10 Prioritization Traps That Keep The ADHD Brain Stuck

Let’s be real, prioritization with an ADHD brain can be quite a challenge.

woman prioritizing list

Between our swirling thoughts, feeling overwhelmed, and constant indecision, it’s no wonder that we find ourselves stuck.

Our brain tells us things like:

  • Everything is urgent!
  • I want to do it all NOW.
  • I can’t possibly say no.
  • I have no idea what’s most important.

As we spin in those swirling thoughts, we often slip into overwhelm, finding ourselves falling for the sneaky prioritization traps that keep us stuck. 

Sound familiar?

If so, you’re in the right place.

In episode 146 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast, we’re taking a deep dive into the top 10 prioritization traps for the ADHD brain. 

We’re exploring why we struggle with prioritization in the first place, the top 10 prioritization challenges that keep us stuck, and one powerful question to help you shift out of the spin cycle and into action. 

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:   

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

In Episode 146: 10 Prioritization Traps That Keep The ADHD Brain Stuck, You Will Discover… 

  • Why prioritization is a challenge for the ADHD brain
  • The 10 sneaky prioritization traps that keep us stuck
  • How to recognize these obstacles, shift out of spinning, and get into action

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Episode #146: Prioritization And ADHD – 10 Traps That Keep You Stuck (Transcript) 

This week we are diving into the topic of prioritization and more specifically, we’re talking about some of the main hurdles or prioritization traps that keep us stuck.

Over the last several months, I’ve noticed these traps coming up a lot for people, so I thought I’d explore them here on the podcast so we can all start bringing these traps into our awareness and be on the lookout for when they sneak up.

We are going to take a look at:

  • Why prioritization can be quite a challenge.
  • 10 prioritization traps that keep us off track, spinning, and not making the forward momentum that we want.

The reason why I’m really zooming in and looking at each of them individually is that many of these prioritization traps are very sneaky.

We don’t even realize they are happening and as I talk about quite often on the podcast, raising our awareness of what’s going on is the first step to making any kind of shifts or changes that we want to make.

This episode is all about helping you identify where your brain tricks you into falling for these prioritization traps so you can start recognizing them and then redirect yourself back to “the one thing”.

As we talked about way back in episode 73 all about creating clarity on what’s most important.

How can we bring ourselves back to that project or task that will move the needle the most in our job or our business or whatever our current goal is at the time?

One of the most common things I hear from people is, “I know what to do but I’m just not doing it.”

And one of the reasons why we’re not doing it is because we’re falling for these false priorities.

We’re giving our best attention to the prioritization traps. So, today we’re going to identify when that happens so we can press pause on the behavior and redirect to what’s really most important.

Prioritization is a challenge for many people, especially those of us with ADHD and ADHD tendencies. 

But why is this?

4 Reasons Prioritization is Challenging

woman trying to prioritize

Let’s talk quickly about four main reasons prioritization can be difficult.

1. It’s Hard to Prioritize the Steps Needed To Reach a Goal

A lot of us are big picture thinkers. We do an amazing job at seeing where we want to go. We have these big, brilliant ideas that have incredible potential to make an impact on our lives, the lives of others, the growth of our team or our business, etc.

This is really a gift, and it’s one that I think we tend to overlook. We don’t realize that our strengths in long-term vision and seeing what’s possible on the grand scale is something that many people struggle with.

With that in mind, prioritization becomes an obstacle because it’s sometimes hard for us to identify the steps that get us to this big picture goal.

For example: If we think of it in terms of traveling, I may know that I want to visit a friend in Seattle, but I can’t just leave it at that. I can’t just think to myself, I want to visit Seattle in June and it will magically happen.  

  • I would need to break down the steps to get there.
  • I’d have to decide whether I’m going to drive or fly.
  • I would have to figure out the route if I chose driving or book the flights if I’m flying.
  • I would need to figure out the friend’s address and learn how to get there because even if I made it to Seattle, I would still have to find their house.

And sometimes our brain wants to stop at the big goal. It stops at the plan of traveling to Seattle in June.

2. We Have Time Blindness

The second reason prioritization is challenging is that many of us deal with something called time blindness, which is our inability to recognize how much time has passed or how much time we need to complete different projects.

Due to this, we have a hard time knowing what to work on and how much we can add to our plate.

If we have several long-term projects, our brain will want to focus only on what’s happening now.

