(originally published August 20, 2015, updated September 6, 2020)
When you have ADHD task switching can often be difficult. You might feel like you’re stuck in a gear. It might be you’re trying to start, and your gears just keep on grinding. Other times you may want to stop but the gear just stays in place because you’re hyper-focusing on whatever you’re doing.
The bottom line is you feel overwhelmed, struggling to go from one task to the other. I know you’re curious why switching gears is so hard. But more than anything else you want to figure out what you can do to make it easier, right?
The first step is to understand how your ADHD contributes to your difficulty transitioning from one task or activity to another. The next step is to upgrade your skills, so you don’t get stuck in gear when you attempt to:
- get ready to start work.
- stop watching TV or playing a game.
- be fully present with your family or friends.
- shelve a thought or concern for the time being.
- shut down for the day.
- start or stop other tasks or activities.
What are specific times when shifting gears is the most challenging for you? If you’re ready to stop grinding your gears and transition with greater ease, keep on reading to learn what strategies you can adopt to make this possible.
Why Is It So Hard for ADHD Adults to Start or Stop Tasks?
It’s important to remember how your ADHD may contribute to your challenges with transitions.
In short, there is an imbalance of neurotransmitters in four functional regions of the ADHD brain — Frontal Lobe, Limbic System, RAS, Basil Ganglia. Because of this imbalance, these regions are not able to do their jobs effectively. If you’re curious as to know more about the impairment in these regions in the ADHD brain, check out this summary of the causes of ADHD.
According to Dr. Barkley, the consequence is your core ADHD problem is one of self-control or self-regulation. As a result, there are psychological processes that are underdeveloped in ADHD adults. And this is what contributes to your challenges with stopping and starting, such as:
- making decisions about priorities
- preparing and starting to work
- using internalized speech to guide your behavior and actions
- managing how you internalize and externalize emotions
- persisting in the face of challenges
I could go on. But you get the gist of it, right? That is, while there may be other factors that get in your way of starting and stopping tasks with greater ease, clearly your ADHD brain is one of the culprits. Sure, it is what it is.
But once you understand the impact of your ADHD more clearly, you’ll be able to better craft workarounds to make transitions easier. So, let’s get on with looking at some of the strategies you can try to be more intentional and effective in starting and stopping your tasks.
What Does It Look Like When Stopping Is the Problem?
I know that sometimes starting isn’t the problem.
In fact, there are probably activities you engage in on autopilot. For example, you may get up, get your coffee, and before you know it, you’re reading the paper. While you really should be getting ready for work, you’re jumping from one article to the next. And not stopping.
Other times, you may easily start an activity that catches your attention and interest. You just sort of slide into it. And before you know it an hour has passed since you started playing the sudoku game, organizing your photographs, etc. Whatever it is you’re doing you might be hyper-focusing.
And then maybe there are times when you’re trying to solve a problem or complete a task. While the more you work on it the more frustrated you get, you stick with it. You tell yourself, “I need to finish this before I can stop.” Maybe you even blew past the alarm you set.
How about when the challenge is procrastivity? This happens when you are procrastinating doing what you intended by engaging in another task that, while productive, isn’t what you intended to do. So, you start mowing the lawn, trimming the bushes, and weeding. But the email you need to send to your client is left undone
While these are just a few of the ways you may have challenges stopping, I’m sure you can think of other instances. What are some of those?
Here Is How You Can Stop with Greater Ease
One of the first steps you can take to making stopping easier is to have a clear plan for your day. This includes deciding exactly what, when, and for how long you are going to engage in an activity or task. Unless you decide this in advance you may just go down one rabbit hole after another, as you may not have a reason to stop. Makes sense, right?
Setting a timer is also helpful. You might even want a couple of notifications. Maybe setting one for 10 minutes before it’s time to stop. So, you can begin transitioning. And then another when the time is up. Many ADHD adults find visual timers, either a phone app or a standalone timer, useful for this.
But you know, especially if you are in hyperfocus mode, you may ignore the timer. If this is true for you, get up and move. The physical movement can help break you out of the “trance.” It also may be helpful to change your environment when the timer goes off. This could be a different room, table, or even chair. Whatever it is it can serve as a cue you’re moving on to a new activity.
