How to Prioritize When You Live with ADHD
As students prepare to return to school and offices begin to open up, these unusual dog days of the summer of 2020 can be mired with uneasiness and worry. Even if you’re not a student, the back-to-school season is a time for self-reflection and new starts. But these unsettling times can be tough for individuals and families living with ADHD where overwhelm makes it difficult to prioritize and everything wins out as equally important.
Stress and the ADHD Brain
When it comes to the ADHD brain, the regulation center or "executive functioning" region experiences ups and downs. In times of stress, the brain has a “fight or flight” reaction that floods the brain with stress hormones. The ADHD brain experiences this as a roller-coaster effect on emotions, with intense periods of high's and low's. Especially during prolonged periods of stress, the mind races with overwhelming thoughts, which makes it difficult to plan, follow-through, make decisions and prioritize what’s important.
Prioritizing and the ADHD Brain
Prioritizing is tough for everyone, especially these days. But when you live with ADHD, you know all too well that focusing on what’s most important is not typically the way of approaching a stressful or packed day. It can be the urgent task, “whatever I’m in the mood for,” who screams the loudest, or a well-established habit that determines how you spend your time. You end up feeling like you were busy all day long but accomplished nothing of value or importance.
Challenges with the stress of decision-making overwhelm can get in the way of prioritizing. Too much information and too many details can lead to allowing circumstances to make a decision for you. Impulsivity can cause hasty choices without fully considering the results or consequences. There’s also the tendency to get locked into perfectionistic patterns to disprove any negative self-talk. This may come from a history of negative feedback, even if well-intended, from peers, colleagues, teachers or family members, that may be internatized or taken personally.
The challenge of prioritizing lies in making decisions around identifying what your prioritiies are and reducing obstacles so you can follow-through on them. Here are four ways to prioritize what’s important to you so you can make the most of these unsettling times.
Identify What's Most Important
• When there is so much coming at you at once, sometimes the best way to move forward is to ask yourself, “What will bring me the most calm in this moment?”
• Become aware of how you’re spending your time. Are you putting out everyone else's fires? Running your day by answering emails? Or is your day driven by your own choices as much as possible? What can you change that’s in your control?
• Reflect on your long-term goals and prioritize with your goals in mind. Ask yourself, “What is one task I want to do today to get closer to meeting this goal."
• Commit the task to a calendar to help you decide when you will do what you decided to do.
Although the ability to research quantities of information can be an ADHD superpower, too many options can result in quick reactions or passive decisions-by-circumstance. The overwhelmed student with ADHD who has a load of assignments can tend to assume, “If I don’t think about it, the assignment will go away,” only to find that the consequences are worse.
• Limit options by identifying the most important criterion. If you find your student is wound up over what to focus on, help her select the most important factor, such as an upcoming deadline, level of difficulty or length of project. Perhaps she wants to start on the most difficult assignment first to take advantage of her energy level; or, maybe it will give her more momentum to knock off an easier assignment.
• Spread out commitments over time. When we have so many commitments, they can all feel equally important but not all are equally important at the same time. For example, you may decide that supporting your child with his assignments and your own self-care come first now, and your participation in a networking group needs to wait.
• Manage your expectations. Be aware that reducing overwhelm by limiting options is a skill that involves executive functioning. Learning to identify criteria that distinguish what to do, when, and in what order requires practice and experimentation.
A boundary is the imaginary fence you draw around yourself where you open the gate for only acceptable and supportive behaviors from others. Each of us has our own boundaries. It’s important we let people know people know what works for each of us and what we’re comfortable with. An example of a person with weak boundaries is someone who is constantly putting out fires for others, instead of prioritizing what’s most important for themselves.
• If your priority is to accomplish a project at work, set boundaries around your day so you do your best work at your most optimal time.
• Communicate clear boundaries. Suppose you want to help your child with his homework, but you just arrived home from work and you are prioritizing exercise. Clarify with your child that she can write down her questions while you exercise and then you will be available for help.
• Secure times for your day or week that are "protected times" for what’s most important to you and commit to them in your calendar.
• Boundaries are self-care. It can be scary to set boundaries because we worry about disappointing others. You may feel as if you're being selfish. You could feel guilty after you start setting boundaries when you’re not used to it. At the same time, you’re not responsible for how others feel, and your personal value is not tied to what others think. Your self-worth will grow as you'll feel more empowered to prioritize what's most important to you.
• Setting boundaries is a gift you are giving to yourself and others. You are modeling to your loved ones how to prioritize what they need and how to take care of themselves too.
Let Go of the Fear of Being Wrong
The fear of making the "wrong" decision can get in the way of prioritizing what’s most important, especially where each option in the decision feels evenly matched. For example, “If I wake up early to exercise, I know I'd feel better all day, but then I’d lose sleep from waking up early. But if I sleep in, I'd miss the chance to excercise, and I’d end up taking my meds late, which would later disrupt my sleep.” There’s a perpetual fear of missing out with one option or the other. The result is even more uncertainty, with more time and energy squandered, because of this constant state of confusion and worry.
• Make a choice. What if there's no wrong decision? The concern for getting it "perfect" or "right" can get in the way of prioritizing. Making a choice can propel you forward.
• Stop beating yourself up. Your failures are not personal shortcomings. Fail forward. What are you learning from this experience?
• Live in the present. Try not to get enmeshed in past mistakes or future aspirations. Your fear of repeating mistakes are only thoughts that are not pointing to what is true now. When you stay in the present, you’re more equipped to do your best.
These unsettling times are mired with uneasiness and worry. For individuals and families living with ADHD, to prioritize what's critical to you:
• Identify What's Most Important
• Reduce Overwhelm
• Set Boundaries
• Let Go of the Fear of Being Wrong
Experiment with some or all of these and let me how it goes for you!
PS. Need more assistance prioritizing and following through with what's most important to you?
Contact me for an ADHD Strategy Assessment and we can talk about some solutions you can put into place now!
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