It must be exasperating! I often hear variations of the following question in my coaching practice: “Why can my partner/child/friend pay attention to something they like, but not other things?” Sometimes, this same question presents as the following statement: “He/she can’t have ADD/ADHD. They can focus just fine on ___________,” (where the blank is something like video games, Legos, golf, the internet, a good book, etc.).
It’s no wonder that people get confused when an individual with a so-called “Attention Deficit” can focus like there’s nothing else in the world when they’re doing some things, but can’t seem to manage to focus enough to do other things! Below is a recent question from a frustrated wife about her husband’s contradictory behavior:
“Why is it that my husband can’t stay focused to finish a work task, get the taxes done, or finish ANYTHING he starts, but can stay focused to play 36 holes of golf in one day?! I see him have incredible focus on video games, the computer or anything besides what he SHOULD be doing! Is ADD/ADHD and his “selective attention” just an excuse?
I hear parents ask the same kind of question asked about their kids’ inability to focus on homework, contrasted with their incredible focus on video games or Legos or the internet. The same kind of frustration shows up in teachers who see a child have great focus in one subject or on one particular day, and not another.
The truth is that this kind of behavior is actually a hallmark characteristic of ADD/ADHD! Attention for those of us with ADD/ADHD is selective, by definition.
But it really is no wonder that there is such confusion and skepticism around this issue and the condition we call ADHD and ADD!
Part of the confusion around this issue, in my opinion, is that the name of the condition itself is actually a bit of a misnomer. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (also commonly called ADD) does not actually show up as a deficit of attention, but an inability to regulate attention appropriately. In very simplistic terms, the part of the brain that regulates attention and interest is under-active in an individual with ADD. That part of the brain is constantly searching for stimulation to get it “fired up” and functioning at an optimal level. Things that are interesting or stimulating to an individual are the things that get that part of the brain to increase in activity—that’s what gives us motivation. The reason so many people misunderstand the inconsistency and irregularity of ADD is that they are looking for the “deficit” of attention, when there really isn’t one.
When an individual is interested/stimulated by something (whether that something is positively or negatively stimulating), that under-active part of the brain starts working more effectively. Here’s where it gets tricky: Interest (Stimulation) is subjective! It’s important to remember that what is interesting or stimulating to one person is different than what is interesting or stimulating to another.
To my son with ADD, for instance, his shoot-em-up video games are extremely stimulating/interesting. Those games can’t hold the attention of my own ADD brain for more than a minute! Writing articles or classes on ADD is stimulating to me and gets the under-active part of my brain fired up—but does not have the same effect on my son.
The reason this woman’s husband can focus sufficiently to play 36 holes of golf is that golf is interesting/stimulating to him intrinsically. Taxes hold no natural stimulation or interest for him, so he can’t bring himself to focus on them (although they are extremely stimulating to my ADD clients who are accountants!).
Medication may help with this, but won’t fix it. Because our brains are dopamine-deficient, it’s much harder for an ADD-er to create their own interest in something (which gives us motivation), so it’s important to find new/creative ways to approach the things that we have to do that are not stimulating/interesting inherently.
I hope that makes sense, sheds a little light on the subject, and is helpful for you!
If you have similar questions, or If you are not moving forward with your goals, coaching could be the answer! Please contact me for a confidential consultation to learn about how we can work together to get you on the right road to your own success.
Lynne Edris, ACG
Life & ADD Coach