How to Make Task Switching Easier for ADHD Adults

For many adults with ADHD, task switching intentionally from one activity to the next can feel very challenging for the brain, especially when we’re deep in hyperfocus.

woman at desk feeling stressed

This may seem counterintuitive when considering the distractibility with ADHD, but the truth is that many of our brains struggle to transition from one project or routine to the next

For example, maybe you finally reach your flow state on a project at work, but then 3:30 rolls around and it’s time to shift your focus and get the kids from school. 

Or perhaps you’re lost in idea generation as you create a new program for your business and your partner comes in to talk about the recipe he wants to make for dinner.

Or maybe you’ve been on vacation for a week, and when Monday rolls around, it’s hard to get your brain on board with returning to work.

These moments of transition can feel quite jarring for the ADHD brain, and we often find ourselves feeling irritated, confused, or frustrated as we try to get our bearings and switch tasks. 

Fortunately, there are strategies we can put in place to support our brain through these shifts, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about in episode 158 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast. 

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:   

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

In Episode 158: How to Make Task Switching Easier for ADHD Adults, You Will Discover 

  • What task switching is
  • Why it’s so challenging for the ADHD brain
  • Actionable strategies to help make transitions and task switching easier

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Episode #158: How to Make Task Switching Easier for ADHD Adults (Transcript)

How To Make Switching Tasks Easier for Adults with ADHD

Hey, Everyone. How are you? I am doing great. I’m recording this just after I got back from an amazing trip home to Minnesota to visit my family, and now I’m back and absolutely delighted to be here with all of you. And appropriately enough, today we are talking about the topic of transitions and task switching today.

Transitions (or task switching) are often quite challenging for the ADHD brain. It puts a lot of demand on our executive functions, and we often find ourselves feeling stuck and wanting to spin.

If you’ve been on vacation and it’s time to head back to work, maybe you feel off your game. And even if we want to get back into our usual routines, it feels physically impossible to do so.

Or we may see ourselves procrastinating, and part of our brain really wants to shift into gear, but we can’t seem to move forward. So we keep bouncing from task to task, trying to get traction somewhere. 

I don’t know about you, but this can create quite the mental battle between the executive and toddler parts of my brain – especially if I’m (as a throwback to episode 154) feeling frustrated, arguing with reality thinking things “shouldn’t be this way.”

Since I am navigating this shift back home from traveling, and I can feel that pull from my toddler brain wanting me to jump from task to task rather than settling into my usual routine, I thought I’d talk a bit about transitions, task switching, and how we can set ourselves up for success if and when this is an obstacle for you.

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What Is Meant By Task Switching?

Let’s start with a definition of task switching. What do I actually mean by this?

Essentially, task switching is the act of stopping one task you’re working on and moving on to something else.

This can be done with intention and it can be done unintentionally. 

This means I could intentionally switch from having a lunch break on my deck at 12:00 back into a coaching call at 1:00.

Or I could unintentionally be bouncing between answering emails, working on a flip chart, and swapping out the laundry, all while avoiding the actual thing I had planned to do that day.

Now, both of these topics deserve careful consideration, but today I ‘m going to focus on intentional transitions from one activity to the next. Because for so many of our brains – certainly mine – this is really challenging to do.

Complex Tasks Vs. Automatic Tasks

This is especially true for what we might label complex tasks vs. automatic tasks. So let’s take a minute to look at the difference between these two to put things in context. 

I like to think about multitasking on a continuum from automatic to complex tasks.

As the name suggests, automatic tasks are the ones that we do automatically; we don’t have to think too much about them. We’re not problem solving, there isn’t any critical thinking involved. And usually, it’s something we categorize as being on autopilot – we’ve done it countless times before.  

At the extreme end of the automatic task scale, we have physical responses like breathing and listening to what someone has to say.

The breath automatically enters our lungs and if we have the ability to hear, and we hear someone speaking, the sound automatically enters our ears and the brain interprets that.

Whether we then retain any information about what that person is saying is another matter – but actually hearing it is automatic. 

Then there are the tasks where we’ve done them so often that the physical movement is deeply ingrained. Walking the dog, putting dishes from the dishwasher into the cabinet, for me, doing row after row of crochet stitches.

My mind has deeply memorized these movements, and I don’t have to pay much attention to them at all. They aren’t super engaging or challenging for the brain. 

