If you’re an adult with ADHD, then it’s likely you’re all too familiar with the feeling of boredom. It’s that restless feeling, sometimes intense and almost painful when you just don’t feel engaged. And you need to find something interesting to do. Now! If you can find something meaningful to you to do in those moments, then you’re golden.
But what if your boredom leads you to say something or act in a way you later regret? Maybe you make a joke that’s, well, funny to you, but… Then, again, you might start playing on your phone in the middle of a conversation. Other times your boredom may mean you don’t follow through on work that is truly important to you.
Obviously, if you don’t know how to recognize and manage these moments of boredom, the consequences of your inadvertent actions might interfere with how you want to be and act. So, figuring out how to manage your boredom should rate high on your list when thinking about how to work with your ADHD, right?
Keep on reading to see how you can do this in a way that gives your ADHD brain the stimulation it needs. But minimizes the chance of your boredom coming out sideways in ways you don’t want.
The Connection Between Dopamine and Boredom in ADHD Adults
Of course, everyone feels bored now and again.
And neurotypical adults might be able to plow through a task they find boring. Maybe because they feel they “have to.” So, they fill out their expense reports because they don’t want to get in trouble. And they pay their bills on time to avoid paying late fees. External motivation works for them. And they might not even need internal motivation to complete a boring task.
But, for you, an adult with ADHD, trying to attend to a task that is not intrinsically interesting can be the proverbial kiss of death in terms of being able to tackle the task effectively. That’s not to say you can’t do tasks you find boring. It does, however, mean you need to recognize those tasks you find boring. And then strategize how to follow through.
The reason, remember, is ADHD adults already have abnormally low levels of dopamine. Meaning your brain is not getting the stimulation it needs to act. In addition to having low levels of dopamine, when an activity is not inherently interesting, the reward center in your brain doesn’t get activated because dopamine isn’t released.
I bet you already knew all about the connection between dopamine and boredom.
How Your Boredom Is Related to the Reward Being Too Distant
Did you know, though, you may feel bored because the reward is too distant?
When you can remember the reward associated with a task you will be more likely to do it in the moment when it’s time to act. But, because of weak working and long term memory challenges, you tend to live too much in the present.
There is often now and not now.
So, you may not remember and effectively working toward your long-term goals. Especially if the immediate task related to the goal is boring. For example, you may intend to work on an important project (think of a current one). Intellectually, you know this will be helpful in some way.
But, when the stimulus is in front of you and the reward is immediate, it is easier to tackle a task. Because your brain is stimulated, motivated by the anticipated reward. But what happens when you don’t have a visceral connection to the reward in the moment?
When you see the block in your calendar, you might:
- As you are walking to your desk you look at the bathroom, and think, “I should clean the bathroom. Then I’ll get to work
- Then, after you clean the bathroom and are ready to work, you receive a Facebook notification and decide, “I need a break before I start.“
- While looking at FB an email pops up, and you think, “Wow, look at all those emails! I really need to answer those first. “
The stimulus and reward for cleaning the bathroom, looking at Facebook or plowing through your email are immediate and right in front of you. But, because the reward for working on your long-term goal is not obvious or immediate, and the task is boring, you won’t like doing it.
So, you don’t, right?
Why Boredom Feels So Intolerable for ADHD Adults
So far I’ve made the case your ADHD contributes to your feelings of boredom. So far that all makes sense, right? But why can boredom feel so incredibly intolerable for ADHD adults?
Did you know your ADHD brain craves stimulation? This means your brain is constantly scanning the environment to find ways to get the arousal it needs. And, if your brain needs a great deal of stimulation, it can be physiologically uncomfortable when it is under-aroused.
So, you may seek out additional stimulation to alleviate the boredom.
Of course, it matters what you decide to do to alleviate your boredom. You may decide to work out vigorously or engage in a meaningful hobby. Not bad activities, for sure. However, you may opt instead to engage in risky behavior, play video games excessively, provoke arguments, eat too much, spend compulsively, respond to a “crisis,” etc. to get the stimulation your brain needs.
The latter activities are obviously not so great if they are not in sync with your values and goals. If you often find yourself in these situations, I know you want to better balance your brain’s need for stimulation and your desire to be more intentional. So your “intellect, and not your brain wiring,” is in charge of choosing when and how you act.
Because, as clinical psychologist and ADHD expert, Dr. Ellen Littman, explains:
“…if your brain won’t engage, it’s an ugly standoff. The ADHD brain and its owner are at odds with one another. It’s difficult to compel a disengaged brain to engage by force of will. In fact, much of the treatment for ADHD involves learning to psych out the brain, so that it will attend to necessary, low-stimulation tasks.”
Let’s get on with seeing how you can “psych out your brain.”
Know What It Feels Like When You Are Bored
The first step in managing your boredom is to be aware of when you’re bored. This may seem obvious and simple, but it is neither, really.
For example, many adults with ADHD, as noted in the quote below from a newsletter subscriber (quoted with permission), can become frustrated when they feel bored. And so, while they may be able to identify the frustration, they may be missing the root cause of the frustration, which is that they are bored.
“When I get bored a second feels like a minute, a minute feels like an hour, an hour to me is like a day and a day is like a month. Boredom becomes frustration and frustration becomes anger.”
You also may think you are tired when really you are bored. Then, if you think you are tired and decide to take a nap, you may feel even more lethargic — bored. You see how this can become a vicious cycle. And to break this cycle what you may need in the moment is stimulation, not a nap!
In addition, boredom can feel like intense restlessness. It’s almost as if you’re ready to crawl out of your skin! And you’re just not sure what to do. Hopefully, you can catch this so you can direct your energies in a positive way. But that doesn’t always happen, right?
The key is to learn what boredom feels like for you so you can address it appropriately. And, recognizing in the moment how it feels is the first step. What does boredom feel like for you?
Recognize Your Boredom Routine
In addition to recognizing what boredom feels like to you, you’ll need to also identify your boredom routine. Not sure if you have one? Think about it. When you are bored is your automatic response to: Is your automatic response to:
- open Facebook on your phone?
- do work that is not important, but easy?
- hyperfocus on whatever draws your attention?
- mindlessly surf the internet or watch TV?
- use drugs or alcohol?
- sleep more than you need?
- eat too much?
- flit from activity to activity?
If, when you are bored, you default to a certain activity or set of activities, then you have a boredom routine. And, if those are not activities you want to default to, then you’ll need to replace your current habit with, well, a different habit. So you can respond to your feelings of boredom in the way you want.
Stay Tuned For More About Adult ADHD Boredom
In the next post about boredom I’ll share with you strategies you can use to work with your boredom in a way that works with your ADHD brain