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“How Little Plastic Bricks Helped My Brain Focus and Concentrate”

I struggled in school — a lot. Until I found a way to infuse my education with the same visualization, planning, and scaling techniques that I had successfully (and enthusiastically) applied to my LEGO creations. In my personal and professional life today, I continue using this formula for better concentration and problem solving.

ADHD can grind you down. I grew up frustrated by the challenges I faced in the classroom — especially in middle school. Despite the efforts of many well-meaning teachers, I learned to cope largely on my own using an unconventional tool: a plastic LEGO brick.

I remember English teachers explaining how to write an outline, but I never really got it. Math class was even worse; keeping track of multiple variables simultaneously was a nightmare for me. History, however, was a different and better experience because it provided me an opportunity to use my imagination.

How I Took Refuge in LEGOs

After school, I liked to decompress by building LEGO models of the things we discussed in history — a medieval castle, a WWII fighter plane, the space shuttle. Most LEGO sets come with instructions that clearly spell out how to complete each project. These clear steps helped me focus and seeing the project take shape kept me engaged. During LEGO builds, I never got distracted and frustrated, the way I always felt in the classroom. Building a LEGO project showed me I could be successful following manageable steps. Completing each project made me feel successful and proud.

Then Star Wars changed the way I used LEGOs. The excitement on the screen inspired me to replicate scenes from the movie. With my massive collection of colorful plastic bricks, I built the X-Wing fighter, Luke’s ship from the movie, and more interstellar spacecraft. I had so much fun hunting for pieces and building my version of each ship that I stayed focused until finishing what I thought was a pretty close replica. And I did it all by myself — without a set of instructions.

Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, that exercise taught me how to visualize a goal and think through the steps necessary to complete it. As the ship began to take shape, I stayed engaged, imagining the fun I would have pretending to fly it down the trench on the Death Star. Turning that messy pile of plastic into a creation I was proud of was a truly thrilling experience.

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Learning Life Skills Through Play

Over time, I’ve learned that walking aimlessly into a task without first visualizing a goal never ends well. I may make some progress, but the moment I start wondering about next steps I get distracted and everything goes south.

For example, grocery shopping was once an arduous chore because I’d walk into the store without a “plan.” Bare cupboards and an empty fridge would send me food shopping, but I’d arrive at the store without first planning any meals or making a list of ingredients.

Roaming the aisles was an exercise in frustration. I’d impulsively make selections and leave the store 20 minutes later — overwhelmed and missing the necessary ingredients for even one nutritious meal.

Then it hit me. What if I applied my LEGO-inspired visualization skills to routine tasks in the real world? Maybe visualizing a goal, breaking it into steps, and focusing on completing just one step at a time would work in other areas of my life.

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The LEGO Lessons I Kept for a Lifetime

At home, I applied the LEGO strategy to cooking. Making pasta for dinner got easier when I visualized the meal and broke down the ingredients and steps into small, manageable chunks. I found a box of rigatoni, located the salt, and fetched a pot. Then, I filled the pot with water and added the salt. Next I brought the water to boil, added the pasta, set the timer… you get the idea.

I now work in retail, where I’m often tasked with building displays that call attention to various products. By visualizing the display first, I can more easily break down the steps to get there. And instead of tackling everything all at once and becoming overwhelmed, I focus on building the foundation first and going from there — just like I did with the X-Wing. Only this time, instead of using plastic bricks, I’m working with wooden shelving and boxes.

Many tools exist to help people live better with ADHD, but I’ve been most successful with a fun toy not designed for this particular purpose. But as any 9-year-old kid will tell you, it’s an amazing tool nonetheless.

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Updated on December 2, 2019

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