Coping With the Inertia of Task Paralysis

Both AD/HD people and autistics can easily find themselves paralysed by tasks, for a variety of reasons. These include the dreadful issue of being able to plan out a process (especially if it’s a new kind of task, or one that is fraught with many fuzzy or unknown variables), and then performing the whole series of steps, from remembering to do the task, finding the necessary materials, and staying with the task long enough to complete it (or at least a significant stage of it).

All of these issues fall under the realm of “Executive Function”, which includes planning, prioritising, initiating, being aware of what one is doing, assessing what one is doing, correcting actions (troubleshooting), and inhibiting wrong actions or distractions. Doing all these things at once requires juggling a lot of thoughts in short-term and active processing memory; they use up a lot of cerebral RAM.

It’s really hard to remember everything I need to do, not only in the big time frame of things to do today and during the week, but also what I’m meaning to do within this particular hour. There are usually two dozen things that need doing, all vying for my attention, but floating in and out of consciousness. Years ago, before I or anyone else had heard of AD/HD (decades before it hit the DSM), some witty book author had described a situation as being “like sorting confetti in a wind tunnel”. Alas, I’ve yet to find that particular line again to identify the author, but the analogy is apt.

Because the activities I’m doing and trying to do and meaning to do and needing to do will flit in and out of my radar from one minute to the next, and because I know that I simply can’t keep all the necessary information there in my frontal lobes, I rely on accessory ways of organizing and checking myself. I rely upon my highly visual mode of operation, which means it’s easier for me to work things out on paper where I can see them all at once.

There are several parts to this:

WHAT I need to do
WHERE I need to do it
HOW I need to do it

The What part turns into lists. I keep an index card in my pocket where I jot down things-to-do as they occur to me. It’s a maxim that one never thinks of things in the right places – you remember errands to run while stuck at an office desk, or office tasks while in the bathroom at home, and so on. The back of the index card usually ends up with the ongoing grocery list. I have to make a new index card every few days as jobs get done and scratched off. Heaven forfend I should lose my index card; it takes me about two days to reconstruct one, and that period of time has little flecks of terror as I wonder what important thing I might be forgetting to do.

The Where part is what results in those infamous File-By-Pile messes. Since I’m a visual person and have trouble with both remembering to do things and with finishing things, I am prone to having everything I’m trying to work on sitting out . Not enough surface space means that the piles end up atop each other, thus hiding some of the tasks from view, and thus from conscious awareness. They also create difficulties in housekeeping, but that’s another situation to deal with.

Part of the “Where” issue is remembering stuff at the right times and places. It’s not the remembering that’s hard, it’s the remembering-to-remember, such as remembering to check my list of things to do at the right times. So I’ll leave myself reminders, like setting my car keys atop the thing I need to take with me, or putting a sticky-note saying “pick up cat” on my steering wheel, or leaving myself reminders written on the bathroom mirror in dry-erase marker. One of the things I like about my new Beetle is that it will beep at me when it’s getting low on gas, and beep me again when I start it back up and it’s still low on gas. This is a good design feature!

The How part is a big problem for many of us. It isn’t that we don’t know what we need to do, in the general sense of things. The inertia results from being overwhelmed by a large job and not knowing where to start. We have trouble breaking down what have what need to do step-wise. Part of this issue is that many large projects are riddled with the dreaded But-Befores: preliminary actions that must be accomplished before doing the next step.

In any kind of big project it helps to break things down into concrete, discrete, manageable steps. I usually start brainstorming with an ordinary piece of paper, with GOALS written at the top, followed by two columns, the HAVE and the NEED.

  • What are my goals?
  • What do I already have towards that?
  • What major things do I need to get that?
  • How can I get those things? What sorts of minor, preliminary things (the But-Befores) do I need to get each of those things?
  • What information do I still need? From whom or where can I get that?
  • What are the timeframes for each of these steps?
  • When there are deadlines, how much buffer needs to be built in for difficulties in getting things? (This is important – we frequently underestimate how long it will take to get things. I usually double how much time I think an unfamiliar task reasonably ought to take. Yes, double! Life is thick.)

Once I have these lists of tasks and sub-tasks, I then put them into a timeline, including that doubled amount of time in the estimates. This gives me necessary buffer room – recall that there is the “Shit Happens” clause in your User’s Guide to the Cosmos. I can then put this information onto two master documents, a Project Calendar and a Checklist. With those two, I can see my progress, and how the process will occur over time.

