ADHD and Thinking: UGH!

Thinking is effortful. It can be incredibly gratifying or intensely painful. Take the euphoria of an aha moment when you’ve solved a problem as opposed to struggling to regulate your attention and focus on a difficult or boring task. What’s more, the pressure to think on a deadline, in the face of writer’s block for example, brings on anxiety, which is the human experience, but it’s more extreme for those with ADHD.

Goal-directed thinking is an executive function. It’s about loading information or retrieving knowledge into working memory, then holding that information while organizing and sequencing those thoughts via trial and error to formulate how the pieces of a puzzle come together.

The greater the demand and strain on thinking, the more effortful it is, and the greater the urge to escape towards anything less taxing (like a gardener going inside to the air conditioning on a hot day). What looks like a focus problem for those with ADHD is actually the urge to escape from the taxing act of thinking.

One of my favorite sayings is this: “The sun does not rotate around the earth, but without the right technology, it looks like it does.” In working with people who struggle with ADHD, I find that to be a great metaphor to describe what’s often going on with them. Understanding “thinking” is a challenge for those who struggle with ADHD solutions, and they shouldn’t be so focused on trying harder but rather on how to make thinking easier.

In all my years of interviews with the experts, I think Dr. Russell Barkley summed it up best: “Thinking is effortful, particularly inside one’s head. The go-to mindset should be to externalize thinking, so that you can think outside your mind to reduce the burden on working memory.”

We use visual imagery and self-talk inside our heads to think. Externalizing thinking is the process of transforming our thoughts into an external form, like printing on paper, diagramming, making maps, outlines, using whiteboards, and talking out loud to ourselves or to others as opposed to self-talk. Any of these methods will help you to manipulate information in your mind. Similarly, collaborating with others often fills in the gaps for unknown variables to help solve a problem.

The point of all this is to help you realize, if you’re struggling with ADHD, the issue isn’t trying to solve for the focus problem, but more importantly to make thinking easier. The easier it is to think, the less there is an urge to escape. This can be done in a number of ways, but one of the tricks is really to understand how you learn. Learning itself is an organizational process. Becoming more attuned to your dominant learning modalities will put you in a position to address that issue and organize in such a way to work externally.

One of my observations during the COVID pandemic is that many of those with ADHD have to work at home or in isolation, and this takes thinking to a more intense and difficult level. It’s not a motivational issue; it’s the issue that thinking is much more difficult.

Solving the thinking problem will solve the motivation and productivity problems. I hope this information gives you insights on what to pay attention to and focus to manage your ADHD.

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