Like much of what ails us, ADHD is often misunderstood. The symptoms exist on a spectrum, and in some people—both children and adults—ADHD means you can’t sit still or struggle in school or at work. For others, it looks like losing keys and wallets, making impulsive decisions, and chronic distraction.
ADHD can be some of those things, but a person can also have ADHD and not display the typical symptoms. If managed well, and with help from a doctor, ADHD can present as the opposite of what most people think it is. Some people mistakenly believe that ADHD is a side effect of modern life and the rapid increase in handheld devices, but technology has gotten a bad (and factually incorrect) reputation as a cause of ADHD.
If you think you may have ADHD, contact your doctor, or seek one out that specializes in ADHD-related care, don’t try to self-diagnose using the internet. Dale Archer, medical doctor, board-certified psychiatrist, and author of two books on ADHD, says, “ADHD is a combination of genetics and brain chemistry, and you’re either born with it or not.”
ADHD was first defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1968, but since then they’ve made “subtle but important changes” to the way they define ADHD, leading to both clarity about the disorder and an increase in diagnoses. In short, the reason more adults are discovering they have ADHD isn’t that they suddenly develop it but because of an increase in information and diagnostic tools over the past 30 years.
The way ADHD is diagnosed has evolved, but treating it with stimulants—and mental stimulation—dates back to 1936. The reason that stimulants and mental stimulation work to treat ADHD symptoms is by increasing dopamine, which people with ADHD need more of to do things like get into gear and “decide a goal is worth the effort.”
OK, to-do lists might not be the most fun, but it’s the first thing NBC correspondent Gadi Schwartz does in the morning. Making to-do lists might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but their gamification qualities—such as structure, competition, and a defined amount of time to finish—help some ADHDers stay on task and reach their goals.
Schwartz is open about his ADHD, and through self-discovery he’s found practices for living and thriving with it. For example, Schwartz loves video games, and because they’re fun for him, they result in an increase in dopamine. Schwartz doesn’t do this every day, but he sometimes uses gaming to help him get focused when he has a big task ahead. However, he doesn’t just play a game as long as he likes and hope for the best; there’s a specific strategy he uses so that the game works for and not against him.
Schwartz plays one of two games—Offworld Trading Company or Starcraft—both of which require multitasking and sequencing. He sets the difficulty to Hard and a timer for 7 to 8 minutes. Schwartz knows he’s unlikely to last the full time because he starts at a hard level, and gaming in this specific way sets him up for a successful, focused day. “It might sound funny that I start my most intense days with a 7-minute video game,” Schwartz says. “But it works for me.”
Peter Shankman is an entrepreneur and bestselling author of several books, including Faster Than Normal, which is about harnessing the energy and power of the ADHD brain. In addition, Shankman has a podcast—also called Faster Than Normal—where he interviews people who consider their ADHD an asset and pillar of their success.
Shankman’s offerings are far from a support group bemoaning the struggles of living with ADHD. Instead, they’re a collection of inspiring ADHDers who have “learned how to unlock the gifts of their ADD and ADHD diagnosis, and use it to their personal and professional advantage, to build businesses, become millionaires, or simply better their lives,” according to the podcast description on iTunes. Guests include the likes of Raven Baxter, aka Raven the Science Maven; Seth Godin; and Tony Robbins.
Before the pandemic, Shankman had a windowless office where he worked without distraction, but now he juggles homeschooling his 7-year-old daughter and working from his Manhattan living room. Shankman, like Schwartz, doesn’t take medication for his ADHD but has figured out what works to raise his dopamine levels in the morning and get off to the best start.
Shankman wakes up before dawn, but thanks to programmable smart bulbs, he wakes up to simulated daylight. But that’s just the beginning. Shankman also sleeps in bike shorts and socks and keeps his shoes attached to his Peloton pedals.
Within 30 seconds, he’s on the bike for his first dopamine rush of the day. “Five minutes later, you can’t get me off the bike,” Shankman says. “I’m not a doctor, but I understand the basics of ADHD and I know what ADHD does both to and for me.”
What Shankman means—and what most people who thrive with ADHD understand—is that ADHD isn’t a diagnosis to be feared, but rather a gift to embrace. Knowing what works for us is how we create a structure—and use the tools available to us—that enable us to live our best lives.
Jeff Ditzell is a Manhattan psychiatrist specializing in treating mood and anxiety disorders, including ADHD. “Our attention is often hijacked from us,” Ditzell said on his podcast, Psychs in The City. “But we also do a pretty good job giving it away.” Ditzell suggests we focus on what we can control as a way to manage symptoms and create lives that work with us and not against us.
People with ADHD often procrastinate but then find that they are increasingly clear-headed and efficient the closer they get to their deadline. “Manufacturing deadlines and creating an 11th-hour strategy is effective,” Ditzell says. “And it addresses the part of the ADHD brain that craves novelty.”
As far as using gaming to help with ADHD symptoms, that’s not a strategy that will work for everyone, Ditzell warns, as it requires both self-control and the desire to move onto the next task. Gaming works for Schwartz, whose fast-paced, interesting, never-the-same career as a journalist is stimulating, and also because he’s figured out how many minutes to play the game before shifting into work mode.
Ditzell says that any process can be made into a game, but the most important component is to create a work situation that we love. “If we imbue our lives with meaning,” he says, “we naturally extract energy from that.”
Technology helps ADHDers by providing brain stimulation, but technology can also help the brain slow down through meditation practices and apps such as Calm, Headspace, and Open, which includes movement with mindfulness. Do we need technology to meditate? Absolutely not. But can it help achieve results? Absolutely.
Kristen Willeumier, a neuroscientist and author of Biohack Your Brain, understands the science behind ramping up adrenaline and dopamine rushes, and referenced the beginning of a ballgame when the music is pumping, the lights are bright, and the intention—for both the crowd and the players—is to get pumped. On a smaller scale, individuals do this by creating playlists so that when they hear a certain song, it signals to their mind and body that it’s go-time. But what about when we need to slow down?
“The first thing to do with ADHD is to take what’s in your mind and get it out,” Willeumier says, “So the apps for to-do lists, productivity, anti-distraction, and meditation are all very helpful, but I like to work with the brain-wave states.”
Neuroimaging shows that meditation increases focus and attention not only for ADHDers but for everyone. However, meditation is often easier said than done, and besides—how do we know if we’re really meditating or just making mental grocery lists or snoozing?
With her patients, Willeumier uses devices like the Muse mediation sensor, which looks like a simple headband but is sort of an at-home version of an EEG. “A lot of people don’t know how to meditate and it’s hard to know when you’ve reached the meditative state,” Willeumier says. “But the Muse headband assesses your brain wave activity and teaches you what it feels like to get into that meditative state and hold it for 15 to 30 minutes, which is what helps with sustained attention.”
For those who want a more tech-heavy option, but don’t want to go for the full EEG, there’s another option called the David Delight Pro. “The David Delight uses light and sound to help modulate brainwave activity,” Willeumier explains. “It can help with focus, attention, and sleep—it’s more of an all-in-one technology.”
From basic to-do lists and productivity apps to the Muse headband and David Delight, there’s a wide range of technology to help ADHDers. For anyone struggling to manage their ADHD, it’s helpful to know what’s worked for others, though the most important thing is to take time to explore the strategies that work best for each individual.
When chatting with Schwartz about his use of gaming and gamification techniques, I told him, “Sometimes I just want to do something different with my brain, and I wouldn’t know what to do with a joystick in my hand, but I often play word puzzles apps on my phone.”
Schwartz responded with a laugh, “That is a total video game—you’re doing the exact same thing!”