A smaller part of the inertia is the plain old getting started on things. Oft times getting started is hard because it involves so many steps that require finding or purchasing a diverse set of things, and then having to run errands to finish the task.

Mailing presents is a prime example: you have to think of what to buy, find it at a store, track down all the necessary wrapping materials, look up the address, and then take the parcel to a postal station. My ADHD friends and I are content to receive gifts from each other a month past our birthdays simply because we know that getting the things mailed at all was an achievement. (Plus, getting a gift on a random day is an especially pleasant surprise that those super-organised, date-conscious people out there likely haven’t experienced.)

A good way of dealing with inertia is to remove those situations from your life whenever possible!

Unfortunately, creditors aren’t so sympathetic. I’ve circumvented most bill payment by having the regular bills automatically deducted from my bank account, ditto the paychecks automatically deposited – I work three different jobs! Electronic Fund Transfer saves millions of financial butts every year, and is something that nearly everyone should make use of. (Trust me; I used to work in customer service at a bank, helping people straighten out their checkbooks.)

But for those remaining jobs that need attending, I have several ways of dealing with the inertia. Doing these involves figuring out in what parts of the process you are getting stuck, so you can reduce or remove as many barriers as possible.

Firstly, I try to never put things down to “deal with them later”. No one ever wants to deal with things later, and tossing them onto the pile only adds to the chaos. When I open my mail, I immediately trash the advertisements and outside envelope so I’m left with a tidy set of bills and return envelopes.

Secondly, preparing the bills for mailing back has a whole set of issues, so I have everything I need to complete this job right at hand and I don’t get stuck on the finding-things part. This means that the mail pile itself lands next to 1) where I like to set down my purse when I get home 2) a wastepaper basket for the refuse and 3) a rack with address stickers and stamps. Then as soon as I’ve finished processing those bills I take them right back out to the mailbox again. Running out of postage can be an issue, so I either try to buy large packs of stamps, or else put “buy stamps” on my To Do list when I’m only halfway out, so I will have bought more before I’ve completely out. (I think that’s what they mean by “older and wiser” — knowing how to work around one’s difficulties.)

One thing that’s often left out in coaching is the feedback process. How will you know when you’ve accomplished your task? This may sound obvious, but in some ways it’s not. Merely getting the thing done is not enough. If you recall, part of the executive dysfunction issues are the monitoring and troubleshooting facets. Some ADHD people end up in high-risk or high-excitement jobs because that stress is what gets them over the inertia factor and keeps them focused. (Frankly, we need people who can do such jobs; not everyone is cut out to be an air traffic controller or a firefighter.) But we don’t want to repeatedly end up blazing our way through tasks in crisis mode. This doesn’t do anything for reducing our overall stress levels, or for improving how we approach and resolve problems.

Part of completing a task is self-evaluating:

How did it go? Did all of it get done to satisfaction, or were you just squeaking by?

Were there things you needed but didn’t have? What can you do to acquire those for next time?

Did it take longer than you thought it would? This is a big question; AD/HD frequently underestimate real working time. I’ve taken to mentally adding 50% onto what I think familiar tasks ought to take, and that usually gives me time to not only complete them, but also to do those “tweaks” that improve them.

What happened that you didn’t anticipate? Is it likely to happen again? The correct answer is nearly always Yes – the world goes as it will, not as you or I would have it. How do you want to prepare for that next time?

And the most important question of all is, How will you implement these additional needs into the task the next time? It’s not enough to say, “Oh yes, I need to do thus-and-such,” because for the AD/HD person, merely knowing that on the cognitive level is not enough. You have to imagine yourself doing the task with these added improvements to make it part of the new routine. You also have to figure out how you will remind yourself to change what your process is the next time; nothing is so obvious it can’t be forgotten it in five minutes. As ever, it’s not the remembering that’s hard, it’s the remembering to remember!


  1. 24 December 2014 at 23:50

    […] Coping With the Inertia of Task Paralysis […]

  2. Suzanna said,

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  4. 2 January 2013 at 18:54

    […] has a few tips on how to battle inertia in her blog entry Coping With the Inertia of Task Paralysis. But, as a commenter points out: “Great ideas, Andrea, but how the heck am I going to […]

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  6. qw88nb88 said,

    21 June 2008 at 0:33

    That is a great image, but alas, is some 15 years after when I first encountered the phrasing of keeping track of (one’s thoughts) as being like “sorting confetti in a wind tunnel”.

