Broaden Your Definition of “Interest”
This graduate student is here to tell you: just because my ADHD brain struggles to finish my dissertation, doesn’t mean I find it boring.
Reviewed on November 8, 2018
I was two years into my dissertation, and I was floundering. I couldn’t understand why I would sit down at my desk, planning to get work done, and somehow it just…wouldn’t happen. I was baffled by bouts of panic because I even though I could see the finish line in sight, I had no idea what to do right that minute in order to get there. I was completely stalled out, and I was frustrated.
This was before I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD).
Of course, everyone who had ever worked on a long research paper had advice for me —professors, friends, and fellow students alike. They shared long lists of tricks that worked great for them, but got me nowhere.
Over and over I heard the same neurotypical refrain: “You’re just not interested enough in your dissertation topic.” They were all convinced that if only I’d chosen a different research area, I’d be zooming right along.
And every time, I had to explain that, in fact, I was very interested in the research! My topic – kids’ understanding of how science works – was a true passion of mine. When I was immersed in the data it was downright fascinating.
But, I’m not sure they ever believed me. Early in grad school, I was laser-focused on children’s informal learning – from museums, games, and media. My loved ones saw that as my “One True Passion In Life.” They didn’t understand that’s simply not a thing that I have. I have a lot of research interests. I have so many passions.
The real problem was: a dissertation isn’t one task. It’s a million little tasks, many of which are boring no matter how “interesting” the topic. My ADHD brain doesn’t have an easier time focusing on the tedium, knowing the fun part, data analysis, is just ahead. Future rewards are meaningless in the dissertation trenches.
Now that I’m diagnosed, I often wonder if anyone really gets what “interest” means to a person with ADHD. I see articles packed with misconceptions that people with ADHD can easily finish anything as long as it sparks their interest. They don’t acknowledge that when you have ADHD, interest is extremely situational, and can depend on a lot of factors beyond the topic.
For example, many people with ADHD have trouble paying attention to information presented in specific formats. Some have trouble listening for long periods of time, others fail at reading dense text. Even if a lecture or book is fascinating, their zooming minds have already decided that the medium it’s delivered in is boring. They might struggle to pay attention—or even fall asleep!
When it comes to the ADHD brain, it’s essential to broaden your definition of “interest.” Difficulty paying attention doesn’t equal boredom. Trouble finishing tasks doesn’t translate to indifference. Go beyond the topic and look at the context.
Ask, “What exactly is boring the brain?” Is it the medium? The tedious intermediate steps? The approach to the problem? Or, perhaps the topic is so fascinating the brain runs off on a million tangents, imagining all the possibilities.
These are all reasons I, personally, have zoned out in the middle classes or projects that I was very interested in.
And I’m just one individual—every ADHD brain is different, so I’m sure there are a dozen other things that might keep someone from finishing an “interesting” task.