How to improve ADHD-like symptoms
The interventions are based on ADHD treatment and should generally improve the ability to focus and executive function for everyone involved.
If you have severe ADHD or suspect you have it, this post may not be for you. Seek professional help.
Do you have issues focusing a single task?
Do you always lose track of things even though they were important?
Do you always get excited about something new but then abandon it and you don’t know why?
If you look at the current environment, here are some common characteristics:
- So many things to do
- Always online
- Always switching context
- Always distracted
- Never bored
No wonder that we have issues sitting down and reading a book, for example.
No wonder we get excited about something for a bit but then totally forget it.
A lot of people feel like they have ADHD. And by looking around and identifying the symptoms, it certainly seems like that’s the case.
This might be the brain’s natural reaction to living in an environment like today’s world, so it doesn’t necessarily mean you have ADHD. But you might have ADHD-like symptoms that are making your life and work harder.
The good news is that if this is caused by the way we live and the environment we live in, it should be reversible.
What to do about this
First, there is a high probability that you might struggle with dopamine addiction of some sort.
Dopamine addiction and ADHD-like symptoms go hand in hand.
People with ADHD often self-medicate, using dopamine-related substances like caffeine.
It’s almost impossible to deal with only one of them without addressing the other.
Fortunately, there are a lot of similarities in the strategies used to deal with both of them.
If at all possible, do the steps below simultaneously. Given their nature, the combination of ADHD-like behaviors + addiction to the Internet is hard to defeat step by step because it often leads to a one step forward two steps back journey. The compulsive behaviors are usually strongly ingrained.
That’s why we prefer a more radical approach because the worst thing that can happen is that you return back to your old you… but if you succeed, you do it rapidly and see great results.
1. Do dopamine detox
As we’ve explained here, ADHD is closely tied to dopamine. When you continue overstimulating your brain with dopamine, your dopamine receptors lower their sensitivity. This means that you need more and more dopamine to achieve the same level of stimulation and so regular activities become less and less fun over time. Also, because dopamine helps you with motivation, focus and ignoring distractions, you become less driven and easily distractible.
The good news is that it can be reversed to some extent. There is an ongoing debate about how long it takes and how reversible it is. The younger you are, the faster the process will likely be. But if drugs cause great changes in the brain and yet people can still recover from addiction, then behavioral addictions likely aren’t as powerful.
The first step is to do a dopamine detox challenge for 30 days. To learn more about how, read this detailed guide.
A good rule of thumb is to abstain from “cheap dopamine”. Pleasures that you don’t have to work for and can simply passively consume. E.g.: video games, surfing the Internet, watching porn, binge watching Netflix.
We want to highlight something: Dopamine detox isn’t about cutting out all the fun! No, it’s about replacing it with healthier and enjoyable alternatives (read the risk of compulsivity for a concrete example). Instead of playing video games - play board games with friends, instead of binge watching Netflix, go to the cinema to watch a movie with friends.
If you’re able to follow this challenge, it will improve a lot of the symptoms. The main benefits are that you will be able to focus better, have more energy, and the regular activities (including but not only work) will be more fun and easier to motivate yourself to do.
However, most people find that they can’t simply quit because they use these activities to escape and once they quit, suddenly there is a lot of free time available to them. Too much, in fact. That’s why you need the 2nd step:
2. Running towards something is easier than running away from something
A lot of people worry about what they would do instead of consuming cheap dopamine. They’ve been doing it for so long that they don’t remember what else they used to do in their free time.
So, it’s a really good idea to figure out what you’re going to do instead of consuming cheap dopamine before taking on the challenge.
Once you have more free time, it’s time to re-explore your hobbies or dive deep into your work.
If you have no idea what might interest you, now you have the time to get bored and figure out what looks enticing.
There are 2 main areas you can go into:
A. Choose your addiction:
Work can now easily become your new addiction.
If you already have something even mildly interesting to work on, go for it.
If you don’t know what interests you, start learning new skills. Creative skills are a good shot: programming, writing, design. Most of us have some “things I’ve always wanted to learn but didn’t have the time.” Now’s the time to explore.
B. Pursue high quality leisure - Not everyone has satisfying work to do. You can simply do things for a living. Still, one can live a satisfying life by pursuing high quality leisure in your free time as the replacement for cheap dopamine.
3. Build up your emotion regulation skills
Start addressing your emotions
If you are struggling with dopamine regulation, you probably deal with feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and low self-worth. Some of this can be improved simply by doing things in the 2nd step. When you complete important tasks or learn something useful, your sense of self-worth will naturally go up.
On your way to becoming more calm and focused, you'll have plenty of overwhelming thoughts. Here are some good ways of processing them.
This is the most accessible tool all of us have. Don’t complicate it. Whenever you want, for example when you feel overwhelmed, simply take a pen and a piece of paper and start writing down what’s on your mind, without any judgement. Simply write and you'll see how it can clear your mind.
We’ve covered here how boredom can be good for our mental health and the ability to think clearly. Nowadays, people never have to be bored and it might be part of the issue.
This means that you don’t have to always be entertained - like always listening to music or a podcast in the background while doing mundane tasks. With the dopamine detox challenge, you will have plenty of opportunities to get bored. This will help reset your dopamine system.