And because these tasks don’t put too much demand on the brain, it’s often not a problem to have someone come in and interrupt you with a question while you’re putting away the mugs.

You probably don’t have to retrace your train of thought to get back on track. And in fact, you may even keep putting away the dishes as you answer the question.  

Or if I’m working on a crochet project, I don’t have to really gear myself up to get started. There’s not a lot of resistance there because the task is quite automatic for me. My brain doesn’t have to work very hard to get started. By and large, it’s pretty effortless.  

But when we start thinking about complex tasks that require more critical thinking or problem-solving, it’s a different story altogether. 

Complex Tasks Are More… Complicated 

woman on computer with child multitasking

As you might guess, when we bring in greater complexity into the mix with complex tasks – things become more… complicated. It puts more demand on your executive functions.

Complex tasks are activities that demand greater focus, and we need to give our full concentration to get the thing done.

It can often seem quite challenging for the brain to gear up and get started on these more challenging tasks because it knows there are a lot of steps that don’t all seem easy at first.

We might feel resistance to them, but once we do get ourselves going, we can find ourselves in flow and it’s hard to stop. This is the case for me and this podcast. I feel resistant to getting started because it demands a lot from my brain, but once I’m in it – I don’t want to stop. I’m in I flow.

When we find our “right kind of difficult” as Ned Hallowell describes it, the brain lights up as it’s problem-solving and doing this deep work.

This is what’s often referred to as hyperfocus.

And while we can hyperfocus on anything – from researching the latest app for your computer and spending hours getting everything set up just right, to playing video games, to editing video, to writing that first draft of your chapter – many of us can get into this hyperfocus when we’re working in our zone of genius. 

Once we get into this state, it can feel either physically or emotionally painful to switch out of it.

We might get really frustrated if we have to suddenly stop something when we’re in flow.

We might feel overwhelmed or flustered if someone interrupts us while we’re working.

And – unlike when we’re interrupted when putting away mugs from the dishwasher – it can be incredibly challenging to get back on track. 

Now, to some of you listening, this may not be a big issue for you. Maybe you have no problem getting back into flow after interruptions. But I know many of us do struggle with this because I’ve heard from you.

If this is you… if you find yourself feeling crabby when interrupted or anxious or tense when it’s time to get out of your flow state and your brain isn’t ready for it. I first want to acknowledge that – yes – it is really hard to stop and shift out of the task. It’s not just you.

AND there are ways we can support ourselves to help make the process of task switching a little less awful.  

3 Different Types Of Transitions aka Task Switching 

As we think about navigating transitions, I first want to talk about them in three separate categories.

We have physical transitions, mental transitions, and emotional transitions.

Some may be easier for you than others. So as I give a quick description of each, make note of which ones – if any – might be obstacles for you. 

1. Physical Transitions

As the name suggests, physical transitions involve a physical change of location. So you’re shifting from one place and moving to another location to do something else.

For me, this could be moving from my office at the end of the day outside with Bruno for our afternoon stroll. Or getting up to go flip the laundry when I hear the dryer buzz. Or sitting on the couch at night and needing to physically get up, go up the stairs, and get ready for bed.

So it’s a physical change in state or location.  

2. Mental Transitions

Up next are mental transitions. So these are all the things going on in our minds when we’re jumping from task to task.

Think about the transition of mental tasks from scrolling Tik Tok into doing your bookkeeping. Or downloading data from last year’s numbers into actually analyzing that data.

Or on a bigger scale, if you’ve been focused on work for the last six hours and then your kids come in and want you to make dinner and tell you a really involved story about this thing that happened at school, your brain has a lot of mental transitioning to do. It requires a whole new mental state.  

3. Emotional Transitions 

And finally, we have emotional transitions. These are similar to mental transitions, but there’s a nuanced difference.

Maybe you read some really sad news, and then someone comes in bombarding you with light “chit-chat.” I know for myself, my brain is like – “does not compute…”

Or maybe you’re having a conversation about a project for work, and you’re feeling really worried thinking about it. If they’re not worried and simply want to move on to something else, your brain might protest. It’s not ready to focus on something else when it’s so stuck in worry. 

Each of these types of task switching can potentially present obstacles – especially for those of us with ADHD and ADHD tendencies. 

Why Is Task Switching So Difficult For Those With ADHD? 

As I mentioned briefly at the beginning of this episode, it comes down to our struggles with cognitive flexibility.

