Working with Impulsivity

Peeping at the gap between impulse & action

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Part of The Challenges Inventory™ Series

(from an upcoming book, The Impulsivity Rundown © – all rights reserved)


The Marshmallow Study

No, he didn’t use Peeps, either like the ones in the photo above OR those in the Easter Basket that I couldn’t resist as I drafted this article, but the well-known longevity study of the relationship between self-control and life-success, initiated by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s, is often referred to asthe marshmallow experiment” or the marshmallow study.

Why? Because marshmallows were one of the treats that were used to test the ability of preschoolers to delay immediate gratification in anticipation of a greater reward.

Additional research with the original participants examined how well a preschool ability to delay gratification predicted the development of self-control over the life span.

It also examined how closely self-control related to successful outcomes in a variety of  the venues of life.

  • It came as no surprise that the studies discovered  that effective strategies for delaying immediate gratification predicted a high correlation to educational and employment successes, the ability to resist the lure of escaping into drug usage or debt spending, and other important areas of life that set trajectories toward success or struggle.
  • They also found that only a small number of the more impulsive four year olds first studied eventually developed an acceptable degree of what is commonly called “willpower.”

As usual, there is scientific disagreement over whether the study design was sufficient to uncover what was behind the results, but Mischel’s work, and that of his colleagues who presided over some of the follow-on studies, jump-started further research on effective decision-making — in particular, studies of the mental mechanisms that enable cognitive and emotional self-control. (Mischel et al., 1989; Mischel & Ayduk, 2004).

When Mischel and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks, he improved the self-control of many children considerably — those who hadn’t been able to wait even sixty seconds learned how to wait the fifteen minutes required to earn their reward.

“All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

Is it really that simple?

We develop self-control the same way that we learn to drive a car, operate a computer, or learn the quirks of new cellphone technology: through trial and error as a result of repeated attempts – PRACTICE!  

Until everybody understands the parameters of WHY we do what we do, however, it is highly likely that we will be encouraged to practice the wrong things.

According to John Jonides, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, in charge of the follow-on brain-scanning experiments on the original study subjects, the ability to develop self-control is an ability to direct the spotlight of attention so that decisions aren’t determined by the wrong thoughts.


Before I go on to explain some of the reasons why, yet again, the studies don’t relate particularly well to those of us with Executive Functioning Dysregulations because they don’t take ALL of the parameters of Executive Functioning struggles into consideration, let’s take a moment to review the concept of impulsivity through The ADD Lens™.


Thinking about thinking is what allows people to work around their shortcomings by being able to predict areas of potential struggle so that they are able to begin to figure out how to work around them.

An example frequently cited to illustrate a strategy to work around impulsive behavior comes from Homer’s Odyssey: when Odysseus, knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song that shipwrecked many a traveler, had his men tie him to the ship’s mast with orders not to untie him for any reason until the temptation was behind them.

Note that Odysseus had to understand that it was impossible for him to resist the Siren’s song before he could come up with a strategy to make sure his ship made it past those temptresses. Until WE understand what’s going on that we can’t resist acting on our impulses, we will remain vulnerable to shipwrecked LIVES.

A Quick Review:

Cartoon of a screaming person falling, dangling by one leg to a tie rope.

As I began in the Introduction to Impulsivity  [<==click to read if you missed it, additional info located below the info repeated immediately below, for context here]

Many professionals agree that “impulsivity” is one of the most confusing of the official terms in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, updated and published by the American Psychological Association).

The confusion is especially problematic for readers of this blog because impulsivity is one of the diagnostic criteria for Attentional Deficits.  The biggest source of confusion is linguistic.

So many concepts are implied by the root word “impulse” that, even once we identify impulsivity as an area that needs to be managed, it’s tough to figure out what’s involved — nevermind how to manage whatever it is.

Impulses drive the conscious actions that contribute to much of our forward progress and many of our decisions. Decision making is modulated by the prefrontal cortex [PFC], that filtering and focusing, regulating and thinking part of your brain behind your forehead.

Thanks to better scanning technology, we know now that the PFC is the last part of the brain to mature, often still developing in our early 20s — which certainly helps to explain the frequency of unfortunate choices made by teens.

  • People with what I call the Alphabet Disorders – ADD, ADHD, EFD, OCD, and so on — have a greater delay in PFC maturity, which certainly helps to explain many of the unfortunate choices made by this population of college students and young adults.
  • Because the brain sloshes around in what amounts to a salt-water bath, and the inside of the forehead includes some boney protrusions for the brain to bump up against when it’s hit, individuals with TBI almost always have some degree of PFC damage, which helps to explain some of their impulsive traits (including a tendency toward hair-trigger tempers).

