Task inertia, is also referred to as autistic inertia, though that is misleading because it’s also a huge hurdle for ADHDers and, to a certain extent, all neurotypes.

Task inertia is that frustrating situation where we really want or need to get on with a task but we just can’t find a way in to get started. It could be our favourite special interest, it could be the tax return (completely understandable!), the shopping list, an email, an essay, anything – often the stuff that we know is the most urgent.

We may have been happily working away for hours on end, in our most productive state of hyperfocus on that very same task, totally engrossed. It feels great! The doorbell rings, we deal with that, we sit back down and… nothing. The spell has been broken. We spin on the chair a while, grab some snacks, reply to a message, cuddle our pets. Each time we go back and try and find that window back in to where we do our best work, and it’s like we’ve been given a sedative. That focus just doesn’t return.

It may be that we haven’t even managed to start a task. Procrastination, seeking distraction activities, maybe suddenly deciding we need to clean the windows for the first time this year or clean out the messy drawer of random stuff in the kitchen.  It’s all just so frustrating.

Task inertia can be a problem for such a wide range of reasons – and these vary from person to person and depend on each situation. For us neurodivergent folk, as ever, our chances of it being a very regular hindrance are high. Here are just a few of the reasons why:

  1. Anxiety – our ever-ready companion. Often just the very thought of tackling something that we’ve been putting off for ages, or that we know has importance attached to it piles on the pressure and increases our anxiety levels. It feels sometimes we’re frozen with physical and mental lethargy.
  2. Executive function problems – being interrupted when we’re in the zone, problems with planning and organisation, struggling with switching between tasks – the list is a long one.
  3. Stress of external pressures – if we’re on a deadline, if we’re surrounded by others who seem to be nailing it, these pressures crank up the stress levels.
  4. Sensory overload – bright lights, telephones ringing, people talking in the background, the label in our favourite piece of clothing suddenly deciding it’s going to torture our skin for the first time ever. We’re never going to get that focus back until our senses are happy.
  5. If we are autistic with a PDA profile (demand avoidance) that can be like a big red STOP sign – we know we have to do it and that’s the biggest deterrent to getting it done that there is!
  6. Time agnosia (you may have heard this referred to as ‘time blindness‘) – where we have little or no concept of time passing. It can be a real shock to feel we’ve just sat down, the whole day lies ahead and then, somehow, an hour or a morning has passed. How?
  7. Perfectionism – oh that dreadful ol’ beast! It’s great, because we produce good stuff but it’s absolutely crippling at times – and this taps back into our anxiety.
  8. Depression and other co-occurring mental health conditions play a huge role in increasing task inertia.
  9. Physical and/or mental exhaustion – as burnout starts kicking in, so the periods of task inertia increase, made worse if you’re having to mask (at work, for instance).
  10. A lack of confidence, shame waves, rejection sensitivity – any or all variations of these.

I could just go on and on with this list but I think we get the idea.

So, how do we cope with task inertia? I feel another list coming on…

  1. Establish a routine  – this, to me, is the impossible challenge! But it’s so important.
  2. Use reminder tools – sticky notes, phone apps, alarm clocks to help stay on track.
  3. Take planned breaks, so we know when our interruptions are going to be, and so do those around us.
  4. Put a do not disturb sign up!
  5. Wear noise cancelling headphones or earplugs.
  6. Shut the blind/curtains if the outside environment is distracting us from a task that requires full focus.
  7. Try body doubling – it’s all the rage! It may be helpful to some of us, especially with the more boring tasks.
  8. Change lightbulbs to daylight bulbs or to softer ones, whatever works for each of us.
  9. Have fidget toys nearby or indulge in our favourite stim to aid concentration.
  10. Identify when our minds are most clear – women apparently tend to find mornings the most productive.
  11. Don’t make those daily To Do lists too long – the overwhelm that can hit when faced with a clearly unachievable goal is self-defeating before we’ve even begun. If we have a rolling list of everything that needs to be done in a notebook, this takes the pressure off our overworked memory, then we can take a few things from that list each day – that’s much more realistic.
  12. Monitor foods and drinks to see which help us focus and which increase our fogginess.
  13. Have a little read of the glossary entry for hyperfocus – it’s our best friend and one of our greatest skills in the fight against task inertia.
  14. Importantly, though these tips will help some people some of the time, we need to acknowledge that task inertia is integral to our neurology, for many of us. It’s not our fault and we don’t need to feel like failures.

That’ll do for starters! But please do get in touch if you have found some neat ways of coping with task inertia.