Improving Persistence in Kids and Adults with ADHD
How to pay attention to something that is boring
By: Lewis S. Odell, Ph.D.
Many people diagnosed with ADHD find it difficult to sustain their attention to tasks that do not interest them. They may also find it hard to sustain their effort and persistence on tasks that require ongoing effort and extended amounts of time to complete. Giving up quickly on tasks that are not inherently interesting or going on to something else is a common phenomenon for many children with ADHD. Dull, repetitive tasks continue to be unappealing for adults with ADHD, but they are mostly perceived as something that simply needs to get done. Nonetheless, procrastination and sometimes complete avoidance of these boring and uninteresting tasks is commonly seen in adults with ADHD. Some of this lack of interest is biologically based, as individual with ADHD have lower dopamine receptor levels in brain areas controlling rewards.
Task persistence is a particularly difficult issue in the classroom for many children with ADHD. Students typically have little choice about the types of assignments teachers give them, so a long-term project such as reading a book or writing an essay may often be on a topic that does not engage them. As students move onto high school, they are more likely to have a few options about which books they read, the topics they write about, or the science projects they pursue. Having a choice helps with task persistence, as it does for adults who are fortunate enough to find their vocational niche.
Adults have greater scope for choosing the types of professions and hobbies in which they engage. While it is hoped that most adults with ADHD can choose a job that engages their minds, they still cannot disregard many of the less engaging responsibilities of grown-up life. For parents, there still are meals to cook, homes to clean, lawns to mow, kids to shuttle around, meetings to go to, and things to fix. All of these activities require persistence, sometimes in an activity that is not engaging to a parent.
Task persistence is incredibly important for anyone wishing to be successful. Many psychologists attribute a sense of “stick-to-itiveness” as the key to becoming an expert in any area. For example, Malcolm Gladwell notes that spending 10,000 hours on an area of interest makes one into an expert. But at a more modest level, putting in the time and effort to complete a science project or organizing one’s book bag leads to better academic performance.
Fortunately, there are strategies that can make boring tasks into something more interesting and potentially engage the persistence of kids and adults with ADHD. Here are some of the strategies:
Take pictures of previous success. Visual images that show how effort leads to successful completion of something can be very useful to encourage further efforts.
Make it social. Engaging in an activity with somebody else is often far more engaging for children and adults with ADHD. This allows for conversation and helping each other to accomplish a task that can be mutually supportive.
Delegate what you don’t like to do (if possible) and choose the things you do want to do. This may be somewhat easier for adults than for kids. If as an adult you don’t mind doing the dishes because it keeps your hands busy but don’t want to have to remember to pay the bills, make an arrangement with your spouse or partner to do the other chore.
Transform boring activities into something that can engage you with something that is stimulating. This could include cleaning your house with music blasting, cleaning out a backpack while watching television, or dictating a letter on your cell phone while taking a walk.