It’s easy to go into ADHD overwhelm when the to-do list gets too long. Here’s how to cut things down to size.
It’s not uncommon for neuro-typical people to get up for work in the morning and have so much to do that they don’t know where to start. But if you have ADHD the feeling is 10 times worse. Not only do you not know where to begin, your mind is compelled to do everything at once. That’s not possible, so you will need to pause and do a bit of planning to find your starting point.
If first things are first, what’s first? In order to make progress you need a system. Taking a moment to use these planning tactics before launching into action will prove helpful for finding that first step.
1. Make a List: Those of us with ADHD have heard this piece of advice ad nauseam due to our inability to keep much of anything in working memory but it’s still excellent advice. First thing in the morning, write down everything that needs to get done that day. Once you have everything down, separate the items into urgent vs. non-urgent to determine the top priorities for that day.
2. Assess the Value: The easiest way to establish priorities is by deciding which task will offer the greatest benefit in the long run. With ADHD we will sometimes convince ourselves that the shiny new easy thing must be done now, forgetting that the old hard thing is going to hurt us if we don’t get on to it. For example, while starting a new project may be a lot more appealing, I’ll prioritize the completion of one that I’ve already started especially if it has a due date that is looming. Usually prioritizing commitments to clients over personal projects works out better for everyone.
3. Be Honest: When prioritizing tasks, be realistic about how long a task will take. This is particularly hard for us ADHDers for several reasons. Being realistic is boring. Who wants to accept that it will take an entire day to clean the garage? We also don’t take the time to notice all the steps that a task will require. Take time to break down that task and add up the amount of time each step will take. If you tend to underestimate how long an action will take, double the amount of time leaving yourself plenty of wiggle room. Setting unattainable goals will only cause disappointment down the road.
4. Be Reasonable: Part of effective prioritizing is doing exactly what those of us with ADHD are the worst at, and that is changing course or being flexible when necessary. Usually we’ll dig in come hell or high water or give up and wander off. So, be reasonable about your priorities. If completing a task is not working out or something of greater importance comes up, be prepared to re-arrange your priorities and be gentle with yourself about having to shift your trajectory.
5. Cut the Cord: As ADHDers are usually perfectionists, this is the one that we struggle with a lot. When something is really important, it’s easy to get caught up in the details and end up spending way too much time on a project or task. Spending too much time on one priority, however, prevents us from getting other stuff knocked off our list. Acknowledge when you’re doing this and enforce strict deadlines to prevent yourself from going down the rabbit hole.
Having a lot on your plate at once can feel overwhelming but almost anything is manageable if you learn to break it down and prioritize effectively.