Thinking flexibly, also called cognitive flexibility, is the ability to shift gears, see things in more than one way. And can be a challenge for ADHD adults, no doubt. Yet, learning how to do this — avoid stuck thinking — is a critical skill for ADHD adults to be successful in both their personal and work spheres.
Because you often need this skill to adapt and respond quickly to changing situations — shift gears. These situations might include tasks, responses, perspectives, and strategies. So, if cognitive flexibility is one of your challenges, you’ll want to upgrade your skills, for sure. Because your ability to reach your goals may depend on this.
The good news is, with support and practice, you can learn how to think more flexibly. And, if you’re not sure if this is one of your challenges because you’re not quite sure what it is, don’t worry. Keep on reading to better understand this concept, how it may be a challenge for ADHD adults and strategies to upgrade your skills.
Ready? Let’s get on with it.
Task Switching Can Be Easier for ADHD Adults
One type of cognitive flexibility you’re familiar with, and likely find challenging because of your ADHD, is task switching. Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to consciously redirect your attention from one task to another.
The first step is to have a plan. I know. Not the first time you’ve heard this idea. 😊 But it really does help make it easier to start, stop and transition between tasks. Of course, you know from past experiences a plan is not the magic ticket. You also need to consider what will help you follow through. Below are a few suggestions you can try.
Creating habits for routine work will make it easier to start because you know what is involved. Of course, if you try to impose too much structure, you will inevitably resent, and then resist these routines. You want to find the right balance, for sure.
Whether a task is routine or not, it can still be difficult to start. And, like many adults with ADHD, you may over-rely on urgency for motivation. But urgency doesn’t always work to get your work done on time or do your best work. So, instead, try using these 6 alternatives.
You may also try to force yourself to start, which I bet doesn’t work any better than relying on urgency. This is because trying to exert more willpower — controlling your thoughts, emotions, impulses, and performances (focus on tasks) — is a challenge for you because of your ADHD. An alternative is to use a warm-up routine to get ready to start.
Then when it’s time to stop, you might set a timer, go for a short walk to fully disengage from a task, and even move to a new table, chair or room to cue you to move on to the next task.
How ADHD Adults Can Think Flexibly to Respond the Way You Want
Conversations with several people, such as meetings, are another time when flexible thinking is important. Yet, it can be hard to follow the “bouncing ball,” right? One of the reasons may be your weak working memory, which also may contribute to slow processing speed. Both possible byproducts of your ADHD.
If these are challenges for you, first remember to practice self-compassion. Because, while you can learn strategies to minimize your tendency to retreat or blurt out whatever comes to mind, large group conversations may never be your jam. And that’s ok. You can learn how to handle them well enough.
Start by taking notes in meetings, including your thoughts and questions, to help you organize your thoughts, rather than trying to it in your head. Then, if you still need more time to respond the way you want, try using one of the responses below.
- If somebody asks you to take on a task, you could reply, “I’m not sure if my calendar is up to date, let me check after the meeting and get back to you. Sound OK?”
- When somebody asks for your opinion and you’re unsure, try, “I’d like to give that a little bit more thought. Is it ok if I shoot you an email tomorrow?”
- If it’s hard to follow the thread, you might ask, “Could you say more about that?”
I know you get the more stressed you are the harder it is going to be to think flexibly. So, take time to breathe, really. And practice defusing any negative thoughts you might have about your “performance.” So, you can be as present is possible, and not worried about your participation.
Understanding Other Peoples’ Perspectives When You Have ADHD
“Perspective is reality,” right? And your reality is shaped by a variety of factors, including culture, socioeconomic status, life experiences, etc. So, if you want to try to step into someone else’s shoes to see what their reality is like — understand their perspective — you’ll need to think flexibly.
To do this it’s important to acknowledge how your ADHD symptoms— impulsiveness, weak working memory, emotional regulation, etc.—may get in the way of doing this well in the moment — before you had a chance to take a step back. This understanding will inform and help you craft the right workarounds.
One strategy, of course, to rally listen to what other people are saying, and not having a conversation in your head about how you want to respond. 😊Not easy, right?! But, by practicing the skills below you can upgrade your ability to listen better in typical conversations:
- seek first to understand.
- ask clarifying questions.
- reserve judgment.
- ask for permission to interrupt.
Then there are crucial conversations where the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong. For these types of conversations, you’ll need to adopt a particular skill set to keep the conversation from going wrong. These skills will allow you to put the brakes on when it may be especially difficult.
Practice is the operative word. It may take a while and it may not come easily, especially if you’re not in the habit of being as mindful in the way you have conversations.
Time to Switch Strategies to Operate Better?
How do you know when it’s time to adopt new strategies and drop old strategies to operate better in your personal and professional life? This is often a hard question for ADHD adults to answer. And, consequently, you may stay stuck for longer than you would like. One of the reasons might be that decision making is often a challenge for ADHD adults.
So, while you may beat yourself up when a strategy doesn’t work out, you just aren’t sure what other options might work better for you. And you may think you just need to try harder. Maybe that’s true sometimes. But I’m guessing, more often than not, you need to either tweak your current strategy so it works better for you or adopt a new technique entirely.
When you know better, you will do better.
We all have our blind spots. If you’ve tried doing this on your own, and you’ve run out of ideas, ask for help from a friend, colleague, therapist or coach, etc. This person can help you see what you are not able to see right now on your own — be a mirror. And, the more you practice with someone else, the better you’ll be able to spot some of your challenges when they occur in the future.
And, once you understand why you are stuck, this person can also be a collaborative thought partner, helping you to think of possible workarounds to address your challenges. Then, perhaps, they or someone else can be an accountability partner for you as you experiment with these techniques.
Can ADHD Adults Avoid Stuck Thinking?
Yes, of course you can avoid stuck thinking! True, your ADHD symptoms may sometime get in the way of being able to think as flexibly as you would like. But you can build this muscle.
Just remember, less is more, though. Choose just one of the above areas to start practicing. And let me know how it goes.