Task paralysis: how to start when your ADHD brain is stuck

Why can't I just do The Thing?

Nothing has impacted my life more significantly than something ADHDers call “task paralysis” (which has also been described as task freeze, couch lock, or overwhelm). You know, when you desperately need to get started on something, but everything in you is resisting it?

It’s taken me years to figure out how to free myself from this dreaded freeze. For the longest time, I just procrastinated until the adrenaline of a deadline or an unavoidable consequence finally got me into motion. But this was a miserable cycle. The stress made me feel as though my anxiety was in the driver’s seat of my life.

If I wanted to do something, why couldn’t I just begin? Turns out, a deficit of dopamine — the neurotransmitter associated with motivation and rewards — is why ADHDers especially struggle with this phenomenon. If you’re a science nerd like me, this blog post goes more in-depth about the cycle of feeling overwhelmed and shutting down. But since you likely have ADHD, I’ll skip ahead to the part where we offer solutions.

Below, I've listed some ways to move past task paralysis and finally get started.

How to cope with task paralysis and do The Thing

1. Look at the ingredients of the task and remember “RAN”

If you take nothing else from this article, let it be this acronym: RAN (like “I ran towards the task”). It stands for Rewards, Accountability, and Novelty. These are the three crucial ingredients that will make a task more compelling for ADHDers.

Apply this method to your situation by asking yourself these questions:

  • What can you add to this task to make it feel rewarding?
  • Who can you call on to add a little accountability?
  • What can you change or add to make it feel new, different, or interesting?
  • This can apply to your environment or surroundings, how you approach the task, etc.

Here's a personal example:

To write this article, I rewarded myself with a pumpkin spice latte that I’ve been sipping throughout (notice that for ADHDers, having a reward after the task is complete is often unhelpful — aim for rewards you can enjoy throughout the task!). I have my partner sitting nearby for accountability. And for novelty, I’m working in a different space than I usually do, listening to a playlist of Animal Crossing-inspired focus music. All of these things combined made the task feel much more approachable for me.

2. Give yourself permission to start small

Sometimes we freeze up in the face of a task because it feels so mammoth. This is why it’s so important to break up our tasks into the smallest possible pieces, making it more approachable and helping us to build momentum with tiny wins. Instead of “write essay,” for example, our list of tasks will look a little different:

  • Research topic
  • Pull scholarly sources
  • Create potential thesis statements
  • Outline essay
  • Write introduction

…and so on. Get as small and specific as you possibly can! From there, focus on the steps that feel easiest to tackle, even if it’s just a part of a single step. The point is to get started, so don’t worry about the big picture… just take it a bite at a time!

3. Explore which parts of the task are causing you dread

Oftentimes, we avoid a task without consciously realizing why it’s making us anxious. But when we slow down, we discover that there are specific barriers that we can address more creatively.

When you’re stuck, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there a step in the process that I’m dreading?
  • If so, can I skip it, save it for later, or break it down into smaller parts?
  • Is there information I’m missing?
  • If so, where can I find it?
  • Can I schedule time to do more research or talk to someone?
  • Which parts of this task feel doable?
  • Can I start there, or is this something I have to complete in a specific order?
  • Are there positive feelings that will come with completing this task?
  • Can I shift my focus and recall what those emotions will feel like? (Relief, excitement, pride?)

4. SMASH your task!

Another acronym to have handy is SMASH-ing a task.

Screenshot of a tweet from the Inflow ADHD Account. Tweet reads: When you're feeling unmotivated, just SMASH it! S: Shake it out (yes, movement helps!) M: make a list of tiny, tiny steps. A: Acknowledge any negative emotions. S: Set a timer for 5-10 minutes. H: Hurry! Get as much done as you can in those 5-10 minutes.

Source: @get_inflow on Twitter

Shake it out: You’ll start by shaking it out—even just wiggling your toes will do! Movement can help signal to the brain that it’s time to move out of a freeze state.

Make a list: From there, you’ll make a list of the smallest possible steps to make them easier to approach.

Acknowledge (negative) emotions: Then, acknowledge and make room for any difficult emotions that are coming up (even simply naming our emotions can make them feel more manageable).

Set a timer: Set a timer for a small, manageable amount of time (5-10 minutes)...

Hurry! ...and then hurry to get as much done in that small window of time as possible! By gamifying the task into a “beat the clock” challenge, we get an uptick in dopamine that can help carry us through.

This strategy is a tried and true favorite of mine and has helped me through many moments of task paralysis in the past.

5. Increase your dopamine!

There are plenty of ways to boost your dopamine, which is outlined in this article about task avoidance and procrastivity. Some of the easy ones include:

  • Movement (especially aerobic or joyful movement, like dancing)
  • Listening to upbeat music
  • Having a protein-rich snack
  • Getting some sunshine (hello, vitamin D!) by taking a brief walk

You’ve got this

However challenging task paralysis may be for you, you won’t be stuck there forever. Take a deep breath, and remember that even a small step is a step in the right direction.

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Sam is a US-based digital media expert and social media influencer with a combined following of over 100K. Before Inflow, Sam worked as the Lead Editor of Mental Health at Healthline.com. Sam earned his BAs in Medical Anthropology and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan; he is also completing his certification as a Positive Psychology Practitioner.