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ADD, It’s Not a Focusing Problem

In my estimation, treating ADD (attention deficit disorder) as a focusing problem misses the point.  Rather than thinking of ADD as a focusing problem, let me suggest that you consider thinking of it as having a low threshold to boredom. Let me explain. Unless something has significant stimulation value, you’re likely to drift (not focus) away from the task at hand.  By treating ADD as a “stimulation” issue rather than a focusing issue, the options for treatment are greatly increased.  Before discussing this, let me say that I consider myself to have an ADD disposition. I’ve always found it hard to stick with anything that didn’t interest me. Sure I was fidgety as a kid and would get yelled at nightly by my father who couldn’t take my squirming as he tried to teach me my math homework. I went to a strict Catholic school where we were required to sit straight, both feet on the floor and both hands on the desk. This, as you might imagine, was torture!  I saved my sanity by inventing dozens of ways to play with my fountain pen or doodle the most intricate air and sea battles on scrapes of paper.

I wasn’t much of a student back then, but then again, there wasn’t much stimulation for me–that came later in college and graduate school. Long story short, I found the study of psychology interesting (stimulating).  And what amazed me was that all through graduate school I never received less than an A on any course! This realization eventually led me to conclude that the problem all along was my general malaise caused by chronic boredom. Don’t get me wrong, I did try early on, but, let’s just say there were places I’d rather be than sitting in front of a book. When I began to treat adults and teens with ADD I realized that I was able to make significant progress by suggesting my concept (low threshold to boredom), then by perpetuating the myth that ADD is a focusing problem.

Let me hold up here and say that, yes, the inability to focus is definitely an aspect of ADD, but focusing isn’t the problem–it’s a symptom of the problem (which is a low threshold to boredom)! Once you reshuffle the deck this way, you can begin to address the real problem–boredom.  Saying this differently, how do you increase stimulation in order to achieve better focus and attention?  What has worked for me is to suggest that attention is like a muscle, if you concede to boredom and drift away, your attention muscle atrophies. If, on the other hand, you recognize the value of hanging in there a few more minutes before bailing, then you build a bit of muscle. To accomplish this I usually tell my patients, “attach rather than detach.” I suggest that “detaching” is an old pattern that needs to be challenged, not just by an act of will, but by trying to find a crumb, a thread, of interest in that which we might otherwise label as boring. Sometimes this is as easy as listening more intently (rather than rejecting and fleeing), becoming more involved in the subject matter (or your job requirements), essentially, learning to find satisfaction and interest in what we might otherwise allow ourselves to abandon. I’ve built my ADD muscle over the years, I still, however, hate doing my billing and other mundane details, but even with these necessary chores, I’ve found techniques that allow me to hold my interest (focus).  I’m fortunate to have a stimulating career, but it wasn’t always like this.

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