Emotions & Shame

When ADHD Impulsivity Jeopardizes Your Job and Friendships: 8 Expert Tips

ADHD impulsivity can have a frustrating and even serious impact on adult life. If your impulsiveness is hurting friendships, ruining work prospects, or leading to unnecessary purchases, try implementing the following expert advice.

No way! Online shopping. Businessman holding hands credit card and tablet and looking at with shocked face. Indoor, studio shot. Isolated on light green background
No way! Online shopping. Businessman holding hands credit card and tablet and looking at with shocked face. Indoor, studio shot. Isolated on light green background

Q: “I am a 39-year-old single male who has been diagnosed with ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder. I am very impulsive and that impulsivity has really screwed up my life. I have lost friends, jobs, and I don’t feel good about myself. I am verbally and physically impulsive. I once bought a car on the spot when I was low on savings. I spoke back to my boss and I was too frank with friends. Can you help? I am taking medication.”


Reduce ADHD Impulsivity

Impulsivity can get you into trouble, especially with other people. People make assumptions about our character based on our actions, so impulsivity can make it easy for others to get the wrong idea about who you are. Impulsivity is one of the core symptoms of ADHD. It’s essentially leaping without looking—acting (or speaking) without pausing to think about what will happen next. It seems like a good idea in the moment, but afterward you realize that you feel differently about it. Sometimes these ill-advised actions are reversible, but sometimes they aren’t.

The problem with impulsivity is that, because it involves acting before pausing to think things through, advice to resist the impulse just isn’t helpful. The deed is done by the time you stop to think about it. The most effective points of intervention involve reducing the intensity of those impulses rather than resisting them. Let’s talk about how to keep them at bay.

1. Is it actually anxiety?

When it comes to impulsivity, ADHD gets all the attention, but anxiety can also cause us to act impulsively as a way to reduce uncomfortable feelings. So reflect on how you feel before you act. If it’s more about getting caught up in the emotions of the moment or not thinking it through, it’s most likely attributable to ADHD. On the other hand, if your impulses are spurred by uncertainty, fear, or dread, anxiety may be the cause, especially if the impulsivity involves doing something to reduce that discomfort. This is important to know because the more precisely you understand what is driving your impulsivity, the better prepared you are to address it.

[Symptom Test: Signs of Anxiety in Adults]

2. Re-evaluate your medications.

You write that you are taking ADHD medication, but I wonder if it’s working as well as it should. Medication should help you put the brakes on your impulsivity. If that isn’t happening when the meds are active, the dose might not be optimized. I wonder whether you’re getting enough coverage during the day. Or maybe your ADHD medication is working, but your anxiety needs to be better managed. If you’re not sure, talk to your prescriber. And if you’re not sure that your prescriber is sure, seek out a second opinion.

3. Identify slippery slopes.

What are the first steps that get you into trouble with friends and your boss? Bad decisions usually have a lead up. For example, it could be websites where you spend too much money or snarky emails from your boss. My guess is that you don’t impulsively eat too much kale, so where are the places that you’re most likely to leap without looking? If you can identify a subset of places, it will be easier to look for and spot them ahead of time.

4. Keep your distance.

The further you are from temptation, the less willpower it takes to resist it. Keep an eye out for when and where you are more likely to get yourself into trouble and make some decisions early to go the other way. For example, don’t click on that email from your boss that is likely to set you off until you are in a better position to pause before firing back a response.

[Free Download: 10 Rules for ADHD-Proof Productivity]

5. Strengthen your mindset.

We all have times when we feel the tug of those slippery slopes, so work on pushing back. Also be aware of those little lies that we tell ourselves—as in, “I’m just going to look at that email real quick but not respond to it.” Remember, it’s not the first step that causes trouble, it’s the last one — but the first step makes the second more likely, which makes the third even more likely.

6. Set up barriers.

If you don’t trust yourself to do the right thing in the moment, set up barriers where you need to. For example, a client who works from home bit the bullet and set up an Internet blocker. Or lower the credit limit on your credit cards. Or maybe even avoid certain apps or platforms in the first place. As author Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., told a potential publisher when they asked why she wasn’t on Twitter, “People with impulse control problems shouldn’t have the ability to instantly share all their thoughts with the whole world.”

7. Keep your emotional fuel tank full.

Being exhausted, stressed out, and depleted is a setup for a short fuse and short-sighted decisions. As the folks in AA teach us, a “sudden” bad decision usually is set up far before that one moment.

8. Preemptively explain yourself, and make amends

If you blurt things out, you may want to explain to friends that sometimes your passion blinds you and you unintentionally step on toes. This doesn’t give you carte blanche to be insensitive, but it may help explain your problematic behavior in a way that reduces the hurt feelings. You still need to come back afterward to apologize and possibly make amends, since the burden to fix it is on you, not on them to let it go. There’s a reason why this suggestion came last. Before you ask for generosity from others, show them that you have done your part. Impulsivity may get you into trouble, but being good about fixing it will count for a lot.

ADHD Impulsivity Problems: Next Steps


Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., CST, is a psychologist, author, speaker, and frequent contributor to ADHD publications. His latest book is ADHD After Dark: Better Sex Life, Better Relationship (adultADHDbook.com).

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1 Comments & Reviews

  1. Dr. Tuckman, thank you for this! I’m glad you pointed out how to differentiate between impulsive behaviors and relieving anxiety. As I think of the times I have been impulsive, I can identify some when I was anxious. For example, when in a volunteer committee meeting, and feeling guilty because I (wrongly) believe that I don’t help enough, then I may say “yes” to some task or new role that I really do not have time to do. The guilty feelings make me uncomfortable. I believe the others are somehow pressuring me, expecting me to step up, to somehow make up for “not doing enough” – and so I say yes. Ugh — another weekend gone to do this thing I agreed to do! Then that discomfort (anger) leads me to procrastinate doing that thing, and I end up not even getting the thing done in a timely way. I do usually get it done, eventually. But it can be like pulling teeth!
    Again, thank you for this, you’ve given me another set of tools to work with this problem of mine!
    ~ Rita C., Certified ADHD Life Coach

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