If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing about ADHD, it’s how hard ADHD is to describe in writing.
I can say people with ADHD struggle to pay attention, but what about the moments when ADHDers experience hyperfocus? I can talk about a tendency for people with ADHD to be disorganized, procrastinate, have deficits in motivation, and so on, but there are also immediate counterexamples that come to mind.
One reason it’s hard to make blanket statements about ADHD is that people with ADHD are inconsistent. What people with ADHD do in one situation, they don’t necessarily do in another – or even in the same situation when they encounter it again.
This is down to what makes the ADHD brain different. Part of ADHD is impaired executive functions, which in practice means that people with ADHD have less ability to exercise top-down control over what their brains do.
In other words, people with ADHD find it harder to tell their brains what to do, and to deliberately put their brains into the right state for the circumstances at hand. For example, completing a certain task might require telling your brain, “OK brain, time to settle down and put yourself into a state of calm, steady focus.” But in the ADHD brain, that message is less likely to be received.
As a result, people with ADHD can fluctuate greatly in how they perform on the same task at different times. Yes, theoretically I know how to sit down and read through a dry but straightforward document. In practice, though, whether I’ll be able to actually do it at a given time is up to chance.
Another example: sure, I know how to engage in a normal human conversation where you listen more-or-less attentively to what the other person is saying and then voice your own thoughts when the other person is done talking. But from one day to the next, it’s anyone’s guess whether I’ll get my brain in the right state to both process what the other person is saying and not interrupt.
There’s a gap between knowing how to do something and actually being able to do it in practice at a specific moment in time. Having that knowledge somewhere in your brain and having your brain efficiently find that knowledge and apply it on command are two different things.
Of course, it’s not that people with ADHD are consistently unable to apply knowledge of how to do something either. There are situations where the ADHD brain is firing on all cylinders, where it gets into exactly the right configuration to tackle the task at hand.
Often, people with ADHD find that this happens in situations that are stimulating or highly engaging. Sometimes it seems to just happen randomly. The point is that people with ADHD have less control over when it happens than others.
This is partly where the sense of chronic underachievement that often accompanies ADHD comes from. The classic example is the report card saying you have “potential:” your brain operates at full capacity enough to show that you have some capabilities, but not enough to turn those capabilities into effective results.
So how to cope with this aspect of having ADHD? I think there are a couple things that can help.
The first is to recognize whether there are certain types of situations where your brain is more likely to work its best. With ADHD, you have a limited ability to tell your brain how to behave, but if you notice that there are certain settings that bring out your ability to focus and achieve results better than others, it’s worth trying to put yourself in those settings as much as possible.
That said, it’s also important to recognize that fluctuations in how your brain performs are OK. Your failures and most frustrating moments are not a reflection of your capabilities as a whole. Rather, they’re a reflection of the fact that an ADHD brain is consistently inconsistent.