All brains require a certain level of engagement in order to properly focus. The level of engagement or stimulus needed is different for everyone, and engagement itself is made up of a few different factors such as: challenge, novelty, interest, sensory input, etc.
Too little stimulus and a task becomes boring. For some neurodivergent brains, particularly ADHD brains, boredom can be painful and feels like it must be avoided at all costs. This means that tasks we need to do and even want to do become near impossible to complete. Before we know it, we find ourselves scrolling through social media on our phones or playing a game just to escape.
To much stimulus and a task becomes overwhelming. It can be due to the task itself, or due to external factors such as noise or light. For some neurodivergent brains, particularly Autistic brains, overwhelm can lead to shut-downs or melt-downs which not only make it impossible to work, but also wear us out. Overwhelm often leads to avoidance, which only continues the cycle of anxiety, overwhelm, and burn-out.
So, the next time you’re having trouble focusing on a task you know you can do (because you have the knowledge and tools needed) try adjusting some of these factors to find your brain’s engagement sweet-spot:
- Challenge: the raw difficulty or complexity of a task
- to increase: add another layer of complexity to the task, give yourself some kind of slight disadvantage to make it more challenging, etc.
- to decrease: break the task down into smaller or simpler pieces, or do extra research to deepen your understanding of the task
- Novelty: how shiny and new the task feels
- to increase: alternate the task with another very different task of a similar level of fun/reward (eg. alternate studying vocab with washing the dishes)
- to decrease: relate the task to tasks you’ve done before (eg. podcasting may be new, but writing and presenting are both familiar)
- Interest: how invested or curious you are in the type of task or the topic
- to increase: relate the task or content to things you’re already interested in
- to decrease ( in order to avoid hyperfocus; not recommended for frequent use as it can become a bad habit and hurt your mental health): look for the aspects of the task that are lacking, questionable, etc.
- Sensory Input: additional stimulus not directly related to the task
- to increase: add music, nature sounds, incense, oil, air fresheners, lights, movable chairs, etc.
- to decrease: use noise canceling headphones, white noise generators, neutral scents, dimmer lights, a steady comfortable chair, etc.
If this seems like a lot to balance, it is. Or at least it can be if we try to do it all at once. My suggestion is start with your biggest roadblock.
Next time you find yourself stuck on a task you know you can do, ask yourself “why is this difficult?” Try writing down your thoughts on a blank sheet of paper, or even on a napkin. Find the biggest obstacle you can do something about. Try adjusting that aspect of the task to a more comfortable level and see how far you can make it. If you run into another roadblock, just ask yourself the question again.
With practice, making these adjustments will become easier. You will come to know your ideal work environments for different kinds of work, and you’ll learn to recognize the signs of something upsetting your balance. My advice, like always is to write it down. Even if memory is a strength of yours, keep a record of your findings so you can refer back to them as needed. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn about yourself.
Bonus: Tell your friends, mentors, and trusted peers. Let them know you sometimes get stuck on tasks and have them remind you to check for (1) missing information or tools, and (2) engagement or stimulus level. Sometimes just having that conversation with someone can be enough to help you realize what you need to do.