Refuel Your ADHD Brain with Better Breaks

Does having ADHD make you feel exhausted?

If so, you are not alone. People with ADHD use their brain’s energy a little differently than people without ADHD. Having ADHD means that your brain’s gas tank is a bit smaller and burns fuel more rapidly. Often, by late afternoon (or even mid-morning for some people!) your cognitive gas tank is running on empty. Russell Barkley, leading ADHD expert, describes re-fueling the cognitive gas tank as one of the most important strategies for ADHD. He explains that the energy that is consumed by our brains is a limited resource and needs to be replenished for us to keep moving. In his 2012 Burnett Lecture he told his audience, “The executive [function] system has a limited fuel tank and you can spend it out real quick. Everytime you use an executive function, and you use it continuously, you empty the tank and you get to the bottom of the tank in the next situation, you will have no self control.” This can happen very quickly, within minutes, when you have ADHD. So, you can be functioning quite well in your work, but rapidly decline if you aren’t refueling regularly.

Cognitive refueling

One of the most obvious ways to replenish your cognitive energy is to take breaks. This seems pretty intuitive, and, yet, for many clients I talk to, they either take the wrong kind of breaks or don’t take breaks at all.

One of the challenges with taking breaks is that by the time you need one, your brain is already tired. You have already arrived at the point of “no self control” that Russell was telling us about. This makes it difficult to notice that you need a break, to decide whether or not you will take a break, and if you decide to take a break, to design a break that will be replenishing. This noticing, deciding, and designing (all executive functions) requires cognitive energy, the very thing you need to take a break to get more of.

The key is to avoid this situation by planning for your breaks in advance. Acknowledging your ADHD means taking intentional steps to refuel regularly. Schedule breaks into your day (every day!) or establish a routine of breaks that fit into your workday. This can happen during the planning process, which, of course, is easier said than done. Many of the professionals I work with argue with me about this strategy. They claim that once they are actually working on work, then they would do better to keep working, to “power through.” They worry that taking a break in this crucial period of productivity will lead them off course, making it impossible to restart their work. They do not trust themselves to return to work and have so much to do that they think taking a break too costly. But, the realities of the working brain will argue back. Even though you feel productive, the capacity to work diminishes and requires that you refuel. Powering through will keep you working, but you will increasingly get less done at a higher cost with a poorer work product. So, plan for breaks and plan for how to restart so that you can optimize the way you brain works at work.

But, even if you are willing to acknowledge that taking breaks might alleviate negative ADHD symptoms at work, how do you design breaks that are actually effective? Lucky for us, there is research to help.

What makes a better break?

What makes a better break – one that will fill your cognitive tank with useful metabolic energy? One study, Give me a better break: Choosing workday activities to maximize resource recovery, attempted to discover just that. Researchers surveyed 95 employees over a five-day work week, documenting each break they took. They analyzed the results of 959 records of breaks. What they discovered was not what you might expect. “Better breaks” were not taken when the workers were starting to get tired, when their tanks were running low. In fact, more recourse recovery occured when the workers took their breaks early in the work period. So, rather than taking a break in the middle of the afternoon, they did better if they took a break in the mid-morning. Way before they were feeling run down.

Researchers also discovered that better breaks incorporated activities that employees preferred rather than activities that were given to them or assigned to them (click here to read more about this study). They expected to find that breaks were better if the employees did not do work-related tasks during breaks, but there was no evidence of this. It was the preference for the activity that gave them the greatest benefit. So, choosing something you want to do, whether work related or not, seems to be the way to go.

The researchers were not able to pinpoint how long a break should be to maximize resource recovery, but they did find that shorter, more frequent breaks work better. That means that you have to plan for many more, shorter breaks than you thought you would. The “better break” study was not conducted with adults who have ADHD. But, the findings are consistent with ADHD-informed approaches to taking breaks. As Barkley tells us, “…you need to take 10 minute breaks very often. Indeed more often you need to break tasks down and take frequent breaks.…Stop using the executive function system for a few minutes and give it a chance to refuel its fuel tank. This is why we talk about the 10 and 3 rule with ADHD children. 10 minutes of work, 3 minutes of break – 10 and 3 – 10 and 3. But you can’t do more than 10; you’re starting to empty the tank.” Barkley was talking about children in this example, but these children with ADHD grow up to be adults with ADHD, even lawyers, professors, consultants, accountants, researchers and other professionals with ADHD. I think it is valuable to notice how short his recommended work periods are for kids and consider how you might apply this idea to your own workday.

Over the years I have worked with clients with ADHD to co-design an ADHD-informed version of the “better break.” Some of this is informed by a research-based understanding of the ADHD brain, and some is simply from experimenting and finding what works best.

Suggested better breaks

Short breaks, more often.