You look at or think about a task. You tell yourself it is important to do. But you just can’t get started. You feel paralyzed – frozen. You may or may not know why. And the paralysis gets worse the more you avoid it, right?
The primary reason is fear. That is, there is something about the task that frightens you. It may feel as though a lion is chasing you. At least, that is how your body interprets the fear. Maybe the “lion” is your fear of failure, appearing incompetent, or not living up to your perfectionist tendencies.
Whatever the origin of the fear, when this happens your prefrontal cortex, which is command central for your executive functioning, goes offline. And your amygdala, your emotional brain takes over.
Luckily, there are time-tested strategies you can use to break free of this ADHD task paralysis. But first, a little bit about task paralysis and ADHD.
Connection Between Task Paralysis and ADHD
First, remember your task paralysis may be more pronounced because of your various ADHD-related executive function challenges. Knowing this can help you create the right workarounds.
One is challenges with skills, such as planning, organizing, initiating tasks, and maintaining focus. These challenges, of course, can make it more difficult to decide how to approach a task and get started.
You may also be more prone to emotional dysregulation, which means you may have stronger emotional responses to stimuli. This can lead to increased frustration, anxiety, or other emotions when faced with tasks, making it, yes, harder to get started.
Your working memory, essential for holding and manipulating information while working on tasks, is also compromised because of your ADHD. This can mean it is difficult to hold a task in mind and stay on track.
Of course, because ADHD Adults are also more easily distracted, you are more likely to divert your attention away from the task at hand. And, this can also contribute to task paralysis.
Because of all these challenges, it is even harder for you to get your prefrontal cortex back online and restore control over your emotional brain, the amygdala when faced with task paralysis.
Hopefully, keeping the above in mind will allow you to approach task paralysis with self-compassion and patience, as you try to address it.
#1 – Engage Your Parasympathetic Nervous System
The first step is to be aware of what is happening to your body. When faced with task paralysis, your sympathetic nervous system is driving your fight, flight, and freeze response. Its role is to help you respond in dangerous and stressful situations. But it interferes with your ability to get your prefrontal cortex back online. So you can tackle the task that has you so frightened.
The second step is to quiet this response by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, whose role is to “rest and digest.” Because there really isn’t any danger, right? Here are a few techniques you can experiment with to do this.
Breathwork to activate the vagus nerve is one of the most accessible ways to lower your anxiety in these situations, as you can do it anywhere. You can look for guided breathwork exercises or try this one, called 4-7-8, on your own.
- Count to 4 as you breathe in through your nose.
- Hold for the count of 7.
- Breathe out through pursed lips as you count to 8.
There are many different breathwork techniques. Experiment and find one that works for you.
Listening to relaxing music can also help. Specifically, music at 432 Hz frequency seems to be the most impactful in helping to soothe your nervous system.
Try a grounding exercise, such as 5,4,3,2,1. From where you are right now, what are five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste? Being in the moment, the now, can help you relax.
These are just a few of the strategies you can use to engage your parasympathetic nervous system as the first step in getting out of freeze mode. There are many ways to do this. Check out 43 Techniques to Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System and Lower Stress.
#2 – Know Your Why
Next, so you have a visceral connection to the reward, identify the reason you would choose to do the task. When you are in task paralysis, this will not be enough to get you started. But it is an important ingredient in getting closer to doing the task.
For example, a former client, who was a professor, would neglect his email. Sometimes, he avoided it because it was boring. But other times he felt paralyzed trying to respond to emails. Because it felt too daunting. It seemed impossible to tackle the constant onslaught of emails that came his way each day. And it was easier for him to focus on what he did well, which were his classes and research.
But he also wanted to be respected as a professional. And for him, that meant staying on top of his communication. He didn’t realize how important staying current with his email was to him until he made this connection.
What is the reward for doing a task you are currently paralyzed from doing? Sometimes it can be hard to figure this out. So, if you’re not sure, try writing about it or talking it through with someone.
#3 – Make It Manageable
What is causing your task paralysis is that the task is in some way too daunting. The antidote to this, of course, is finding a way to make it less so.
What if you’re paralyzed because the task is just too big? So that every time it comes to mind you think, “there is no way I can get this done.”
For example, the professor who neglected his email because of fear he couldn’t stay on top of it scheduled blocks of time just to do email. And reminded himself each time that he didn’t need to finish, he just needed to do as much as he could. To his surprise he discovered he was able to get through a fair amount in the time he put aside.
What if, regardless of size, your fear is of failing or not doing it well enough because of your perfectionism?
This was true in the example of a client,an attorney, who had a hard time starting on any type of written work because of her perfectionism. It could be an email or something more involved like a brief. To counter this she adopted a habit she remembered from elementary school, which was to write a “sloppy copy” as a first draft. That is, she wrote whatever came to mind and then put it aside. Then it became easier for her to do her written work because at least she wasn’t starting from scratch.
What can you do to make the task more “approachable”?
#4 – Prime The Pump
Starting with a warm-up routine can help you get closer to the task and also get you in the right mindset. Think of it as kindling. That is, you are trying to slowly light the fire to help you get started.
The first step in your warm up routine should be so easy that there is virtually no chance you could not achieve it. Remember, you’re just trying to get traction to be able to start on your primary task. It might be getting water, opening up your computer and looking at the document that you need to work on.
You also want to include physical movement especially when it comes to task paralysis. This may mean moving to a different location to start to cue you and reinforce your intention to get started.
Then you want to do your warm-up routine exactly the same each time. So you can rely less on willpower. As you will be pulled by your warm-up routine to start on your primary task. If you get water in the blue glass and sit at a certain table, do that each and every time.
Next do the easiest part first to help you get started. I know you’ve often heard the adage to eat your frog first. But remember you are trying to get closer and closer. Choosing a part where you feel the least resistance can help you do this.
#5 – Feed Your ADHD Brain
Don’t forget, as an adult with ADHD, you have an interest-based nervous system rather than an importance-based nervous system. This means you will find more motivation when there is some element of challenge, novelty, interest, or urgency. You definitely don’t want to over-rely on urgency, though
However, creating an environment that leverages one of these elements as it relates to the task itself or a reward for working on the task can be to your advantage. Here are a few ways to do that.
- Work on the task for 25 minutes. Then play a game for 10 minutes.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes and see how many emails you can get through.
- Work on the part of the task that interests you the most first.
- Change the location of where to you work.
- Listen to music.
Just don’t forget to give your brain the stimulation it needs.
#6 – Reach Out For Help
We all need help sometimes. Maybe you’ve tried your best. And you’re just not able to get started. It might be time to reach out for help. The type of help can take one of many forms.
You might need a body double, someone who works side-by-side with you. Though not necessarily on the same task. The mirroring might be just enough to help you get started and stay on task.
When a body double doesn’t cut it you might need an accountability partner who can help you more directly. They might ask you questions to guide you as you work on the task.
Despite your best efforts, when you still can not get started, consider delegating the task. Of course, this could mean handing all or part of it off to a direct report. It might also entail negotiating a different division of labor, whether at work or home. And in some cases, you could hire someone.
ADHD Task Paralysis
Everyone is faced with task paralysis at some time. And, no doubt, task paralysis can be more pronounced for ADHD adults. But using the above strategies can help you break free of this. Which one are you going to try?