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How to Prioritize Your Life When You Have ADHD, Part 1

how to prioritize when you have ADHDPrioritizing may seem simple enough. You figure out what you need to do, when you need to do it, and then you do it. But there are actually many steps and processes involved in prioritizing your life. These include everything from paying and shifting attention to planning to getting organized to making decisions to taking action — all of which also involve multiple steps within each piece. And all these parts and pieces are challenging for people with ADHD because of impairments in executive functioning.

That means that it’s important to have good strategies in place that take those obstacles into account. First, it’s important to identify what’s really troubling you about prioritizing. As ADHD coach Casey Dixon, PCC, BCC, said, are you struggling with knowing your priorities or following through on your priorities? Because these will require very different strategies.

If your issue is not knowing what to do first — second and third — Dixon shared these valuable tips. In part two, she shares suggestions on how readers with ADHD can follow through on their priorities.

Create a giant list.

Sometimes, it can feel like everything is equally important, said Dixon, who primarily works with demand-ridden professionals with ADHD and college students who are headed in that direction.

She shared this example: If you’re a college student, you have books to read, papers to write, notes to review and exams to study for. On top of that there are other tasks and people competing for your attention — your girlfriend stopping by your apartment, friends on Facebook wanting to know if you’re going to next month’s concert, your desire to play a video game.

When all of this stuff is swimming in your brain, it’s hard to say what’s important and what you should do next. That’s why jotting everything down is key (on paper or your computer). Then Dixon suggested asking yourself: What are the top three most important things on my list? If you’re not sure, ask: “What’s going to be the best thing for me to do in this moment? What is going to yield me the most success or peace? What are my values?”

Identify what matters to you most.

If you don’t know your values, pause and take some time to pinpoint what’s important to you. Is it family, freedom, your career, money? Pinpoint your longer term goals. Once you’re clear on this, you can use that criteria to make decisions, Dixon said.

For instance, you can explore what tasks — related to your values — you will do this week. You might spend less time checking email and more time writing your book, she said. You might leave work early twice a week to pick up your kids from school.

Bookend your days with your values.

Dixon suggested asking yourself: “How do I start my day, so I’m doing things related to my long-term goals and values?” Then try to plan your mornings with your answer.

This is helpful because what often happens is that you arrive at work, and you do whatever is screaming at you the loudest — an overflowing inbox, a forgotten deadline, an impatient colleague.

Instead, you might create a small routine where every morning, you spend 5 minutes contemplating the question: What am I focusing on today? Then, at the end of the day, check in with yourself and consider what you did toward your values, Dixon said.

Create cues.

Don’t rely on your memory to remind you of important things, because it’s going to let you down, Dixon said. Working memory is probably the biggest challenge for people with ADHD, she said. Because ADHD affects working memory, it’s really hard for people to hold a task in their minds while holding other information, too.

In other words, you need to send an important email to your boss. However, when you get to work, someone calls, you need to respond to 30 other emails and you need to look something up online, which takes you into a research black hole. And before you know it, it’s the end of the day, and you forgot about that important email.

That’s why Dixon suggested having a tangible cue, something you can rely on without having to remember it. For instance, you might paste a giant sticky note outside your bathroom with your priorities. As you’re brushing your teeth, you reread it. “This helps to reorient your mind to what’s important. Otherwise, it will get washed away by what’s immediate.”

According to Dixon, other options include: writing your priorities on a piece of paper and carrying it with you; sending yourself a text; setting alarms on your phone and putting a note on your computer screen.

Identifying your priorities starts with identifying your values, and then asking yourself: What’s important to me today? What’s important to me this week?

Stay tuned for part two, where Dixon shares what you can do if you know your priorities but are having a hard time following through on them. Update: Here’s that piece

Making a list photo available from Shutterstock

How to Prioritize Your Life When You Have ADHD, Part 1

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). How to Prioritize Your Life When You Have ADHD, Part 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.