Prioritizing the wrong things at work? This may be why

No matter what your job is, chances are that some tasks are more important than others. And some tasks need to get done before others. For many people, prioritizing tasks is easy and happens naturally. For others, it’s a real challenge.

There are a number of reasons why people struggle with prioritizing. A common one is trouble with executive function — a group of skills that help us get tasks done. People with ADHD struggle with these key skills, although others may, too.

Here are five common reasons people have trouble prioritizing at work:

1. Being anxious or overwhelmed by work

If you need to juggle multiple tasks, or have trouble managing time, you may feel overwhelmed by everything you need to do. You might focus on tasks that are easiest or quickest to get done, even if they’re not the most important. And if tasks are difficult, you may feel anxious and put off doing them.

2. Not recognizing or remembering what’s most important

Your manager might have told you that a particular task or project is urgent or a top priority. But if you have trouble paying attention or holding on to information, you may miss that message entirely. You might also not think about the consequences of delaying important tasks.

3. Difficulty planning and organizing

Even if you know which tasks are most important and why, you may struggle to come up with a plan for getting them done. That’s especially true if there are multiple steps to a task. Once you’re working on that task, you may have trouble planning for or keeping track of less important tasks. 

4. Getting fixated on other, less important tasks

You might be so caught up in a task or a project that you can’t put it aside. It’s more important to you, even if it’s not the most important thing for you to work on right now. 

5. Trouble shifting from task to task

It may be hard for you to change direction and move from one task to another, even if it’s important or urgent. Switching gears often means adjusting to new circumstances and adopting a new plan. It may also take you more time than it takes other people to process new information.

ADHD and prioritizing tasks

Because people with ADHD struggle with executive function skills, they often have trouble prioritizing tasks. “People will say, ‘If I have a bunch of stuff to do at one time, it’s really hard for me to look at it and say, OK, that should be first. That should be second. That should be third,’” explains clinical psychologist and ADHD expert Dr. Thomas Brown. 

“But even when they get their priorities straight, which doesn’t often happen, they tend to have a lot of difficulty getting started,” he adds.

If you think you have trouble with executive function or ADHD, learn about how ADHD is diagnosed in adults. And find out how one woman with executive function challenges found the right career path for her

Key takeaways

  • Focusing on the right tasks at work requires executive function skills.

  • These skills include attention, memory, planning, and shifting gears.

  • People with executive function challenges and ADHD often struggle with prioritizing tasks.


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