The Perils of All Work, No Play
Research shows that when the brain’s reward pathway is activated (by having fun!), adults with ADHD can pay attention for longer periods of time. Learn why leisure is healthy, and working all the time is not.
Reviewed on April 3, 2019
Play was not always a part of my life as an adult. Like many people with ADHD, I developed a habit of working six or seven days a week. I don’t work full time each day, but I was in front of my computer working on a project or task most days. The more I worked, the longer tasks seemed to take. I felt I had to “stick with it” until I had reached the end goal.
Fun was on my mind a lot, but I wound up playing very little. I was serious, productive, and stressed out. I had a serious lack of dopamine, leading to less self-regulation, perseverance, planning, organization, stress tolerance, problem-solving skills, memory, focus, and attention.
Play Equals More Dopamine
Research has shown that there is a deficit in the function of the dopamine reward pathways in individuals who have ADHD. This means we are less engaged by activities that are not inherently rewarding or reinforcing. When the reward pathway is activated (say, by having fun), people with ADHD can pay attention for longer periods of time. And that feels great.
This explains why stimulant medications make a task seem more rewarding or exciting to individuals with ADHD. If you take a prescribed medication, you see otherwise boring tasks as more interesting. This is also why play is an effective way to manage the symptoms of ADHD. When we are engaged in pleasurable activity, more dopamine is released in our brain.
In the past four years, “play” has become a bigger part of my life. What others see as routine, uninteresting events, I look at with curiosity. I pay attention to what is amusing, playful, or fun. As a result, I find myself in a better mood, more inspired by things around me, more resilient and productive, and a happier person.
Are You Running on Empty?
Think about when ADHD challenges tend to show up in your life. Do you notice a pattern? When do you struggle with focus and attention most? When do you have problems with motivation and sustaining effort? When do you tend to be moody? When you are engaged in difficult, mundane tasks, distractibility, procrastination, inattention, or hyperactivity are likely to be most apparent.
Now think of a time when you totally rocked, a time when you were a superstar! You were on time, in the groove, at the top of your game. I bet that you were doing something you are good at, that you enjoy, with people you like (or alone), you were in a good mood, and maybe you were having fun.
When you are in the groove, your brain is awash with dopamine, and the symptoms that you have struggled with can be your greatest asset. For instance, what presents as impulsivity in one instance makes you spontaneous, creative, and able to take a risk in a crisis. A great way to “manage” ADHD is to design a life that keeps you interested and engaged — and your dopamine flowing.
There are many ways to play, and most people have activities they prefer and ways of doing things that light them up. How do you know what these are?
1. Recall in detail how you enjoyed playing as a kid, whether it was riding a bike, baking a cake, creating a work of art, or acting in a play. Most adults find that the way they played as kids is how they like to play now.
2. Think of the people you most love to enjoy time and activities with. What is it about them that you enjoy? What activities do you do that are fun?
3. Faced with a boring task? What would make it “funner”? Sometimes doing a fun activity before doing the mundane task can make the boring task a bit easier (make sure to set a timer on the fun task, so you don’t forget to get the work done). Sometimes you can make the task into a party by turning on some music and inviting other people to join in. Racing the clock can turn a short task into a game. Working in a novel or unusual setting (pay your bills in the bathtub) can make the task more amusing. My personal standby is dressing up in a favorite hat or piece of clothing.
No matter what, make a plan to play: Write it down, commit the time, and share your play with a likeminded friend or community.