My last post was about the importance of finding your “optimal context.” My main point was that when you have ADHD, finding the environments and tasks that fit with the way your brain works is one of the biggest favors you can do for yourself.
But I didn’t talk about how to actually find your optimal context. That’s partly because finding your optimal context is a personal journey. It’s about what works for you, and it’s more an art than a science. It involves looking for the things you find most interesting, and doing them as much as possible.
That said, there are some patterns as far as what kinds of tasks tend to bring out the best in people with ADHD.
The ADHD brain is hungry for reward. That’s partly why it’s so hard for people with ADHD to focus on tasks that are understimulating or just plain boring – without asking permission, their brains start scanning for other things that will provide some kind of reward or stimulation.
Tasks that have frequent rewards built into them are more likely to keep the ADHD brain engaged and let people with ADHD channel their cognitive resources. These tasks have a better shot at keeping people with ADHD motivated and focused.
Often, tasks or environments that offer frequent rewards are ones that are dynamic and interactive and that give ongoing feedback. These kind of tasks and environments are good places to look to find your optimal context.
If you don’t believe me, don’t worry, I’ve got some research to back it up!
Exhibit A is a study published earlier this month in Experimental Brain Research. In this study, young adults with and without ADHD were asked to complete a motor task in which they tried to keep their grip strength steady for 20 seconds.
Participants were asked to complete a version of the task where they received ongoing visual feedback on how they doing and one where they did not. On the version without feedback, people with ADHD performed significantly worse than people without the disorder – in other words, their grip strength weakened more quickly. Moreover, how quickly their grip strength deteriorated was related to how impulsive they were and how severe their symptoms were.
On the version with feedback, however, this performance gap between people with and without ADHD disappeared. In fact, the only difference was that people with ADHD had a slightly higher grip strength on average.
In other words, frequent feedback can help compensate for some of the deficits associated with ADHD. If you have ADHD, looking for more interactive tasks and environments where you get some kind of ongoing feedback can help you home in on your optimal context.
The grip strength study isn’t the only one to suggest that stronger and more frequent feedback can make up the difference in performance between people with and without ADHD. Although most other research in this area has focused on children, not adults with ADHD, results suggest that the same idea applies to ADHDers of all ages.
For example, one study published last year found that boys with ADHD but not boys without the disorder performed best on a memory task when they received feedback associated with large rewards. When boys with ADHD received this feedback, their brain activity in regions linked to executive functioning also started to look more like that of boys without ADHD.
Another study published in 2008 found that in a task that involved estimating how long a second was, children with ADHD responded more variably and less consistently than children without the disorder. However, providing reinforcement reduced this variability and increased consistency more so in children with ADHD than controls.
The takeaway from all this science is that both children and adults with ADHD seem to perform better or worse depending on what kind of rewards, reinforcement and feedback is available from the environment or task at hand. So if you want to find your optimal context, look for things that are more dynamic and provide larger, more frequent rewards.
For different people with ADHD, finding environments with the right kind of rewards will look different. For some, it might mean becoming self-employed or starting a business. For others, it could entail spending as much time as possible on activities that are physical and hands-on.
What it looks like for you will depend on your unique interests and strengths. But if you want to narrow your search, try looking for dynamic activities where you’ll receive stronger and more frequent rewards, feedback and reinforcement.
D’you have any tips for finding your optimal context? If so, don’t keep them to yourself — please share in the comments!