As Russell Barkley reminds us, “We are led by the Now“.

If we keep taking on additional projects for what’s going on now, without breaking down all of the steps leading to those long-term, larger projects, then when those long-term projects become due in the now. when we haven’t worked on them yet.

Time blindness tricks us into believing we have plenty of time rather than breaking it down and working on it regularly until the thing is due.

3. We Respond to Immediate Requests (and Fires) First

The third reason prioritization is challenging builds on this, which is that our brain responds to immediate requests and fires.

We are quick to act in the Now, so if someone has a request or needs help, our brain forgets about the longer-term project because the thing due NOW seems more important, even if it’s not moving us toward our longer-term goals.

Plus, so many of us genuinely love to help and likely also deal with people-pleasing tendencies.

So, when someone else’s fire comes up, it is easy for our brain to focus on their priorities first, rather than our own.

For those of us with ADHD, we often have that extra soft place in our hearts when we think, I totally get it. I’ve been in the other person’s shoes, too.  I know I’d hope someone would drop everything and help me, too.

4. It’s Hard To Identify What’s Most Important on the List

On top of all those reasons, we also have a hard time identifying what’s most important on our list.

So many of us with ADHD will make a to-do list, and it will read like this:

  • Plan dinner
  • Grocery shopping
  • Write book
  • Call Kate
  • Start business
  • Get scotch tape

All important, all priorities. (I say this with humor, but it’s also very real).

My lists literally look like this when I do my first thought download of everything on my mind. Then I need to go through and break things down, figure out what’s involved, and use my prioritization steps to figure out what’s really most important from that list, and the best order of operations to make that happen.

If you have a hard time with prioritization, you’re absolutely not alone. This is a very common obstacle.

So, today I’m identifying ten prioritization traps that we tend to slip into if we don’t slow down and identify what’s really most important when thinking about priorities for both the day-to-day tasks and big picture goals.

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10 Prioritization Obstacles When You Have ADHD

I’ll first talk about the three most common examples, which most of us likely deal with at one time or another. And then we’ll explore seven very sneaky traps that often fly under the radar.

I’ve noticed that our toddler brains can be quite convincing and assure us their reasons are compelling and the non-priority tasks are actually quite important.

So I invite you to consider these different examples and notice which ones resonate with you.

Raising your awareness of these prioritization traps is the first step in getting a handle on them.

Then when you see these obstacles come up next time, you’re ready for them.

You can then remind yourself to slow down and get intentional about where you’re giving your time and attention rather than doing so by default.

As I mentioned there are three common examples that stand out as pretty clear ways that we avoid prioritizing, which I want to share first. Even though they may seem obvious, there’s an importance in understanding what’s going on so you can support your brain through it.

10 Reasons It's Hard To Prioritize (When You Have ADHD)

1. You’re Spinning in Indecision

The most common non-prioritization responses include spinning in indecision, completely shutting down and checking out, or on the other end of the spectrum, going into overdrive trying to do everything at once.

If we’re looking at that long to-do list, rather than thinking about our long term projects coming up, the different levels of urgency in the list, or the ultimate impact these different tasks would have on our projects, goals, and overall wellbeing, we instead spin.

We go back and forth second guessing ourselves.

We think…

  • Maybe I should grocery shop first because I know we need to eat tonight.
  • It might be better if I do that later so I can drop off the return at the same time.
  • Maybe I should start the book first, but I don’t even know where to start
  • Maybe I’ll look into starting my business instead, but I don’t know if that’s actually a good idea.
  • What I really need is tape so I can mail out the package this afternoon

We spin and spin and spin. And suddenly the day is done, and we prioritized spinning.

And BELIEVE ME, I get it! If you hear yourself in this description, you’re in good company.

2. You Shutdown or Check Out

Other times our brain will completely shut down. It gets so overwhelmed thinking about all of these options, and rather than continuing to expend so much energy (spinning), it completely shuts down and turns its focus to scrolling, Netflix, YouTube, etc.

3. You Try and Do Everything at Once

Or we go to the other side, we go into overdrive as we try to do everything at once.

For myself… I’d try to plan dinner while researching a book and business ideas (neither of which were related, mind you.) I’d be making my grocery list as ideas popped into my mind and the day would consist of task switching from one thing to the next never getting anything done.

These are the three most obvious ways we respond when we don’t slow down and get really intentional about our priorities.

