3 Ways to Manage Transition & Strengthen Cognitive Flexibility Skills with ADHD

Ah, transitions. For the ADHD brain, they’re some of the biggest obstacles we navigate. 

Whether it’s the shift back to school, transitioning from the weekend back to work (Sunday blues, anyone?), or simply switching from one project to the next, these changes can be quite a hurdle.

But why is that?

Why is it so hard to adjust to transitions?

That is exactly what we’re talking about on episode 109 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast.

So if you notice yourself on the transition struggle bus, be sure to tune in and learn:

  • Why transitions present a particular challenge for the ADHD brain.
  • Strategies to navigate change more easily.
  • A 3-step process that you can implement today to ease those transitions now.

You can listen below or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here: 

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

Listen To The Podcast Here!

In This Episode, You Will Discover… 

  • Why transitions present a particular challenge for the ADHD brain.
  • Strategies to navigate change more easily.
  • A 3-step process that you can implement today to ease those transitions now.

Links From The Podcast

Subscribe And Review

Do you want to be the first to know when a new episode drops? You got it! Click over to iTunes, select “Listen on Apple Podcasts,” and then click the “subscribe” button.

Also, if you love the podcast, would you be a rockstar and leave me a review? Reviews help others find the show and allow me to share my message even further. Thanks, friend!

Episode #109: 3 Ways to Manage Transition & Strengthen Cognitive Flexibility Skills with ADHD (Transcript)

You’re listening to the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast with Paula Engebretson. Episode number 109. 

Hello friends. Welcome to the podcast. Is anyone else in disbelief about the fact that it is August 23rd when this episode releases? How is that even possible? It seems like I just released a podcast episode a couple of weeks ago about how to plan our summer and here we are at the end of August. Time is such a crazy thing.

Over the last several weeks I’ve been talking with many clients about different changes and transitions happening right now. And top of mind for many of them is the fact that we are nearing the end of summer and entering the fall and back-to-school season. In fact, I know some school systems are already back to school by the time this episode is out and for a lot of us — whether we have kids in school or not – we are experiencing a general shift or transition from the relative flexibility and carefree nature of the summer months into fall. 

Additionally, for a lot of people – at least in the North East – August tends to be a month for vacation. So we have transitions not only on the large-scale from summer vacation into back-to-school mode. But we also have shifts from traveling and vacations back to work.

Plus, I’ve been talking with clients about changes regarding leaving old jobs and starting new ones. Beginning new relationships or ending relationships. Moving to new locations, etc.

It seems that a lot of us are working through different changes right now. And so this week on the podcast we’re going to dig in and explore. I want to talk about navigating change and transition and how we can best support ourselves in what can sometimes seem like a rather challenging time.

Why We Struggle With Transitions

And I want to start by talking about why navigating transition or change can seem like a significant obstacle for us at times. Why is it that we struggle with transitions? Because even when it’s exciting and we’re genuinely looking forward to the change, sometimes we have a hard time making the adjustment. It feels uncomfortable. We might even be thinking to ourselves, why am I making such a big deal out of this? Why is this so hard? I shouldn’t be feeling this way.

So let’s talk about that first. Why is a change or transition a challenge for so many of our brains? Well let’s first turn to science for a minute, shall we? Our brain has something called the prefrontal cortex, which is what I always call the executive brain on the podcast. And the executive brain takes care of our executive functions. These are things like planning and organization, time management, focus and attention, emotional regulation, etc.

Cognitive Flexibility and ADHD

And in addition to these areas, it also takes care of something called cognitive flexibility or mental flexibility. Now, what in the world is that? Cognitive flexibility is basically just a different way of explaining one’s ability to go with the flow. It’s our ability to have flexible thinking -again, cognitive flexibility – about different scenarios whether that’s thinking about a change in plan, beginning a new routine, or adopting a new belief. Our cognitive flexibility plays a role in all of this.

Now for my fellow ADHDers or neurodivergents listening, we tend to struggle quite a bit with cognitive flexibility, though it can certainly be a challenge for human brains overall. So many people struggle with this. 

So what might this look like? Well, it appears in several different ways. Perhaps if you get interrupted while you’re in flow working on a project, you might have a hard time thinking about who’s even talking to you let alone the request that they’re making. In other words, it’s often challenging to seamlessly switch from one thing to the next when we’re intensely focused or hyperfocused on something. I have a feeling that some of you might be able to relate to this.

Navigating Transitions

This is also true in terms of switching from work brain to home brain, which really came to the foreground when lots of us shifted to working from home. Prior to the pandemic, a lot of us didn’t think much about our commute time home – aside from possibly dreading the traffic. But that commute time also allowed time for us to decompress in the car, let our mind wander, and leave our thoughts about work behind by the time we got back home.

But once there was the transition to working from home for more people, we started noticing how much harder it was to “shut off” work-brain, close the laptop, and enter home-brain. That transition was so immediate and we hadn’t built up our cognitive flexibility enough to be able to make that seamless transition. So many of us would bring our thoughts about work or the projects we are working on into home mode. And then all of a sudden everything blends together because we don’t have that clear transition or that clear pivot from work to home.

