Harnessing the Power of Your ADHD

Joel Ybarra, LCMFT, originally published April 28, 2017 on joelybarra.com.

We tend to think of problems with focus and attention as impairments in brain functioning. Forgetting things, losing things and not being able to focus on the task at hand are all problematic, but it is important to understand what is actually going on in our ADHD brains and how we can use them optimally.  It is not that we are incapable of focus; we may just need to put in a little extra effort to be able to harness all our brains are capable of doing. The ADHD brain is actually moving too fast. In most cases, ADHD is more like “too much attention” than not enough. We can pay attention to too many things at once. We end up focusing on things we don’t need to. Or if asked to do something that is not challenging mentally (doesn’t take much processing power), our minds drift because of the simplicity (or dullness) of the activity.

This is made worse by the accessibility of so much media and sophisticated technology. We have all the information in the world and hundreds of apps at our fingertips, not to mention thousands of hours of media – games and videos – at our disposal. Having all of this interesting content available does not help our problems with focus, especially when it comes to mundane tasks.

But think about what our brains are able to do. Have you watched a child play a video game recently? The controllers for the new video games have like 32 buttons, and there are 7-year-olds who can whirl around in a shoot-em-up game and hand me my virtual death quicker than I can orient myself to the game environment. Our brains allow us to evaluate the aggregate of nuances in another’s verbal and non-verbal communication in milliseconds, assess threat and anticipate danger in the same amount of time, and assimilate numerous channels of input and layers of thought all at once. If inattentiveness is the problem, processing power is not to blame. The problem lies in being able to organize all of the information and optimize our brains’ ability to assess, problem-solve and execute tasks.

Below are a few ways to help us use the immense power our brains possess, especially when it seems like inattention is getting the best of us, we are failing to complete tasks or we are feeling scattered. (Some of these may go against conventional wisdom).

  1. Pay attention to every little thing – whether we like it or not, our brains are paying attention to many different things at once – our intents, plans, dreams, desires, impulses, worries, social cues, physical sensations in our bodies, and other things in our environment. If we try to block things out or ignore them, they still tend to interrupt, running scripts in the background that cause a drag on our focus. It is better to attend to the things that come into our attention, prioritize, organize and place them where we want them (see #2).
  2. Move things to your “outer attention” – when you are trying to focus on what is in front of you and other things come into your focus, paying attention to them but also moving them where you want them in your consciousness is helpful. If you have a big work project on your slate, for instance, but have something else to do first, you will likely not be able to forget about the work project. You cannot push it out of your brain altogether, but you can hold it in your “outer awareness,” rather than letting it be front and center, where it will interrupt what you are doing. It takes some effort and processing power to do this, but our brains have more processing power than we actually need for many tasks.
  3. Follow your brain’s lead and do many things at once – again, conventional wisdom would say to eliminate all distractions and isolate the task at hand, but when your brain is flitting and fluttering all over the place, it is impossible to reign it in and eliminate all the extra thoughts. It is wise to just let your brain lead you to all the different places it will go and even do many tasks at once, going back and forth between them as your brain brings them to your attention. It is possible to multi-task and, again, the ADHD brain may be more challenged and focused when it is overstimulated. It may not be productive to work this way all the time, but when your mind is wandering and in overdrive, sometimes it is best to go with it.
  4. Prioritize and solve the peskiest problems first – If you follow your brain’s lead and dispense of the things brought to its attention, you are clearing out mental clutter. Think of it as clearing out a cluttered room. It’s hard to work with a mess all around you. It is many times best to clean up the room first so you have less clutter in your consciousness. This is especially important when something urgent needs to be addressed. If you are working in a room with a hornet’s nest in it, it might be helpful to remove the hornet’s nest first because that threat is going to take up a significant amount of your attention. Once you have cleared out all the mental clutter, and especially those things that are most anxiety-producing, you will better be able to mentally organize the tasks you need to execute.
  5. Procrastinate, reward yourself and get it out of your system – Part of the problem with our difficulty sustaining attention is that we are trying to force our brains to work the way we want them to, rather than the way they work naturally. And on top of that, we are trying to force ourselves to do things we don’t want to do. When we feel more freedom to be able to massage and work our task lists, we establish a better flow. There is something to be said for putting things off and doing the things we feel like doing or can achieve quickly, clearing out clutter as above and getting some small victories under our belts. It may also be helpful to do something enjoyable, rather than always hitting the task list. Eventually the urgency of what needs to get done will come back around and we will have more motivation at that point. Some of us work better under pressure!

Hopefully, these ways of organizing and working our tasks are helpful. Our brains are powerful and it can be frustrating to deal with focus problems, but our brains are also malleable and trainable. If we put time and energy into how we work, working smarter and not just harder, we will see benefits and utilize more of the power our brains possess.