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.

[Read This Next: Time Wasters and Productivity Killers at Work]

10 Comments & Reviews

    1. I totally do this all the time! I work from home, so I’ll start making lunch on the stove, walk away to “answer a few emails” and only notice that my food is ruined when I smell everything burning. :/ A trick I started using that really helps me is to set the timer on the stove for 5 mins at a time, so I’m alerted that I need to come back and check on what I’m making. It’s loud enough to hear in the other room, so it helps me catch myself. I’ve started using it for other things I do too so I don’t forget them. My therapist also says using a timer is a good way to break up boring tasks or a long work day…you set a timer for 30 mins at a time where you focus and get work done…then reward yourself with a 10 min. break and repeat. Hope that’s helpful for you!

    2. I have done this too, if that makes you feel better. Recently scared myself big time by forgetting food on stove and LEFT APT! Came back to smokey apt and smoke detector blaring!! Yikes! I could’ve killed my own cats, not to mention could’ve caused a fire spreading to other apartments!

      Agree w poster who suggests using stove timer. I’ve started using a timer hanging on cord around my neck, so it comes w me when I leave the room! Not only for cooking but also for keeping on task, stopping myself from distractions, etc.

      Years ago I had gotten this item for my dad when I worried he’d burn down the house. Kind of depressing to find that I’ve now become my father! ;(

      But …it’s better than forgetting food on the stove & causing a fire!

      Maybe this could be helpful for you?

  1. What about when the situation is beyond your control to remove distractions? I share an office with my boss — no cubicle, no partition, nothing. She is constantly interrupting me to ask me questions or give me on-the-fly tasks so I can never get to a point of focus, and when I do, I get interrupted and totally derailed.

    It’s so exhausting that by Wednesday I’m not capable of much more than slumping on the couch and crying when I get home. It details my personal life so much! I’m too mentally exhausted to do anything! My doc has even upped my stimulant, added a third daily dose and a supplemental non-stimulant and I don’t know what to do. Talking to her doesn’t help. She just reverts back after a few days and I can’t leave my job because I need the benefits and don’t have a degree.

    1. I understand your situation, though my experience at the office was slightly different the outcomes were similar… constant distractions in an ‘open office plan’ and interruptions from boss/colleagues. Don’t know if these small suggestions will be helpful in your context, when obviously you are dealing with a big problem…

      Is there ever a time when she’s not there, e.g lunch hour, meetings, travel/days off? Maybe you can use those times, even 15-30 minute chunks of time, to switch to a task requiring focus.

      And break down those big tasks into smaller segments, maybe 20-30 minutes of work? So you have a section short enough to work on in a brief time period but enough that you can actually accomplish a part of the work.

      Can you ever leave your desk, maybe take your work to a conference room, employee lounge, library, cafeteria, empty office? Even just for one or two 30 minute focus sessions each day? Ideally in the morning, before your attention gets sucked up by the day!

      How about earphones? Could you put on a headset & white noise on your computer while you focus on a task for a little while? Maybe even tell your boss “I’m going to put on headphones for just 30 minutes to focus on making headway on that report you need me to finish” (or, whatever is relevant in your situation).

      When we moved to an open office floorplan (I believe this is what triggered my own work-related ADD) all of us out in the “pool,” as I called it, started wearing headsets. It was a useful visual sign to others that someone is trying to focus. It’s harder to interrupt someone when you have to make them remove headset!

      Maybe this is too much to ask 😨 but… when she asks you to do little, supposedly “quick” tasks, could you ask her to prioritize that vs your other work, e.g. diplomatically say something like “Sure, I can do that… Can I add it to my to-do list for after I finish your expense report, maybe in one hour? Or do you need me to put the report aside and do this right now?” It’s one of those ‘yes, but…’ strategies, so you’re not actually saying ‘no’ but trying to ‘train’ her 😉 Sounds like maybe she’s the one who has ADD!

      I also found that I needed frequent times to leave my desk, walk around the office, sit in the rest room for a few minutes to do slow breathing; if you know the yoga breathing method ‘alternate nostril breathing’, I always found that helped me to quickly calm and ‘re-set’ myself.

      In my case, my boss was actually trying to be helpful, so she wasn’t the problem. Even so, I’m reminded of a humorous situation, one time when we were reviewing our to-do lists for the day, and I said I needed one hour to focus on finishing a specific task; she agreed, instructed me to work only on that task with, in her words “laser focus”…. I put on my headset and started “laser focusing”…then, 10 minutes later she came out of her office to my desk and said “Can you just find the…… file and send it to me?”. And I burst out laughing, I said “what about ‘laser focus’?”! She cringed. But I treated it in a humorous way and all was fine. But she didn’t do it again while I was finishing that particular task!

      I don’t know if these ideas will be remotely relevant to your situation. Maybe worth trying? Good luck to you!

    2. I’m sorry that you are finding yourself in a ‘no win’ situation, especially when it feels like the pros slightly outweigh the cons.

      And yet, you still make your post in frustration pleading for the possibility of another way out.

      What I am going to say next may not go over well with you, but I hope you will take heart and see that I am trying to have your best interest in mind. With that out of the way…

      I sense that there is a deeper issue at play here that you are not admitting to or don’t realize. You are not owning the situation you are in.

      YOU chose to be in that distraction filled black hole. Not your boss, not your friends….YOU.

      Want out? Here’s my two cents.

      Another man with ADHD named Ryder Carroll went through a similar situation as you. He referred to it as his ‘Dragon’. A beast that always stared him down and sucked the life energy out of him day in and day out filling his life with hopelessness.

      Long story short, he did eventually become victorious, left that job, and went onto be the guy that invented the Bullet Journal.

      But it all started when he decided to own his situation….only then could he give himself permission to begin the hard work of digging his way out of it.

      Of course, I am inferring that you try setting up your own bullet journal and also read or listen to Ryder’s book ‘The Bullet Journal Method’. From there, he will go further in detail into how his story developed as well as the philosophies he has integrated into his life and the system he created.

      It’s changed my life and more importantly my ATTITUDE towards life in ways I didn’t think was possible.

      I wish you well. Safe travels.

  2. Thanks so much, I love that you have a print icon here because i read so much better in print (love your magazine by the way). I am printing this now to read and implement before work. I work nights from 3PM to 11PM, and my husband workds days. I’m the one with sever ADHD (think, of the typical “dad left with the kids, oh no” scenario and replace it with mom instead). I also work from home now (helpful, because I used to have to work until 1AM) and get up with the kids in the morning (should be around 7am, but really closer to 7:30am) and really have to work to balance Me/Home/Family/Work, as there is no true transition time between them UNLESS I SCHEDULE IT! Sometimes my hyperfocus gets in the way and I do home things during work that I really should do before/after, or at least at my scheduled breaks (I Have to/should be at my desk for the full shift, except when I have my 15 minute scheduled break and my 30 minute scheduled lunch/dinner break). Hopefully this will help me both at work and at home!

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