For most people, boredom is an unpleasant state of mind. For many people with ADHD, boredom is the enemy.
People with ADHD often have a high need for stimulation. They irrationally avoid mundane tasks, automatically being drawn to whatever is most interesting and rewarding.
When someone with ADHD gets bored, their brain tends to check out of whatever its supposed to be focused on so it can go looking for something more stimulating. Low boredom tolerance makes ADHD symptoms like inattention, procrastination and disorganization that much worse.
One team of researchers linked boredom proneness to hyperactivity scores. Another found that people who were more prone to boredom had more ADHD symptoms, experienced more attention lapses, and were less sensitive to their inattentive errors.
Science can also tell us a thing or two about why so many ADHDers count boredom as their arch nemesis. It turns out that boredom proneness is tied up with a couple other traits that get at the core of what ADHD is all about.
The first of these traits is self-control. People with ADHD often struggle with self-control and self-regulation – this goes back to the whole thing about executive functioning impairments. In 2015, researchers showed that people who score higher on self-control tend to be less prone to boredom. Those of us with ADHD represent the converse of that statement: lower self-control, higher boredom proneness. A followup study found a correlation between self-control and boredom-proneness significant enough to warrant the following conclusion:
These results imply a strong relationship between boredom proneness and cognitive and affective dysregulation, and show that individual levels of self-control can account for the lion’s share of variance in the relationships between boredom, cognition, and affect.
Boredom proneness also relates to another trait that goes to the heart of what ADHD is: impulsivity. As I’ve mentioned before, if you want to understand ADHD, understanding impulsivity is a good place to start. And it appears that if you want to understand boredom proneness, you’d might as well start in the same place because research has found a pretty strong link between boredom proneness and impulsivity.
The work that’s been done tells us there’s some kind of serious relationship going on between boredom proneness, self-control and impulsivity, but it doesn’t tell us the nature of that relationship. Does one trait cause the others? Do they all interact in some complex way?
Of course, there’s no reason we can’t speculate!
One thing that’s not so hard to see (at least, if boredom proneness is a running theme in your life) is that if you get bored and start to feel understimulated quickly, of course you’re going to find that shiny, exciting, new things easily catch your eye. Enter low self-control, impulsive decisions, etc. etc.
Reflecting on your own experiences with boredom can tell you something else about boredom proneness too: if you have a low tolerance for boredom, it’s going to interfere with your life sometimes. If you have ten things on your to do list and nine of them are boring, it’s going to be a long day if you’re not good at coping with boredom.
And don’t even get me started on what school was like. If you’re someone who has a hard time with unstimulating environments, chances are all I have to do is say the word “lecture” to conjure up the associations that make my point.
Despite all that, I don’t think of being prone to boredom as an entirely bad thing although the research inevitably looks at the downsides of high boredom proneness.
The thing is, my desire to escape boredom and seek out stimulating environments has led to some of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It prompted me to more or less totally reorganize my life so I could do some extended traveling. It nurtured my love of music – music being one of the best antidotes for boredom there is, by the way.
Having a low threshold for boredom isn’t a curse. But it does mean that some environments are going to do it for you, and some really aren’t. If you need a certain level of stimulation to focus your brain, you can’t change your nature. You can change your environment, though, and creating the environment that fits with your brain is the essence of ADHD management.
Image: Flickr/Zara Gonzalez Hoang