Monday, January 10, 2011

Thriving with Attention Deficit Disorder

Attention Deficit Disorder sucks – sort of. Fortunately, God's gifts are only good ones. The trick is finding the good in them. I grew up with it. Got it from Dad, I think. It makes you hyperactive. You have trouble focusing, You can't sit still in class. You're always fidgeting or diddling with something. You have trouble paying attention in class or getting your homework done. Here are some survival tips for coping with ADHD and finding the sharp edge of this two-edged sword.
An unharnessed gift.


Realize that school is not designed for you. We adapted our system of education from the Germans around the turn of the last century. It sounded great – all orderly and graded and regular. It was designed to meet the needs of the industrial revolution. German schools were designed to teach children to show up on time, to do repetitive work and not to complain about it.

The problem is the United States was settled by people who don't like to sit in one place all day, do repetitive work and not complain. According to one Harvard sociologist, there's a reason Americans have higher rates of ADHD than practically anywhere in the free world. Our hyperactive ancestors got kicked out of every nice, tidy, civilized country in the world. They came here and percolated north, south and west till they ran out of frontier and invented Alaska, California and Texas.

Basically there are a lot of us. So how do you survive a school system designed for obsessive compulsives if you have ADHD? Here are some suggestions.

1.Take notes in class. I started in 5th grade. If your hands are busy you can focus better and you don't need to study so hard.
2.Do your homework in class. You have to sit there anyway, so you might as well get something done. You probably aren't an auditory learner anyway.
3.Set doable goals and give yourself a reward for doing your homework. The reward is important because positive feedback is a key element in achieving the flow experience. If nobody else is going to give you positive feedback, you'll need to do it yourself.
4.Record things you're going to be tested on and run the tape over headphones while you're going to sleep. Before you doze off, a lot of info gets pumped into your relaxed brain and maybe even while you sleep. I used to wake up in the night and flip the tape over.

Selecting a Career:

Vocational testing was disappointing for me. The counselor said I could do practically anything I wanted. That only confused me further. I spent two years in grad school studying rehab and vocational psych. Here's what I learned about testing and ADHD.

Testing shows you what you like, not what you'd be good at. It gives you an idea of what field you'd enjoy being in, but not necessarily what job within that field. With ADHD you tend to be focused widely, on lots of things at once. Unless something is very powerful and intense, it won't hold your attention. Being a CPA is unlikely to work out for you because you are too easily distracted. You like sports and hobbies that involve a lot of action. You're designed to be a hunter, alert to everything in your environment, quick to spot game, then intensely focused on the chase.

Choose a couple or three good fields and then see if you can find a job within that field that plays to your strength. Drawn to the medical field? You'll probably do better as an EMT than a floor nurse, a better trauma surgeon than an administrator (if you're smart and stubborn enough to get through med school). If you like the aviation, join the Air Force. The training is intense, but there are jobs there for you if you are good under pressure, in an emergency of have to think on your feet. ADHD folk go into law enforcement and fire-fighting. They're notoriously good in action and lousy with paperwork.

Getting Into the Zone:

Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did some ground-breaking work a few years ago on why some people find such satisfaction in what they do. He described a phenomenon called “Flow”, a mental state in which a person is fully immersed in an activity, feels energized, focused, fully involved and successful”. Flow is what athletes experience in the midst of a game. It's the hyperfocus of surgeon working without relief for hours to rebuild a human heart or brain. It's a kid playing a video game for six hours straight.

Parents of ADHD kids have long complained that their kids can't concentrate in school, but can focus on a video game for hours. This ability of ADHD kids to hyperfocus leads many to believe they are deliberately disruptive and restless in school and if they just applied themselves, they could focus.

The ability to focus on intensely immersive experiences is an example of how “flow” works. Psychologist George Simon suggests that if ADHD patients learn to channel the flow experience, thye can make it work for them. To do so, you need to look for jobs that allow you some flexibility and allow you to:

  1. Select tasks that have clearly defined objectives. Boring tasks or jobs that require you to shift from one task to another will overwhelm you. Trim the scope of tasks you take on so that they come in achievable bites and can be completed within the time allotted. Shelter the work site so you aren't frequently interrupted. When you are in the zone, you do your best work.
  2. Get training to prepare you for the job. Flow happens best when you are skilled at what you are doing. That's why athletes and musicians, artists and computer programmers are so incredibly focused. They have developed skills in difficult arts. When you have practiced a skill to the point that the skill itself becomes second nature, you move past merely pressing the piano keys or throwing the football. These skills are ready and at your command when you need them. Your mind is free to think about strategy and nuance of the game or activity. Chess players, painters, sculptors, soldiers, and fire-fighters all find that their senses are fully engaged when using these well-practiced skills. They experience a kind of hyperfocus that overpowers distractions from the surrounding world.
  3. Make sure you create clear measurable objectives for what you want to accomplish. In a game, the objective is usually just to win. If you don't know where you are going, you won't be able to focus your efforts sufficiently to get there. Flow is best experienced when you are proceeding success to success. As in a game, you complete one series of tasks and you move to the next level or series of tasks. The harder it is for you to maintain focus, the more limited your objective should be.
  4. Design lots of feedback into what you are doing. Regular positive feedback keeps you engaged in the task and maintains the flow experience. Games create flow by having dozens of little feedback events along the way. You shoot, something explodes. You jump, you clear the obstacle. You find the key, you open the door. Feedback is probably the most important thing necessary to maintain flow.
  5. Find a place to work where nobody will interrupt you. Interruptions are the death of flow. If you can, cut off the phone and steer visitors in another direction. White noise like a fan or radio turned low or one of those ocean wave tapes or something can help blur potential distractions.
  6. Time your tasks so you can work without distractions. When you are experiencing the flow state, you will lose track of time. You may have to set an alarm clock or ask a colleague to remind you when it's time to go home or you may find yourself looking up and realizing hours have passed. If you work for yourself or have a job that's a little more flexible and can set an open-ended work session, then you can press on to completion.
If you match your work style with the jobs you take on, you can take advantage of your ability to achieve flow to help you succeed in your life's work despite your ADHD. In fact, your project oriented works style may even prove an advantage in some sorts of jobs. While performing tasks you will find that you become more and more adept at achieving a state of flow. If you aren't in charge of your work schedule or how you set up the parameters of your workspace and times, find yourself an ally. It can be a colleague, a teacher, or supervisor. Family and friends can help not only help you get what you need to work well, but act as your advocate and ally in adapting your work to your most effective style.


Achieving flow can help you overcome the distractibilty that tends to dog people with ADHD throughout their career. Achieving flow while performing job related tasks can help you be successful, but be aware. The flow experience, while satisfying, can be almost addictive. This helps you slip into the flow state more easily when getting down to work. Unfortunately, if you have other absorbing tasks or activities in your work area, you can wind up doing one function of your job to the exclusion of the other. Try moving potential non-targeted activities out of your sight if you need to do something else, so you don't spend all your time editing videos, for instance, and never getting around to editing your audio tracks. Don't leave your Game Boy on your desk either or you can find yourself playing games all afternoon.

Use the flow experience to help you succeed. Don't let it use you to make you fail.


FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Harper and Row, 1990.

VAXA: Hyperfocus The Other Side of ADHD

TED: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow

Counseling Resource: Hyperfocus and ADHD
ADDitude Magazine: Learn About ADHD: Hyperfocus

© 2011 by Tom King

No comments:

Post a Comment