Focus and the Power of ADHD

Imagine that you’re in a team huddle at half time and the coach is barking out orders before the next half. While she’s barking out orders, you first start thinking about that play you messed up on, then you hear some random screaming in another room; someone’s phone is buzzing, you just remembered you were supposed to give something to a friend before the game; why is that person holding a stuffed animal? Then you hear “Let’s GO!”… “Wait, what?” Constantly your mind is everywhere and nowhere all the time. How are you supposed to get anything done when the mind doesn’t stop on one thing for a while? How could anyone possibly say there is power in ADHD?

Importance of Focus

Something we all can relate to is the wide variety of things we have to think about and deal with every day. Being able to multitask is something we pride ourselves in and even a skill identified on resume’s. We’re living in a world where focusing on a single thing for more than 15 or 30 minutes isn’t the norm. Yet, for tough problems, chances are focusing with such small time frames is going to make the problem much longer to solve. A hard problem that normally takes one hour to solve, likely won’t be solved in perfect 15 minute intervals. There is often a warm up period that our mind takes to get into gear.

Imagine being asked to solve a math problem without writing anything down; it’s large enough to take a minute or so, but not difficult, it just takes going through the process and keeping the digits in mind. What if we asked you to pause after about 30 seconds and then go do something else for an hour. After the time is up, we’re asked to try and solve the problem again. Then once again, we stop at about 30 seconds in. How long would it take us to solve the problem that way?

While that’s an overly simplistic example, thinking on hard problems that would take longer time frames likely have a similar issue. There are lots of details and concepts to keep in mind and whenever we haven’t been given the chance to fully capture them, we end up having to retrace our steps over and over again. We all have issues with distractions and day to day life impacting our focus, how would someone with ADHD manage to get anything done and is there something we all can learn?

Inattention and Impulsivity

The DSM IV or the “bible” for disorders, says that someone with ADHD has to show several patterns of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. If our team huddle scenario was instead a classroom, how would we do? Probably not very good, we’d end up needing to have instructions repeated over and over, we’d be onto several other things at any given moment. Even if we wanted to get good grades, we wouldn’t even know how to focus long enough to do it.

For some when we finally manage to focus, the impulsive-hyperactive side of things has us unable to interact in the so-called normal way, making us seem less sociable or difficult to understand. This impulsive side, may have to do with the connection to having constantly moving thoughts. How can “someone” predict our actions if there are 10 different things we are thinking about doing and only one of them involves sitting still? Between learning problems and inability to connect socially those with ADHD often start well behind the curve and many don’t ever get out in front of it without the help of medication.


Ritalin and Adderall, two of the most common medications are stimulants, meaning they “speed up” brain activity. Why would speeding up brain activity in what seems like an already over stimulated brain work? What does that actually mean?

Although some may say “speed up” brain activity, really it increases the amount of certain chemicals by blocking certain “transporters” which regulate the firing of neurons (e.g. brain activity). It’s almost like turning up the volume but for thoughts that are already in focus. Or being in a dark room trying to find thoughts with a dim flashlight versus a brighter flashlight.

For people without ADHD, they start off with a decent flashlight, or the ability to hear thoughts at the right volume, without any real effort. Yet, despite that many don’t actually need medication, the increased focus is literally addicting.

When we increase the brain activity in this unnatural way, other chemicals that normally coincide with the firing isn’t there and over stimulated receptors can get damaged making it harder to operate under normal conditions. For example, one common connection is the side effect of depression for those who use ADHD drugs. This is possibly linked to the overstimulating of dopamine receptors both depleting the available chemicals and affecting the ability to process dopamine in a normal and healthy way.

Managing ADHD

Interestingly enough the affects of medication we use to treat ADHD can also shed light on possible ways to manage it better. If ADHD medicine is increasing brain activity, we have to find things that increase it in a healthy way. The more we engage our minds, the more we increase brain activity. The natural ways are the typical cliche things we’re already supposed to do:

  • Eat Right – Proper body functioning and creates brain chemicals
  • Exercise – Increases blood flow and naturally generates dopamine which “brightens our flashlight”
  • Proper Sleep – Cleanse the brain of excess chemicals that get built up, especially after drug use

Each of those activities, will improve the ability to focus when done consistently. Instead of taking Ritalin or Adderall which last about two to four hours, a good workout can do the same thing and lasts about the same amount of time from an alertness and focus perspective. Instead of negative side effects though, we get positive ones.

Full Immersion

Of course, these natural things are the minimum we need to do. To keep our minds focused, we have to strategically plan out how to move from the automatic focus of good sleep, proper diet and exercise to the in between times in the middle of the day. Ideally we can get fully immersed into whatever we are doing, that will allow for dopamine to continue to be released as both our attention and interest will feed off of each other. It’s no different than scrolling all day on Instagram, or playing an addictive video game.

We have to methodically remove distractions (turn off notifications, put things on do not disturb when we need to focus) and identify things that we can both immerse ourselves in and that keep our interest. Michael Phelps, one of the greatest athletes is known for having ADHD and learned to manage it by forcing himself to swim. He couldn’t be figity and jumpy in the water, he couldn’t lose focus, he had to just swim. Phelps didn’t even enjoy swimming at first, it was just the only thing that allowed him to feel like he was in full control.

Power of ADHD

Focus is arguably one of the key components to getting stuff done, in solving problems. ADHD starts behind the curve and generally stays at a disadvantage. How then is there power in it?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s, David and Goliath, he details a study comprising of students from various universities on how they performed on a standardized test using normal “clear” fonts versus difficult hard to read fonts. The result? Making the test harder to read increased the majority of the student’s test scores by a significant amount. Their conclusion was that somehow, making students look longer at a problem ultimately helps solve it. The reason likely has to do with time spent and the need to draw many more connections to interpret the bad font question and problem.

Think about this in terms of ADHD. When there are thoughts everywhere, for those who do manage to focus, chances are the tactics and methods employed will ultimately increase their potential by a significant amount. Someone who learns to manage their ADHD naturally will likely find themselves very good at whatever it is they ultimately decide to do. They would have likely learned to force themselves to do things over and over consistently, to learn their own triggers and manage things very deliberately and methodically.

Those who have ADHD have no choice but to learn to manage it. Almost as if they have no choice but to find a positive obsession to get through life. Everyone else can learn from their struggles. Anyone unsatisfied with something in their lives, must learn to tackle it the same way someone who has ADHD has to manage their focus every single day.




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