The struggle of switching tasks with ADHD

Is that why showers are so hard?

I was browsing TikTok one day and came across an ADHD video that resonated with my entire being. The ADHD content that seems to hit me the hardest are the ones that point out a challenging ADHD symptom that I didn't even realize was a common struggle among ADHDers.

Previously, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was thought to be specific to kids. Because of that, many ADHD adults don't get an official diagnosis until adulthood. A majority of the late ADHD diagnosis experience is like wading against a stream through waist-deep water and realizing everyone else has a raft and paddle going the opposite direction.

gif of someone kayaking and failing miserably

And when we express our frustration with the unfairness of it, we’re told that everyone struggles with certain things because that’s just a part of life! But — what if you struggle with things like personal hygiene?

ADHD and the struggle with hygiene

Now, listen - when I found this TikTok by @feezy.pdf about transitions and why they're so difficult for people with ADHD — I was shook. She said something along the lines of:

We're not great at switching gears to tackle new tasks. For example, getting in the shower is a TON of work for us, but getting out is even worse. Undressing to get in the shower is a hassle, but once you’re finally in and enjoying it, you don't want to leave!

Like... you're telling me I have to turn off the water and be all cold, then dry off and get dressed again - and what? Just restart your entire day?? Whose idea was this?? Anyway, that’s why I take 45 minute showers.

Seriously - I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about stepping out of my soothing hot shower in the middle of a cold winter day in Maine. Brrr.

Personally, I love showering because I feel like my ADHD brain really lets me indulge in all of the steamy goodness. People with ADHD (as well as Autistic individuals) commonly have sensory processing issues that cause us to perceive senses (light, sound, touch, etc.) differently than neurotypicals. While some ADHDers have less sensitivity, others (like me) are so much more attuned to stimuli on our skin - temperature, texture, etc. With all that in mind, why would we want to get out of the shower? Why would I get in the shower in the first place just to get out and feel a chill down my spine?

No thanks.

But why are some of us like this? It has a lot to do with our executive functions and control processes - or lack thereof.

Executive functions

Generally, neurotypicals have fewer difficulties with switching from Task A to Task B. However, ADHD children and adults often lack the executive control needed for transitioning from one thing to the next. Executive functions are a set of skills your brain uses to organize memories, thoughts, and emotional responses. When there's a deficit in this skill-set, that organization tends to quickly turn into chaos.

For example, let’s say you’re gaming on your Nintendo Switch or doom-scrolling through Instagram, and you check the time. You know you should start getting ready to meet a friend, but instead your thumb keeps scrolling or smashing B. A voice in your head says, “Hey! Get ready! Maybe put the phone and video games down now?!”

gif of mr. krabs from spongebob walking up to a laughing squidward. Mr krabs is saying "what's all the lollygagging about?!"
The voice in my head @ me

If your executive functioning is actually functioning the way it's "supposed to", you’d get up and start getting ready to go as soon as the voice scolded you. But if you have Executive Dysfunction, you probably wait until the last possible moment to start getting ready. And then of course you'll have that sweet rush of anxiety, panic, and guilt mixed into a lovely concoction for you to take on the road.

Executive dysfunction, while not technically a separate disorder according to the DSM-V, is a common struggle among many humans, but it especially burdens the ADHD community. It's strongly correlated with inattention, forgetfulness, organizing tasks, time-management, and critical and creative thinking.

So, if you struggle with things like…

  • getting out of bed in the morning
  • taking care of your personal hygiene
  • getting out of your car after parking
  • moving onto a new chore or task

... I just want you to know that you’re not alone and that not all hope is lost.

gif of a man staring out of his car windshield
Does anyone else sit in their car like this?

How to manage transitions with ADHD

1. Set a timer

This can be really helpful if you’re prone to losing track of how long you’ve been doing something (ie "time blindness"). Set an alarm before starting a task, set a time for a break, and make sure you actually take it. Sometimes that isn’t enough, but remember the first rule of ADHD Physics: an ADHDer in motion stays in motion. Getting up and forcing your body to begin moving can get you out of your trance and onto the next task.

2. Apply new settings on your phone

If you have trouble stopping your late night Twitter doom-scrolling (Revenge Bedtime Procrastination, anyone?), there are settings on most smartphones that limit the time spent on an app, or the time of day you can use the app. Give yourself a reasonable limit so you don’t have to make the decision about when to stop - it’s just set for you.

💡Pro-Tip! Don't make your settings unreasonably strict, either, because you'll just end up disabling the setting and then you're back to Square One.

3. Find an accountability buddy

This is more or less like a body double, and you may benefit from this if it's hard for you to get things done at work because your brain won't let you switch between multiple important tasks. Ask a co-worker if they'd help you set intermittent deadlines for when certain project segments should be done. Write down what you need to do to start and finish a task, then find that person who will check in with you on your progress.

4. If all else fails, give yourself a buffer

If you know you’re still struggling to stop or start tasks, this is the first line of defense you should set up for yourself. For example, I know I need 30 minutes each morning before getting out of bed, so now I take that into account for when I set alarms and plan my day. You can do that with any task. You want to give yourself time in your busy schedule to make those transitions happen. Then, if you struggle with a transition, you’ve already built in the time.

Final thoughts

Listen - it’s not easy for us ADHDers. The world wasn’t set up to let us hyperfocus on one thing for hours until we get burnt out. Even though navigating all of this can be difficult, you are definitely not alone.

gif. you are valid. you are beautiful.

ADHD doesn’t have to ruin your life. In fact, being a neurodiverse human is something that makes you unique, and you’re allowed to be proud of the beautiful way your mind works...

...even if that means you’re taking 45 minute showers.

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Sam Spadafore (he/they) is a white, Queer, Nonbinary Trans man currently living on settled Wabanaki tribal land known as Portland, Maine. Sam writes poetry and articles focusing on mental health, Queer and Trans identity, sex and sexuality. They are also an educator, theatre artist, activist, and steering committee member at MaineTransNet.