.
“This will begin to give you confidence that it’s OK to jump in and just choose.”
Give yourself a deadline.
“Many people with ADHD will procrastinate — put off making decisions — until backed up against a wall at which point, rationale and good decision making strategies fall to the wayside due to lack of time to put in some deep thinking,” Matlen said.
That’s why she suggested creating a deadline – and writing it in your planner – for when you have to make your decision.
Record good decisions.
Again, having a history of making poor, impulsive decisions can chip away at your self-trust. To rebuild your self-efficacy, focus on all the good decisions you make on a daily basis, Katz said.
Every decision counts. For instance, you might list taking your meds and getting to work on time, she said.
Change your perspective.
People with ADHD have two dimensions, Katz said: now and not now. When considering a decision, she suggested thinking about the future. Consider what your options will look like in three months, six months and a year.
For instance, a person with ADHD might nix a move because they worry about having to pack up the entire house. But instead of focusing on now, ask yourself: How will I feel in three months when I’m moved in? Will this move get me closer to my goals or values? In three months, what will it be like if I stayed?
Talk to someone you trust.
Seek out feedback from someone you trust, such as a good friend or family member, Matlen said.
Because decision-making can be difficult, having tools you can turn to can make a big difference. Find what works best for you.