Boredom can be intolerable for ADHD adults. Find out why and what you can do about it to follow through on what’s important to you.
- your feelings of boredom may be related to your ADHD
- your brain needs stimulation
- there are strategies you can use to get the stimulation your brain needs and follow through on what is important to you
What will you do to avoid boredom? For adults with ADHD the answer might be, “just about anything.” You’ve tuned into Scattered, Focused, Done – Reimagining Productivity with ADHD, a podcast for ADHD, adults like you who want to learn how to adopt the best strategies, tools and skills to be able to get your essential work done in a way that works with the way your brain is wired. I’m Marla Cummins and I’m glad you decided to join me today on this journey to re-imagining productivity with ADHD. So you can get your important work done without trying to do it like everyone else.
If you’re an adult with ADHD, then I know you’re probably 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? 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 not so much to others. 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 really is 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 really interfere with how you want to be and act in the world.
So figuring out how to manage your boredom should rate pretty high on your list when thinking about how to work with your ADHD. Don’t you think? So, keep on listening if you want to learn more of how you can do this in a way that gives your ADHD brain the stimulation it needs, but also minimizes the chance of your boredom coming out sideways in ways that you don’t want. Let’s start by looking at 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 because, well, 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 really 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 the task you find boring. Let me say that again. That’s not to say you can’t do the task you find boring. It does mean, though, that you need to recognize those tasks that 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 just 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. But I thought it was important to start there anyway. Another challenge for ADHD adults is when the reward is too distant and the task is not interesting. Because 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 memory and long-term memory challenges, you tend to live too much in the present. There’s often now and not now, right? So you may not remember and effectively work towards your long-term goals, especially if the immediate tasks related to the goal is boring. For example, you may intend to work on an important project. Think of a current one that you have on the table. Intellectually, you know that working on this task, whether it’s interesting or not, will be helpful in some way.
But when the stimulus is in front of you and the reward is immediate, it’s easier to tackle a task because your brain is stimulated, motivated by the anticipated reward. So what happens when you don’t have a visceral connection to the reward in the moment? Think of it. When you’re looking at the block on your calendar to work on this task related to an important project.
You might, instead, as you’re walking past your desk, 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 you’re looking at the Facebook at Facebook and email pops up and you then think, “wow, look at all those emails. I really need to answer those first.” The stimulus and the 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’ll be a lot less likely to do it. So, you don’t, right. So far I’ve made the case your ADHD contributes to your feelings of boredom and I bet that all makes sense, right?
But maybe you’re wondering now, “Why does it feel so incredibly intolerable to have feelings of boredom for ADHD adults? Let’s look at that for a minute. Did you know that your ADHD brain craves stimulation? That’s right 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’s under aroused. It varies from adult to adult with ADHD in terms of how much stimulation you may need.
So for those who need a lot of stimulation, you may seek out additional stimulation more often than others to alleviate your boredom. Of course it matters what you decide to do to alleviate this 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 or play video games excessively.
Maybe even provoke arguments to get your brain the stimulation it needs. That’s right. You also may eat too much, spend compulsively, respond to a crisis. All 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 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.
So, with that in mind, let’s get on with seeing how you can psych out your brain. 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 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’re bored. This can be seen in the quote from a newsletter subscriber that I’m going to quote with permission. “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’re tired when really you are bored.
Then, if you think you’re 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, appropriately means in the way that you want. And recognizing in the moment how it feels is the first step. What does boredom feel like to you? In addition to recognizing what boredom feels like to you, you’ll also need to identify your boredom routine.
Yeah, that’s right, a boredom routine. Not sure if you have one? Think about it. When you’re bored, is your automatic response to open Facebook on your phone? Do work that is not important but easy? Hyper-focus on whatever draws your attention? Mindlessly surf the internet or watch TV? Use drugs or alcohol? Sleep more than you need? Eat too much? Flip from activity to activity? Maybe it’s something else. If when you’re bored, you default to a certain activity or set of activities, then you have a boredom routine. And this is the really important part. If those are not activities that 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.
To be able to respond the way you want when you find a task particularly boring and be intentional is to, well, of course recognize the tasks that you find particularly boring. And then be proactive in creating a plan to help you persist through these inevitable feelings. Because they’re going to come up. So that you don’t default to your boredom routine.
Here are a few strategies you can experiment with incorporating into your plans. And, remember, as you experiment, remember that it’s not a test and it’s an experiment so you can’t fail. So give it a try. So first, remember, you have a limited amount of willpower and it quickly dissipates throughout the day. Doing a boring task first thing in the morning before your willpower is depleted may be one thing you could try. Also, work with a body double who can help you stay on track even with a boring task. You’re less likely to look at Facebook if you have somebody sitting there with you, even if they’re doing their own work.
Another strategy is to create accountability for yourself by checking in with a supportive person regularly. You might also try rewarding yourself along the way. Go for a walk after working for a certain amount of time or completing a certain amount of work.
Don’t wait until the end to reward yourself if rewards work for you. Another strategy to try is scheduled just a short amount of time to work on the test so it will feel less daunting. You might try the Pomodoro technique. As one of my former clients said she thought this technique was made for ADHD adults. It’s based on 25 minute increments. Last, not last, but another strategy is make it fun. True, not everything can be fun, but cranking up the music might make it a little less boring.
You can also try working in an environment that doesn’t have too many distractions, but enough stimuli to suit your needs. It could be a cube in a library, a busy coffee shop, your office, or even your patio. You might also try timing when you do a task to when you take your medication. Okay, so this is the last one I have. Schedule play, so you will be more likely to pull, be pulled to do your work and find it interesting.
