Knowing what to do next: Tips for better planning and prioritizing | Sharon Saline, Psy.D. | 7 Min Read

Does it ever seem like you and your kids have way too much to do, and every task looks equally important and daunting? Many people, especially those with ADHD, struggle to make realistic plans, figure out what the order of doing things should look like, and wrestle with how to get started. Sometimes folks can make a plan but there’s so much packed in that the only way to do it all is to multitask or give up. At other moments, there needs to be a crisis or the possibility that something unpleasant will occur if you don’t do the task right now. 

All of these scenarios lead to increased stress, frustration, and agitation. Everybody feels drained, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Planning and prioritizing are executive functions that are closely related to organization, time management, and initiation. The integrative nature of planning and prioritizing makes them higher-order cognitive skills that also depend on self-awareness. Nurturing metacognition — the ability to evaluate yourself and your actions — contributes directly to increasing these skills. 

To improve your child’s ability to prioritize, begin by assessing how your child or teen is able to think about themselves, their responsibilities, and their relationship to structure. This is a collaborative process: we want your student to reflect on their patterns in addition to whatever observations you can share. This fosters metacognitive awareness and offers key insights into their capacity and belief about planning. You will need this information to strengthen their capacity to set and work with deadlines and learn how to use a schedule for activities, homework, appointments, etc. 

Kids need direct instructions and examples for understanding how to use calendar tools (digital or paper) that honor their input and don’t feel punitive. Some students may refuse to use them and, in those situations, it’s worth discussing other options and how well those are actually working. Planning and prioritizing also depend on the ability to estimate how long something will take as well as develop effective systems for organizing materials, information, and belongings. Initiation, the ability to begin a task, plays an important role in this process too. You want to break something down into small enough, bite-sized chunks to get started on it. Use schedules, time estimates, organization, and initiation — these skills take time and practice to develop. For kids with ADHD, this process can be prolonged because these are the exact areas that are naturally challenging for them.

Before learning techniques to help you (and your kids) decide what to do, in which order, and when to begin, let’s look at the fundamental principles of prioritizing: urgency and importance. Urgent tasks cause us to react immediately and stop whatever else we are doing to attend to them. Urgency reflects time pressure or a deadline. Important tasks represent the significance we attribute to something. They also reflect our life values and guide us towards our purpose and goals.

How we prioritize things and understand their relevance, depends on two connected factors:

  1. The first revolves around when something needs to be accomplished and why it needs to be accomplished, based on what we know about it.
  2. The second factor involves emotion: our brain calls up any conscious or unconscious memories about this task (or something like it) from our lived experience. The feelings that go with these memories contribute to how we rate the significance of the task, its interest to us, and its inherent rewards.

When we are faced with prioritizing activities, these two factors work together to engage or bore us.

The Eisenhower Matrix was developed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to assist him in choosing which of the many tasks to focus on each day and make difficult decisions. This matrix can be very useful to folks living with ADHD as a tool to help them think about the ways that they prioritize certain items while putting others off.

Here is my adaptation of The Eisenhower Matrix:

  • Quadrant 1: Spending time in Q1 means living in crisis mode. Many kids and adults with ADHD live here or put things off until they wind up with emergencies. The intensity of urgency and importance helps motivate them to get things done, but they wind up with lots of stress.
  • Quadrant 2: Time in Q2 feels like being in the flow; you are setting goals for yourself, making plans and following through.
  • Quadrant 3: When you struggle with managing interruptions and setting boundaries, you probably spend time in Q3.
  • Quadrant 4: Q4 is the home of distractions — everything you do to avoid the task at hand.

Spend time talking with your student and reflecting on the following questions:

– Where do you spend your time?

– In which quadrant does your child or teen hang out?

– How can you spend more time in Q2 and less time in Q1 and Q4?

