Conscious Task Switching with ADHD

This is how I switch gears: slowly and on purpose.

First some caveats:

I work from home and manage my own time, so you may have to modify this idea if your situation is different.

I’ve also spent a lifetime deprogramming myself from the idea that I “should” be doing anything in particular, and try to live almost entirely by intrinsic motivation, which cuts down on dread and procrastination.

This post is not about how to get yourself to do things you don’t want to do. It’s about how to switch tasks from one thing you wanted to do, to another thing you also want to do.

In other words, it’s about how to find a new thread of intrinsic motivation if you’ve followed one thread to its end and now need to find another one to pick up.

OK, let’s get into it.

I will often find myself wandering around my house when I have finished one thing, but haven’t identified what my next thing to do is.

I take this as a cue to engage in “conscious task switching”. (A cue is the first part of a habit loop, which I learned about from James Clear’s Atomic Habits. More on his blog.)

I consciously switch tasks by deliberately engaging in an activity that occupies my body, while leaving my brain space to think. I have these activities identified beforehand and I know they work for me. They also work if I just need a break because I notice my energy is flagging. They are basically ways I “regroup”.

The two activities I use for this right now are Beat Saber (VR) and washing dishes.

Why I think these activities support me switching tasks

Beat Saber

Beat Saber only works for me because they have Lady Gaga songs on it now. I love these songs, and I know I will always enjoy playing them. Each song is only a few minutes long, and the room is already set up, so I can easily jump in and out VR. It occupies a lot of my attention, but not the part that makes decisions. Therefore I’m free to be in the zone of playing, and let my mind work through the possibilities of what I could do next.

I also use it when I’m writing and I’m out of ideas. It’s fun, and I think of it as giving myself a dopamine boost. At the same time, I know I’m not going to get sucked into it–it’s not that kind of game for me.

Washing Dishes

Doing dishes only works for me because I have the procedure very simple in my head:

  1. put away already-dry dishes
  2. wash whatever is in the sink, leaving one container with water (like a glass) to deposit random spoons I will use throughout the day
  3. clear and tidy the counters

I can stop any time throughout this process and pick it up again later. I don’t feel any compulsion to “clean the whole kitchen”, or even finish ALL the dishes if there are a lot. In fact, doing dishes in 5 minute increments is how I first started consistently keeping my kitchen clean, because it’s how long it takes for my milk frother to warm up my hot cocoa. So now I have a habit of cleaning the kitchen for a few minutes between other kitchen tasks, or, as a transition activity.

What your Regroup Activity needs to look like

To generalize from the above, here’s what I think you should look for in a Regrouping Activity.

  1. It should involve you walking to a different area and doing something physical.
  2. It shouldn’t take any prep – you should be able to pop in and out of it.
  3. It can’t require executive function – it should be habitual.
  4. It can’t be so boring that it will deplete your dopamine. It has to either be fun, or neutral.
  5. It can’t be so fun that you will just keep doing it.

What to do mentally during your Regroup Activity

First, let your mind wander a bit. If you’ve just been focusing, it’s probably tired. Take a few minutes to just let yourself be present, and let go of the before-thing.

Next, gently ask yourself what is the next direction that feels organic to you. Let yourself think about it without putting pressure on yourself. Let your motivation emerge.

What usually happens for me is that once I’ve started thinking about my next thing for a few minutes, I’ll start feeling excited about it, and the plan for how to get started forms in my brain, and then I’m eager to go do it.

If nothing comes, it might be that you are hungry or tired, in which case the next best thing is eating or napping, respectively. 😁

Let me know in the comments if you do this, and how it works for you!

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