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  • Writer's pictureJackson McMahan

How to Prioritize When There's Too Much to Do

Updated: May 15

By guest writer Jackson McMahan


In our busy, fast-paced lives, managing daily tasks is a universal challenge, but for autistic individuals like me, task management presents unique complexities. The way autistic individuals process information combined with their inherent strengths and challenges, can sometimes make task management a daunting endeavor. One part of task management that can be overwhelming for autistic individuals is knowing which tasks to prioritize when faced with an extensive workload.

autistic people in a boardroom focused on a speaker

Autistic minds are complex. This unique perspective, while a strength in many areas, can sometimes make prioritizing tasks seem like exploring a labyrinth. Add to this the potential for heightened sensory perception, deep focus, a methodical approach, and anxiety when faced with an extensive to-do list, and the need to learn how to effectively prioritize tasks becomes clear. In this post, I’ll explore how many autistic minds approach tasks and I'll list strategies that make choosing what to prioritize easier.


How the Autistic Mind Approaches Tasks

adult man with dark hair and a beard holding a fidget spinner

Autism is often characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, and a unique strength and challenge profile. It’s a form of neurodivergence that causes the individual to approach situations differently than neurotypical peers, and that includes task management.


One of the most distinguishing features of the autistic mind is how it processes information. For example, while neurotypical people might filter out background noises, an autistic person might hear the distant hum of an air conditioner, the ticking of a clock, and the rustling of leaves outside, all with equal prominence. For some autistic individuals, this heightened sensory perception can sometimes lead to sensory issues if the noises or smells are overwhelming or unbearable.


In the context of task management, the autistic mind has numerous strengths,

such as attention to detail, deep focus, and a methodical approach; however, these strengths can sometimes be double-edged swords. For example, although an autistic individual may be able to focus heavily on a task, they may sometimes have a hard time handling interruptions, switching between tasks, or starting new ones. Among these challenges is also picking what task to work on next.


When discussing autism in the context of task management, it’s important to note how the autistic mind can be overwhelmed. The root of this overwhelm often lies in the heightened sensory processing and deep focus associated with autism. Just as an autistic individual might be acutely aware of multiple, simultaneous sensory inputs, they might also perceive each task on their list with a heightened sense of urgency and importance. This can make distinguishing between high-priority and low-priority tasks challenging.


Moreover, the autistic mind often thrives on routine and predictability. A sudden change in plans or an unexpected task can be a major source of stress. These changes can shift what needs to be prioritized and ruin an established schedule. This means that figuring out what to prioritize is as much about being prepared for unexpected changes as it is about looking at what you must complete and deciding which is most important. So addressing this problem means coming up with strategies for prioritizing tasks and knowing how to account for any sudden changes.


Strategies for Prioritizing Tasks

four people talking at a desk

Managing a massive list of tasks and responsibilities sometimes requires the right strategies to achieve everything listed. Here are some strategies that can transform the daunting mountain of tasks into achievable steps. Try them out and see which ones work best for you.


Visual Task Boards

Visual aids can be a game-changer for many autistic individuals. Task boards provide a clear visual representation of tasks, their status, and priority. Digital tools like Trello or physical boards with sticky notes can also be used. Tasks can be categorized by type, urgency, or any other criteria that make sense to the person. One way to further streamline the process and make it more intuitive is by color-coding tasks based on their urgency, importance, or type.


The Eisenhower Box (Urgent-Important Matrix)

The Eisenhower Box (or Urgent-Important Matrix) is a tool that helps categorize tasks based on their urgency and importance. It divides tasks into four categories: urgent and important, not urgent but important, urgent but not important, and neither urgent nor important.


By visually separating tasks into these categories, it becomes easier to focus on what needs immediate attention. This clarity can reduce stress and provide a visual roadmap of tasks, which helps with deciding which ones to prioritize.


Delegate When Possible

If you know a task can be done by someone else, then you can ask a friend or family member to complete it for you. That way, you remove the burden of having to complete everything yourself by seeking support when needed.


It’s a way to make sure tasks with decreased priority than the most important ones can still be completed on time. Just make sure you clearly define when whatever task you delegated to someone else needs to be completed so they know their deadline.


Understand Your Schedule

Our schedules can determine when it’s possible for us to complete a task. Knowing what times you can work on tasks can help you decide when to complete certain tasks. For example, tasks that are going to take longer to complete should be done when you have more free time available so you can maximize that time to focus on it. Likewise, if you have a half-hour of free time, you could try using the time to complete a less demanding task, or maybe a quick step in a more long-term task.


Regular Check-Ins and Adjustments

As mentioned earlier, your list of tasks won’t always be static. There’s always the chance that a task will pop up that is more urgent or important than what you planned to work on. This is why regular check-ins with the people relying on you doing the tasks can help realign tasks based on changing priorities.


Setting aside a specific time each day or week to review and adjust the task list can help you always know what must be done. It’s a structured way to incorporate flexibility into your routine.


Seeking Support

two women hugging each other

Although self-reliance and individual strategies are helpful, seeking and accepting support is also a good idea. For autistic individuals, task management can sometimes require external guidance, tools, or even a supportive community. Recognizing the need for support and knowing where to find it can enhance one's ability to prioritize tasks effectively.


Therapists and Coaches

Occupational therapists or life coaches can offer tailored strategies and coping mechanisms. They can provide a safe space to discuss challenges, explore solutions, and set achievable goals.


It's important to find a therapist or coach who understands the unique needs and experiences of autistic individuals, so use recommendations, reviews, or trial sessions to make an informed choice.


Support Groups

Joining a support group, whether online or in person, can provide a sense of community. Sharing experiences, challenges, and solutions with others facing similar struggles can be comforting and enlightening. Many support groups offer resources, workshops, or seminars on specific topics, including task management. These can also be a source for new insights and strategies.


Loved Ones and Caregivers

As mentioned earlier, family members, friends, and caregivers can help complete some tasks when you have too much to do. They can also offer feedback on what tasks are more important to complete, offer reminders for what must be completed, or even be a sounding board for decision-making.


Tools and Apps

In today's tech-driven world, numerous apps are designed to assist with task management. From simple to-do list apps to more complex project management tools, there's something for everyone.


For autistic individuals, visual apps or those with reminder functions can be particularly beneficial. I already mentioned Trello as a tool for visual reminders, but some other popular options include Todoist, Microsoft To Do, and Asana. When exploring these apps, you’ll likely find one that aligns best with your preferences.


Conclusion

Task management is a universal challenge, albeit with unique nuances for autistic individuals. Through this guide, I've explored these challenges, from the intricate workings of the autistic mind to the overwhelming sensations that a long to-do list can evoke. More importantly, I've also listed many strategies and support systems that can transform this daunting task into a structured, manageable process.


Each strategy offers a pathway to help effectively prioritize tasks. Visual task boards, the Eisenhower Box, delegating tasks to someone else, understanding your schedule, and regular check-ins and adjustments are just a few tools that are available for use. Beyond strategies, getting support from coaches, therapists, loved ones, or digital tools is also important. In a world that often champions individualism, it's important to remember that seeking help is a sign of strength and wisdom, not weakness.


For every autistic individual reading this, remember that your perspective is a gift. While challenges are inevitable, they are also surmountable. There is always a way and it’s always about figuring out the best way to approach a challenge that works for you. Remember, with the right tools and support, the mountain of tasks can be climbed, one step at a time.


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