Per Russell Barkley (RB), ADHD guru (i.e., scholar and scientist):
ADHD is a disorder of self-regulation that can also be described as a “disorder of age-inappropriate behavior” that looks like inattention and lack of inhibition.
Though I want to clarify that the inattention depends on what you are doing; another guru of ADHD, Thomas Brown, says the “central mystery” of ADHD is that those with it can pay attention to some things and seem incapable of paying attention to other things.
But back to RB and ADHD as a disorder of self-regulation.
RB defines self-regulation as “self-directed action intended to alter subsequent behavior so as to change the probability of a future event or consequence” (to improve your longer-term welfare).
For example, say you have a problem with money and keep getting into debt by living off credit. You want to pay off your debt (self-directed action) to be able to cancel your credit card and limit spending (subsequent behavior) to reduce the chance you’ll get into debt again (change the probability of a future event).
Where does ADHD fit? With ADHD one has the intention to alter behavior (e.g, limit spending) to change the future (e.g., live debt-free) but struggles with the self-directed action (e.g., paying off debt) required for this.
Barkley says it’s a disorder where knowledge fails to guide performance. You know what to do but struggle to do it.
RB highlights that ADHD brains show prefrontal cortical network differences (these networks are responsible for Executive Functioning and self-regulation is the core of Executive Functioning). Here is where the differences exist and what comes into play:
- Frontal-striatal circuit, the “what” network (what we think influences what we do) Here lives…
- Freedom from distraction
- Working memory
- Organization and planning
- Frontal-cerebellar circuit, the “when” network (timing of thought, behavior)
- With ADHD, there’s “time blindness,” and
- A “myopia to the future”
- Frontal-limbic circuit, the “why” network. Here lives…
- The decision-maker of the brain (if you have multiple goals, which do you pursue? this circuit, as RB puts it, “makes the final call”)
- Emotional control or dyscontrol
These network differences show up as self-regulation differences that encompass
Self-directed action, Self-awareness, Self-motivation, Self-directed attention, Self-restraint, Self-directed sensing, Self-directed emotions, and Self-directed play.
WHAT TO DO?
Outsource these brain functions. RB calls this externalizing the brain functions where there are deficits. For example, he says, use “artificial prosthetic cues to substitute for working memory deficits.”
Ideally, this is what ADHD coaches will help you do (for more on this, see Does ADHD Coaching Work?)
Here are some pointers for externalization:
- Per RB, the externalization of brain functions is needed at the point of performance and within your natural setting (e.g., if you struggle to write a report at work, you need external factors to guide your attention at work at the time you need to write); and
- To externalize, change your environment (think planners, alarms, points, signs).
Replenish your self-regulation (think self-control) resource pool. It’s depleted by simple use as well as stress, drug abuse, illness. Replenish through
- Rewards, positive emotions
- Positive self-talk
- 10 minute breaks between tasks requiring self-control
- 3 minutes of relaxation or meditation
- Glucose ingestion (Gatorade, lemonade, sugar water) while working on tasks requiring self-control
- Daily physical exercise
Also, break lengthy or complicated tasks down. One of my favorite reminders of this, though I really like elephants, is, “How do you eat an elephant?”
Answer: one bite at a time.
RB adds that accommodations or scaffolding and the compassion and willingness of others to make accommodations are “vital” to your self-regulation effectiveness.
Sources: Two talks by Russell Barkley on ADHD, one from 2013 entitled, “The Importance of Emotion in Understanding and Managing ADHD (here) and one from 2012 entitled, “ADHD, Self-Regulation, and Executive Functioning: Theory and Implications for Management” (the part of it I used is here).