As the owner of an ADHD brain, understanding what captures and holds your attention is essential to taking charge of your life! So what kinds of things captivate the ADHD brain?
New Stuff is My Friend (or Foe)!
New things are just a whole lot more interesting to the ADHD brain than the same old things! This is partly because a structure at the base of the brain stem called the reticular activating system, or RAS for short, perks up when it encounters something new!
The RAS is trying to decide if the thing it’s encountered is a “friend or a foe.” It’s trying to determine if this new thing is helpful or harmful. The RAS is trying to protect us and keep us safe.
The second reason new things get a lot of attention is because of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter with a lot of very important jobs. One of these is to get our motor system ready to move – that “flight or fight” condition! So new things trigger a release of dopamine and that gets us ready to take action.
Another really important function of dopamine is to turn on the attention system. So a new thing comes along, the RAS notices it, and starts to determine if it’s friend or foe, dopamine is released, which makes it easier for us take action and to pay attention. Cool system right? New stuff is the friend of the ADHD brain.
What else gets the attention of the ADHD brain? A challenge of some kind. A race! Anything that the brain can see as a contest in some way. This is just a safer and more benign version of the “fight or flight” phenomenon. Challenges stimulate us because they are a version of play mixed with self-defense!
So one way to get your brain on your side is to see any challenging, boring or irritating task as an opponent you are trying to beat! Can you see that task as a challenge to be conquered? Can you shift out of boredom or irritation, or “this isn’t any fun” mode and into the mindset of “I’m going to come in first in this race”? If you can, you’ll have one more way to get your brain working for you, helping you accomplish your goals!
It Can’t Wait!
This is another version of the “fight or flight” situation! If the house has just caught on fire, you shift into action. If you’ve got a deadline – you shift into action. When something is urgent, it demands your attention in a way that you can’t walk away from. Your brain is now fully engaged. Finding ways to inject some urgency into the situation is a powerful way to get your brain to tackle the tough jobs.
How can you make things more urgent well in advance of the deadline? Here’s one way – make a bet with a friend that you will be done well in advance of the deadline, and make it a bet you really don’t want to lose (this hack is part “urgent” and part “challenge”).
The “Carrot” or the “Stick”
“Carrots” are desirable rewards and “sticks” are consequences to be avoided! Chasing after things that are pleasurable or running away from things that are unpleasant are powerful motivations!
Whether you are more motivated by gaining a positive reward or avoiding a negative consequence also depends on the situation. And sometimes it’s easier to shift into action when you combine both positive and negative inducements.
Sure! everybody makes decisions based on rewards and punishments. As the owner of an ADHD brain, your job is to figure out exactly what combination of carrots and sticks is the most effective for YOU. The rewards and consequences need to be directly connected to the actions you want to take to make your life better (for example studying so you get a good grade).
I Can’t Get Enough of It!
Everyone with ADHD knows that they can “get in the zone” when they are interested and fascinated in something. What does it mean to “get in the zone”? Well, it means you can’t get enough of something! You can’t stop, you can’t put it down, you are so good at it and it’s so fun. When you’re in the zone – that’s your brain on fire with interest!
So ask yourself, “What captivates me? What never seems to get boring?” These are the things your brain would be on board to get more of! How can you make your burning desires work for you to make getting through college easier?
Get Better Acquainted With *Your* ADHD Brain
The more you know about how your brain drives your attention and actions, the more power you have to accomplish what you really want to accomplish in your life!
How do you get in the zone? Under what conditions do you succeed and thrive? What fascinates you? Are you determined not to lose? Does that new fresh thing catch your eye? When you’re successful, precisely why are you successful?
Understanding how to capture your genius strengths, bottle them, and use them at every opportunity will make all the difference in successfully completing your college education!
Dr. Kari Miller, PhD, BCET is a board certified educational therapist and ADHD coach who has been educating and coaching adults and young people who have ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, emotional challenges, and other complex needs for more than twenty-five years. She holds a PhD in educational psychology and mathematical statistics, an MEd in Learning Disabilities, Gifted Education and Educational Diagnosis, and a BS in Early Childhood Education and Behavior Disorders. Dr. Miller provides support across the lifespan – to school-aged students with learning and attention challenges, to young adults in transition to college or the workplace, and to women with ADHD who have passionate dreams, but are frustrated by procrastination, lack of focus and difficulty following through.