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Winging It With ADHD

I don’t talk about politics on this blog. And I definitely don’t talk about the first U.S. presidential debate. No, I’m not touching that topic with a ten-foot orange toupee.

But I do want to talk more generally about the idea of “winging it.” I don’t know exactly what I want to say about it, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.

ImprovisingSome people like to prepare for things and plan ahead more thoroughly than others. That doesn’t mean everyone who likes to improvise rather than think things through in advance has ADHD. And it definitely doesn’t mean that a hypothetical public figure who goes on national TV without preparing and fails to form a coherent sentence must have ADHD.

On the flip side, some people with ADHD might do a lot of planning ahead. This can be a way of compensating. If you’re used to having things go off the rails because you keep carelessly overlooking important details, it makes sense that you might react by trying to plan ahead as much as possible.

Whether we tend more toward the category of people who like to plan ahead or people who don’t, though, people with ADHD do often have one thing in common: even when we plan ahead, we’re not necessarily good at it.

This makes sense because planning ahead is the ultimate test of executive functioning and self-control. To plan ahead, you have to say “I’m going to not do whatever more immediate thing I could be doing right now, and instead I’m going to deliberately think through these different scenarios for the future, weigh my options, and figure out what my actions will be.” See, it already sounds boring!

A lot of times, this step-by-step thinking things through in advance isn’t where people with ADHD shine. Instead, the stimulation of doing things on the spur of the moment can be just what the ADHD brain needs to get fired up and churning out ideas.

Think of it this way: what are people with ADHD uniformly good at? Getting distracted. And what is improvisation? Controlled distraction.

The “controlled” part here is important. When I write these blog posts, it’s more or less an exercise in this controlled distraction – I start out with a basic idea I want to explore, and as I write I get “distracted” by things I want to say about it.

If I left out the “controlled” part, however, my blog posts might go more like this: “Let’s talk about ADHD. Hey, there’s a spider! Want to know what I had for dinner last night?”

When you decide to improvise, you’re always taking a chance about whether the “controlled” part of “controlled distraction” will show up. That’s why you have to find your ideal balance between improvising and planning ahead – there are situations where it’s worth biting the bullet and doing the prep work. For example, when I gave a toast at my sister’s wedding, I wrote my speech out in advance. Although, to be honest, I did wait until the morning of.

Or, to give another, purely theoretical example, if I were running for president, I would probably do a little studying before rolling up at the presidential debates. Because, you know, who wants to look like an idiot with 84 million people watching?

Image: Flickr/Andy Newcombe

Winging It 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). Winging It With ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 28 Sep 2016
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