Trying to control your thoughts, emotions impulses, and focus on a task is a challenge because of your ADHD. So, trying to exert more willpower —force yourself to stop — is unlikely to work. Instead, you might want to use techniques to help you not start. Maybe you uninstall the sudoku game from your phone or block The New York Times from 9:00 AM- 5:00 PM.
You get the idea.
What Does It Look Like When Starting Is the Problem?
What about when starting is the problem? For purposes of this post, let’s assume you’ve made a plan for your day, and put it in your calendar with alarms set to remind you.
But then at the critical moment of choice, you look at your calendar and think to yourself, “I’ll do that later.” Of course, you don’t have any idea in that moment of what later means. What you’re really saying is, “I’m not going to do this right now.” So, what is going on in those moments?
One possibility is you don’t know where to begin. Another possibility for why you aren’t starting is because you don’t have the necessary materials or information. Then again, it might be you identified the wrong first step. So, you can’t start because there is something you need to do before the step you listed.
Other times the task feels too daunting. So, when you see the task in your calendar you become overwhelmed and think, “How am I ever going to figure this out, finish it on time, etc.” But, instead of acknowledging and figuring out what to do, you just don’t start.
Of course, not being interested in doing the task is an obvious roadblock for ADHD adults. While you decided you should do it, when you get to that critical moment of choice, you’re just not feeling it. And decide you’ll do it when you feel more like doing it. When will that be? 😊
Then there is the familiar perfectionism and its twin, fear of failure, that may be the roadblock. In these instances, you think to yourself, “I’ll never be able to do this right or maybe at all.” Of course, you can’t fail or worry about producing something less than perfect if you don’t start.
Here Is How You Can Get Started When You Feel Stuck
The first step making getting started easier, is to tap into the reward. This can be especially useful for a task that is not intrinsically interesting. For example, I don’t know anyone that enjoys email. But you might “find the motivation” to do it because you value communicating well.
Next, be prepared to start by asking and answering the question, “What do I need to do start and complete this task?” Then, if it turns out you need to prepare more to start, that is where you start. That is, have all the needed materials available, make sure you’ve eaten, are in an environment conducive to working, etc. What does “being prepared” look like for a task you have to do today?
Using a warm-up routine to get started will help you move through the initial discomfort and get closer to initiating. So, to work on a particularly hard report, you may decide to get a cup of coffee, sit at a table instead of your desk, open the computer, read the document. You just want to focus on getting closer and closer to touching the task.
Also, if you think it might help to have some accountability, check out How to Form Accountability Partnerships for Adults with ADHD and ADHD and Body Doubles – Someone by Your Side to learn how you can use other people to help you get started.
And always make sure you’re using the right self-talk. As self-talk can either help or hinder you in getting started. While this skill is often underdeveloped in ADHD adults, you can learn how to do this better. Check out, ADHD & 5 Ways You Can Use Self-talk To Stop Procrastinating for tips on upgrading this skill.
Make Sure You Have a Buffer Between Stopping and Starting
So far, I’ve covered stopping and starting. If your calendar sometimes looks like the one above, which I like to call the “Lego calendar,” you may not have the time you need to get ready to start or to close the loop effectively on a task you’re stopping.
If this is the case for you, your days may feel frenetic, right? The antidote is to have a little bit of buffer in between tasks and activities. The amount of buffer will depend both on what you need to do to close off the task you’re stopping and what you need to do to be prepared to start your next task.
For example, you may want to process your notes and put the information where it needs to be from your meeting before transitioning. And then you may need time to review your notes and get prepared for your next meeting. Don’t forget about a bit of downtime to get some water and go to the bathroom or just decompress.
Having buffer time in your day also helps to account for the unexpected. Because, unlike Legos, just because your calendar looks like it should work, you know it might not, right? So, consider experimenting with adding in a little buffer time to make the transitions easier.
ADHD Task Switching Can Be Easier
Starting, stopping and task switching is definitely a challenge for many ADHD adults. While it won’t always be easy, using some of the above steps can make it easier for you. Which of the above techniques do you want to try this week?