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Trouble With Transitions

Life is full of transitions. There are small transitions, like switching from one task to the next at work, or alternating between sleep and wakefulness. Then there are big transitions, like moving to a new city or starting a new job.

When I say that people with ADHD have problems with transitions, that might sound a little vague. In what sense do people with ADHD have trouble with transitions? you might ask.

Moon PhaseWell, potentially in every sense.

Let’s go in order from small to big.

Making small transitions involves taking your brain from one state and arranging it into another. Your brain is in relaxing mode, and now you need to set it into working mode. Or your brain is in sleeping mode, but it’s time to switch it into waking mode.

This ability to take your brain and put it from one state into another is an exercise in self-control and self-regulation. It’s all about managing your cognitive resources, saying to your brain “OK, brain please make the preparations necessary to [insert task here] now.”

But people with ADHD aren’t able to self-regulate in this way as efficiently as other people. Your polite request for your brain to prepare itself for the task at hand may very well go ignored, and pretty soon it’ll turn into: “Damnit brain, I said, get ready to do [insert task here], or else!”

The result is that all these transitions take longer when you have ADHD. You might find that it’s harder to go to sleep, harder to wake up, harder to switch from work to play, harder to switch from play to work, and generally harder to switch from any one task to a different one. And when the transition does happen, it might be incomplete – your sleep might still have elements of wakefulness, or you might find your attention repeatedly wandering from your current task to the previous one.

If small transitions are harder with ADHD, bigger ones aren’t necessarily any better. Switching jobs, moving to a new place, generally making any kind of life change can be challenging with ADHD.

That’s because the longer you stay in one environment, the more you tend to build up coping strategies that are tailored to that environment. Without even realizing it, you hone your ability to cope with ADHD in the environment you’re in. When you’re put into a new environment, suddenly you find that some of those coping strategies no longer work – besides adjusting to your new environment the way anyone else would have to, you also have to develop new coping methods that work for your new life.

None of that is to say that ADHDers should avoid major life changes as a rule. Major life changes are, of course, often for the better – and sometimes, they’re even necessary for learning to cope better with ADHD. It’s simply worth keeping in mind that if you make a major life change and find yourself struggling, you should consider whether losing the coping strategies that used to work for you could be playing a role.

So are there ways of making transitions, both short-term ones and long-term ones, easier when you have ADHD? Yes. I’m going to address that in my next post, so stay tuned for tips on transitions with ADHD.

Image: Flickr/John Cudworth

Trouble With Transitions

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2018). Trouble With Transitions. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Jan 2018
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