ACO Member Casey Dixon, ADHD Coach, PCC, BCC, brings ADHD Coaching to the light in her interview with Margarita Tartakovsky M.S. In World of Psychology
How to Prioritize Your Life When You Have ADHD,
Prioritizing 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.
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?
Dixon shares what you can do if you know your priorities but are having a hard time following through on them.
Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
In PART 1, we explored how adults with ADHD can identify their priorities. Because often it can seem like everything is equally important and pressing. Your phone is ringing. Constantly. Your inbox is receiving new emails. Every few minutes. You have a meeting you need to prepare for. And there are 10 other things you need to do.
But sometimes this isn’t the issue at all.
Many of Casey Dixon’s clients tell her that they have a problem with “prioritizing,” but really they have a problem with following through. “They know what they need to do and why it’s important [but] they have a hard time doing it.”
Following through on tasks is a big challenge for adults with ADHD, which is understandable, because it involves so many moving parts. It involves executive functioning, which is impaired in ADHD. So simply telling yourself (or having someone else say), “just do it” won’t work. If you could just do it, surely you already would have done it.
The good news is that that are strategies — like the ones below — that help you work around these challenges. So if follow through is tough for you, Dixon, PCC, BCC, an ADHD coach who primarily works with demand-ridden professionals with ADHD, suggested these tips to ignite action.
Create fake deadlines.
If a project is due tomorrow, individuals with ADHD might pull an all-nighter and hyper-focus to get it done. Having an urgent deadline sparks something in your brain, which helps you focus better. Dixon suggested creating a sense of urgency on purpose to capitalize on this. For instance, you have a paper due next Thursday. You tell your professor that you’ll bring a draft of your paper to office hours on Monday.
Dixon worked with an attorney who was avoiding a complicated client, which only pushed back the work. To help her take action, they decided to schedule a weekly meeting with that client. This compelled the attorney to prepare in advance.
Dixon also had another client who was having difficulty keeping her home organized. To create a sense of urgency, she started hosting a monthly dinner with friends at her house.
According to Dixon, “instead of just saying ‘that’s important to me, I should just do it,’ say, ‘This is important to me, how do I make it feel more urgent so I can do it?’” Because when you create a sense that a task is looming, it signals to your brain that this is something to pay attention to — and it helps you to act.
Set a timer.
Setting a timer also creates a sense of urgency — and it gives you a challenge, which helps with focus, too. For instance, you might set a timer for 15 minutes and see how much you can get done during that time, without any interruptions or distractions. You might make progress on everything from writing a blog post to folding laundry to reading a book.
Create a game, competition or challenge.
Make following through on your priority a fun or interesting or competitive endeavor. For instance, another client of Dixon’s felt that getting to work on time was truly important to her. She wanted to arrive at work at 9 a.m. She made a bet with a colleague that if she arrived after 9:15 a.m., she owed her lunch. This helped to keep the goal at the forefront of her mind.
Dixon suggested stepping back and asking yourself: “Where am I spending my time, energy and attention?” Since these are finite resources, it’s vital to think about how you’re using them. It’s also vital to set solid boundaries around the activities and people that divert you from what’s important to you and deplete your resources.
Dixon shared this example: A professor needs to write a research article. But his students tend to get all his time and attention. He creates a clear-cut boundary: He’ll only communicate with students during his specific office hours.
Overall, think about a place you can start. Think about what interests you about a task. What do you find enjoyable? Start with that. Don’t hesitate to get creative, either. Think about how you can make a task fascinating or fun or into a game. Think about how you can create a concrete sense of urgency. Because just doing it doesn’t work. But thankfully other strategies really do. The key is to experiment and find the strategies that genuinely support you.