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Finding Your Optimal Context With ADHD

Let me start by stating an obvious truth: people with ADHD do not suck at everything.

At least, this should be obvious. But when you have ADHD, it can feel like you’re bad at everything. No matter what you’re doing, inattention and impulsivity can sneak up and sabotage you.

You might have noticed, though, that your ADHD symptoms crop up during some tasks more than others. Some tasks are more suited to the way your brain works, and others just really aren’t.

Hence the idea of “hyperfocus.” The theory goes that people with ADHD aren’t uniformly unable to pay attention in all situations but rather are bad at deliberately regulating their attention, so their focus naturally gravitates to things that are interesting and stimulating and slips off of things that aren’t.

When you have ADHD, you can concentrate when you’re in your optimal context – the environment and tasks that fit best with the way your brain works. But once you get out of your optimal context, things start to go downhill fairly quickly.

If you’ll stick with me for a second, I like to think of this as a graph. On one axis is whether you’re in your optimal context – that is, whether you’re doing things you’re good at in ways you like to do them. On the other axis is how well you’re performing overall – whether you’re able to stay focused, motivated, etc.

Here’s what the graph might look like for someone without ADHD:

Non-ADHD Graph

People without ADHD see their performance decline when they get outside of their non-optimal contexts, too, but it’s a gradual decline. They’re more able to calling on their executive functions to stay focused, motivated and on task when they’re doing things that aren’t a good fit.

Now here’s what the graph might look like for someone with ADHD:

ADHD Graph

When you have ADHD and you get outside of your optimal context, you have a harder time summoning the cognitive resources to perform reasonably well. And if you spend most of your time outside of your optimal context, you might start to assume that you’re just bad at everything.

That’s why one of the most important parts of learning to live with ADHD is figuring out what your optimal context is and then doing whatever you can to spend as much time in it as possible. There’s a lot of trial and error involved in this because it’s about searching to find which tasks and environments work best with your brain and which don’t.

Basically, it’s about figuring out how to live on the good side of the graph and make as few temporary stops on the bad side of the graph as possible. Who knows, if you spend enough time on the right side of the graph, you might even spot that mythical beast hyperfocus.

D’you experience a difference in your symptoms in different contexts? Please share below!

Finding Your Optimal Context With ADHD

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2016). Finding Your Optimal Context With ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Jul 2016
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