How to Prioritize

Fact: Multitasking Is Counterproductive.

If ineffective, exhausting multitasking has caused you to fall behind at work, use these strategies to truly focus — and get back your mojo on the job.

tired woman with ADHD rests on her arms on her cluttered desktop
tired woman with ADHD rests on her arms on her cluttered desktop

An ADDitude reader recently wrote, “I am a 31-year-old mid-level management marketing person who has been diagnosed with ADHD. I know I’m not supposed to multitask at home or at work — I’ve heard that it’s not good for the brain — but I can’t seem to stop. I feel the pressure of deadlines, and there is a lot of work on my plate. I know that I will eventually procrastinate, so when I have some focus, I try to get everything done, hopping from task to task. The problem is that I’m exhausted from the effort and I make sloppy mistakes. I feel like a robot. Can you give me strategies to help me learn how to prioritize? I have lost motivation to do the job.”

Downsides of Multitasking

What you have heard about multitasking is correct: It is not good for the brain. Multitasking is task switching — rapidly focusing your attention from one task to another and then back again.

Is it really impossible for you to do more than one task at once? You can wash dishes and breathe at the same time, right? You can drive a car and talk to your passenger at the same time, right? Yes, it is possible to do more than one thing at a time. But those activities are automatic, like breathing, or they are relatively easy on the brain, like walking, chatting, or doing dishes. Cognitively demanding activities require focused attention, so doing more than one thing at a time means task switching. For example, experienced drivers will stop chatting with their passenger if road conditions become treacherous and they need to pay more attention to driving.

Work-related activities like yours are cognitively demanding, and you need to focus to get things done. When you multitask, it’s like watching a play with actors playing different scenes simultaneously. You will lose track of the plot, and get exhausted by the end of the performance.

Now Add in ADHD Challenges

As you know, ADHD makes it harder to plan, get started on tasks, manage time, guide our actions and responses, make decisions, and control emotions. In other words, people who have ADHD burn more cognitive energy to get through the activities of their lives. So, by the end of the day (or even the morning), you are running on empty. By engaging in task switching, you are spending more of your limited energy than you can afford.

[Click to Read: Whatever Happened to Good Old Singletasking?]

Here are steps you can take to learn to focus on one thing at a time and better your time management to accomplish what needs to get done.

The more focused you are, the more you will resist the temptation to multitask. Identify the conditions that help you be at your most focused. If you take ADHD medication, did you remember to take it today? How about a good night’s sleep, daily exercise, or eating a high-protein breakfast? Do you focus better after a mindfulness session? Have you taken a break or spent time connecting socially? One of my clients optimizes her focus by packing her kids’ lunches in the evenings, so she feels less rushed in the mornings, making sure she’s in bed by 10:00 each night, and taking a daily afternoon walk to help her avoid the afternoon slump. It might help to experiment and identify several specific activities you can do regularly to optimize your ability to focus.

How-To Tips

  • Write a list of activities that optimize your focus, and post it at your desk or on your wall.
  • Schedule focus-optimizing activities in your calendar for the week.

While you have some focus, hit “pause” and plan how you will use your time. Using your most focused time to plan will help to alleviate the sense of being unfocused at other times. If you begin your work without a detailed plan, you will be much more susceptible to the multitasking trap.

[Get This Free Download: 6 Ways to Retain Focus (When Your Brain Says ‘No!’)]

How-To Tips

  • Write a master task list of every to-do you can think of. Then, using that master list, make a daily to-do list that has only two or three tasks per day. Take a guess at how long each task will take. Open your calendar and slot the tasks into the day, making sure to leave time for sleeping, eating, commuting, meetings, breaks, and appointments.
  • When it’s time to work on something, write the name of the task on a sticky note, and post it somewhere you can’t miss it. If you’ve planned to create an e-mail campaign, write “e-mail campaign” and stick it to your monitor.

Create motivation. When you sit down to focus on the one task you have planned for, you may find that you lack the motivation to get started. The good news is that you can learn to create motivation when you need it. There are three main motivators for people with ADHD: interest, urgency, and other people.

How-To Tips

  • How to increase interest: start with the part of the task that seems the most fun; freshen up a task by slightly changing how, where, or when you work on it, or increase curiosity about the task by researching online. For one of my clients, this means starting to write a report by drawing out the information in a mind map, just because drawing makes it more fun for her to get started. Later, if she feels stuck while writing, she takes her laptop to the local coffee shop to make writing feel fresh.
  • How to create urgency: make a deadline for each piece of the task; set a timer to see how much you can get done in 20 minutes; or track your progress toward your task goal. For long-term work goals, you can track your progress by writing out a list of the parts of the task and crossing parts off as you get things done. You can also track for short-term goals. One of my clients determines the number of return calls he needs to make each day, and places that number of paper clips in a bowl. Each time he makes a call, he removes one of the paper clips from the bowl. This way, he easily tracks his progress for the day, and creates a sense of urgency. He wants that bowl to be empty.
  • How to involve other people: tell someone else your plan for the afternoon; schedule a meeting to go over your progress; or delegate parts of your task to someone else.

Limit distractions. You describe yourself as feeling “like a robot.” This could be because you are running on autopilot. On autopilot, we stop controlling ourselves and become reactive to whatever happens to be in front of us. A client recently told me that he starts each workday with “which e-mail is in the bin that grabs my attention.” He is avoiding setting his priorities or starting work on a dreaded task by looking for that distracting e-mail to get him going. Distractions can be external, like notifications on our smartphones, or internal, like suddenly remembering you forgot to reply to a colleague’s e-mail. We often allow distractions to switch our task focus, inadvertently forcing ourselves to multitask. Even if it takes only 30 seconds to take care of the distraction, like writing that e-mail you forgot about, it still requires your brain to switch its focus from one task to another, and thus uses more mental energy than you need to.

How-To Tips

  • Turn off notifications and set devices to “do not disturb.”
  • Keep a notepad nearby to jot down distracting thoughts, and return to them later.

So, I’m not talking about how to get better at multitasking or task switching. I’m talking about how to avoid multitasking through increased focus, intentional planning, greater motivation, and limiting distractions. By doing these things, you cut down on the chaotic urgency that drives you to multitask, and find yourself being more present during your day and accomplishing more.

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