Exactly How Did You Do That: The Value of an ADHD Recipe

Some time ago, I talked with Dr. David Nowell (www.drnowell.com) about observing how we do things. What I mean is that, for most of us with ADHD, we are not aware of how we do things, like getting to places on time, making a relationship work, or sticking to a workout schedule. But to get the same results each time, we can use a very simple technique, which is asking “How exactly did I do that?” One example is Grandma using a recipe that enables her to make the same delicious cake again and again. So, it occurred to me that knowing our personal recipe for success is just as valuable.

Dr. Nowell suggested that answering “how” you did something is actually getting the treatment plan to write itself. Using Grandma’s cake as an example, we know that, if we want to get the same results each time, it’s crucial to follow the recipe exactly. Asking yourself how you did something can be more helpful to discover your own ADHD recipe where you’re then free to change just one element to get a different outcome. Watch the video to learn more.


Attention Talk Video - Dr. David Nowell

Video Transcript:

Jeff Copper:    Welcome everybody to this edition of Attention Talk Video. I’m your host, attention coach Jeff Copper, and I’m here today with Dr. David Nowell. Dr. Nowell, welcome to the show.

Dr. Nowell:    Thanks. Good to be here, Jeff.

Jeff Copper:    A lot of times I’m working with people in coaching and we’re trying to find out what works, and one of the concepts is let’s talk about how you did something before. Many times I’ll say, “Well, how did you do that?” And they give me this strange look. I know you have some strong thoughts in this area, in your work, talk to us about, “How exactly did you do that?”

Dr. Nowell:    Yeah, so one of the central practices that I want to support with teachers and parents, especially teachers and parents working with folks who have attention deficit disorder, is this practice of asking, “How exactly did you do that?” I want you to think about each word there. “How exactly did you do that?” The first thing I want you to notice is I’m not saying “why.”

Jeff Copper:    Yes.

Dr. Nowell:    So, for example, Billy sets the curtains on fire, and if I say, “Why did you do that?” It just invites a shame answer like, “I’m a bad boy.” But if I say, “Billy, how did you set the curtains on fire?” Which seems like a strange question, but bear with me. “How did you set the curtains on fire?” He’ll probably say, “Well, with a match.” Okay, back me into that. How did you know it was time to go ahead and get the match? “Well, I was in the kitchen and I saw the matches and I knew that that would….” Okay, so you’re in the kitchen, you saw the matches. Tell me exactly how you knew you wanted to take those matches and set the curtains on fire, and at that point he might say, “Well, my daddy’s a fireman and mommy and daddy don’t live together anymore, and I knew that if I set the curtains on fire, daddy would come to the house to put out the fire and then he would live with us again.”

So there you go, the treatment plan writes itself. It’s not that he’s a bad kid, it’s that he had kind of an immature idea that if I set a fire, my dad, the fireman, will come back and live with us. The intervention, of course, is to let him know that both parents still love him, we want to have some conversations about fire safety, but when we understand how exactly somebody does it, then the treatment plan often just kind of writes itself.

Jeff Copper:    Yep, so, for me, this translates into some stuff like if you’re coaching somebody, if I’m coaching somebody and they want help on time management, I instantaneously go, “Well, if you made this call on time, how did you do it?”

Dr. Nowell:    Yeah.

Jeff Copper:    “How exactly did you do that?” Which is what we’re talking about.

Dr. Nowell:    Yeah, and it’s exactly the part that’s crucial, because your grandma has a pound cake recipe and if you want the same exact pound cake, you follow it exactly. If you change one element of her recipe, you substitute margarine for butter or cook in an electric rather than a gas oven, you get a different pound cake. If you like the way your life is turning out, the way you get places on time or the way you’re making a relationship work, you have a recipe for that. On the other hand, if you’re frustrating yourself, routinely showing up late for meetings or skipping the gym, blowing off your French language review, you have a recipe for doing that. And so when a client shows up on time and you ask how exactly did you do that? You’re asking when did it start?

It may have started the night before when you went to bed on time. It may have continued the next morning when you put the alarm clock on the other side of the room. But likewise, when I have clients who show up late, once we’ve established rapport and they know that I’m not judging them, I’ll say, “Can you tell me how you showed up late?”

Or sometimes I’ll say, “Can you tell me how you showed up 15 minutes late?” Because they probably have a recipe, that some people tend to show up seven minutes late, some people are 20 minutes. But when the client says, “Well, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I showed up late.” That’s not the point of this conversation. Tell me exactly how.

And many times, clients who are willing to be honest about it, they can actually step back and they may have a strategy where they remembered that two summers ago when the college students were out of town, they got across town in 12 minutes, so they tell themselves it takes 12 minutes to get across town, when in fact if they timed it, honestly looked at the data, it may take 19 minutes to get across town. They may have another part of that recipe that says, when I leave the house, I tell myself I can knock out a couple of quick chores, when in fact I probably can’t. So once we understand how exactly we show up seven minutes late for team meetings, but we always show up on time for Pilates class, and look at those recipes, then I think the next step is obvious. We’re then free to change just one element of that.

Jeff Copper:    The reason I wanted to do this is so often there’s so much those with ADD do right.

Dr. Nowell:    Oh yeah.

Jeff Copper:    If you actually ask, how did I do that? And you focus on your own individual recipe, once you know the recipe, it’s easy to make the pound cake over and over and over the exact same way. So you can use it in other places, but until you ask, “How did I do that?” Or “I did this right,” or “I’m successful,” then you’re not going to understand how to replicate it. So I think this is a really big deal.

Dr. Nowell:    I like to start with the positive things. Before I get to questions like, “How did you show up 15 minutes late?” I like to start with the positive. When it’s a young person, especially if you’re the parent, you may get a lot of resistance on these questions. So I might frame it, I might say, “You know, I have a student about your age and he has real difficulty meeting people, and I notice you’ve had a boyfriend or a girlfriend for six weeks. Six weeks. That must’ve been difficult. Can you tell me how you let the person know you were interested, how you maintained this relationship? Because I want to tell my client, who’s about your age and struggles, how you do this so successfully.” So what I’m asking for is his recipe, because I admire his recipe and I want to use it with another client.

Jeff Copper:    Now, I like when you’re asking that when they articulate it, it kind of ingrains in them. So if you’re out there and you’re struggling, pay attention to what you’re doing right and focus on how you do it. Get your recipe, and you’ll be amazed at how much you can use it in some other places. And with that, Dr. Nowell, thank you for coming on the show.

Dr. Nowell:    Thank you. Appreciate it.

Jeff Copper:    Take care, everybody.



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