Typical ADHD Behaviors

8 Illuminating Insights Into ADHD: Making Sense of Your Brain

Understanding ADHD and how it affects everyday life often means questioning everything you think you know about the condition. In my years coaching people with ADHD, I’ve learned and shared these important insights with them about emotional dysregulation, procrastination, motivation, productivity, sleep, and regret.

Ilona Nagy/Getty Images
Ilona Nagy/Getty Images

An epiphany is a sudden revelation — an “aha” moment — that often strikes after you’ve adopted a new perspective.

My goal as an ADHD coach is to help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) view their condition differently. When they finally get to me, I know they’ve not yet experienced this “aha” moment because their stories are almost all the same: They’ve tried it all — to no avail — and they’re drowning in strategies for managing their life with ADHD.

This is when I can step in to help them reach a crucial epiphany: They’ve been looking at the roots of their ADHD challenges — from procrastination and motivation to prioritization and productivity — all wrong.

Here are the most important ADHD insights I’ve collected and shared with my clients over the years to help them separate their symptoms from themselves and reach their goals.

1. The ADHD brain likes to seek escape.

Every time we think, we engage our executive functions — a set of cognitive processes that allow us to plan, organize, remember information, and initiate action on a goal. For people with ADHD, thinking is effortful and difficult because these underlying executive functions are impaired. That’s why the ADHD brain’s reaction is to seek escape when thinking is too taxing, even if it’s directed toward a desired goal.

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I spend a lot of time helping my clients acknowledge that this tendency is at the root of most ADHD-related challenges. Managing ADHD is more about making thinking easier, which reduces escapism and facilitates goal-directed behavior.

2. The ADHD brain is emotional and reflexive.

Just as thinking is effortful and difficult due to executive dysfunction, so too is self-regulation. Poor self-regulation makes it challenging to control emotions and inhibit impulses, especially when based on feelings. Emotional dysregulation also makes it difficult to endure temporary discomfort for a desired goal. The ADHD brain wants to feel good now, not later.

3. Ambiguity fuels procrastination.

The ADHD brain wants to procrastinate when there’s something unpleasant about the task at hand. That unpleasantness, I’ve found, is often rooted in ambiguity.

You might be totally unclear about the task in front of you. Or you might understand the end goal but have trouble wrapping your head around the steps needed to reach it. Either way, avoidance makes all the sense in the world when the unpleasantness of uncertainty is present.

[Take This Quiz: How Seriously Do You Procrastinate?]

No matter where your procrastination blooms, it helps to admit that you find the task hard, even if that task is simple by other people’s standards. To the ADHD brain, which struggles with effortful thinking and goal-directed behavior, it’s not so simple at all. Admitting that a task is difficult increases self-awareness and allows you to think of solutions. Is the task difficult because it is unclear? Do you lack skills or tools to carry it out?

4. There is no such thing as a lack of motivation.

Like countless others with ADHD, you might be quick to say that you’re lazy or unmotivated if you don’t follow through on a task. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’ll never forget a conversation I had long ago with Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., who said that everything we’ll ever do in life, even if we engage in avoidance, is rooted in motivation.

Some clients, filled with shame, will say things to me like, “I’m unmotivated. I just sit on the couch all day and watch Netflix.” I reframe it for them. I say, “You are motivated — to watch Netflix.” I also tell them about the link between clarity and motivation. When we lack clarity on what to do, motivation to engage in that task diminishes.

Here’s yet another way to think about it: Your dopamine-starved brain, unable to find pleasure in an unpleasant task (even boredom is physically uncomfortable), is greatly motivated to avoid pain and seek pleasure elsewhere.

Acknowledge that there’s really no such thing as being unmotivated. It will help you avoid shaming yourself. As Laura MacNiven, a fellow ADHD coach, said, “You can’t treat ADHD from a lens of shame or blame.”

5. Popular productivity tools may stifle the ADHD brain.

The tools and systems that work conveniently and consistently for others may be totally unhelpful for your ADHD brain. What’s worse, you might not even realize that you’ve fallen victim to illusions of convenience.

I recently worked with a client whose productivity issues at work, unbeknownst to him, were in large part due to the company’s practice of communicating complex information and reports via email. Each time he received an email, he’d have to re-engage his mind on the topic, consider the new information he received, and develop a response — an effortful process that taxed his working memory. Email is convenient for others so he never questioned whether the tool worked for him. Once he did question it, he realized that he was better off talking — not emailing — with colleagues about dense, complex projects.

Think carefully about the systems and procedures you use in your day-to-day life. Are you sticking to unproductive methods because they seems to work for everyone else? Let go of what isn’t serving you. Consider the systems and tools to which you gravitate.

6. ‘Task Darwinism’ is why prioritization plans fall through.

How many times have you organized items on your to-do list by order of importance, only to focus on low-priority items first over more urgent ones (and beat yourself up for it)? I call this “task Darwinism” — the natural selection process that tasks undergo and a common ADHD phenomenon.

You choose to do the less important task first not because you’re lazy, but because conditions and elements allow for it. You have clarity, time, and a conducive location, all of which facilitate performance. You avoid or skip over a task, even one you deem important, because it’s missing these elements.

Say you have an important presentation to prepare. Though you’re in a conducive location and have time and tools, you lack clarity on how and where to start. So, rather than focus on the presentation, you find yourself answering emails — a low-priority item on your list. You’re drawn to that item because you have all the right elements in place to facilitate action. Still, your inner voice reminds you that you should be preparing the presentation.

Remember the task Darwinism principle the next time you prioritize. It will save you from self-torment and allow you to think about the elements you need to take action on important items.

7. The right kind of stimulation induces sleep.

It takes most people about 15 minutes to fall asleep. It often takes much longer than that for people with ADHD. Why? Because waiting to drift into unconsciousness is boring, even uncomfortable. Many of my clients admit that they’ll do anything not to get into bed. If they are in bed, they’ll seek to stimulate their mind and further delay sleep. They do this even as they know that they’ll wake up exhausted the next day.

The trick to falling asleep is to find an activity that stimulates your reward-seeking brain, but not to the point where your mind won’t surrender to sleep. It will take a bit of self-observation along with trial and error to find the right balance of stimulation and mindlessness. If you need inspiration, consider the following strategies that have worked for some of my clients:

  • Invest in a coloring book — a creative, soothing, relaxing activity.
  • Dim the lights and do some light cleaning and organizing.
  • Listen to a podcast episode and lower the volume so your mind must strain a bit to hear it.

8. Rehearsing the past won’t change the future.

Constant feelings of guilt and shame are an unfortunate part of the ADHD experience for many people, especially those who did not have an explanation for their challenges until later in life. Ultimately, while there is useful information in these experiences, fixating too much on past mistakes and painful memories prevents progress.

Some people with ADHD may benefit from psychotherapy to learn how to cope with intense feelings. But mindfulness, meditation, and self-compassion are excellent tools to help regulate feelings, even with an emotional brain. Mindfulness decreases emotional reactivity, while self-compassion allows for self-forgiveness.

Understanding ADHD: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “7 Insights Into the ADHD Brain That Transform Lives” [Video Replay & Podcast #389],” with Jeff Copper, PCAC, PCC, MBA which was broadcast on February 22, 2022.

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