We didn’t do ourselves any favors when we decided to talk about this disorder in terms of attention deficits. ADHD isn’t about a simple lack of attention as much as a lack of control over attention that leads us to pay too much attention to some things and not enough attention to others.
The “deficit” terminology helps drive the simplistic ideas about what ADHD is that we encounter so frustratingly often. It suggests that our disorder is mostly just a quantitative lack of something.
But ADHD is more about a qualitative difference in how we pay attention.
I like to think of attention in ADHD as magnetic attention. When you have ADHD, you don’t really decide where to direct your attention. Instead, your attention is pulled in different directions by magnetic forces that aren’t totally within your control.
Some things exert forces that attract your attention. You can’t help but pay attention to them. These tend to be things that are interesting, rewarding, novel or stimulating in some way.
Other things exert forces that repel your attention. No matter how much you try to aim your attention straight at these things, they seem to deflect your attention in other directions. These things tend to be tedious, boring, mundane, repetitive or overly taxing of executive functions.
This kind of magnetic attention can cause real problems in people’s lives. It’s not hard to see why: sometimes the things you need to concentrate on are things that are repelling your attention, and sometimes the things that are attracting your attention really aren’t what you need to be focusing on.
However, there’s one advantage to magnetic attention: it keeps you real about what you enjoy and what you don’t. You tend to know when something attracts your attention or repels it. You can’t deny the laws of physics.
The trick to living with magnetic attention is to maximize the amount of time you have to spend on things that attract your attention and minimize the amount of time you have to spend on things that repel your attention. All you have to do is find the things that attract your attention and figure out how to spend as much time as possible on those things.
Easier written than done, of course. This task is on the scale of an entire lifetime. But remember, you have one advantage: your magnetic attention will keep you honest about what you enjoy and what you don’t. Listen to your magnetic attention so you can identify the things you enjoy and pour all your energy into them.
You won’t find any mention of “magnetic attention” in the pages of the DSM, but the DSM is for diagnosing ADHD. What I’m talking about is figuring out how to actually live with the disorder. Your medical records might say you have ADHD with Inattentive symptoms, but realizing you have ADHD with Magnetic symptoms lets you go beyond thinking of ADHD only as a one-dimensional deficit – it opens a path to figuring out how you can work with the way you pay attention and navigate the push and pull of your magnetic brain to build a better life with ADHD.