Don’t schedule all your work to the exclusion of play. These are just a few of the tips to help you get started. I bet you can think of more. This next strategy I wanted to give a little bit more airtime. And that is to give your floating attention a job to do. As giving your floating attention a job to do may minimize some of your feelings of boredom and make it easier to continue working. Because, as hard as you try, you may find it nearly impossible to engage fully in boring activities even if they are key to meeting your important goals. These might include participating in meetings, dealing with finances, answering emails, having hard one to one conversations.
Part of the reason is you have some floating attention and that’s the part of the brain scanning the horizon for stimulation. And, if you don’t give it a job to do, you may impulsively do or say something just to get the stimulation your brain needs. And that may not be at all what you want.
So giving your floating attention a job to do helps to distract the part of the brain that gets bored. Then you will be better able to focus on your primary task. In fact, you may be doing this already when you doodle in a meeting or play with a pen while talking to someone. Depending on the context, some of the following strategies can give your floating attention a job. You could use white noise or music in the background. You could play with a fidget object. You could doodle or take notes. You could have your meeting well walking. You could knit.
Are there other things that you have tried to give your floating attention a job to do so you can focus on your primary task? The bottom line is don’t leave it up to chance as to what you might do when you’re bored. Think of what you might do to engage your floating attention so you can be more intentional and focus where you really want.
First, I don’t want to understate how hard it is for ADHD adults to do tasks that are intrinsically not interesting. But sometimes remembering the reward can help you persist even when a task is boring. As Dr. Thomas Brown points out in his book, A New Understanding of ADHD, “The challenges you may have with executive functions are situationally variable. That is if you either have a strong interest or fear of an unpleasant result, you may be able to better use your executive functions.”
But when your interest wanes because you are bored, you may be tempted to conclude, “This must not be important to me.” Please resist this temptation. Because your lack of interest does not necessarily indicate that the larger project is not important for you. Rather, your ADHD just makes it hard to persist even when something is really important. Above all, what will help you persist sometimes over the long haul despite the ebbs and flows of variation in daily energy is a visceral connection to the reward of your reaching your goal.
But, as you know, a common challenge for ADHD adults is remembering to remember. In that moment of choice, the moment you are choosing whether to do a task or not, you may forget how important it is for you and feel, well, detached from the goal. This is especially true if some of the tasks associated with the project are not intrinsically interesting to you – boring. So, to have a visceral connection to your goal and increase your chances of remembering in the moment when you need to act, why it’s important to you to choose to do the task, here are a few strategies.
One, create a visual of images and words and post it where you will see it. You might need to change this up every once in a while because over time you may become inured to it and just not see it anymore. Another thing you can try is when you block out time in your calendar to work on a task, add a message to the calendar item. So paranthetically you might put something like a former client of mine put. He was stepping over his admin time all the time. But he really wanted to be a professional and be seen as a professional, as a professor at his university.
So he put be a pro. And, much to his surprise, it worked! Another strategy you could find, you could try is to create an electronic visual to use as a screensaver or desktop background. Again, you may need to change this up every once in a while when you just stopped seeing it. You could also set an online sticky with a message you create to your default browser. So, when you go online, you see the message first. What else can you do to help you remember in the moment when you really do want to act, why a project is important to you? So far, I’ve shared with you strategies that you can use to manage your feelings of boredom. Definitely important to learn these.
But it’s also important to learn to tolerate a bit of discomfort. Yes, that’s right. It really is important. Okay, I’m not talking about those feelings of discomfort when you just need to jump out of a window.
Well, maybe that’s hyperbole. But it is important to learn to tolerate a bit of discomfort. When you do this, you’ll be able to decrease the chances of engaging in activities that are counterproductive to your values and goals. If you can, when you recognize your bored, say to yourself, “This doesn’t feel great. But I’m going to try to hang in there just a little while longer. At least until I can figure out a plan to deal with how I’m feeling. So I don’t do anything or say anything that I really don’t want to.”
Because sometimes it’s just not possible to get the stimulation you need in the moment. And you don’t want to impulsively do something you’ll later regret. So when you can be with the discomfort for a little while longer so that then you can get the space and time you need to decide your next best step.
But, when the discomfort is too great and the techniques I’ve shared so far just aren’t going to cut it, it may be time to take a break. Because remember, self-regulation is one of the primary challenges of ADHD. And sometimes you’ve just used up all your self-regulation reserves, right? And the best thing you can do is take a break and figure out how you can get the stimulation you need. Otherwise, yes, you know, you may do something, you’ll later regret.
So, to avoid this, you’ll need to recognize, as I’ve said before, when you’ve reached your limit. Because of course there may be unintended consequences, and then at that critical moment, you may want to ask for what you need if you’re with other people. For example, you may ask to wrap up a meeting or conversation and then suggest another time to reconvene. And, if you’re working by yourself, rather than surfing the internet, go for a walk. Because sometimes the best thing is to just kind of give into it, right?
So, what can you do today to manage your feelings of boredom? So that you don’t inadvertently say or do something that you don’t intend? That’s it for now. Again, I’m really glad you joined me and stayed until the very end. If you’re interested in learning more about my work with adults with ADHD, check out my website, marlacummins.com. Of course, if you’ve learned a thing or two from today’s podcast, please do pass along the link to anyone else in your circles you think might also benefit. Until next time, this has been Scattered, Focused, Done. And I’m Marla Cummins, wishing you all the very best on your journey to reimagining productivity with ADHD.