    But thank you for trying, and play again! (-:


  7. Suzanne said,

    20 June 2008 at 21:57

    I liked this expression so much, I had to stop doing what I was supposed to be doing so I could Google it. There are a number of more recent modified versions, but this is the earliest that I could find:
    “June 8, 1999 — Do not walk directly in front of a running fan while carrying a dish of potpourri. The result is similar to confetti in a wind tunnel.”

  8. qw88nb88 said,

    20 January 2007 at 1:05

    Pat, I like your approach to pile archaeology. The wastepaper basket is my friend!

  9. Pat Mathews said,

    20 January 2007 at 0:56

    I tackled the infamous “pile o the file” by turning it over, reasoning that the closer to the bottom I was, the more stuff was there that I could file or throw away. Like meeting notices from 6 months ago. It worked! Only as I got near the end was there anything I had to think about!

    But check it for unpaid bills first.

  10. Lori said,

    16 October 2006 at 21:19

    Thanks for explaining. I know what you mean about the blind leading the blind not being a bad thing. I have a friend who’s brain is similar to mine, and for some reason, I can do things for her that I can not at all do for myself.

    I especially know what you mean about the ‘All you do is…’, ‘You just have to…’ people! Makes me wish I had my own foam sabre! I do have foam nunchaku. Perhaps I should carry them around more. Luckily my partner (NT) has figured out a million ways to help me eventually get things done and remind me of things repeatedly without either of us hating it.

  11. qw88nb88 said,

    16 October 2006 at 21:00

    Yes, sadly they do. This sort of process is what I use when coaching other people with AD/HD. You know how it goes; someone else’s problems are always easier to solve than your own.

    However, I will myself on occasion get mired in complex tasks, unsure of what I need to be doing et cetera. In those cases I holler up another AD/HD friend for a consultation. That sounds like the blind leading the blind, but I’ll tell you, next time I’m stuck in a dark hotel during a fire alarm, I’d rather be following a blind person because they know how to navigate without being able to see things. But I’m rambling.

    It doesn’t always help to ask a “normal” person for assistance — they often can’t understand the planning confusion or especially the inertial paralysis. (If one more person says to me, “It’s easy — all you do is …” I will have to pull out my big foam-rubber sabre and clobber them!)

    So in addition to finding someone who can understand WHY you have these troubles, you also need to find someone who has adequate understanding of the particular species of task you’re needing to tackle Otherwise they won’t know the right sorts of questions to ask, and the likely sorts of confounders you’ll encounter.

    And this is why humans are social animals; we need each other for accomplishing complex tasks!

    • 10 November 2016 at 8:45

      I really, really like the post, and I really, really like this comment. The blind leading, navigating a dark place, is a metaphor that struck me enough I had to tell my mother about it!

      I do have most of my basic executive functioning stuff sorted by now, with breaking down tasks when necessary and such; now I’m lowkey hoping for someone to suggest a silver bullet so that I can stand up in the first place! (I’m autistic, passive subtype, so my actual biggest difficulty in life is initiating things.)

  12. Lori said,

    16 October 2006 at 20:01

    Wow! Great description of inertia/task paralysis. That is almost exactly how my brain works too, but I am not nearly organized enough to break things down, analyze them, and take all the steps mentioned above to make things better. That seems even harder to me than doing the actual tasks! Don’t all of the solutions also fall under the realm of Executive Function?

  13. Catana said,

    16 October 2006 at 19:15

    I’m superb at the figuring out. Like you, it’s the following through that’s a I neighbor came over this evening and I asked if I had promised to hunt up some recipes for her the last time we had talked. Yes, I had, and had completely forgotten about it except for one fleeting moment, and when I saw her at the door again. Now the cookbook is sitting right where I can see it. Otherwise, I’ll forget all about it again.

  14. qw88nb88 said,

    16 October 2006 at 15:44

    You and mean both, girl, you and me both.

    The recursive qualities of trailing from one activity or thought to the next and eventually ending back at your initial position without having finished anything is a sadly familiar refrain in my life.

    With all this process analysis, I first have to come to the realisation of I HAVE A PROBLEM, meaning I notice the trend (the problem repeated, often in different ways & places). Once I get to that stage of self-awareness, then I can sit myself down with some paper and start figuring out what I need to do about it.

    Of course, remembering to follow through on that is the issue …

  15. Catana said,

    16 October 2006 at 7:59

    Great ideas, Andrea, but how the heck am I going to remember to do all that? I have a hard enough time remembering to remember and now I’m supposed to remember the reminders for remembering? Help! I’m trapped in an infinite regress!

    • andrea said,

      10 November 2016 at 16:54

      Remembering to remember is the worst!

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