ADHD and planning… or not planning?
Imagine this: you’re at work, and your boss comes over to you, letting you know she wants you to create a potential proposal for the upcoming project. In about one week, at the next company meeting, you will have the responsibility to stand up in front of the room and go through your ideas on how to implement the new budget or new marketing technique.
For anyone, this can bring about feelings of anxiety and the evil monster of procrastination can sneak in to steal your time. Most people, with distractions here or there, can pull themselves together to get the job done. However, for people with ADHD this task—which requires planning and delaying reward gratification— can be near to impossible.
An employee with ADHD may end up needing to ask for an extension after arriving to work the day of the meeting with no new ideas in hand. The boss may be angry and think to herself ,“What an unorganized and irresponsible employee, clearly he or she doesn’t care about the work”. But in actuality, the boss is wrong. The employee with ADHD can actually be extremely creative, hardworking and dedicated to the tasks at hand.
Delayed gratification versus immediate reward
For people with ADHD, the ability to plan for the future and look ahead, does not come second nature or even third. It is not so easy for people with ADHD to devote their attention to something that does not deliver an immediate reward. People with ADHD pay more attention to short term goals as they want their rewards “now”. Time takes on a different meaning in the brains of people with ADHD and people without ADHD.
For people with ADHD, time is split into “now” and “not now” and their brains are wired in a way which makes the “now” desire more powerful. It didn’t matter on Tuesday night when the employee should have been working on the draft but hadn’t even started the first word. The meeting was five days away, and the new episode of Game of Thrones was on T.V. It is extremely difficult and uncomfortable for someone with ADHD to maintain motivation when a reward (social praise or promotion) is far along in the future.
Non ADHD brains can function even if the arousal levels are lower at times or higher at others, but ADHD brains need stimulation and cannot handle the fluctuation. Things need to be louder or faster or bigger and all in all more stimulating and exciting to capture the attention. For people with ADHD, their brains are literally begging them to stop this boring old task (counting numbers or reading this article) and enticing them to do something stimulating. Go out with your friends or watch this show or do this activity and the immediate reward of pleasure, social contact or feeling happy can be received.
ADHD and Planning: A constant conflict
Back to the work situation, as you can see, it is not that the employee with ADHD was lazy or not motivated, rather there was an internal struggle. While the employee intended to work on the proposal and impress the boss, the ADHD symptoms took over. Every time the thought of the future came up, this thought process occurred: ‘but it’s not now’ ,’ you have so much time’ and ‘wow this looks cool, let’s try it!’
Next time, if you have ADHD, and you get distracted or miss a deadline, don’t beat yourself up about it. Recognize you face a battle that most people do not have—your brain is fighting for that immediate stimulation while you want the longer term goals. Next time, if you do not have ADHD, and someone with ADHD arrives late or forgets something, wait before you judge. Remember the cognitive impairments that work against them and that this may be at the fault of ADHD symptoms rather than the person.
Young, S., Morris, R., Toone, B., & Tyson, C. (2007). Planning ability in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Neuropsychology, 21(5), 581.Planning ability in adults with ADHD
Fuermaier, A.B.M., Tucha, L., Koerts, J., Aschenbrenner, S., Westermann, C., et al. (2013). Complex prospective memory in adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58338. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058338