September 26, 2022

The ADHD Interest-Based Nervous System

by | Sep 26, 2022 | ADHD & ADD

A Simple Framework to Hack Your Productivity

ADHD was historically thought of as a lack of attention but is now better understood as a difference in how the nervous system operates and what the brain gives attention to. Learning to work with your ADHD brain can make all the difference in increasing your productivity. 

Importance-based vs. Interest-based Nervous Systems

ADHD Expert Dr. William Dodson brought attention to this framework after years of working with clients with ADHD. He noticed that these clients were fully capable of motivation and paying attention, but struggled when trying to fit themselves into productivity expectations built on the norms for neurotypical people. 

Neurotypicals (in this case meaning people who do not have ADHD) function with what is referred to as an importance-based nervous system; essentially the idea that attention is driven by outcomes, rewards, and consequences. People with ADHD, on the other hand, typically have an interest-based nervous system. This can be broken down into four main factors: interest, competition, novelty, and urgency. When one or more of these are met for a person with ADHD; attention, focus, and motivation come much easier. 

Interest

Most people understandably prefer to engage in interesting tasks, but for people with ADHD, those tasks almost always take precedence, even when they come with a consequence or add pressure to completing another task. Interest can be specific and long-lasting (sometimes known as a special interest), something that comes and goes, or something that only momentarily piques your interest. 

Competition

The ADHD brain loves a challenge. Whether that is testing their own creative problem solving or a competition comparing their skills to others, most people with ADHD greatly enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing a difficult task or testing their skills. While many neurotypicals also enjoy a challenge, the experience of mastering a new skill or improving upon a previous performance can be particularly motivating for people with ADHD.

Novelty

Though it is inherently fleeting, novelty is a powerful experience for ADHD brains. From a completely new environment to subtle changes in routines, tools, or tasks, ADHD folks notice.  They often feel a sense of renewed energy or tolerance for non-preferred tasks when there is some novelty introduced. 

Urgency

Perhaps the most obvious component of the framework, urgency is a familiar feeling and motivator to most people, with or without ADHD. The difference here is that when faced with urgency, many neurotypicals feel stressed in a way that makes it difficult to be productive or complete tasks. On the other hand, people with ADHD are often fueled by urgency, even going into periods of hyperfocus, where they can disregard all distractions and be fully “zoned in”.

There is nothing inherently wrong with an interest-based nervous system.  However, our society is built on structures and expectations that work well for neurotypical brains, not ADHD brains. School, the workplace, and even friendships and relationships are often riddled with expectations set up for a neurotypical world. When a person with an interest-based nervous system attempts to fit into an importance-based system, they can face a unique set of challenges. 

Negative Effects of Not Working with Your Nervous System 

Self-Esteem

Untreated ADHD can have lasting effects on self-esteem. Starting as young as early childhood, people with ADHD often become acutely aware of the differences in how their brain operates in comparison to their peers. Even without a diagnosis or awareness of ADHD, these differences are noticeable and are often internalized as personal flaws rather than simply differences. In adulthood, this can look like feeling “weird” or not connecting as easily with friends or coworkers. Some people with ADHD worry that they are not measuring up to their potential, and they lose confidence in their skills.

Shame

When a person knows they have the ability to do something (and to do it well!) but are having trouble completing those things, they often assume laziness is to blame. When someone attaches laziness or perceived character flaws to mistakes or errors, shame thrives. People who struggle with disorganization or care tasks often feel intense shame around not being able to keep up with what feels to be the most basic of tasks, and they fear judgment from others on the state of their home or personal habits. 

Stress and Physical Health 

The ongoing stress of relying on urgency keeps the body in a state of heightened arousal for longer than is comfortable. While many people feel they “get used to” this level of stress, it is often the body experiencing a growing tolerance to urgency. On the surface, better tolerance to urgency might seem like a positive. However, this then means that it takes more and more urgency to kick into productivity, meaning more stress. 

Not Completing Self-Care Tasks

Self-care tasks like brushing your teeth, drinking enough water, taking vitamins, and making medical appointments are hallmark examples of tasks that an interest-based nervous system would rather ignore. There is rarely novelty or interest in daily tasks, and unless there is a pressing medical concern causing pain or disruption in daily activities, these are easily pushed aside in favor of more interesting or exciting tasks. Over time, this can lead to exacerbated physical health conditions and overall physical discomfort.  

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School and Career Challenges

Some children with ADHD experience school challenges early on, and some don’t experience significant challenges until their workload increases in high school, college, or as they enter the workforce. Strict deadlines and juggling the demands of multiple courses at once can make it challenging to keep up. Many folks with ADHD are highly intelligent, so knowing they can do the work quickly and easily leads them to procrastinate even further until urgency kicks in. The self-esteem issues noted above can lead to holding themselves back from applying to new jobs, asking for promotions, or seeking higher education. 

