A common challenge I hear from many Adults with ADHD I work with is,“When I’m in the middle of a conversation or meeting I just can’t seem to put it all together and figure out how to contribute. Often I don’t think of what I really want to say until after it is over… I feel so stupid!”
And, by any standard, these are bright people! But they sure don’t feel very bright in these moments. And this hit to their self-esteem can prevent them from participating fully in their personal and professional lives.
What they may be experiencing is slow processing speed, either as a byproduct of their ADHD or as a separate diagnosis.
If you struggle with this too, you may also question your intelligence. So, before exploring the ins and outs of slow processing speed and possible workarounds, let me make one thing clear. If you process information slowly, that does not mean you are not intelligent.
Slow Processing Speed ≠ Not Intelligent
Ok, ready to move on and learn more?
What Is Processing Speed?
First, let’s get clear on the definition of processing speed to make sure we are on the same page. In simplest terms it is the pace at which you take in information — visual (number and letters) and auditory — make sense of it and begin to respond. So, if you process slowly, it will take you time to:
- take in written, numerical or spoken information.
- decide what it means.
- create any necessary response.
It is not that you can’t process the information. It is just that it will take you time, maybe more time than you would like.
How To Manage Slow Processing Speed In Your Daily Life
Processing information slower than you would like is frustrating for sure. I know. But fighting what is does not make it any easier, right? The best you can do is to work with it to accommodate your needs so you can:
- be productive in your personal and professional life.
- feel ok about the way you operate.
Below are a few scenarios where you may experience slow processing speed and some possible workarounds.
When Ephraim attends the weekly department meeting he feels like an observer in a game of ping pong. While he tries hard to follow and take notes, because of the rapid speed of the conversation, he can’t seem to synthesize the information and make a meaningful contribution on the spot.
So, usually, he just remains quiet because he does not want to say the wrong thing. And sometimes he blurts out something, anything, just to be able to contribute. When he does that he might regret it because it just does not seem very well thought out.
Meetings are hard, especially when everyone seems to be talking at once. First, notice how you are feeling. A bit anxious, maybe? Breathe, really.
Then, you might try taking notes, not only of what others are saying, but also of your thoughts and questions and about what people are saying. That way you can organize your thinking and participate, if you want.
And, if, after taking notes, you still can’t formulate what you want to say during the meeting, you might say, “I’d like to give ‘that’ some thought and follow up later.” Just don’t forget to follow-up. 🙂
Reading Dense Material
When Kara attempts to read dense material at work, like the proposal her boss recently sent to her, she often has a hard time plowing through it. Her eyes might start to glaze over, her brain feels sluggish, and she gets really frustrated, wondering, “Why is this so hard to read?!”
She might even give up and decide to read it later. Right, later… You know what a slippery slope that promise can be, right?
If you know you have to read something long and dense, one option is to schedule a time when it might be easier for you. It might be earlier in the day or later in the day when you get your second wind.
It also helps to chunk it, set a timer and read for a defined amount of time, maybe 20 minutes or so.
Last, formulate a question in advance so you are reading with an objective in mind. For example, before reading this section, you could ask yourself, “What would make it easier to read dense material?” Then, as you are reading, attempt to answer the question. Doing this will help you focus your attention.
Sam is often caught off guard when his colleagues stop by his office, as Carmel did recently. She came over to his desk and immediately launched in about her worries regarding the project they are going to start working on together.
All Sam could think was “I just found out about the project and have not wrapped my head around it, yet. I don’t know what I think, yet!”
But Carmel was talking so fast he could barely catch what she was saying. Sam tried to come up with some sort of cogent response, but Carmel kept bombarding him with questions. Sam’s head was spinning and he started to get a headache…
He just sort of fumbled until he finally told Carmel he had to go to a meeting.
Interruptions happen all the time in office environments. Someone decides to stop by your office or cube either to discuss work or just chit chat. And when this happens to you it might be hard for you to stop what you are doing and engage in the conversation. Sometimes you might not mind the interruption. But what about those times you do?
It really is ok to say not now. And you can do so graciously by saying something like, “I really would like to discuss this with you, but I need to get this report done now. Do you have time to talk about this in a couple of hours?” And then you can have the discussion when you are ready to engage.
Sonya’s boss, Stan, asks her in their 1-1 Monday if she can send him a report Friday. Even though this is the first time hearing about it and she already has a lot on her plate, her immediate response is, “Sure.” Sonya doesn’t feel she can say no to her boss.
But as soon as Stan leaves her office she thinks, “There is no way I can do that by Friday!! I better stop what I’m doing and start digging in…”
I know sometimes you will just need to say, “yes.” But there might be times you can negotiate with your boss by asking for help in the following way.
“I could really use some guidance. I know this project is really important to us. But I’m not sure I have the time needed to give it my best effort because of everything else on my plate. So, I wanted to get a sense of your priorities and find out where I should focus my time and energy. What do you think? ” Depending on how the conversation goes, you might add, “Could we look at shifting around my other work so I can focus on this?”
By framing the conversation this way you are acknowledging your shared objective of you being able to do your best work.
Check out 6 Guilt-Free Strategies ADHD Adults Can Use To Say No, if you are interested in learning more techniques you can use to say “No.”
If you also process information slowly, how does it should up in your life?
How ADHD Contributes to Slow Processing Speed
Whatever type of ADHD you have some challenges with executive functions, and these challenges can contribute to processing information slowing as shown below.
One of the reasons you may process information slowly is because you have a hard time getting started possibly because you:
- don’t know where to start.
- are unsure how to create the necessary steps.
- don’t want to do the task and so are resisting starting.
- are not confident you are capable of doing the task so are reluctant to start.
Addressing these challenges can help you work more effectively.
Even when you get started you may have a hard time sustaining that effort because your brain just feels tired possibly because you are bored. And so you end up working slowly or even quitting.
One option is to set a timer for 15-25 minutes and then take a break, as suggested in The Pomodoro Technique. You may also try working with an accountability partner or a body double to help you stay on track.
What other strategies do you use to keep going?
Another reason you may process and manipulate information slowly is because of your challenges with working memory as seen in the examples below.
- Your colleagues give you instructions on how to do part of a project, but by the time you get back to your office you’ve forgotten the instructions.
- You’re reading a 10-page report and can’t keep track of what you are reading so need to keep rereading it.
- You search your email for information you need for a task you are working on… And another email catches your eye. Before you know it you are working on something else.
To learn more about how to address working memory challenges check out 20 Ways to Remember What You Want and 7 Ways for ADHD Adults to Focus on What is Important.
The key is not to try to keep information in your head!
Last, when you find a task or interaction particularly difficult, you may get so frustrated and angry that you have a hard time processing the information. You may end up processing slowly or, if your emotions really get the best of you, you may just freeze.
Knowing what is happening in these moments and how to handle your anger and frustration can help you plan what to do when you just can’t think fast enough.
2 Take Aways and a Question
First, in case you didn’t catch it earlier in the article, I want to emphasize that slow processing is not a measure of your intelligence. But you can adopt workarounds to help you operate at your best.
What are you going to try today to work with how you process information?