Surefire Strategies That Don’t Work for ADHD – And Some That Do
By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Knowing what works for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is just as important as knowing what doesn’t. In fact, some of the tactics you’re using might even exacerbate your symptoms.
Whether it’s techniques that you’ve tried yourself or others have employed, below are seven surefire ways to unsuccessfully cope with ADHD. Plus, at the bottom you’ll find techniques that actually do work.
1. Unsuccessful strategy: Criticizing. Individuals with ADHD usually already have a sinking self-esteem and hold negative beliefs about themselves. So when loved ones or others criticize them, it chips away at their self-worth even more. “Remember, it’s not that the person with ADHD doesn’t want to do something – they just can’t,” said Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, a psychotherapist and author of several books on ADHD, including 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD.
2. Unsuccessful strategy: Conforming. “What doesn’t work is uniformity, conformity and standardized ways of doing things,” according to David Giwerc, MCC, founder and president of the ADD Coach Academy. People often assume that individuals with ADHD work the same way as everyone else, he said.
For instance, an employer might assign 20 tasks and expect them to be done that day. Or a parent might refuse to give you the car if you don’t complete a project. But instead of getting motivated, you probably stare at the same sentence for an hour, ruminate about your inadequacies and get overwhelmed, he said. Such assumptions only boost procrastination and perfectionism, Giwerc said.
3. Unsuccessful strategy: Working harder. People without ADHD often assume that people with the disorder simply need to work harder. But here’s a fact: They already are. “Studies show that an important mental control area of the brain — the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex — works much harder and less efficiently [in people with ADHD] than for those without ADHD,” said Terry Matlen, ACSW, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach.
But working harder isn’t the answer. You might work five times harder (and longer) at a task, and get behind on other projects, Giwerc said. Worse, working harder only makes you spin your wheels, put needless pressure on yourself and become utterly exhausted, he said. And “The more pressure you put on someone, the more their brain will shut down,” he added.
4. Unsuccessful strategy: Not jotting down information. People with ADHD usually don’t like to stop what they’re doing to jot things down, said Matlen, also author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD. The problem with that is they also have a hard time remembering, she said.
If you don’t write something down – whether it’s a list of tasks or groceries you need – it probably won’t get done, she said. Plus, you’ll have to retrace your steps later anyway, doing double – or triple – the work, she said.
5. Unsuccessful strategy: Doing everything yourself. It’s not uncommon for people with ADHD to refuse help, because they want to prove that they’re capable, said Giwerc, also author of Permission to Proceed. Or they think asking for help makes them weak. But “trying to juggle everything can cause more anxiety, stress and a worsening of symptoms,” Matlen said.
6. Unsuccessful strategy: Procrastinating. Many people with ADHD wait until the last minute to get things done, Matlen said. Sure, the adrenaline rush helps you move faster, she said. But “chronic procrastination and then a run to the finish line can take its toll health-wise, causing anxiety, insomnia and more,” she said. And in the long run, it can compromise the quality of your work, she added.
7. Unsuccessful strategy: Drinking too much caffeine. Some people with ADHD self-medicate with caffeine, consuming too much to quell their hyperactivity and fire up their focus, Matlen said.
But too much caffeine “can cause insomnia, headaches, heart palpitations and GI problems,” she said. “The positive effects may become short-lived, causing individuals to drink more and more, due to an increased tolerance to the caffeine.” This can create anxiety and irritability, she added.
Strategies That Work for ADHD
Ask for help. As Matlen said, sometimes the best approach is to simply get help, whether that’s hiring a tutor, a professional organizer or cleaning service or asking a loved one for help.
Figure out your learning style. Rather than trying to conform to how other people work, figure out how you work, and focus on your successes, Giwerc said. To identify your learning style, he suggested asking yourself: What are the things I can pay attention to? And what do I need to learn? For instance, Giwerc is a kinesthetic and auditory learner. One way he learns is by walking and listening to audio books. If he’s in a meeting, he makes sure to ask questions, take notes and have a ball to squeeze.
Be generous with praise. Sarkis suggested that loved ones “praise the person 10 times as much as you criticize.”
Change your perspective. Instead of berating yourself, approach situations by asking, “What have I learned from this?” Sarkis said.
Start with exciting tasks. People with ADHD have a particularly tough time focusing on boring or mundane tasks, Giwerc said. But they’ll still start with these tasks, in hopes of checking them off their list. The problem is you get stuck. Instead, he suggested working first on the task that ignites you; then completing the other stuff gets easier.
Be self-compassionate. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Try being more understanding and kind. Remember that you’re not less intelligent or capable than others. You have unique brain wiring, Giwerc said. Focus on your strengths and on finding strategies that work for you. (Here’s more on practicing self-compassion.)