How Adults With ADHD Can Be Better at Problem-Solving

Giving his colleague some guidance

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When problems come up in your daily life, are you able to move forward in a solution-focused and thoughtful way, or do you tend to get stuck? For some adults with ADHD, the process of problem-solving becomes so overwhelming—too many options, too much uncertainty—that they have trouble moving forward. Thus, no resolution is reached at all. They may even feel a sense of paralysis—wanting to move forward, willing themselves to make a decision around the problem, but ultimately unable to do either.

Too many thoughts and possibilities can also cause you to become derailed so the original issue may even get lost. This can certainly create even more feelings of self-doubt in your ability to solve the problem at hand successfully. Sometimes individuals with ADHD have a difficult time drawing from past experiences and this can make problem-solving more difficult, too.

For other adults with ADHD, an impulsive and unplanned reaction that ends up being regretted later may occur. Rather than being thoughtful about the solution, the person goes with the first decision that comes to mind, though the decision may not be the most appropriate one. If any of these patterns sound familiar, it may help to follow some simple tips to help you make a good decision when faced with a problem. Here are some steps to effective problem-solving.

Identify the Problem

Try to get as specific as possible. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from a trusted friend if you are feeling uncertain. Sure it sounds simple, but sometimes it is hard to boil things down to the core. What is the specific problem you want to resolve?

Brainstorm Possible Solutions

Brainstorm a list of possible solutions. Let your creative juices flow. Don’t judge or prioritize any of the solutions yet, just jot them all down.

Chunk It Down

Once you have the problem identified and have generated possible solutions, it isn’t unusual to begin to feel a bit overburdened with all the obstacles that may get in the way of solving it. If this happens often, the most helpful thing to do is “chunk it down”—that is, break the obstacles down into smaller and more manageable chunks, then brainstorm solutions to each one of them individually.

Pick a Solution and Try It

Spend some time going through your list of options and prioritize one to try first. Spend a trial period assessing if this solution is working. If things aren’t working like you’d hope, try to sort through what may be creating obstacles. Again, enlist the help of a trusted friend who may be able to give you a fuller picture of what is happening. Sometimes it can be hard to see the whole picture when you are so close to the problem. Don’t ever feel afraid or ashamed to ask for help when you need it.

Continue to Assess

Is the solution working? Are you seeing any positive results? If so, continue to fine-tune the solution as you need along the way. If you are still not seeing positive results, even after you have addressed the obstacles, go back to your list of solutions and try another. Try not to get discouraged and give yourself a pat on the back for each little step you make towards solving the problem.

Seek Help

You don't always have to problem solve on your own. Seeking the help of trusted friends and family, or a counselor or ADHD coach, can help give you additional strategies for improving your problem-solving skills as well as greater confidence as you work together to come up with thought-out solutions. A mental health professional may also prescribe certain medications, including Ritalin (methylphenidate), to help improve several of the ADHD symptoms that my be interfering with your problem-solving abilities.

2 Sources
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  1. Young S. Coping strategies used by adults with ADHDPersonality and Individual Differences. 2005;38(4):809-816. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2004.06.005

  2. Tucha L, Tucha O, Sontag TA, Stasik D, Laufkötter R, Lange KW. Differential effects of methylphenidate on problem solving in adults with adhdJ Atten Disord. 2011;15(2):161-173. doi:10.1177/1087054709356391

By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.