Volitional Deficit Disorder

Q: Dr. Hurd, I’m told that I have Attention Deficit Disorder and I’m skeptical. It’s not that I don’t have problems paying attention; I do. I constantly lose interest in things. But even on medication I still have problems. Plus, I’d rather not be on medication. I know you talk about the choice to focus, and things of that nature. Any advice here?

A: Keep in mind that the choice to focus, or to lose focus, is volitional. Even in an extreme, unlikely emergency—let’s say the building is on fire—you have the choice to drop what you’re doing and respond to the emergency. In that case the rational choice is obvious and immediate. But volition is always operative, whether in an emergency or not. By “volitional” I mean that there’s a choice. We’re talking here about mental habit. The mental habit you have is to ‘lose interest.’ What this really means is: To drop what you’re doing and move on to something else, even though later you regret it. If you had no reason to later regret it, we wouldn’t be focusing on it now.

The solution here would seem to be, at the start of a task, to tell yourself: ‘I will feel like placing my attention elsewhere. But I will resist the urge. I will finish this part of the task to completion.’ This then begs the question: ‘What is completion, in this context?’ I add the phrase ‘in this context’ because you’re not necessarily going to complete the entire project for this period of work. A novelist does not sit down for a period of time—say, a three hour work shift—and complete the entire novel. Nor will you with your task, I expect.

So what I’m saying is you have to make better use of your free will and volition. But in order to do that, you need to have a crystal clear objective for the particular work period. Also, the time-frame of your work period should be specified. ‘I am going to work for such-and-such a time period and I’m going to complete such-and-such in that time frame.’ Once this is clear, then you employ your free will. As much as possible: BE SPECIFIC and REALISTIC.