And then in relation to what I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast episode, we are now facing transitions in terms of shifting from summer vacation brain to back-to-work and back-to-school mode. Many of us are facing a more routine-based structure, and our brain needs to get ready for that shift.

Or maybe you’ve moved locations and you’re transitioning to your new surroundings. Perhaps you’ve ended a relationship. Maybe you got married. Maybe you started living with someone. Perhaps you started a new job or you’ve had a baby or you returned from maternity leave. All of these situations introduce change and transition and an opportunity to strengthen our cognitive flexibility muscle.

Emotions and Transition

Now for most of us, when it comes to navigating change and transition, it’s usually much harder to switch tasks or navigate these changes if we are quite emotionally involved. It usually seems more challenging for us to accept big changes when we have a lot of strong feelings and thoughts about the circumstance.

For example, let’s say you are super excited about some plans you created, and you have tons of thoughts creating evidence that these plans are going to be amazing. But then the plan falls through. When this happens. You’ll probably have a harder time accepting that change in plan than if you felt indifferent about it.

For example, think about certain jobs that you applied to in your life. Maybe you thought you found your dream job and you had all the connections lined up. You knew lots of people in the company. You had an amazing interview. You’re certain you’re going to get the job and that it’s going to be a dream come true. 

But then you find out you don’t get it. And you have to navigate that change in plan. You have to exercise your cognitive flexibility. Chances are you’d have a much harder time doing so with this job that you are extremely excited about than with a job you applied to, knew you could probably get, but didn’t really care much about it. You saw it as a means to an end rather than the dream job.

Or maybe you have had an amazing summer and you are loving the relative freedom of the summer and the longer days and the time to play. And because you’re loving this summer so much this year, you feel even stronger emotions as you think about transitioning back to a more strict fall routine. And you might compare that to somebody who has been counting down the days for summer break to end so that their kids go back to school and they have a little more time to themselves. 

So the first thing I invite you to do is gain some awareness of where you might be facing a transition in your life right now. Maybe your kids are transitioning back to school or you’re starting a new job. Maybe you’ve just returned from vacation. Or maybe you’re heading back to work after maternity leave. Or perhaps it’s smaller transitions like shifting into weekend mode and shutting down after a busy week of work. We are all dealing with transitions in some shape or form right now.

And I encourage you to bring that transition into your awareness. How are you feeling about this change? Is there a lot of emotion wrapped up in it? By simply bringing these transitions front and center and raising our awareness of them, we can then figure out how to best support ourselves through this transition. We can start asking ourselves, how can I support myself here? How can I make this transition easier? How can I make it fun? What can I do to set myself up for success?

So let’s talk about how to do that. How can we best support ourselves through these transitions? Today I want to share with you three separate strategies, which you can use individually or you could put all together to really support your brain as you navigate the changes.

Check In With Future You

So the first strategy I recommend exploring to support yourself through this transition in your life is to think about the bigger picture of where you’re going and future you who is already there. 

Now what do I mean by this? Well I encourage you to think about your future self successfully handling these changes with ease. Get really clear on what that successful transition looks like. If your kids or you are transitioning back to school, what is your idea of a smooth transition? Is everyone getting enough sleep? Are you aware of the different forms and information the school needs that first week? Are school drop-offs and pickups happening relatively on time? If you’re teaching, do you have your syllabus or lessons plans mapped out? What does a successful transition back to school look like?

If you are beginning a new job or transitioning out of a current job, what does that successful transition look like? Have you made the connections you wanted to make? Do you know the major requirements and initial due dates coming up?  Have you successfully completed all of the trainings and learned who you can ask for help?  Or if you have a hard time switching from work brain to home brain after work each day, what would you like to see? What would a smooth transition look like? Once you’ve made it to the other side, what would you want to see looking back on reflection? 

And as a word of warning, with each of these examples, be careful of perfectionist fantasies. Be real.  As I remind my clients and myself over and over, we need to remember that we have human brains. We aren’t computers or robots. So expecting your brain to switch as quickly as you can switch tabs or applications is not a fair expectation.

Once you have what that ideal transition is, ask that future self, how did I do this? What were the support systems I put in place? How did I get myself into this new mindset? Did I coach myself and get coached so I could allow the discomfort that accompanies new routines? Did I put extra reminders or schedules in place to help me navigate the transition time as I got used to the new situation? Maybe I made sure I got enough sleep no matter what. Or perhaps I asked for help from someone on my team, or my partner, or a friend, or my coach.

Ask future you what helped you successfully navigate this transition, and write down all of the different suggestions that come up. Get them all out. And then decide which ones you want to try first.

Explore Past Lessons

I also like to use this time as an opportunity to look back and learn from past experiences. So if you have had kids go back to school in the past, or you’ve transitioned back to school in the past, where things were especially challenging? If you could go back, what would you have done to make it easier? And how can you implement that wisdom now?

