We often associate ADHD with jumping from one activity to the next. But task switching — transitioning your focus smoothly from one point of focus to another — can be a challenge when you live with ADHD.
Task switching, known as cognitive flexibility or cognitive set-shifting, describes the process of naturally changing your focus from one task to another. It’s a part of your brain’s executive function, the set of cognitive processes responsible for mental abilities like planning, organizing, and goal-oriented behavior.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that can affect the executive function of your brain, particularly functions related to memory, organization, and focus.
This means that even though ADHD is well known for symptoms of jumping from one activity to another, many people actually find task switching to be a challenge.
ADHD affects people differently. Not everyone will experience trouble with task switching or have noticeable issues with executive function.
The same underlying neurological factors that lead to symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity can make task switching difficult for many people living with ADHD.
Sustained attention, or focus, is a part of your executive function that exists on a spectrum. On one end is distraction or inattention, and on the other end is intense concentration.
According to John Mathews, a licensed clinical social worker from Midlothian, Virginia, altered executive function in ADHD can involve both extremes.
“If you have ADHD, you have probably noticed that you have had difficulty with task switching at some point,” he says. “While a common perception of ADHD is that it causes one’s attention to bounce around all over the place, and this can be true, ADHD can also result in hyperfocus.”
He adds that this has positive and negative effects, depending on the situation. Hyperfocus can allow you to hone in on a task at hand, for example, but if others are relying on you to task switch, like during a work project, that’s when challenges may arise.
Task switching and inattention
Some research suggests that difficulty task switching in ADHD may be related specifically to features of inattention.
The researchers believe this is because features of inattention make you less likely to plan ahead for future tasks and more likely to react in the moment, especially if you know you have access to in-the-moment options.
In other words, inattention in ADHD may make it difficult to focus enough to plan ahead, and without planning ahead, task switching may be harder.
When you can’t switch from one task to another or feel “stuck,” it’s known as task paralysis in ADHD.
Task paralysis is associated with a state of overwhelm. It can happen for a variety of reasons but often has to do with too many requirements, stimulation, or expectations all at once.
To outsiders, task paralysis can appear like you’re being lazy or deliberately ignoring a responsibility. It’s not that you don’t want to complete the task, however. Instead, your goal-directed behavior is frozen.
“This is not just mere procrastination,” says Dr. Alejandro Alva, a psychiatrist at the Mental Health Center of San Diego. “For someone with ADHD, it’s like being rooted to the spot even when you genuinely want to begin. This paralysis often results from a combination of anxiety, overstimulation, and difficulties with executive function.”
Task paralysis can happen to anyone. It’s natural to have times when you’re overwhelmed and need to pause in what you’re doing, but living with ADHD may make task paralysis more common.
While the exact prevalence is unknown, an older pilot study from 2006 suggests people living with ADHD experience symptoms of task paralysis, like procrastination, more frequently than the general population.
Signs you have task paralysis
There are no universal criteria that define task paralysis.
Finding yourself “stuck” in a task doesn’t always mean you’re literally frozen in place, but for some people, this may be exactly what the experience of task paralysis is like.
Task paralysis can also be:
- constantly delaying or avoiding tasks
- feeling overwhelmed at the thought of the task
- experiencing anxiety when you go to engage in the activity
- wanting to do something but not being able to start, even if the task is simple
Task switching in ADHD isn’t impossible. You can improve your ability to transition between activities and learn new ways to set yourself up for success.
Alva says, “Improving task switching, especially when you have ADHD, is about working with your unique brain wiring, not against it.”
- prioritizing tasks, starting with what’s essential
- creating structured work-break schedules, like working for 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break
- minimizing distractions
- practicing mindfulness to help improve awareness in the moment
You can also:
- use timers to mark when you need to task-switch
- remind yourself you can come back to what you’re currently focused on
- keep routine tasks on the same daily schedule
- group similar tasks together
- break tasks into smaller ones so the mental transition is less demanding
- seek guidance from a mental health professional
If you get “stuck” in a task, Mathews says not to worry about where you start — just to start.
“Grab one of those [tangled] headphone chords [that represent task paralysis] and just
slowly start trying to detangle it,” he says. “After you’ve taken that first step, you’ll often find that the next step has suddenly become clear.”
Task switching is the ability to shift your attention from one activity to another. For many people living with ADHD, it doesn’t come easily.
Like other symptoms of ADHD, poor task switching may be related to altered executive function in the brain, which drives your ability to focus and engage in goal-directed behaviors.
Mindfulness, grouping similar tasks, and the use of timers are a few of the options available to help you improve task switching and the effect it has on your daily life.