They happen to all of us at different times, and it’s not a problem if it happens. It means you’re human.

We want to use it as a reminder to slow down and get curious about where we really want to put our focus. At the end of this post, I’ll offer some questions to help you do that.

But what about those sneaky prioritization traps?

What about the ones we don’t even realize are keeping us from moving forward on our big projects and goals?

Let’s talk about those next, so we can figure out which ones might be an obstacle for you.

4. People Pleasing

As I mentioned earlier, people-pleasing is a big one for us.

If we have our priorities identified, but then someone comes to us asking a favor or says they need us, or simply makes invites us to participate in something, it’s so easy for our brain to slip into prioritizing their request first.

Your brain’s reasoning may come from different angles.

  • I don’t want them to be upset if I don’t help.
  • They’ll think I’m selfish or not a team player if I don’t say yes.
  • They’ll think I don’t care or am rude.
  • OR I love feeling needed.
  • They see me. They came to ME and I don’t want them to think they can’t if I say no.

Again, these are such sneaky thoughts. And they can often have us move our top priorities to the bottom of the list pretty quickly.

We may not even be aware of the thoughts.

For example: Maybe part of you really wants to stick to your work hours and leave the office at 4:30 so you’re home by 5:00 You even come in early to make sure you get your hours in.

But, company culture – and your team specifically – tends to hang around until 6 or 7 and then many of them go out after that. And because that’s what everyone does, that’s what we begin prioritizing, too, because we didn’t verbalize or make a plan of how we want to prioritize our time.

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5. Perfectionism

The next prioritization obstacle falls within the realm of perfectionism, which also intertwines with the fear of what other people think (people-pleasing).

Often we spend incredible amounts of energy and time trying to make things perfect. We tweak sentences, we edit and re-edit. We record and re-record.

My personal perfectionism example

I recently recorded a video that talks about my group coaching program, We’re Busy Being Awesome to put on my website.

I recorded that thing 6 or 7 times. I recorded it once through, and then watched it back and thought it was just off – and honestly, the first time I do a video it usually is.

I tend to do a couple of takes. So, I recorded again. The second time UPS came by about ¾ of the way through and Bruno (my pup) – per usual – went CRAZY. My brain immediately thought, that one’s out. No way can I leave Bruno barking. That one was out.

But then I did it again, and with this third version, my brain thought, you know…the lighting is really weird here. Everything is so dark and shadowy.

So I did it again.

And I recorded again as I edited the fourth version, I learned my mic cut in and out, so I did it again.

By this time, I was very much in my head, and when I recorded it through, watched it back, and my brain thought, you’re so low energy. It’s obvious that you’re drained from recording this so much….let’s do it again!? (which makes absolutely zero sense).

By this time – recording 5 – I decided to stop for the day because I realized what was happening. And I was not prioritizing what was most important. I had wanted to spend an hour on this and it had stretched out to two.

So the next day I coached my brain and recorded it one last time.

I told myself that recording something and getting it out there is better than having nothing at all. And whatever I do is a reflection of me and where I’m at and that’s enough. So I did it. I let myself be uncomfortable with not tweaking until it was perfect. And I moved on.

I share this not only to give you an idea of how sneaky these prioritization traps can be but also to let you know that it absolutely still comes up for me.

Now had this been several years ago, I probably would have taken weeks to do a 10-minute video and in the end not put it out there at all, so I’ve definitely grown in this area. But as I reminded myself, there I go, being human again.

6. We Seek Out Small and Easy Wins

The next sneaky prioritization traps are the small and easy wins.

Small wins are tempting for our brain to prioritize because they’re quick wins that provide that rush of dopamine each time we check them off the list.

While we want to do many of these smaller tasks at some point, we don’t want to fill our entire day with them. And we certainly don’t want to focus our best, clearest time of the day on them.

I tend to think of it as relying on skittles and coffee to power you throughout the day rather than getting enough sleep and eating foods with sustenance.

It’s just not a long-term productive solution.

Easy tasks are similar, but there’s a difference. Our brain will prioritize the easy tasks – even if they take longer.

For example, I’d much rather do a deep clean of the kitchen and a few other areas of the house all afternoon than sit down and organize the paperwork for my taxes for an hour. My taxes would take hours less, but cleaning feels so much easier and more familiar, so I naturally lean toward that anytime. 

7. The Squeaky Wheel

The next prioritization trap that loves to grab our attention is sometimes described as the “squeaky wheel.”

