9 Ways to Trick Your Brain Into Focus
“If you are an adult with ADHD beaten numb by the challenges of your condition, you could be in the same rut I was in a few years ago. These are the tools I designed to help me feel less overwhelmed and more in control of my life.”
If you are an adult with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), beaten numb by the challenges of your condition, you could be in the same rut I was in a few years ago. Every morning you suck it up, get out of bed, and take your meds. And even though you’ve long ago given up on anything changing for the better, you forge through another day. By the end of the day, you’re pretty edgy. But you keep your teeth clenched until you get back under the covers where you know you belong.
One day, you let go of the wheel. You’re not surprised or upset when you forget conferences, classes, papers, purpose, people, or their stupid birthdays. You still smile at barbs about how you lose your train of thought, stammer, and fiddle with paperclips during meetings. With your knee jerking up and down under the table, you swear you won’t miss another deadline, but you know you will. Later, you stare out the window, caught in another daydream, a last-ditch stab to trick your ADHD brain into holding on to a sliver of focus. Then you feel your supervisor’s hand on your shoulder.
“Hello? Calling spaceman,” he says, laughing. And kablooey, you go crazy and dump all your pent-up disgust on him.
But so what? Your gear is already packed to move on to the next job, the next friend, the next whatever. You’re home, on the bed, shoes off, with pizza and Netflix. It’s like that stages of grief thing; you’re at the final stage — acceptance. Wait, what time is it? You’re late picking up your daughter Coco from school. She’s new at high school and, having heavy-duty ADHD, like you, she gets anxious waiting. You’d better zoom. Just as you grab the keys, Coco bursts through the front door and heads up the stairs. A minute later your wife steps in, and says, “Better go talk to her, she’s pretty upset.”
You find Coco curled up on her bed, crying. You apologize for forgetting to pick her up. But that’s not it. It’s school, she wants to quit. As she cries, you hug her. She’s in crisis, getting her first glimpse of life as an adult with ADHD. But how can you, of all people, help her?
First, you have to admit you were wrong. But you were right about one thing; there are a ton of people in the world whose problems are worse than yours. One of them is right here in your arms. Are you going to tell her to give up, too? I don’t think so. So you decide to grab the wheel and try again. If you take the daunting challenges of adult ADHD seriously, she might just lift her head up and join in.
Coco and I talked for a long time that evening. And through her time in high school, we kept talking about the challenges we each faced. We talked about tools to deal with them. We developed some ways to keep us aware and positive when ADHD challenges get in our way. The tools we designed have helped me feel less overwhelmed and more in control of my life. So in that spirit, here’s my survival guide. Please change compartments and tools around to fit your own needs, and make your own survive-and-thrive guide.
TOOL 1: GOAL CLAMP
The Goal Clamp uses and strengthens your ability to be self-aware and positive by bringing your imagination to bear on the problem. Because your clamp gets strong only by repeated trying and failing, you have to stay at it. Imagine a clamp — mine looks like the glue clamps in the garage, yours can be anything you want — in the front of your brain. Take a small task and tighten it in your clamp. Start work, and wham — distractions hit. So imagine them as a pile of cell phones in the back of your head, with a zillion different ringtones going off trying to stop your task. Don’t answer. Look at the task in the clamp, and stay at it.
TOOL 2: HYPERFOCUS HARNESS
For most of us with ADHD, hyperfocus doesn’t seem like a benefit of our condition. Our neurotransmitters get stimulated by something, and we’re down the rabbit hole for as long as they’re stimulated. With practice, you can harness hyperfocus to do any task. If you make the emotional reward of finishing a task big enough, your neurotransmitters will want that long-goal stimulus as much as the fleeting ones. Make your life your game. Set up something you enjoy as an after-task reward. But for the tool to work, you have to invest belief in the act of finishing the task. Then, with your goal clamped and hyperfocus harnessed, the next time the rabbit hole beckons, you’ll stay on your path.
TOOL 3: VOCAL HEAD PLANNER
I picked up this tool from my wife, who doesn’t have ADHD, and who takes a little time every morning to look ahead at her day. When she would ask me, “What’s your day look like today?” I had no idea. Finally, I tried her way, and it works. At the start of the day, visualizing the hours before you, saying out loud what you plan to do and when, and what’s next after that gives your day shape, stability, and goals. It will reduce chaos, even if the day changes.
TOOL 4: MIND MINDERS
Electronic devices are a huge help in keeping people with ADHD connected to time. My daughter has synced her smartphone’s clock and calendar apps with her laptop and set up reminders for every event in her day — from waking up and showers to class assignments. Electronic banking and budgeting is a lifesaver for me. I use my bank’s autopay and the Mint phone app to stick to a budget and pay bills on time.
TOOL 5: BREATHE, SWEAT, AND EAT
Take five to 10 minutes every day to sit someplace quiet, center yourself, and breathe in and out on a 10 count. The resulting calm will strengthen your awareness and emotional self-control for the whole day. And get moving — walk, run, go to the gym. At least every other day, use your body to get out of your head. You will wind up strengthening both. To keep better control of our moods, we should avoid sugar and processed food and eat the vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein that help us stay healthy.
TOOL 6: NEED VS. WANT
To get control of impulsivity, examine and strengthen your vision of yourself. Find what you truly value in your life and take pride in that. I guarantee you, it is not shiny things. Sit down with paper and pen. Make two columns: Need and Want. Think about this over time and remind yourself of what you think is important when you find yourself with an impulse to buy, or in a social situation where the impulse is to impress.
TOOL 7: GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK
Venting your frustration at yourself and others is never a good idea. Tool 5 helps a lot, but to get control of your burning anger, you have to find the fuel that is feeding it — the voice that whispers to you about how weak, stupid, and incompetent you are. When that voice starts to hiss to you, stop what you’re doing. Look around, breathe, and give yourself a break. Let the fire die, and let the foul smoke of self-destruction drift away.
TOOL 8: COURAGE AND EMPATHY
The more you look at and listen to people with compassion and understanding, especially when they don’t deserve it, the stronger and happier you’ll be. Your friends will be grateful and return it to you, and your enemies will be stymied. This tool brings quick results, but it takes lots of practice to become good at using it.
TOOL 9: TALK IT OUT
The self-destructive propaganda that festers in the corner of every ADHD brain can destroy hard work. The only thing that keeps this evil little guy from controlling you is talk. Honest talk. I see a therapist who knows and treats ADHD, and so does my daughter. And it’s the one tool that I think really should be in the hands of a pro. But if you don’t do that, find someone you trust to talk to — a friend, pastor, or parent. Talk brings the light of truth in the window, and lets you shine in its glow.
Updated on May 4, 2020