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3 Steps for Overcoming ADHD Task Paralysis

How to move beyond feeling stuck and get things done.

Key points

  • Symptoms of task paralysis include overwhelm, procrastination, and low self-esteem.
  • Multitasking interferes with focus and increases distractibility.
  • You can improve your ability to start something by breaking it down into smaller, manageable chunks.
Source: Doucefleur/Shutterstock

Do you ever face a task that you know you need to do but feel frozen to begin? Can you begin something but feel unable to complete it?

Many people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) experience task paralysis. Task paralysis comes from a combination of being overwhelmed by what's in front of you, disinterest in the task itself, and a negative expectation that you can accomplish it.

You may feel profoundly stuck and judge yourself harshly for this. When you live with ADHD, you already cope with challenges related to initiation, organization, prioritization, sustained focus, and performance anxiety. Of course, stress, worry and low self-esteem negatively affect anybody’s ability to concentrate. However, when you add the natural executive functioning challenges that come with having ADHD, it’s even tougher to overcome the hurdles to start, stick with, and finish projects, reports, or homework.

The likely result is procrastination and avoidance, which only prolongs the inactivity. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. Fortunately, there are some proven strategies to reduce task paralysis, so you can feel more productive, more effective, and more regulated.

Symptoms of ADHD task paralysis

Put simply, task paralysis is the feeling of being completely overwhelmed and stuck, and being unable to do the work you need to do. You are aware of things that you have to do but you lack initiative and motion. It just seems impossible to bring yourself to get started which makes you feel bad on two levels.

First, you probably judge yourself for feeling immobile and secondly, you regret not working on what needs to be done. Since planning and executing tasks is particularly challenging for people living with ADHD, you may find yourself all too often being unable to start something or know how to move forward–whether or not you like the task.

Negative self-talk may also fill you with dread and make you think you’ll fail at whatever work you’re supposed to do. Or you may feel the task itself is boring, or unpleasant, so why bother doing it in the first place?

As a result, you delay, avoid, or ignore the task at hand. You know it must be done, but with little motivation and a sense of dread, stress, and anxiety start creeping up, leading to more overwhelm. Over time, these may all result in hopelessness, helplessness, and depression.

3 key strategies for overcoming task paralysis

Whether it’s work, school, or family life, it’s tough being bogged down by task paralysis. Fear of failure or intense uncertainty can freeze you up and get in the way of performing activities at work or at home the way you would like. Here are three strategies to help you overcome feeling stuck and start getting things done.

1. Break things down to improve your ability to start something. Whether you have a huge number of tasks to tackle or just a few things that feel enormous, breaking things down into smaller, manageable chunks will bring a whole lot of relief. Why does this work?

With executive functioning challenges that accompany ADHD, you’ll feel a sense of progress when you can begin with things that you can accomplish. Then, you’ll start to feel like the ball is rolling instead of being stuck in a mound of snow.

This movement is in itself encouraging and starts to build the momentum you need to keep going. Start by making a big list based on a brain dump. Then take a single item, put it on a separate page, and separate that into parts.

Work your way through one step at a time. Staying organized and then enjoying the satisfaction of checking off completed items is not only gratifying but also productive.

Example 1: Tidy up the kitchen

  • Fill the dishwasher
  • Wipe the counters
  • Put food away into cabinets/refrigerator
  • Sweep the floor

Example 2: Write a report

  • Collect necessary materials
  • Write an outline that includes sections for different topics
  • Create a quiet workspace and use music or brown noise to enhance concentration
  • Use the Pomodoro method to structure work periods and short break times.
  • When you finish a chunk of work, take a longer, timed break to integrate mentally what you’ve accomplished

2. Motivate yourself with meaningful incentives. It’s biologically and emotionally challenging for the ADHD brain to get energized to do uninteresting tasks. Effective incentives (rewards) foster motivation and goal-directed persistence. When you build in little rewards such as a coffee break or a walk around the office and leave yourself a note that guides you back into the flow when you return, you make doing the smaller, attainable task more tolerable and even pleasant. Plus, you’ll make more effective progress.

If you dread doing laundry or washing dishes, why not put on some upbeat music or listen to an interesting podcast or audiobook? If putting together a presentation is a slog, make it more enjoyable by drinking your favorite beverage while you’re working on it and setting up an accountability buddy to do some co-working.

Many adults (and kids) with ADHD perform better on projects if they are not alone. Make an accurate assessment of how long you can concentrate before you need a break and work within those time intervals. Plan on a 5-minute break after a shorter chunk (30-45 minutes) and then a longer break after a bigger chunk (60 to 90 minutes). Stretch, walk around the block, have a meal, or chat with a friend. These active breaks will replenish you and provide a much-needed energy boost.

 Oleksii Didok/Shutterstock
Source: Oleksii Didok/Shutterstock

3. Improve focus by noticing where it is–and isn’t. Focus is a dynamic process of choosing what is important to notice, do, or recall. When you find yourself frozen in a state of inaction, your mind is likely spinning and reacting to stress. Focus goes out the window.

Multitasking may also interfere with your ability to fully pay attention to any one thing and increase feelings of being overwhelmed. Think of focus as the spotlight of your attention. Notice where it is directed and where you would like it to be pointed.

Improve your focus on the task at hand by establishing routines that structure your time and manage interruptions and other distractions. Turn off notifications on your phone. Set up a separate browser for work stuff and everything else.

When you come back from drifting off (which your ADHD brain will naturally do), be kind to yourself. Look around for signals that can re-engage in what’s going on. Routines build habits and these assist you in preparing for how to manage the present effectively and for what’s ahead.

They help to fill in the gaps where your working memory may lapse. Keep these routines simple and include time for transitions as well as basic organization so you sit down to work with a tidy desk. For example, when you arrive at work or begin a project, budget 30 minutes for settling in and set a timer to do this. With increased focus, you’ll feel productive and calmer.

No matter how much you struggle with task paralysis, try to remember that this moment of inertia, dread, or procrastination will pass. Progress counts more than perfection.

Perfection is impossible to achieve, and if that’s your goal, it’s easy to freeze up out of fear of not achieving it. Instead, focus on shorter, reasonable goals that you can meet. Making some amount of progress on a task is always better than striving for perfection and getting nothing done.

Visualize yourself on the other side of the task, seeing yourself having completed it and reflecting on how you feel. This can also improve your ability to initiate and stick with things. When you use these strategies, you’ll become unstuck and move into motion, one steady step at a time.

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