As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

If we haven’t prioritized and planned our tasks, then often the person or task that is the loudest, or asks the most often, or makes the most requests, is the thing that gets our most focus and attention.

This ties into that people-pleasing trap as well.

8. You Prioritize Something You’ve Been Meaning To Do (Even if It’s Not Important)

That leads me into the next trap, which is  some version of the thought, “I’ve been meaning to do this.” Or “It needs to get done anyway.”

So often when we haven’t prioritized, we let our toddler brain run the show, and they tend to get distracted by anything that’s front and center.

For example:

If you’re walking through the house, and you see the unopen packages or boxes that need to be broken down, and you don’t really have a clear plan or know what to work on first, your brain might think, “well, I might as well do this real quick; it needs to get done before the recycling comes next week.”

Or, if you open your inbox and see an email advertising some product you use and you think to yourself, “oh yeah! I needed to order more of that. I should just do that now while it’s top of mind.” 

Meanwhile, we’re ignoring what’s actually important in that moment.

Now, I’m not saying that breaking down the boxes or making orders isn’t important. So don’t hear me wrong. But what I am saying is you might not want to make them your top priority during your clearest, most focused time of day when you have other projects and goals on your radar.

9. You Prioritize Tasks Out of habit

Maybe doing the small, easy things is habitual.

Perhaps you’re used to checking email and getting lost in your inbox first thing in the morning.

This daily habit is so ingrained in your mind that you don’t think twice about it. And because it’s so ingrained, we have a hard time pausing to recognize, “wait a minute, I don’t have to prioritize this now. In fact, I could be doing it at a different time that serves me better.”

10. You enjoy it

You might just really enjoy doing the thing.

Maybe you can easily slip into flow while doing it and the time just melts away.

First of all, it’s incredible that you found this thing, but sometimes those enjoyable activities aren’t moving us forward as much as we’d like.

For example: I love tinkering around on Canva designing posts, but that’s not really where I want to spend my best time. I could spend hours designing things and playing around with templates, but is that REALLY what’s going to move the needle forward for me? No.

So, while I think it’s incredible to find the things you love doing, and if you can create a situation where doing those things is what DOES move you forward on your big goals, that’s remarkable. I’m all in. But, be aware if these tasks aren’t in service of your bigger objectives.

To Recap: Prioritization and ADHD

To recap, here are the 10 prioritization traps that trip us up when it comes to focusing on what’s most important.

  1. Indecision
  2. Shutting down
  3. Going into overdrive and attempting to multitask
  4. Focusing on people-pleasing and outside influences
  5. Slipping into perfectionism
  6. Prioritizing small or easy wins
  7. Giving attention to the squeaky wheel
  8. Believing the thought, “I needed to do this at some point.”
  9. Relying on autopilot or habits
  10. Doing it because you enjoy it even if it doesn’t move your forward

I hope that as you listened to these prioritization challenges and all the examples, you’ve been able to identify which ones are most common for you.

As I mentioned, this is the first step.

When we can see what’s happening, that’s when we’re able to slow down and realize, hold on…this is one of those sneaky traps. Is this really what I want to be focused on today? Is this really what my priority is?

And then from there, I’ll offer you a question to help you get clear on whether or not it is. And that question comes from Gary Keller’s book The One Thing.

Whenever I sit down to plan, I start by asking myself one question…

What is the one thing that I can do today, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

  • In other words, of all the things on my list, what is the one thing that would move the needle the most?
  • What is the one thing that would get me that much closer to my end goal?

When I’m planning for the month, I think about this in regard to my overarching goal for the year or the quarter.

When I’m planning my week, I think about this in regard to my overarching monthly goal.

And when I’m planning my day, I think about it in regard to my overarching weekly goal.

By using this question to help funnel your priorities from the big picture to the daily task, you help your brain:

  • Lock into what’s most important.
  • Get clear on what you need to do today to ensure you’re moving toward your long-term objectives in the coming months and years ahead.

If you want to dive further into priorities and learn additional strategies and techniques to help you clearly identify what’s most important to this season, Invite you to join We’re Busy Being Awesome.

Want To Join Our Group Coaching Program?!

I will be opening the doors for the next cohort of We’re Busy Being Awesome in a couple of weeks!

Add your name to the waitlist so you’ll be the first to know about program dates and times, plus how you can sign up if it’s a great fit for you.

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