Let’s face it; boredom and understimulation are like kryptonite for the ADHD brain.
Due to our underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, we don’t have as strong of a reward center in the brain as a neurotypical.
In turn, this makes it much harder to maintain interest in things that don’t naturally light us up.
And in a world of adulting, where there are plenty of less than stimulating responsibilities, the struggle to maintain focus is very real.
So what can we do?
How can we support ourselves when faced with tasks as exciting as watching paint dry?
Don’t worry, it’s not a lost cause.
And in episode 142 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast, we’re talking about just that.
You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:
Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.
In Episode 142: How to Deal with Boredom and ADHD, You Will Discover…
- The different ways boredom presents itself when you have ADHD
- How to anticipate and navigate distractions
- How to increase interest in tasks your brain labels as boring
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Episode #142: How to Deal with ADHD Boredom and Understimunation (Transcript)
Today we are talking about the topic of boredom, which might seem like a strange concept to explore in a podcast…but I think it’s a really important one for several reasons.
First of all, let’s face it; we all deal with boredom in different ways on at least a semi-regular basis. And if you’re thinking, “I don’t have TIME to be bored, are you kidding me?!”
It might not be that you’re feeling bored because you’re sitting around thinking you have nothing to do. It might also be boredom from working on understimulating tasks for your brain, and no matter what you do it seems impossible to stay focused on it because you’re feeling so bored.
For many people who have ADHD and who navigate this kind of boredom – especially the latter type when we’re feeling bored while doing particular projects or tasks – that can really impact the work we do.
Our brains thrive on novelty and challenge and interest – especially those of us with ADHD and ADHD tendencies.
When faced with tasks that don’t provide enough stimulation for our brain, we run the risk of:
- Getting easily distracted
- Not finishing the work
- Avoiding work altogether
today we’re talking all about boredom when you have ADHD. more specifically:
- What boredom is
- Why boredom shows up
- How we want to navigate that feeling of boredom
- What we can learn from the experience – because believe it or not, there can be some powerful lessons that accompany this emotion as well
what exactly is boredom?
The dictionary definition is…
“The state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.”
Peg Rosin offers an additional description in her article in understood.org, which is “Boredom isn’t a symptom, it’s a result.”
I like this concept because it helps reinforce the idea that boredom doesn’t come from something.
Different tasks aren’t inherently boring. Instead, we experience boredom because our brain is understimulated. We experience boredom because we’re thinking to ourselves, “this is such a waste of time” or “this is so tedious.” “This is so dull or too repetitive.”
And if those tasks or projects do not require a lot of challenge or novelty, it’s easy to slip into that experience and emotion of boredom.
2 Types of Boredom
I think about the experience of boredom on both a macro and a micro-scale.
Macro-scale boredom might be feeling bored generally.
Maybe you don’t have any plans for the day and you don’t really know what to do.
Or maybe you’re traveling somewhere and you have a long flight and the thought of watching another movie just sounds awful. And you are so bored of sitting in the same seat staring at the seat in front of you.
Micro-scale boredom is when you might be working on submitting your expense reports for the end of the month and your brain keeps offering thoughts like “this is so tedious, I don’t want to be doing this“.
You’re feeling incredibly bored and antsy.
Or maybe you’re grading student papers and you’ve read a similar version of the same thesis for the 30th time, and your brain wants to check out. It feels so under-stimulated and then it wants to go to sleep.
Chances are you can relate to at least one of these categories whether it’s the macro or the micro-scale. And the truth is, nobody likes feeling bored.
It feels pretty uncomfortable in our bodies. In fact, this is why we so desperately want to escape it when it comes up.
Boredom and the ADHD Brain
This feeling of being understimulated is even more true for the ADHD brain.
Since we feel our emotions more intensely in our body, and we lack appropriate levels of dopamine and serotonin in our brain – we don’t have that reward center like a neurotypical brain does.
Because of this, those with ADHD have less tolerance for these understimulating tasks.
We have less tolerance to be able to sit with that boredom because it literally feels more uncomfortable in our bodies.
Now, I want to stress that doesn’t mean we can’t. Just because it feels more uncomfortable doesn’t mean that we can’t sit with it, but it does take practice.
It does take a willingness to be uncomfortable. So I want to offer that in advance; it will feel uncomfortable as we learn how to sit with boredom and that is okay.
Most people – neurotypical and neurodivergent alike – do not like this feeling of boredom. It does not feel good. And for many of us, we aren’t even aware of our resistance to it.
We don’t realize that:
- We can decide how we experience this boredom
- We can be intentional about how we navigate this feeling of under-stimulation
When living more on autopilot, people tend to escape, avoid or solve for boredom in two ways.
- They try to solve it externally by going outside of themselves to find a distraction
- Solve being bored internally by turning inward and distracting themselves
As I give examples below, I invite you to think about whether one or the other resonates more with you.
How We Deal with Understimulation and Boredom
Here are some examples of what we do when struggling with boredom.
We Try to Solve Boredom Externally
If you try to solve your boredom externally, you may find yourself giving in to your impulsivity and the urge to do something different from what you’re doing at that moment.
