Living with ADHD: why can’t I just do the things that need doing?

I didn’t have work today, or any other prearranged commitments. It was one of those rare days when I could, in theory, get anything done that I needed to.

And that makes it the perfect day to explore one of the defining elements of ADHD: the interest-based nervous system, a.k.a. the reason why the things I actually did today bore almost no resemblance to the things I intended to do.

The interest-based nervous system – ooh, shiny!

Simply put, an interest-based nervous system means that I find it incredibly hard to act on things that don’t currently interest me – and even harder to stop acting on things that do.

Note that “things that interest me” doesn’t exactly mean “things that are interesting”, although there’s certainly overlap (hence the complaint so many people with ADHD report hearing from others: But you don’t have any trouble getting fun things done!).

A better description would be “things that grab my attention Right Now”. As far as I can tell, those things tend to fall into three categories:

  • Things I’m excited or intrigued about
  • Things that present me with a challenge – a problem that feels difficult, but tantalisingly solvable if I just put my mind to it
  • Things that inspire a sense of urgency, of needing to be done right now or else bad things will happen.

If it doesn’t hit one of those three buttons – excitement-driven, challenge-driven, or urgency-driven – then it’s monumentally difficult for me to make it happen.

What did I originally want to do today?

Here’s what I decided last night/this morning that I could reasonably plan to do today:

  • Load the dishwasher
  • Grocery shop so we can have pesto pasta for dinner
  • Find the winter bed-sheets (still in a box after moving house) and put them on the bed
  • Go clothes shopping before my last two pairs of pants fall apart (have I mentioned I hate clothes shopping?)
  • Write a blog post

That looks like a manageable list, right? So how did today actually go?

Best laid plans

First, I struggled to get out of bed. That’s pretty normal: my brain tends to wake up faster than my body, and once my brain is awake, it wastes no time starting to think about things.

Plans for the day. Story ideas. Memorable moments from dreams, or shows I’ve been watching, or books I’ve been reading. Intriguing free-association chains of thought (Good Omens → the specific challenges of adapting Terry Pratchett for other media → the Pratchett theatre adaptation I was working on over a decade ago). Questions and insights and ideas on any topic imaginable.

It’s an amazing ride, but one I don’t know how to get off of. How do you marshal your thoughts to focus on the here and now when the very organ responsible for marshalling your thoughts is the one being inundated with input?

Finally, as usual, my bladder grew insistent enough to drag my attention back down to Earth. Thank gods for human bodily functions.

After breakfast, I pottered around a little, trying without success to push myself into starting one of my to-dos. But then I caught sight of my knitting.

Immediately I started thinking about the unexpected snag I’ve hit with my current project and how I’d come to the conclusion last night that it must be the result of my making a mistake earlier in the pattern that I would have to go back and fix.

But wait, I thought, What if the way the pattern increases and decreases means I was trying to determine the issue by counting the wrong rows? Suddenly I was full of ideas for checking my conclusions. I had to try them out.

By the time I stopped, I had mathematically proven that I hadn’t made that earlier mistake; figured out the true cause of my issue (gradually relaxing tension); and gone through and discarded several possible solutions before deciding on the one I wanted to try.

It was only when I began implementing my solution, which meant sitting around and knitting (as opposed to sitting around and problem-solving), that I started thinking about maybe doing something else. By which time it was three hours later, and I’d skipped lunch.

So what did I do today?

  • Three hours of knit-fixing (challenge-driven).
  • Went back over three months of Byzantine car-share account statements to figure out how much money was owed out of our shared account (urgency-driven – I suddenly realised I needed the cash), and to figure out whether I’d been charged twice for one drive that had been invoiced particularly weirdly (I hadn’t, but proving it = challenge-driven again).
  • Wrote this blog post, because I just last week said I was going to get back to weekly posts and I couldn’t bear the thought of letting myself and (in my mind) everyone else down already (urgency-driven).*
  • Started *cough* four other blog posts about ADHD because the ideas came to me while writing this one and I didn’t want to forget them (excitement-driven).
  • And spent far too much time going around in circles in my head, trying to strategise my way into doing literally any of the things on my to-do list, or agonising over the fact that I was running out of time to do them – which, when I look at it that way, was also challenge- and urgency-driven, albeit in way that was singularly unhelpful for actually achieving anything.

In conclusion

So there you have it: the ADHD interest-based nervous system at work. If you want to know more, you can read a psychiatrist’s description of the interest-based nervous system here.

It’s not without its benefits. When I am interested in something, I can throw myself into it for hours, solving problems and leaping hurdles. And I’ve collected a decent set of strategies for managing it over the decades I’ve lived with it.

But it sure would be easier to get by if the things that interest me lined up more often with the things I need to do in order to, say, have food in the house, and not run out of clothes, and work a paying job.


*Now I understand why I found it so easy to churn out a whole backlog of blog posts back when I first started this blog and it was still a shiny, exciting new thing, and why it’s such an effort to push myself into writing even one blog post now – except when I’ve found a topic to really grab my attention. Return to post.

Photo by rocknwool on Unsplash
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