Therapists can teach you how to deal with negative emotions, and can help you process your past traumas.
This can be immensely helpful.
If you think you need this, please be sure to look into it.
Learn about how emotions work
When you read about emotions, you learn that, for example, the idea that we all always have to feel positive emotions (= happy) is not realistic or useful. Just knowing this can help you stop feeling bad about feeling bad.
A good book to explore this topic is Why Do I Do That?
Build your emotional regulation skills
While addressing your emotions will immediately boost your emotional skill, you can do even better.
Train your focus
You can do it by focusing on work deliberately or doing a simple meditative exercise called trataka. Attention follows visual focus. Note: the first few days of intentionally training your focus can be hard, because we only know how to focus on things that naturally catch our attention.
If you’re interested in it, you can begin with guided meditation programs and then dive deeper.
However, don’t feel guilty about not meditating. It’s good but it’s not as bombastic as some people online make it out to be. Journalling and using boredom to think things through are much more easily accessible with comparable effects on your ability to deal with emotions intelligently.
If you’re interested in the science behind meditation, read Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson.
Practice self-control like a skill
One of the most common problems of people with ADHD is the inability to inhibit behaviors: just one more game, just one more episode...
Self-control is a skill. It’s a mental pattern that we can reinforce. How?
For example, you can practice this via:
Cold showers: You’re training yourself to overcome discomfort and do something unpleasant on command.
Fasting: You’re training yourself to not act on your urges immediately.
We mention these because they also have quite a few beneficial effects on health, besides training self-control.
4. Shape your environment
Being in the right environment can be immensely helpful in supporting the changes you want to make.
However, it won’t do the job on its own.
Say you’re using a site blocker (like ours) to avoid procrastination - if you really want to procrastinate, you can always disable it. But having site blockers does help you stop compulsively opening sites. They can help you realize you wanted to get distracted and pause. They give you a chance to figure out why that was the case.
For example, you felt resistance towards the next task you wanted to do because you’ve never done it before. A site blocker will give you a chance to address the issue directly instead of getting side-tracked.
Changes in your environment
This topic can be quite extensive, and we talk about it more in our book.
Here are some of the most common issues:
Scrolling on your phone right after you wake up.
→ If you instead get an analog alarm clock, you won’t see your phone first thing in the morning which will help you avoid scrolling.
For more phone tips, check out this article.
Compulsively opening browsers tabs while working:
→Use site blockers like our extension.
→Use different devices or accounts for work and surfing.
Pro-tip: I don’t want to have 2 laptops, so I have 2 profiles set up on my laptop. The first profile is where all the work happens. There I only do work, and I’m not logged in anywhere. When I’m logged in, I’m working. Then when I want to read the news, or open social media, I have to log into my second profile - that requires me to type in a really long password, however.
The general idea is to make clear to your brain where you work and where you entertain yourself.
Routines save time and energy. Rules help people with ADHD function.
There are many possible ways to organize yourself. If you want to go into more detail on how to organize yourself, be sure to read this article.
But probably the most essential rule that can help you organize is this:
Write down what you’re going to do tomorrow.
Yes, you’ve probably heard this tip before, but that makes it no less true. Even a simple practice like writing down 1-4 tasks that you really want to get done will help you start the day right.
I like to write down just the most important things for the day. For example, I don’t write down ”exercise” because this is something I do regularly.
5. Don’t do it alone
To increase the probability of success, find a way to be accountable to someone else.
Even if you might feel motivated right now, it will probably get more difficult after a while. It’s often a part of the natural resistance to change (remembering the good - comfortable, nostalgic life). You slowly start forgetting the reasons why you wanted to change in the first place.
One of the reasons why you don’t want to go on this journey alone is because we tend to rationalize our behavior and make up seemingly valid justifications to ourselves. However, others can often see through these lies and excuses that we use to BS ourselves. Having a “partner in crime” helps you stay honest with yourself.
There are many ways how to become accountable:
Ask a friend to help you stay on track - or even to “coach’ you.
Ask friends to do this with you if they’re also struggling with focus.
Join a group with the same goal - for example /r/nosurf - Whatever works for you. That’s exactly how AA works - they might seem like a sect for outsiders but the new community can help you overcome your issue.
Or if you don’t feel like doing that, just write me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once again, if you feel you can’t pull this off on your own, seek professional help. This is totally okay. Actually admitting that you might have a problem is a huge step forward.
These are the general guidelines, don’t expect to follow them exactly to the letter. It will probably be a bit messy and you might slip up every now and then, but you should know clearly what are the next steps by now.
Simultaneously, you want to:
Do a dopamine detox for at least 30 days.
To not go crazy, replace the cheap dopamine activities with interesting work, learning or pursuing new more healthy hobbies.
To be able to process emotions better, start journaling and spend a little bit of time every day bored with your own thoughts. If the emotional load is too heavy and you can’t handle it, be sure to schedule an appointment with a professional.
If you want to solidify this process, start building your emotion regulation skills - meditation, cold-showers and what have you.
Try to shape your environment to help you. Routine is king for dealing with ADHD.
And make sure to not go into this process alone. Ask a friend to join you or to help you. Join a group. Or if you feel like you can’t do it on your own, seek professional help.
And lastly you can also email me at email@example.com and we can talk about it.