Let’s say you’re grading papers and you’re experiencing that discomfort of boredom in your body. It’s very common for a brain to start seeking novelty, excitement or other means of creating more dopamine for your brain.
Instead of Feeling Understimulated You:
- Reach for your phone and you check your email
- Read the news headlines
- Scroll social media
- Open up your favorite shopping app and click the buy button to give that rush of excitement rather than sitting in boredom
- Head to the pantry for a snack because doing so provides pleasure, which feels much better than that boredom in your body
On a bigger scale, it could look like constantly jumping from one project to the next because when you stick with the same task for a long amount of time – as we talked about in last week’s episode on follow-through – you can also experience that discomfort of boredom.
We Try To Solve Boredom Internally
Additionally, we might try to escape that boredom internally.
This might look like zoning out or shutting down from what’s happening around you, getting lost in daydreaming or planning, living into the future, or ruminating in the past.
Just as we can try to escape boredom by getting quick bursts of dopamine externally, we can entertain our brain and create stimulation for our brain by going internally as well.
This is especially true for those of us with really active imaginations. Or, we may be professional worriers and often find ourselves lost in thought.
Is Being Bored a Problem?
So we know that boredom feels uncomfortable.
We don’t particularly like experiencing it in our bodies. But is it actually a problem?
The brain wants to convince us that it is.
The brain – as always – wants to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy.
Therefore, when our ADHD brains feel uncomfortable, it goes on high alert thinking there’s a problem it needs to solve.
In this case, it begins seeking pleasure.
Now here’s the deal, this definitely served us back when we lived in caves and needed the brain to go seek out food so we could survive. However, the feeling of boredom from doing your taxes or the feeling of boredom from grading papers is not actually dangerous.
Even though it may seem painful to your brain, it’s not actually dangerous. You can experience it.
How Do You Fight Boredom with ADHD?
What should you do when you’re understimulated and bored when you have ADHD?
1. Remind Your Brain and Your Body That You Are Safe
Boredom is not an indication that anything has gone wrong. It is an emotion that you are experiencing in your body. That’s OK.
I’m not saying it feels good. But it’s not a problem. In fact, I encourage you to spend a few minutes getting to know boredom.
So often we spend so much time resisting it. We spend so much time pushing it away and avoiding it at all possible costs. We go on social media, we get lost in our inbox, and we check out in front of Netflix all to avoid feeling this emotion in our body.
So, ask yourself…
- Am I willing to sit with this feeling of boredom for a couple of minutes?
- Am I willing to notice how it feels in my body without reacting to it?
I’m telling you, this is everything. When you realize that this feeling of boredom can’t hurt you, and then it’s not something you need to escape, you are able to open up and learn from the experience.
This results in being so much more intentional about how you want to move forward.
So, the next time you notice that you’re feeling bored, what does it actually feel like?
Where do you feel that emotion in your body?
For me, it’s kind of a buzzing restlessness in my arms and my legs and tightness in my solar plexus. That’s it.
What about you? What does Understimulation Feel Like?
- Is it heavy?
- Is it light?
- Does it move at all?
- Is it located in your core?
- Your limbs?
Get really curious about the emotion.
Then ask yourself, am I willing to feel this in my body?
Can I sit with this emotion for a couple of minutes?
When you can be with the emotion or feeling bored, and you realize that it’s not going to harm you, then you can ask yourself:
- What do I want to do about it?
- What is it here to show me?
- What is it here to teach me?
Maybe you realize that you are looking for a little bit more novelty or activity in your day today.
2. Understand Why You’re Feeling Bored
The human brain loves new and novel things. It loves to be challenged at just the right level.
I heard someone describe it like a rubber band. We want to stretch ourselves, but not to the point of snapping the rubber band. The brain loves to have a challenge that’s just right, that stretches us, but without snapping and entering the space of being too hard where we shut down.
With this in mind, you might realize you want to start a new hobby or step out of your usual after-work routine of dinner and scrolling with Nextflix on in the background.
Maybe your brain is craving some new opportunity or a new job. This is a beautiful thing.
And the way that you can uncover this desire is by pausing and sitting with the boredom rather than doing what ALL HUMAN BRAINS WANT TO DO, which is to react to it immediately and grab your phone – or other distraction – to escape it.
When you’re willing to feel that boredom in your body and listen to what it’s here to teach you, you might realize, I’m ready to really lean into my photography skills. Or I want to work with that coach or pursue my business idea.
Maybe you want to start taking that dance class on Tuesdays or have more date nights with your partner.
This may mean that you need to do a little more planning ahead of time. If you want to step out of your usual routine, it may take some upfront planning to make time for it. But that’s okay! You can absolutely do it.
There are plenty of episodes from the podcast to help you with it, too.
In fact, I have made my I’m Busy Being Awesome planner and planning system that I teach to all of my clients available to anyone who is interested in it. With the planner, you also get access to a 5-part training where I walk you step-by-step through my approach to the planning process so you can learn the tools and then make it your own.