Adults with ADHD can be rather inflexible when it comes to transitions due to our more limited executive functioning system. 

What Is The Executive Functioning System?

As a quick recap, all of us have an executive functioning system within our brains. It works a bit like the project manager for our brain. And when we think about transitions and task switching, we can break the process down into four steps.

  1. We need to stop and step away from the task that we are in the middle of.
  2. Then we actually switch to the next task.  
  3. We need to get the engine running again and start.
  4. We shift into a single-minded focus on that new task.

Now here’s the deal. These four steps make sense and might even sound simple, but for anyone who struggles with transitions, you know it takes A LOT of mental energy to do this. The project manager is tired and overworked.

So what can we do?

How can we lighten the load on our brain?

How can we support ourselves and our brains when it is time to shift tasks or when we do get interrupted? 

4 Helpful Strategies For Improving Task Switching With ADHD

woman on phone and computer

Let’s look at this question from a few different angles and as we talk through them, invite your brain to stay open and curious.

  • Which task switching solutions sound like they might be useful for you?
  • Which ones do you want to lean into?
  • Which ones do you want to wait on or pass by?

Maybe even challenge yourself to try one this week and at the end, check in to see what works or what doesn’t and make adjustments to optimize the approach for your brain. Because that’s what it’s all about.

And of course, if you want to take the tools even deeper, definitely get your name on the waitlist for my small group coaching program, We’re Busy Being Awesome.  You’ll be the first to know when the next round opens.

1. How To Stop When You’re In The Middle Of Something 

Let’s first think about stopping when you’re in the middle of something.

You’re in deep focus. It feels good. You’re in flow… and then it’s time to pick up the kids for school.

Or you’re at a stopping point in your day and it’s time to switch to begin your shutdown routine. Or maybe you scheduled yourself 2 hours for work and it’s time to switch to the next item on your list. 

In situations like this, I love to use two separate timers.

I have one set when it’s time to actually end the task and I also have one set about 5-10 minutes before.

Just as we give kids the 5 or 10-minute warning before it’s time to leave or have dinner or go to bed, our brains need that, too.

Giving yourself that heads up – especially if it’s an alarm with a sound that you have to physically turn off – pulls you out of your hyperfocus just a bit to remind yourself – it’s time to switch in 5-10 minutes.

What do I need to do to wrap up and leave myself some breadcrumbs to make things easy to pick up next time I start again?

I was just talking with a client yesterday who uses an app called Alarmy, and in order to turn it off, she has to solve a math problem.

I love this idea – especially for situations when we need to switch mental tasks like one project to another at work – because the math problems force you to think about something else and shift gears just slightly to bring the executive brain back online.

2. Making the Switch From One Task To The Next

Now let’s talk about making the switch to the next task or project. And as we do this, I invite you to first think about how you typically schedule your day.

If you’re into some version of time blocking and you write down the different times you’ll do each task throughout your day, let me ask you this.

How much time are you giving yourself to switch?

Is there any time at all?

If you’re like most people, the answer is no.

I know my schedule would be back-to-back tasks all day long.

  • 8-9, write social media posts.
  • 9-9:30 answer emails,
  • 9:30-12, podcast outline, etc.

While this approach makes sense – and in fact, it’s a great approach when it comes to giving your brain direction. It’s not complete or realistic – especially for people who struggle with transitions as I do.

This is because we aren’t allowing time in our schedule for the transition our brains need between tasks.

It’s kind of like planning to go grocery shopping but forgetting about the fact that you need to actually drive to the grocery store to do this activity. So you get frustrated at yourself because you can’t just grocery shop immediately from your home or magically apparate to the grocery store.

I know this seems far-fetched, but it’s not that far off. The brain needs this mental transition time just as we need the actual transition time to get from our home to the grocery store.  

Building in Transition Time

To help allow for this switch in tasks, we want to build in the transition time.

I personally love to do this by incorporating a physical transition.

This could look like…

  • Standing up and doing a few jumping jacks
  • Putting on a song and dancing
  • Going to the kitchen for a glass of water
  • Snuggling with your dog
  • Heading out for a short walk around the block. 

By building in a 5-15 minute transition between bouts of deep work, and allowing your body to move and your brain to clear, it makes it easier to step away and make the switch. 

In the daily planning pages within my I’m Busy Being Awesome planner, I have the time blocking sections broken down to half-hour specifically for this purpose.

