First Things First: Setting Priorities

by Rosemary Hollinger

You’re sitting at your desk, staring at the piles of papers in your workspace and hundreds of unread emails, and thinking about all those resolutions you just made to exercise, eat right, and get more sleep.  Where should you begin?  Perhaps you have read those helpful articles about organization that suggest you start by color-coding everything:  red for the most important things, yellow for things less important, and green for unimportant things.  The next step is to start with the things you’ve coded red. Except you’ve coded everything red and you’re colorblind.

That is your ADHD brain at work.  It doesn’t organize things in order of importance.  It’s like being colorblind.  Everything looks the same. However, if I were to ask you to rank things in the order of most to least interesting, could you do it?  Of course you can, because that’s how the ADHD brain operates.  What you need is an organizational structure with lawyer-appropriate criteria.  Let me suggest five levels of importance:

Level 1: Things that could jeopardize your career
Things that if not done endanger your law license, or at the very least, merit a call to your malpractice carrier.  A real example:  The owner of property in Park City, Utah, leased the land to Powdr Corp for $150,000 a year for 20 years.  The lease was up for renewal and the leaseholder was required to return the renewal papers on a certain date.  The leaseholder submitted the renewal “a couple of days late,” and, according to news reports at the time, the landlord rented the property to Vail Resorts for $17 million a year. Even with that rent increase, Vail expected profits of $35 million a year operating the Park City Ski Resort. This is the kind of mistake that would have merited a call to the leaseholder’s attorney’s malpractice carrier if it had been the attorney who had missed the deadline. It wasn’t, but these are the kinds of things, along with statutes of limitations and court orders that have to take top priority.

Level 2: What gives you joy/relief
Things that will give you the greatest joy once done.  There are things out there that are causing you pain.  This often occurs because you have not met the expectations of someone with more power than you (senior partner, supervisor, important client, referring attorney, or even a Judge).  Once done, the joy (or relief) is almost palpable.  Your inner people-pleaser is elated. You could start your day doing one of these things. The joy (or dopamine hit) can energize you into the third category.

Level 3: All that other stuff  
The first place to look for assistance in prioritizing an assignment is to ask the person giving you the task what their expectations are in terms of scope of the assignment, deadline, level of urgency and degree of flexibility. Pause before you accept the assignment, acknowledge the importance (and complexity) of the assignment and check your calendar before you accept the assignment.  If you can’t meet the expectations say so and explain the competing priorities.  The key here is communication.

What if you have multiple competing responsibilities? One strategy that works is to lean on your team. I am not limiting the word “team” to people who are assigned to the same work unit as you. I mean those colleagues who support you and who you, in turn, support. Is there a partner, senior associate, or trusted colleague you can talk to about these issues? Ask their opinions regarding relative priorities. Every workplace has unwritten rules. Your office may have an unwritten rule that a certain partner’s work always takes priority or a certain client or project. But since these rules are unwritten and people with ADHD sometimes have challenges picking up subtle social cues, what should you do? Rely on your team to help articulate those unwritten rules. The takeaway here is don’t isolate yourself. Reach out for help, and as you figure out the unwritten rules of your workplace, your problems with prioritization will diminish.

Level 4: Things you want to do  
These are those things that give you energy and let you be your full self.  You can use these things as rewards.  When you start a task that feels like drudgery, you can break it up by rewarding yourself at set intervals by doing a task you want to do.

Level 5: Things you committed to do and don’t want to do
The things you’ve committed to do and don’t want to do very likely fall into the category of things you should have said no to in the first place.  Learning how to say no politely is a skill.  One strategy is to stall for time.  Instead of immediately saying “yes” or “no,” say something like, “Can I get back to you on that?” “Sorry, I can’t right now…” or “I wish I could, but…”  If you have already said yes and you cannot find a tactful way to go back to the requestor and change your “yes” to a “no”, then just get it done now, delegate the task, or find someone who would be willing to fill in for you (understand that you may have to reciprocate). A real-life example: For several years my supervisor would commit to speaking at a conference which she simply hated doing, and every year, she would delegate it to me.  I loved presenting to that audience, so it was a win-win for both of us.  Just because you hate doing something that doesn’t mean everyone else feels the same way.


