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Starting and Stopping With ADHD

I’ve mentioned before how ADHDers have a tendency to avoid tasks, even when we know it doesn’t make sense.

When we talk about avoiding tasks, though, often the thing we avoid more than anything is starting tasks. Starting, as they say, is the hardest part.

But sometimes stopping is the hardest part too. For people with ADHD, this happens when we’re hyperfocused on something. We stay immersed in an activity, even after we “should” stop and move on to something else.

For ADHDers, starting and stopping can both present challenges because in effect they’re the same thing – switching from one task to another. When you stop one task, you’re starting another.

This process of switching to a new task takes cognitive resources. It takes us telling our brain to reorganize itself into a way that’s appropriate to the new task at hand. And, when we’re switching from an interesting task to a less interesting task, it requires overriding our impulse to do whatever we find most rewarding and instead doing the thing that will have a long-term payoff.

In this scenario, starting with the less interesting tasks and working up to more interesting tasks can make the transition easier. That’s why, whenever possible, I make it part of my routine to start with work and save the fun stuff for later!

But even then, transitions aren’t necessarily easy. Going from one state to another requires getting into the right mindset, finding the appropriate level of alertness, recalling the information that’s relevant to the new task, clearing the information from the old task out of your mind, and so on. All this puts demands on our executive functions – that is, our ability to tell our brains what to do, which is one of the things that ADHDers struggle with.

I remember talking with my psychiatrist about how I have trouble going to sleep – I end up getting ready for bed later than I mean to, and then it takes me a long time to actually wind down and fall asleep. But then I also have trouble waking up! Similarly, I wake up later than I mean to, and it takes me a long time to transition into a state of total wakefulness.

Part of this could just be a quirk of my circadian rhythms, but my psychiatrist suggested it could also have to do with ADHD impairments in terms of transitioning from one thing to another. That made a lot of sense to me because I notice the same pattern in other areas of my life, not just sleep. I’ll procrastinate on something much longer than I should have, but then once I finally start that thing I might become absorbed in it and then procrastinate on other stuff instead!

This kind of behavior can lead to ADHDers getting “stuck” in activities because they have impairments in the type of self-regulation necessarily to switch between activities. It might sound paradoxical that we have trouble both with starting and with stopping, but in fact those two types of problems can come from the same symptoms!

Image: Flickr/jamelah e.

Starting and Stopping With ADHD

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. (2019). Starting and Stopping With ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Sep 2019
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