I’m excited to introduce Chris Loper as a guest author. I met Chris about a year ago when we presented at the Aftermath of Virtual Learning Online Summit. Chris is a brilliant tutor, a habit coach, and a writer. He’s also an adult who is thriving with ADHD, and he’s here to show us all how we can thrive as adults with ADHD too. And for the younger readers, Chris’s lifestyle is an excellent example of how you can be a successful grownup without having the kind of boring, conventional life most adults seem to live. (You can write to Chris here: email@example.com)
8 Keys to Thriving with Adult ADHD
Author: Chris Loper (14 minute read )
It’s easy to think of ADHD as something that is simply bad. The Ds, after all, stand for “deficit” and “disorder.” Students with ADHD often have a difficult time in school, and many adults with ADHD struggle to thrive personally and professionally.
But, while there are downsides to having ADHD, there are also several important upsides. And it is absolutely possible to have a fulfilling, successful, and joyful life with ADHD.
The Surprising Advantages of Having ADHD
People with ADHD are often more creative than neurotypical individuals (1). They’re often funnier. They have more energy and vitality (1). They’re more open to new experiences and better at spontaneity (2). And although they struggle to stay engaged with routine tasks, they’re capable of hyper-focusing on projects they care deeply about (2).
The long list of famously successful people with ADHD includes Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Salvador Dali (1), athletes like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles (3), actors like Emma Watson (4) and Jim Carrey (5), musicians like Justin Timberlake (3) and Dave Grohl (4), astronaut Scott Kelly (4), and entrepreneurs like Richard Branson (5).
That said, ADHD does come with its share of difficulties.
Human Nature vs. The Modern World
Human nature is a product of evolution by natural selection. As such, our brains are adapted to help us succeed at survival and reproduction in our ancestors’ environment. And that environment was very different from the one we now live in, as James Clear explains in Atomic Habits:
“Similar to other animals on the African savannah, our ancestors spent their days responding to grave threats, securing the next meal, and taking shelter from a storm. It made sense to place a high value on instant gratification. The distant future was less of a concern. And after thousands of generations in an immediate-return environment, our brains evolved to prefer quick payoffs to long-term ones (6).”
In our ancestors’ environment, it might have helped to have a wandering attention. It might have helped to be a little impulsive. It might have helped to have a brain that prioritized immediate returns over long-term plans (7).
But we now live in a very different world – a world that rewards long-term thinking and self-discipline:
“In modern society, many of the choices you make today will not benefit you immediately. If you do a good job at work, you’ll get a paycheck in a few weeks. If you exercise today, perhaps you won’t be overweight next year. If you save money now, maybe you’ll have enough for retirement decades from now. You live in what scientists call a delayed-return environment because you can work for years before your actions deliver the intended payoff (6).”
So today, those of us with ADHD find ourselves at a disadvantage. It’s not helpful to have a brain that’s highly attuned to immediate returns in a delayed-return environment. The modern world asks people to focus for long stretches of time on boring tasks, while simultaneously offering up an endless supply of addictive distractions.
Why Thriving with ADHD is so Challenging
School is, ironically, one of the most delayed-return environments we’ve created for modern humans. You study and do your homework all through elementary school, middle school, high school, and college so that you can finally have a career in your 20s. It is incredibly difficult for anyone to make wise choices on a time scale that long. But we don’t ask just anyone to do it – we ask children to do it.
Long-term planning is a prefrontal cortex activity, and your prefrontal cortex isn’t finished developing until you’re 25 (8) – three years after most people graduate from college. Plus, one of the hallmarks of ADHD is impaired function in the prefrontal cortex (9). So it’s no wonder kids with ADHD have a hard time prioritizing their studies over playing video games and hanging out with friends.
Being a “responsible adult” isn’t much easier. Building a career, maintaining a household, paying bills and taxes – these are all delayed-gratification activities. Adults with ADHD often struggle to find their way because their brains are not well suited for the boring, day-in, day-out grind of conventional adult life.
However, this does not mean we should give up. It means we have to be strategic about how we engage with the modern world. And it means we need to think outside of the box when designing our lives. Luckily, that’s something our highly creative ADHD brains are well prepared to do.
It’s Okay to Be Weird
The answer here is not to force yourself to adapt to what is “normal,” but to embrace an unconventional lifestyle. As we look at the eight keys to thriving with adult ADHD, we’ll use my unusual lifestyle as a concrete example.
I decided a long time ago that the rat race was not for me. I do work that I enjoy, work that utilizes my signature strengths, work that allows me to laugh and be creative. And most days, I’m free to go hiking or skiing before I have to “clock in.”
I get the best parts of ADHD – creativity and humor, energy and spontaneity – while almost completely eliminating the downsides.
I don’t take medication (10). Instead, I work to optimize my brain’s health, deliberately train my ability to focus, and use a slew of strategies to enhance my willpower and executive function.
It’s important to note that I stumbled into many of the elements of my lifestyle on accident, through trial and error. I hope my example can help you shortcut this process. In addition, I had a great deal of support and encouragement: mentors and role models whose guidance and examples were immensely helpful.