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Tips for Managing Task List Overwhelm

by Evan Monez

Do you find yourself stuck before you even look at your task list? Overwhelmed by the idea of all you need to do, and the fear that it’s all too important to pick the “right” thing to do first, even with Rosemary’s handy prioritization guide?

Pause. Take a deep breath. You can do this, and to help, here are some tips for dealing with task-list overwhelm.

Reframe your perspective on your task list.
Is your inner critic using your task list as an opportunity to berate you about all the things you haven’t finished? Remember, your task list is just a tool, created by you, for you, to help yourself keep track of things, and NOT as a torture device for your inner critic to play with.

Connect with your strengths, interests, and capacity for self-compassion.
You’re an attorney with ADHD—you’re in a profession that is notoriously not ADHD-friendly, and yet through the power of your strengths and the motivation of a deep interest in the law, you made it through law school, the bar exam, and got the job or started your own solo practice. Certain aspects of ADHD make it easy to fall prey to imposter syndrome and hard for us to remember all the things we ARE good at and the amazing things we HAVE done.

You’re an ADHD attorney. Your brain is amazing. Acknowledge that what you are trying to do—prioritize your task list and get started on your projects—is genuinely a hard thing for you and that’s not a moral failing, it’s just how your brain works. And how your brain works also has to do with why you are SO GOOD at the things about your job that you enjoy, that brought you to it in the first place. Give yourself a break from self-criticism and remember the strengths you are proud of. Your inner cheerleader can be more motivating than your inner critic.

Consider that there is no “right” thing to do first, and the only wrong thing is to do nothing.
Those of us with ADHD can get so caught up in the issue of how to prioritize that we get stuck and don’t move on to actually doing anything. Or we figure out the most important project but are paralyzed by how daunting that project feels. We can’t get started on it, but we tell ourselves we can’t do something LESS important because we “should” be doing the MOST important thing, and then we end up completely stalled out.

For that big important project, you probably already know that the thing to do is to break it into smaller steps, so you know where to get started and to make it less overwhelming. However, something I and many of my clients have experienced is a sort of shaming impatience that gets in the way of that step – the idea that you don’t have time to break it down because you are already so behind, and anyway, you “shouldn’t” need to do that, you “should” just know what the steps are without effort. Give yourself permission to take time to break it down! You’ll spend less time in the long run breaking down the steps than just staring at an insurmountable wall.

When you just can’t figure out the “right” thing, or you still can’t get started on the most important thing, consider doing the most interesting thing. Even if it’s the least urgent! For a lot of us with ADHD, rewards aren’t effective because we can’t connect with the future self who will be getting the reward. If you are saving the fun projects as a reward but can’t seem to start on anything, try giving yourself permission to do the task you most WANT to do. That will remind you that you are capable of getting things done and give you some momentum to keep going onto the more difficult tasks.

Remember, first things first.
Sometimes with ADHD, it feels like knowing what you need to do and then having it be done should be instantaneous, even if we know intellectually that’s not the reality. Take a deep breath, remember that it takes time to get from the start to the finish, and take the first step on one of your tasks or projects (which may be figuring out what the steps are!).

You got this!

Even Monez, ADHD Coach with Partner Up

Evan is a licensed member of the Washington Bar Association with a J.D. from the University of Texas and LLM in Taxation from the University of Washington. Evan practiced in estate planning, probate, and tax law at a prestigious Seattle law firm for several years. She then worked for a wealth management firm before finding her calling as an ADHD coach and starting Monez ADHD Coaching. Evan continues to practice law as a volunteer at the King County Bar Association Neighborhood Legal Clinic. 




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Email can be a source of a lot of stress for everyone. It can be especially overwhelming when you have ADHD. Check out this article from ADDitude Magazine on how to manage your email.


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