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How to Prioritize Tasks with ADHD: Avoiding the Avoidant Behavior

Julia Ovcharenko, CEO of Numo
January 4, 2024

Ever got that sudden urge to clean all the things whenever faced with a more mentally draining task like writing an essay or doing a work assignment?

Well, I’ve got two pieces of news to share with you:

There is no original thought, and we are all just bio-robots going through the same motions

  1. Your ADHD might be to blame for your “procrastination but not quite procrastination” vibe.

Now that we have settled let’s figure out Why that happens and How to make it happen less by performing a bit of ADHD prioritizing magic. 

(I’m also 60% confident that you’re actually reading this instead of doing THE THING you’re supposed to be doing, but eh. We’ve all been there.)

Okay, let’s dig in 🤓

[ADHD and Prioritizing] ADHD and Prioritizing: Why am I so bad at it, or why do I procrastinate by doing random stuff? 

Well, I wouldn’t exactly call stuff you decide to do instead of THE THING random. Some patterns and similarities separate tasks that we do and those that we should be doing. Let’s look at these “non-tasks” in more detail. 

Non-tasks have a zen-like quality to them

When we work on autopilot, we tend to use much less of our brainpower, sometimes none. 

Stuff like taking the trash out, cleaning your room, cooking dinner, etc. Some thoughts and expectations of finesse are attached, but we’ve done all of these so many times that we don’t even need to think about it. 

A new task, though? You’ve never seen it before! I mean, even if it’s something similar - writing an essay - it’s a completely new topic that requires new research, pondering, writing, outlines…you may not even know where to start! How much time will it take? Where should I look for sources? Aaaaaaaah!!!

Thus, faced with such adversity, we prefer to fall back on things we actually know how to do. We feel productive, so realizing we’re procrastinating on something important doesn't feel as bad.

I will argue that the next few points actually kinda-sorta derive from this one. Or you can also say that they are the things that give those “autopilot” tasks this calming quality. 

Specific start and specific end

How long it takes to cook pasta or to boil an egg? The distance from your door to the trash can is always the same. 

You always have the same rhythm during a routine cleaning, so you know precisely when it will take you. 

Knowing how much time you will spend on the task gives you comfort, as you know, "I only need to spend 15 minutes, and then I can move on.” With tasks such as writing? Who knows how long it’ll take? 

You always know what to expect

Barring some unexpected frustrations, you always have an idea of how to move from point A to point B. These are routines, and you have nailed them to a T. It almost feels like you’re accomplishing a set of really small tasks as you flow effortlessly from one to another. Grab a knife? Check. Wash tomatoes? Done. Dice them? Another task crossed off.

You cannot really fail at them

When we have an assignment at school or work, there’s always some degree of background stress to it. What if you get a bad grade? What if you get reprimanded by your manager? 
Of course, these fears are often unsubstantiated, but anxiety rarely cares about such specifics. Fear of failure may compel us to put the task on the back burner, as we focus instead on stuff that no one will judge us for. 

[How to prioritize with ADHD] How to prioritize with ADHD like a pro

Now, my teacher used to tell me that every question has 70% of the answer. Following that, each problem already has a part of the solution. 

By applying the principles of non-task that we love to the important doings, they can suddenly become much more manageable. Let’s look at how to do that.

Create elaborate step-by-step lists

And I mean elaborate. Look, I understand that at first you will feel ridiculous writing down stuff like:

  1. Open the laptop
  2. Open MS Word
  3. Write down outline

But it does work! As you strike off each mini-goal, the goal will melt in front of you, quite literally. This also removes that ambiguity that is oh-so-often responsible for ADHD paralysis. Because instead of a big lump of “write an essay,” you actually get something tangible and easy to digest.

You can use any ADHD planner out there (we’ve prepared a neat list of digital ones), but since this is Numo blog, it would be wrong of me not to shill Numo app. 🧐 Which is available on iOS and Android

Give yourself a time limit on the task

Do you know how ADHD superpowers kick in 1 hour before the deadline as we squeeze a week's worth of work into that little hour? 

You can accomplish something similar by giving yourself a defined set of time to work on the task today. So, instead of ruminating for a full day, tell yourself, “I will spend 30 minutes writing this essay.” Set a timer if you need one. By the time 30 minutes run out, you’ve either caught a wave and are ready to write even more, or you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. 

Pat yourself on the back and move on to the next activities.

Lower your expectations

You don’t have to be perfect. No one rarely is. Writing a little and making mistakes along the way is fine. Doing anything is better than worrying and doing nothing. It won’t get you any peace of mind, quite the opposite.

And if you ever feel like it's all too much, our Numo can also be your rescue! Simply hop over to one of our squads or tribes and find solace and comfort among fellow ADHDers. Knowing that you’re not the only one going through such difficulties can be a lifesaver. 

[Conclusion] Summing it all up

The biggest takeaway is that brains can be really bad at grasping abstract quantities. ADHD brain, especially so.

How to improve task prioritization with ADHD, then? Well, learn how to break down big tasks into small time-gated chunks. And then, it’ll be all zen. 🧘

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