If you know that often have a hard time transitioning from the business of the workweek to the weekend and vise versa, what would have helped you in the past? And can you try one of those strategies this week? Give yourself some space to explore these ideas. Don’t accept “I don’t know” when your brain offers it to you. I don’t know is not an answer. Sit with the question until your brain starts offering some ideas. I promise you there are solutions you can glean from your past experiences.

Give Yourself Structure

The next thing we can do to support ourselves during this time of transition is to create some extra structure.

Now, for some of you, additional structure sounds amazing. For others of you, you want to skip to the next episode. If you fall into the latter category, stick with me. Because even if you don’t typically like having much structure or you think you do much better without it, when we are in a state of transition and change, the brain is looking for something to hold onto. It’s looking for some extra support.

I was talking about this idea of structural support with a client several weeks ago. And we talked about how creating some extra structure in our days is almost like establishing bookends in your day-to-day and week-to-week. In a time of transition or change, these bookends give you something to lean on. They help hold you up. And we can do that by reinforcing some familiarity during what the brain perceives as an otherwise unpredictable unfamiliar transition time.

Now there are lots of different ways that we can put bookends on our day or provide a little more structure in our lives to ease these transitions. Maybe you really lean into your morning routine. It becomes a non-negotiable because it’s that quiet time for reflection that your brain and body crave.

Maybe with the back-to-school routine, you’re looking to simplify dinners with your kids with themed meal nights. Monday is grilled chicken, Tuesday is Tacos because everyone must do Taco Tuesday, Wednesday is grilled chicken salad or chicken salad wraps using leftovers from Monday, etc.

You could carve out a specific date night each week with your partner or have girls’ night every two weeks. Maybe you commit to a set bedtime routine so you’re getting enough sleep no matter what. 

Clearly, there are SO MANY OPTIONS available. And there is no right or wrong to what you choose. The important thing is creating some structure within your transition. Lean on some of the familiarity that your brain craves, which often makes it easier for our brain to adapt to the changes and transitions.

When you think about the transitions that you are facing right now or soon to be facing, what are some bookends you could put up for yourself? What is some support you could lean on by incorporating a little bit more structure in your life? What kind of familiarity can you lean on?

Create A Plan

And the last strategy that I want to share with you today focuses on writing down a plan for yourself. Whether this is for the day, the week, the month, or all three, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to create space to make a plan.

Now, this might seem counterintuitive. you might be thinking, “But Paula, my life is in transition. Things are unpredictable. I can’t possibly create a detailed plan.” And I hear you. I’m also not saying your plan has to be incredibly complex with every minute accounted for.

However, your brain is working EXTRA HARD as it figures out these new situations. Whether you’re changing routines, jobs, new environment, new demands on your time, your brain has to navigate all of the unfamiliar stuff. By creating a plan, you alleviate additional work for your brain.

By writing down what you want to accomplish that day or that week. And by making clear what’s important to you and where you want to focus, you alleviate additional pressure. You allow your brain to work on the new things because you’ve done the legwork ahead of time in terms of mapping out a plan for yourself. 

And again, I know some of you might be fighting this idea because of the unfamiliarity of the transition. 

When we have unpredictability, it’s easy for our toddler brain to convince us that we can’t possibly create a plan. We don’t know what’s happening. And we don’t know how long things take or the type of interruptions we will face

But be on to your brain. It is trying to play tricks on you. Because while you might not know all of the details, you can at least plan for what you know. You can create a general outline. And you can also leave space for what you don’t know. You can carve out overflow time for when things inevitably unfold that you hadn’t anticipated. Leave room for the chaos and entropy, as we talked about in episode 83. Because that will happen too. 

But don’t let your brain tell you it can’t possibly plan because it doesn’t know everything yet. You can absolutely plan what you know and leave space for what you don’t. This will give your brain additional structure to lean on. It eliminates wasting unnecessary energy trying to figure out what to do next because you’ve decided ahead of time. And then you can use that saved energy to support yourself as you navigate these transitions. 

Recap

So this week I encourage you to take note of the transitions you’re navigating in your life. Whether they’re shifts in location, relationships, jobs, parenting, or scheduling, take note of these changes. Where is it coming up the most?

Then check-in with future you. Ask them for some advice. They’ve already made that seamless transition, and you get to glean their wisdom ahead of time. What advice do they have? And then think back to other times in your past where you’ve made similar transitions. What can you learn from those experiences and bring into your current experience today?

Next, create some structure for yourself. Whether you recommit to your morning routine, you have regular themed meal nights with your family, or you put bookends on your workday with journaling and meditation, give yourself that extra support that you can lean on as you step into the unfamiliar.

And then finally, write down your plan for the day or the week or the month ahead so that you don’t spend extra energy making unnecessary decisions. That way, you can use put that stored toward navigating these transitions with greater ease.

Scroll to Top