To improve planning and prioritizing skills, try these 4 strategies with your child or teen:

1. Do a brain dump:

Many kids with and without ADHD attempt to hold all of their to-do items in their head or write them on several pieces of paper which they then cannot find. Centralize this process. Pick one location for their lists: a phone, a computer or iPad or a notebook. Sit down with them and show them how to do a brain dump. Take 2 deep breaths: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and breathe out for 6 seconds. Now, write down everything you can recall that you need to do. They may need to check handouts or websites for assignments. It’s possible that they will recall everything in one sitting — that’s fine. You are teaching them a process to use throughout their lives. They can come back and add things as necessary. 

2. Assign time and importance values to the tasks:

Pick a time value (when is this due?) and an importance value (how critical or significant is this?) for each of these items in order to prioritize them. This is where many kids and adults, especially those with ADHD, get stuck. Sometimes everything seems equally critical. Unless there’s a real emergency that’s pressing, it helps to figure out what is an effective order to the stuff you’ve got to do. This assists with planning and organizing your calendar. I’ve created this chart with some examples to use with your child or teen. On a whiteboard, or a Google Doc or a large poster board with Post-it notes, start to map out the tasks at hand. Move things around until you get a satisfying approach. 

TASKDUE DATESIGNIFICANCEPRIORITY NUMBER
Fold the LaundryNoneI have no clean socks 2
History ProjectFriday – in 2 daysIt is 50% of my grade3
Soccer practiceGame TomorrowIf I don’t go to practice, I can’t play1

To decide the priority number, ask yourself these questions:

– What will happen if I don’t do this?

– What will happen if I do this?

– Which task am I leaning towards avoiding?

The more your child or teen doesn’t want to do something, the more likely it is that it’s important to start. These answers are usually very personal. Some people might rank doing the history project over finding socks and will wear a used pair again. As a parent, your role is to ask thoughtful questions about your child’s choices and assist them in zooming out to see the big picture. 

3. Set up a study buddy and/or family work time:

It’s easier for kids to determine their priorities when they have the space to think about them aloud with a supportive adult. Once they’ve created a strategy, though, how can they stick with it? Instead of you, as a parent, hovering over them as they work, consider two options. First, is there a friend with whom they could work simultaneously? When kids study together, they often keep each other on track, whether it’s online or in person. Consider assisting older elementary, middle, and high school students set up these sessions. Secondly, establish family work time. This occurs when you all sit at the kitchen table doing your independent work together. You act as their study buddy and role model: showing them what it’s like to be engaged in your work while also being available to answer any questions that arise. You can also review their brain dump and talk through how to choose where to start.

4. Be patient and persistent:

The executive functioning skills of planning and prioritizing take time and repeated instruction to develop. Expect your child or teen to stumble and feel frustrated at times. This is a tough skill to learn, and practice makes progress! As parents, you want your students to demonstrate an increased ability to create and apply a structure that makes sense to them that they will actually use. Take the time now to brainstorm, explore and apply their ideas as you collaborate on practical scheduling and organizational tools they can try, toss out or tweak and try again. Many students, especially those with ADHD, really struggle with these executive functioning skills and feel bad about themselves. Stay compassionate, empathize with their frustration, and keep your judgments at bay. The more supportive you can be to assist them in finding their own techniques, the more likely they will be to come to you for advice and guidance. 

Sharon Saline, Psy.D.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D. is a top expert in ADHD and neurodiversity. Dr. Saline specializes in an integrative approach to managing ADHD, anxiety, executive functioning skills, learning differences and mental health issues in neurodiverse and 2e children, teens, college-age adults and families. With over 25 years of clinical experience, she brings a positive, strength-based approach to improving the challenges related to attention, learning and behavior. As a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Northampton, MA, Dr. Saline helps people reduce frustration, develop daily living skills, communicate better and feel closer. An internationally sought-after lecturer, workshop facilitator, and educator/clinician trainer, she adeptly addresses topics ranging from making sense of ADHD and executive functioning skills to managing anxiety to understanding the teen brain.

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