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ADHD Is a Pattern

A question that sometimes comes up is “what’s the difference between ADHD and normal inattentiveness?”

The traditional answer is that ADHD symptoms cause impairment in multiple aspects of your life while non-ADHD inattentiveness, absentmindedness and lack of motivation don’t really interfere with your ability to function. That’s generally true, but even then it can be hard to tell when something is an “impairment” and when it’s just an annoyance.

Repeating patternAnother way I sometimes like to think of it is that ADHD is a pattern. ADHD symptoms cause you problems over and over again.

By itself, a moment of inattentiveness at work doesn’t suggest ADHD. However, when your inability to sustain concentration, your disorganization, your lack of planning, or your focus on short-term rewards repeatedly cause problems at your job, even though you know you would benefit from “fixing” those behaviors, that’s a sign something more might be going on.

What also make ADHD symptoms a pattern is that they repeat across multiple settings. ADHDers will usually find that the same underlying behaviors cause repeating problems in different contexts, such as work, school, relationships, and home.

The fact that ADHD is a pattern is why the phrase “ADHD moment” (as in, “I’m having an ADHD moment”) is an oxymoron. ADHD is impairing because it’s not just a moment here or there. It’s a set of symptoms that repeat themselves over and over in multiple settings. This chronic aspect of ADHD is partly what makes it so damaging to career success, academic performance, relationships, health, and everyday functioning.

It’s also why ADHD can be like the proverbial death by a thousand pin pricks. There are single moments when ADHD symptoms can have life-altering consequences, such as while driving a car. But many of the effects of ADHD are cumulative, from ADHD symptoms causing the same problems over and over again through time.

A single instance of procrastination won’t ruin your career, a single impulsive comment won’t ruin your relationship, and a single instance of zoning out during a lecture won’t make you fail a class. Repeating these behaviors and adding them up will have consequences, though.

When I say that “ADHD is a pattern,” I’m not saying this phrase is enough for making a diagnosis. That can only be done by a thorough consultation with a qualified professional. But for people with ADHD, I do think this phrase can be useful for developing insight into what makes our symptoms different than “normal inattention.”

An isolated inattentive moment is something that happens and you think “huh, that’s funny.” An ADHD symptom is a recurring behavior that’s so familiar you might not even know it’s out of the ordinary.

Image: Flickr/Marco Nürnburger

ADHD Is a Pattern

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). ADHD Is a Pattern. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Aug 2019
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