I’ve designed a life of meaningful contribution and financial success that looks nothing like a conventional adult life. You can too. Here’s how.
1. Do work that you care about.
One thing all students with ADHD have noticed is just how difficult it is to focus on work you don’t care about. As you get older, this “problem” naturally gets a little better, but it never fully goes away. And I’ve referred to it as a “problem” because it’s actually a blessing in disguise.
It means you have to choose a career that’s meaningful to you. I could not be an accountant. (Too boring.) I could not be a receptionist. (I tried … I got fired.) People with ADHD rarely end up with boring jobs because can’t do them well.
So don’t pursue a career you have no interest in. And don’t choose your career based on the salary. Do work that you care about. Choose a career that you’ll actually enjoy doing.
Now, the predictable thing to say here is, “Follow your passion,” but that’s actually bad advice. As a young person, your passion might be skateboarding or Fortnite or some other fun activity that’s very unlikely to work out as a career. Furthermore, you don’t know today what you will be passionate about in the future. You will discover and cultivate new passions throughout your life by trying new things.
2. Cultivate ikigais.
A better approach is to use the ikigai diagram as your guide to life and career satisfaction:
In short, it says that a satisfying career will be one that you can get paid for, that the world needs, that you’re good at, and that you enjoy doing. However, while this sounds nice in theory, it’s not realistic for most people, at least in the short run. But the ikigai diagram does offer several useful insights, especially for adults with ADHD.
First, it shows that we should make sure that at least some of our time is spent in each of the four circles. If any are neglected, we’ll feel that something is missing. For most people, this requires multiple activities: a job, hobbies, volunteer work, etc.
Second, it shows that we should aim for the intersections. Activities are more satisfying when they fulfill multiple circles.
And third, it shows that we can work our way toward the center. For example, I used to love teaching and writing, and I thought that I had a valuable message to share with the world. But I was not skilled enough to get paid to teach or write, and my work wasn’t good enough for the wider world to pay any attention.
So, for a few years, I wrote and taught free classes for a group of friends. Through this practice, I became skilled enough to get hired as a tutor and blog writer for Northwest Educational Services. I didn’t choose my ikigais; I cultivated them.
Also, notice how I said “ikigais,” plural. You’re not limited to just one.
3. Don’t do one thing. Do many things.
Many adults with ADHD struggle to stay engaged with a full-time job, even if it’s a career they care about. Their job demands they spend too much of their time on one kind of task, so they get bored, lose focus, or burn out. To avoid this, design a lifestyle with more variety.
Mostly, I work as a tutor. This is great for me because it changes every hour: new student, new academic content, new challenges. And I don’t just tutor one or two subjects – I cover nearly all subjects, along with study skills and executive function. This keeps the work interesting and varied.
Tutoring, however, is not the only activity I do for work. Since I run my own business, I also have scheduling emails, marketing, and bookkeeping to do. I write an education blog and a self-improvement blog. I maintain a few different websites. I do habit coaching with adults. In the summers, I coteach a class called “Parenting for Academic Success.”
I also work on less serious projects for fun, like this website about different ways to play Jenga. I make art. I do puzzles. I play board games. I read both fiction and nonfiction. I hike and ski. I cook curries. I go birdwatching. As I noted in my humorous memoir, you don’t have to be (or do) just one thing – you get to be (and do) many things.
Okay, now let’s look at how I mitigate the downsides of ADHD without medication.
4. Improve your brain health.
Exercise is helpful for ADHD because it improves a wide variety of brain functions, including executive function (11) and focus (12). For this reason, exercise is one of the first things I do each day. I don’t work out to lose weight or look sexy – I do it to boost my brainpower.
Eating well also reduces the downsides of ADHD, while eating poorly makes them worse, so good nutrition is an essential part of ADHD management (13). In general, fast food and highly processed foods like potato chips and packaged desserts should be avoided. Instead, eat a varied diet of whole foods with plenty of vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats (14).
People with ADHD often have difficulty sleeping, and, at the same time, poor sleep makes their ADHD worse (15). In other words, ADHD and sleep problems are interconnected in a feedback loop that, for many people, is a downward spiral. It is therefore very important to take steps to optimize your sleep. For me, that means not eating near bedtime, using blue-light-blocking software on my devices and avoiding screen time as much as possible, dimming the lights, and taping my mouth shut at night to ensure I breathe through my nose.
5. Take care of your mental health.
People with ADHD often have mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression (16), or addiction (17). As with sleep problems, these mental health problems can be both a cause and an effect of ADHD.
I was an alcohol and marijuana addict for all of my 20s. But much earlier than that, I was hooked on sugar and video games, which are two of the most common gateway addictions for young people. For any young person reading this, please know that your ADHD makes you prone to addiction (because we’re highly attuned to instant gratification) so you should be wary about experimenting with drugs. It’s far easier to prevent addiction by avoiding drugs entirely than it is to get sober after you’ve been hooked.
And for anyone reading this who is already addicted, know this: You can get clean, it won’t be as hard as you think as long as you fully commit, and being sober will make just about everything in your life easier.