Relationship Issues

Especially in relationships where one partner is neurotypical, not knowing how your ADHD brain operates can lead to relationship stress and feelings of a partner not listening, not caring, or “dropping the ball”. Taking out the trash, for example, is rarely interesting, challenging, or novel. It can sometimes be urgent, but only taking the trash out when it is overflowing or smells is not likely to be an appropriate frequency when living with a partner. A neurotypical person with an importance-based brain could look at that situation and remember “It’s important to have a clean home, and it’s important to my partner, so I will keep tabs on how full the trash is and take it out when it’s time.” A partner with ADHD isn’t likely to remember that unless they are working with their interest-based nervous system rather than solely hoping they will remember the importance of the task. 

Using an Interest-Based Nervous System to Your Advantage

Once you know how your interest-based nervous system operates, you can learn how to optimize it. A major benefit of this model is its simplicity and adaptability to a wide variety of circumstances. Rather than having to fully identify a new tool or system each time you run into difficulty, this model makes it simple to ask yourself a few questions to find a solution that works for the situation at hand. 

How can I Increase Interest?

Finding interest can be difficult if the task is extremely boring or repetitive, but an interest-based nervous system only needs a tiny detail to get going. Even in the most mundane of tasks, allowing yourself to think about it from every angle or tie it to an existing interest can boost your productivity and be the difference between completing a task and letting it go unfinished. 

Try: 

  • Use an activity that is typically interesting for you, and find a way to incorporate that into the non-preferred task 
  • Multi-task by pairing one highly interesting task and one less interesting task (ex: washing dishes while watching a documentary or data entry while drinking a special coffee or tea)
  • Explore information related to the task that you do find interesting (ex: researching who invented the tool you are using, how other cultures or groups approach the task, world records for the task)

How Can I Identify Competition and Challenge?

Depending on the circumstance and the individual, challenge can be found by engaging in competition with others, challenging yourself to a new goal, or finding a creative solution to a problem. Regardless of how you find your challenge, it can spur motivation to engage in tasks that otherwise might feel pointless to an interest-based nervous system. 

Try:

  • Encourage friends to join you in setting and reaching goals
  • Try a method you’re not sure you’ll be able to do to stretch yourself 
  • Identify leaders or experts in your field and attempt to understand/use their methods
  • Try body-doubling to increase accountability and challenge yourself to complete a task while in the presence of another person 
  • Identify how you did on the task the last time you completed it, and try to improve on a specific marker this time
  • “Gamify” your tasks: Identify goals within the task and give yourself rewards, then try to beat your time or highest “score”

How Can I Find Novelty?

This is likely the simplest place to quickly increase productivity for an interest-based nervous system because it is relatively simple to find novel ways to do something. Even the smallest amount of novelty introduced into a routine or boring task can be enough to spark motivation for an interest-based nervous system. The challenge here, however, is that novelty wears off quickly and needs to be replaced often. Some people find the endless task of introducing novelty to be an exciting challenge on its own, and others prefer to work with small novelties within the same category to reduce the amount of mental effort required. 

Try: 

  • Walk or drive a new route to routine places
  • Use a new writing utensil or paper you typically would not use for a task (interesting colors or different-sized paper can be enough!)
  • Wear clothes you wouldn’t normally wear for the task
  • Simply change location (try a coffee shop instead of the office, or outside instead of in your home)
  • Make a special or more involved meal or drink prior to completing the task
  • Complete tasks in a new order
  • Throw out preconceived ideas of how a self-care task should be done, it is ok to use kid’s toothpaste or take gummy vitamins if it is novel enough to remember and complete the task

How Can I Use Urgency Appropriately?

With healthy boundaries in place, urgency can be used as an effective tool. For many who don’t know how their brain functions, urgency is relied upon as the foolproof tool to get a non-preferred task completed. As we mentioned earlier, feeling a high sense of urgency too often can lead to chronic stress and the many negative outcomes related to it, so care must be taken when trying to use urgency to your advantage. 

Try: 

  • Set arbitrary deadlines (or ask others to set them for you if it is appropriate!)
  • Inform those you are working with of when you think you will have the task done (even if it is before the deadline) to create a personal sense of urgency without the intense panic of missing a deadline
  • Set up controls and locks on your devices that provide or restrict access to certain programs at set times
  • Make interesting or exciting plans at a set time that would require you to complete a task before engaging in the plans
  • If you are struggling with cleaning or tidying, invite guests over within a specific time frame, to encourage you to clean before they arrive. 

The Takeaway: Work with Your Brain, Not Against It

Learning how your ADHD interest-based nervous system can be used to your advantage can make an incredible difference in your productivity and in reducing the negative effects of ADHD. Perhaps even more importantly, it can help you start to shift the way you view ADHD. With the right knowledge and support, you can remove the expectation of a neurotypical brain, and instead focus more on the incredible skills ADHD brings to your life. 

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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