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Overcoming Priority Paralysis

Published: 08.05.2017

There’s a phenomenon among people with ADHD that is one of the most troublesome for me, personally. It’s characterized by the following statement: “I have so much to do so I guess I’ll just go take a nap.” When we have so many things needing our attention, all of which are, or at least seem to be, of the utmost importance, we can’t decide which to start on first, and end up feeling like nothing we do will help anyway. We sink into a miasma of despair and end up doing nothing at all.


This feeling is sometimes the result of procrastination, or time insensitivity, or a random sequence of events, but whatever the cause, it is horrible and intensely crippling. 10/10 would not recommend.



So what’s to be done? How can a person escape this dark pit? I have a few ideas, but I must first emphasize that these strategies are intended for ADHD and executive dysfunction. When anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses are in play, these may be laughably inadequate.



1. Prioritize scientifically and impartially

Everything seems of top, top importance and urgency when we are in this state. So what we need is to determine, logically, what the order actually is. I will often use a simple to-do list app with an ‘arrange’ function to slide items around and into descending order of importance/urgency. Another option for when overwhelm is worse and interfering with our ability to prioritize is to use this method.


2. Do anything

This one, almost more than the others, is easier said than done. When priority paralysis hits me I know for a fact that if I allow it, it will make certain nothing happens. So that being the case, anything is better than nothing. Pick any one of the tasks at random, or pull it out of a hat, or have someone else tell you which one to do, or do something else entirely. Clean the house, organize a bookshelf, write some fan fiction.

If none of these is possible, decide actively to do something fun. Play a game, read a book, cuddle a pet. You will not be productive anyway and doing self-care could help bring down your stress levels enough to get something done later on, when you’ve calmed down.


3. Tell someone

Mention your predicament to someone sympathetic and talk things over with them. They might be able to see the situation more clearly than you and be able to advise you which task is actually the highest priority. They might also be able to virtually/physically body double you while you work on the task and provide accountability.


4. Shake it up

Do something that will get you out of your head and into your body. Dance, take a walk, physically move with the task to another location if possible, drink some water, get a high protein snack. End the cycle of thoughts squirrel-caging around and around your brain caused by the overwhelm.


5. Look for the zebra

They say when you hear hoofbeats not to assume it’s a zebra when it’s most likely to be a horse. If nothing is working, look for the zebra. Maybe there’s an issue with medication (missed, changed recently, double dose by accident), maybe a large amount of stress has recently impacted you, physical illness, or any number of other things that have caused this downward spiral.

It may not be easy, in the moment, to figure out the source of our inability, but leave room for the idea that the hoofbeats are from some unknown zebra.



One last thing to keep in mind is we cannot function at out best when we are not having fundamental needs, like food and sleep, met. So, in the end, you very well may need that nap to be able to do all those pressing things. Just make sure to set a timer and go back to other strategies if you are still floundering after you’ve gotten some rest.



What else helps you out of priority paralysis?

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