It gives you space to incorporate transition time when planning out your schedule for the day. If you want to check it out, by the way, you can check out the planner here. I’ll ship the planner directly to you, and you also get access to my training, which walks you step by step through using the planner, too. Super fun.

Get The 10 Tips to Work With Your ADHD Brain Free Ebook. Click Here

3. Getting started on a new task

Alright. So we’ve stopped one task. We’ve made the transition to the next. Now it’s time to get started. Admittedly, this is an involved step and it’s an easy space for procrastination to sneak in. Though, I think this often happens when we don’t anticipate the need for transition time and don’t build that in as we talked about in step two.

But with that said, procrastination can be quite sneaky when it’s time to start the next project, so what are a few ways to navigate this?

I’m going to offer two seemingly simple yet incredibly impactful questions for you to ask yourself. And if you make time to do this – perhaps even writing it in your schedule when it’s time to start the next project – it will help ease the resistance a bit.

The first question is this:

Do I know what done looks like?

In other words, does my brain know specifically what I’m doing and what I am working toward during this block of time?

So often we just tell ourselves to “work on” something without giving ourselves clear direction on what “work on” means.

  • What are you working on specifically?
  • What are you working toward?
  • How will you know when you’ve gotten there?

Make that really clear for your brain.

Then the second question is this:

What are the first five tiny steps to get started?

I call this your clear starts and stops, which is something I talk about in-depth in We’re Busy Being Awesome. But when you make it very clear what you need to get started, and you make it very clear what it means to stop, it’s easier for the brain to sidestep the procrastination and get started. 

4. Check Your Stories

As always, the most important thing we need to do in whatever part of the task switching process we’re in is to check on the stories we’re telling ourselves.

When you’re thinking about stopping the task, are you thinking to yourself…

“UGH, I don’t want to stop.” or

“They shouldn’t interrupt me all the time!” or

“This shouldn’t be so hard for me to do. It’s not like it’s that big of a deal!” 

Or are you reminding yourself…

“I know it feels hard to stop right now, but I also know part of me wants to move to the next thing. That is why my executive brain planned it this way when I made my schedule.” or

“Oh, this is the part where they interrupt me and it feels sticky to get back on track. Let me take a few deep breaths and remind myself where I’m at.” or

“This is the part where it’s hard to get started on the next task and my brain wants to procrastinate. This makes sense. I have ADHD. What are the tools I know I have in my toolkit that I can lean on right now to support myself through it?”

Now, I know the mindset component may seem like an afterthought. I know it may not seem as actionable as using specific timers or apps or creating the “right schedule.” But I’m telling you, this is the secret to everything.

When you can check in on those stories and really show yourself the compassion and support your brain needs, this will be the biggest gift you can give yourself in any situation when things feel challenging. 

When you can focus on the strengths you bring to the current situation and remind yourself of why you WANT to do the task and how amazing you will feel once it’s accomplished. And when you do this through the lens of love and encouragement as you have your own back, you can navigate anything that comes your way.  

Task Switching: Let’s Recap

This week, I encourage you to…

  • Notice where it feels challenging to switch tasks. Is it physical transitions? Mental transitions? Emotional transitions?
  • Check-in on the stories you’re telling yourself when it’s time to make these switches.
  • Once you’ve identified an area, choose one of the tools we’ve talked about today, whether it’s to help you stop your current task when you’re in flow, make the actual transition from one to the next, or get into action on the next area of focus and see what works best for you.

I’d love to hear what you find. Let’s connect over on Instagram @imbusybeingawesome and let me know!

Alright, my friends, that’s going to do it for us this week. If you’re ready to take the concepts you’ve learned on the podcast and apply them to your life, as well as support your ADHD in a way that works for YOU within a small, supportive community, check out my group coaching program, We’re Busy Being Awesome.

Want To Join Our Group Coaching Program?!

I will be opening the doors for the next cohort of We’re Busy Being Awesome in a couple of weeks!

Add your name to the waitlist so you’ll be the first to know about program dates and times, plus how you can sign up if it’s a great fit for you.

Also, have you grabbed the podcast roadmap yet? It has the most popular IBBA podcast episodes all detailed for you so you can get yourself up to speed and ready to work with your ADHD brain, you can grab it now!

Until next time, keep being awesome. I’ll talk with you soon.

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