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3. Make the Activity Fun or More Interesting
You’ve learned that you can sit with the boredom.
But what if the discomfort isn’t necessarily a message that it’s time to make a big change or that you want to incorporate more variety in your life? Instead, you’re doing a task that is just really under stimulating for your brain.
What do you do about meetings or activities that you need to attend but your brain wanders a lot looking for additional stimulation?
What if you want to do your taxes or you’re grading papers or some other part of your job or life that future-you wants to have completed, but currently you have no idea how you’ll complete it because it seems SO BORING?
What To Do In Situations Like This
This is when we can challenge ourselves to find ways to make the task at hand fun and interesting or introduce additional sensory input to further engage our brain.
For example, if you think about attending a meeting or a class and you find you have a hard time focusing, what can you do? How do you stay focused when your brain is understimulated and wants to check out?
In situations like this, I think it’s often helpful to have something tactile in your hands. One of my clients right now loves to sketch when she’s in her classes. It gives her hands something to do while also allowing her to focus on the lesson that her teacher gives. I had another client who loved to cross stitch when he was on calls.
I personally love to crochet. Or I’ll do puzzles. If Ryan and I have a movie night, I have a really hard time maintaining my focus – even if the movie is not necessarily boring – my brain is still understimulated. So having something that I can do with my hands allows me to keep that part of my brain busy while allowing me to focus on the storyline of the movie.
You can also find ways to add fun to a task.
We talked about this briefly in the last episode about following through on the last 20% of your work.
You can use these same strategies of making it fun to help you sidestep boredom. Some examples:
- Listening to focus music as you read that report that puts you to sleep
- Race the clock as you edit each paper
- Pair unloading and loading the dishwasher with a podcast episode, etc.
I’m telling you, when we can come at tasks with the question, “how could I make this fun?” And we genuinely consider that question and figure out ways to make the process engaging, exciting or challenging for our brain, it can be just the shift you need to shift out of boredom and get it done.
4. Find a Work Partner (Body Double)
Another powerful way to introduce additional novelty to the task or boost your commitment to sticking with it is bringing in additional people.
One way you can do this is through body doubling. If this is a new concept to you, body doubling is often a term used in the ADHD community that refers to someone else being present when you work on a project or task.
Since ADHDers often struggle to get started and stick with tasks, having that additional person there helps you stay on track.
In-person this might look like both my husband and I cleaning the basement together rather than one of us attempting it alone because we each keep the other going.
The classroom is a natural body double situation because when kids are all working on an assignment and you look up bored or distracted, you have that visual reminder of what you’re meant to be doing.
How to Find a Work Partner
Making the most of the internet, there are now several different websites that essentially create virtual coworking spaces where you can sign up for a time, get paired with another person around the world, and you both hop on the computer and work with your camera on and the sound off for a 25 or 45 minute stretch of time.
I’ve used the website focus mate for this and have had a lot of success with it, especially when I was still grading those papers.
If pairing up with someone you don’t know seems too uncomfortable, you could also:
- Hop on zoom with a friend or a coworker
- Go to a library or coworking space
- Get on the phone with someone – One of my clients has a standing phone call with her sister every night and they do dishes while catching up on the day.
Use your creativity to help you find ways to bring interest and novelty to the everyday tasks that your brain usually finds boring.
5. Celebrate Each Win
Be sure to keep celebrating each win and accomplishment along the way.
When you can take that project and break it down into those tiny tasks, you get that quick rush of dopamine and feeling of accomplishment every time you get to cross it off the list and think, yes! One more done.
So keep tracking your progress and celebrating your forward momentum to keep your engagement and commitment high as well.
How to Deal with Boredom & Understimation When You Have ADHD: Final Thoughts
As a quick recap…
Boredom is not a problem that we need to escape. Instead, it’s a sign that our brain is understimulated.
As humans, it’s our natural inclination to try and resist boredom by either looking to outside distractions for a quick rush of dopamine or turning inward and checking out.
Rather than resisting this emotion, the real opportunity here is to learn how to experience boredom.
We want to learn how boredom feels in our bodies so we recognize that it’s not a problem. It’s not something to run from. Instead, boredom is something to allow in our body, learn from, and then move forward with intention.
Whether you incorporate new activities or classes and you shake up your routine on a macro scale or you find ways to weave in challenge or fun or novelty on the micro-scale with specific tasks and projects, doing this with intention makes all the difference.
Just ask yourself:
- How can I make this fun?
- How can I gamify the situation?
- Is it possible to bring in a body double?
- What are the wins and the gains I’ve achieved already and how can I continue celebrating along the way?
When you make this additional effort, you help keep your brain engaged, which allows you to work through the boredom and check the things that matter most to you off your list once and for all!
Episode 142: ADHD Resources
- Learn more about We’re Busy Being Awesome here
- Get the top 10 tips to work with your ADHD brain (free ebook!)
- Discover my favorite ADHD resources here
- ADHD and boredom, Peg Rosen
- Check out Focus Mate here
- Listen to Brain.fm here for focus music (get your first month free with this link)
- Get the I’m Busy Being Awesome Planning System here