Christopher Campbell/Upsplash
Source: Christopher Campbell/Upsplash

More than 1 in 10 children in primary schools have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and this number increases to more than 4 out of 10 adults between the ages of 18-24 years old. Although the numbers decrease to 4 in 100 by adulthood, people who have ADHD at any age suffer in many ways. These include but are not limited to impulsivity, inattention, high distractibility, impulsive decision making, poor time management, difficulty following directions, working memory problems, excessive speeding while driving, difficulty engaging quietly in leisure activities, and poor follow-through. Proper treatment with medication and therapy may help to alleviate these symptoms, but residual symptoms may persist. While some may aim for complete focus as a target, recent studies show that your brain can only take so much unfocus. To that extent, after adequate control of symptoms is achieved, it may make sense to leverage the symptoms of unfocus by developing the following lifestyle habits. Each will likely have a distinct advantage that may be counterintuitive, yet helpful.

Doodle during class or conference calls: If if it difficult to pay attention, the last thing you may think of is to doodle, yet a recent study by psychologist Jackie Andrade and her colleagues showed that doodling can improve your memory. In their study, they asked two groups (one that doodled and the other that did not doodle) to remember eight names and places after listening to a boring conversation. They found that people who doodle remembered 29% more than those who did not.

Doodling activates the brain's unfocus circuit. As a result, your unconscious brain participates in memory formation, and your brain, rather than being like a stiff, focused sponge, becomes more absorbent of information.

Daydream effectively: If your mind has a tendency to wander, you probably want to rein it in. Yet, too much focus can actually be harmful to your brain.  It makes you more emotionally reactive because it sensitizes your amygdala (the emotion processor in your brain), and it makes it difficult for you to care about anyone and anything because your brain becomes depleted of energy.

To correct this situation, use your exceptional daydreaming ability to your advantage. Jerome Singer and his colleagues found that it is not helpful to slip into a daydream, or to ruminate over worries. However, a certain type of daydreaming called positive constructive (yes, constructive!) daydreaming (PCD) may be just the thing you are looking for.

To get this started, plan it. Select a time in your day when you might be daydreaming anyway. Then, do something low-key like walking, knitting, or gardening. While you are doing this, turn your attention inward, and imagine something positive or wishful. Be creative about it. Perhaps you want to imagine playing a sport on a nice summer day and have your butler serving you drinks afterwards.  Or you might want to imagine lying on a yacht. When you do this, your mind will follow this rewarding image and start to wander. Let it. If you find yourself overthinking this, start with the image again. With practice, this will get easier and easier.

When you engage in PCD, it also activates the unfocus circuits. This re-energizes your brain, and it will make you more creative too. But that's not all it does.

People who regularly activate this network become better predictors of the future. To predict the future, your brain has to make connections across large distances, and then put this information together into prediction circuits. This crystal ball capability has been demonstrated. 

Dabble in a few different subjects: People always feel under pressure to declare a major at college, or to choose between art or science. yet, in an era when programmers are required to have some design sensibility, or artists may benefit from a sense of proportion, there is an opportunity for a new kind of Renaissance, one that people with ADHD are well suited to. In fact, one wonders if Da Vinci would have been medicated for his wide-ranging interests in a modern society.

In my book, "Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind" I explain how people like the famous artist Vik Muniz, the iconic chef Jonathan Waxman and the legendary Steve Jobs, all had dabbling histories that made their lives that much richer. For Muniz, early career shifts allowed him to keep moving without being paralyzed. For Waxman, first a musician, then a chef, his latest food venture in musical capital, Nashville, Tennessee, brings it all together. And for Jobs, his early calligraphy class had no significance to him when he took it, yet he later used this when developing fonts for Apple. In fact, even hobbies can protect your brain, especially if you engage in them an hour a day.

ADHD can significantly impair your abilities in life, but minds that wander are not all lost. Rigid people have to teach themselves to be creative and flexible by loosening up. People with ADHD can tinker with their own attention to find the optimal reining in that is required before distraction provides the benefits of a restless brain, in search of connections and new ideas that could potentially transform the world.

To read more about how unfocus can be worked to your advantage, get a copy of "Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind" (Ballantine Books, 2017) 

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