Why I haven’t done the thing: Poor Prioritisation

It’s like untangling headphone wires: this knot needs loosening before that knot can be undone, but this loop is in the way of that, so… wait, which knot was I trying to undo?
Tangled cable

Prioritisation is one of the main ‘broken links’ in a typical ADHD mind. It comes under the super-fun symptom umbrella of Executive Function Disorder.

This issue with prioritising manifests in several ways. The most harmful, and therefore most obvious, are health and lifestyle related.

A couple of years ago, I couldn’t prioritise my long-term wellbeing over a short-term desire for a four-hour session in the pub. Now I find it hard to prioritise my financial health over a short-term longing for a smartwatch or bluetooth headphones (see below).

Less obvious, but pernicious and frustrating, is a difficulty in prioritising day-to-day tasks at work or at home.

Unordered list

Even when I very much want to get X, Y and Z done – I’m motivated and medicated and ready to roll – I can hit a wall when it comes to deciding where to start.

When there are several things that need to be done before I can do the main thing, it is extremely difficult to find the starting point.

It’s like untangling headphone wires (ahem): this knot needs loosening before that knot can be undone, but this loop is in the way of that, so… wait, which knot was I trying to undo?

If I have an entire day to deal with this knot of tasks, I can actually find myself enjoying it – because I can just pick something and start there. It doesn’t matter if I’ve prioritised wrong.

When everything starts happening, it’s great: when I file the papers, so the desk is clear, so I can move my stationery out of the living room, so I can clean the table, so… everything starts clicking together.

It’s flicking a row of dominos, or building an archway and finding the sweet spot for a keystone.

Tick tock

However, I very rarely have a whole day to deal with anything.

I have a few five, ten, or 15-minute slots during the day; and I might have a couple of hours at a time on some evenings and weekends.

So, one of the aspects of productivity I’m struggling with is knowing which task is the most important in those moments. Or, which task allows the commencement of the most other tasks later on.

I feel like this kind of abstract arithmatic comes naturally to most people. I certainly don’t hear many people complain about it (unless we’re in a period like Christmas, where everyone gets overwhelmed).

Dreaded delay

I’ve talked mainly about home life because it’s something that everyone can relate to, whereas I have quite a weird, scattered list of responsibilities at the Day Job.

As you can imagine, this has led to many a wasted afternoon as I walk gently into hurdles and shruggingly give up.

The real productivity killer is enforced delay due to bad task prioritisation.

For example:

  • I need to fix the formatting on a bunch of tables
  • I go into the post to do this and find that I can’t fix the tables until I update a bit of software
  • I go to the updates page, which takes ages to load for some reason, so I click to a different tab (DANGER, DANGER!) and begin a different task
    • This spawns three sub-tasks which will definitely distract me later
  • An hour later I remember the tables and click back to the updates page
  • I update the software and reformat the tables

Time spent: >1 hour

What should have happened:

  • I do all the software updates in the morning or last thing in the afternoon
  • My task list alerts me that I need to fix some tables
  • I click into the post and fix the tables

Time spent: <10 mins

Bad prioritising = delay = distraction

Chaos conclusion

Delay only makes things worse, of course.

I managed to put off the 20-minute job of tidying my office for over a month.

Before I could clear all the crap off my desk I needed somewhere to put it – and I had a little cupboard earmarked for just that purpose.

Unfortunately, that cupboard was filled with the half-finished project of compacting Joe’s DVD collection. Sorting that out was going to take over three hours – a shiversome prospect on a busy day.

So the office stayed untidy, and work got done in the living room, and piles of paperwork bred on the coffee table, and ten new tasks that I couldn’t prioritise appeared out of nowhere.

Eventually I just took a day and blitzed the whole thing. God, it was satisfying. But how much work and leisure time did I waste working around my own chaos? How many minutes of frustration and stress did I cause myself? Definitely more than it would have taken to do the bloody job in the first place.

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