How to Prioritize

You Can Be the Decider

Overwhelmed by choices? Paralyzed by possibilities? You need this guide to thinking clearly and choosing wisely with attention deficit.

Decision making can help make grocery shopping easier.
Decisions are always being made but they can be overwhelming, even at the grocery store

“Do something!” the distraught mother yelled as her child, who had been hit by a car, lay in the road. Jack heard the screams, jumped over the fence in his backyard, and ran to the accident. He dialed 911 on his cell phone while his free hand ripped his T-shirt off. Kneeling next to the child, he handed his phone to someone else, and used his shirt to make a tourniquet on the child’s bloody arm.

“My brain became laser-focused,” Jack told a reporter. “I don’t remember hurtling the fence or making the 911 call or anything. I just did what had to be done.”

Jack is not known for his decisiveness. An adult with ADHD, his train of thought often jumps the track, re-routes, or misses the station altogether. In her book, The Gift of Adult ADD, author Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., observes that adults with ADHD, “…being grounded in the present, can often be counted on to make quick, on-the-ground decisions in the heat of the moment without a lot of information synthesis, because they think like firefighters.”

Some Like It Hot

Individuals with ADHD are often great at making “hot decisions” at urgent moments. Fast-moving events light up the neurotransmitters of the ADHD brain and focus attention. But what about “cold decisions”? Not so much. Cold decisions require you to make up your mind. It’s a thoughtful process, in which you reach a conclusion by using the brain’s executive functions (EF). EFs are like the scaffolding alongside a building that is under construction. The scaffolding supports workers, tools, supplies, and all sorts of activity necessary to construct the building. EFs support decision-making. Many people with ADHD have a problem tapping into their EFs.

Many cold decisions are information-driven, and ADHDers find it difficult to screen out irrelevant information. They are turned on by new information and the thrill of the hunt for more of it. In the era of endless information we live in, this behavior goes rampant. The EF scaffolding can’t hold up. Throw in the ADHD tendency toward low-frustration tolerance, and it’s easy to understand why making up the ADHD mind is either 1) a “getting it over with” relief from indecision, or 2) giving in to a passive default decision to relieve the angst.

[Free Resource: ADHD Coping Mechanisms]

I see this in my organizing business. Marsha and I were clearing out her closet. She tucks a belt under her left armpit, dangles a handbag from her right arm, puts a scarf in her left hand, and clutches a purse in her right hand. Each item represents a low-consequence decision she can’t make about whether to keep the item or give it away. Marsha’s default decision? Keep them all.

Brittany has to make a higher-consequence decision. She needs to choose a 401(k) plan among different options. “There is just too much information, and I never seem to be able to decide in time,” Brittany says. So she’s stuck with a default 401(k) plan.

You don’t have to make decisions this way. You can make sounder decisions more promptly. Here are some practical tools for being more decisive.

  • Be closed-minded. Did you know the word decide comes from the Latin word “to cut off”? Limit your choices. My client Olivia, who has ADHD, found choosing a summer camp for her kid excruciating. We narrowed her choices by budget, application deadline, and proximity to home. Nothing beyond those criteria was given a glance.
  • Pay attention to your intuition. Studies show that long before your reasoning mind kicks in, your emotional brain has been sensing the way to go. Consult your heart. Good decisions are often a mix of logic and emotions.

[16 Organization Rules You Can Follow]

  • Quiet things down. Noise, visual clutter, and too much hustle-bustle overload an ADHD brain, making it hard to make a decision. Find a quiet room or nook to think.
  • Set a deadline to decide, especially if there is no due date involved. Post your deadline on your calendar. Having a date to decide adds focus and motivation to a decision that has no time frame.
  • Crowd-source the decision. Delegate the decision to people you trust in your social media network. They make the decision, but you assume the responsibility or accountability for it.
  • Write down the risks and benefits of a prospective decision on a piece of paper and evaluate them.
  • Learn to ask for more time. Say, “Let me get back to you on that” or “Can I sleep on it?” or “Will you e-mail me next week for my decision?” Buying time counteracts knee-jerk decisions.
  • After you gather information, pull back to assess what you have. ADHDers are often more captivated by the gathering information than by deciding. You might have enough information to decide, but unless you pull back, you won’t know.
  • Anticipate recurring decisions. Put that annual date to pick a 401(k) or a Medicare drug plan on your calendar. You will not be blindsided by it and make a hasty (bad) decision.

Small Decisions

  • Try investing more in the outcome. If you’re putting off organizing the top of your desk, think about how it will get people off your back, enable you to find that missing flash drive, and give you more surface to work on. Spend a minute thinking of what you’ll gain. Better yet, write the gains down.
  • Research/search in proportion to the consequences or risk. A wrong decision about a backpack is less consequential than picking the wrong summer camp, so allot less time to thinking about the backpack.
  • Make as many small decisions ahead of time as you can. Freezing pre-made meals eliminates mealtime decisions. Putting outfits together on a hanger reduces what-to-wear decisions, and reading menus online can end the infernal “what to order at the restaurant” question.
  • Saying the options out loud sometimes leads you to make a decision. Externalizing thoughts cuts through the clutter of competing thoughts.

[Self-Test: Is Your Clutter and Disorganization Out of Control?]