Overcoming inertia & trusting our instincts

Another significant struggle among Executive Functioning [EF] dysregulations and disorders is activation.  What IS activation, if not an impulse?  Even “instincts” and “intuition” are driven from impulses – the only real difference is that those impulses are primarily unconciously driven, pretty much out of our conscious control.

Managing the impulsivity problem is multi-pronged:

  • activating in the first place – the initial impulse to action
  • putting the brakes on impulses long enough to think them through
  • making sure we don’t get stuck in over-thinking so we never make a decision about WHAT to do, and finally
  • activating again — getting started on what we have decided upon

Regular readers of this blog may be thinking, “That sounds like Trouble with Transitions!” — and that’s part of the reason that impulsivity is such a bear

Until we take a look at what’s going on “back stage” — figuring out what’s really going on with those faulty brakes that leave us at the effect of our impulses, we have only those theories from motivational psychology to look to for help.

Are we back to “You don’t want to badly enough?”  Is that all it is?

Getting folks to Listen from Belief

Those of us who struggle have been saying that it seems to us to be a matter of can’t not won’t,” and certainly NOT “don’t really want to,”  but what can we point to that might back up our assertions?

Where will we look to explain why impulsivity leads to problems like foot-in-mouth disease, road-rage, temper tantrums, and that ready-fire-aim-oops! style that frequently leads to drug addiction, serial employment, promiscuity and multiple divorces, and makes attention deficit disorder so difficult to work around?

That “back-stage stuff” is central to what I will explore with you in the articles of the Impulsivity Series. First, I want describe a new possibility discovered through a different study.

A Bit of Background

Two sets of interconnected neurons control how we process and react to sensory inputs.

  • sensory neurons respond to environmental stimuli
  • movement neurons trigger an action when the information they receive from the sensory neurons reaches a certain threshold, it has been believed since 1970, determined by countermanding factors — for example, dependent upon whether speed or accuracy was deemed most important.

Since rapid responses require shorter response times, it was thought that the brain lowered the threshold at which the movement neurons trigger an action.  Likewise, it was believed that the brain raised the threshold when the need for a pause for reflection seemed most important.

Checking out the Assumptions

A study directed by Vanderbilt Ingram Professor of Neuroscience Jeffrey Schall, published in the Aug. 31, 2011 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, initiated to better understand how the brain is wired to control impulsive behavior, analyzed recordings of neuronal activity in macaque monkeys during a visual stop-signal trial. (click HERE for a description of the study)

Logan, found that differences in when the movement neurons began accumulating information from the sensory neurons – rather than differences in the threshold itself – appeared to explain the adjustment in response times.

Not only that, the movement neurons continued to process the signals generated by the appearance of the target after the appearance of the stop signal. They are hopeful that this discovery will shed new light on how the brain controls all sorts of basic impulses.

The study authors theorized that that neurons from the medial frontal cortex (regulating executive control of decision-making), in the parietal lobe (determining our spatial sense), or the temporal lobe (playing a role in memory formation), may affect impulse control by altering the onset delay time of neurons involved in a number of other basic stimulus/response reactions.

After making some major modifications to their study before performing a human trial, they discovered that the response times of ADDers don’t slow down as much following a stop-signal trial as neurotypical subjects.

The longer the delay between the appearance of the target and stop signals, the more difficult it was for both humans and monkeys to keep from glancing at the target despite the stop signal, accompanied by scans revealing that the reaction time in these stop-tasks were significantly longer immediately following the stop signal.

That “back-stage stuff” is central to what I will explore with you in the rest of the Impulsivity Series, as I examine the questions raised above and offer some ideas about strategies that ARE likely to have you practicing the right things.   Those issues and others will be addressed in articles to come – so stay tuned.

Your connection to articles about Impulsivity will be found on the lower of the two menubars at the top of the site, far left on the lighter grey menubar, in the drop-down category :

 The Optimal Functioning eBook Series – (hold & scroll to) The Impulsivity Rundown™

If you visit often, you may also catch an Impulsivity title among the newer content on the list of links to newest articles on the column to your immediate right.

BY THE WAY, if you will let me know where your struggles with impulsivity lie (in the comments section below), even if I don’t have time to respond to your comment directly, I will make it a point to include suggestions targeted specifically for YOUR challenges with impulsivity in the upcoming series.  That amounts to Free Coaching if you’ll take advantage of it!!

As always, if you want notification of new articles in the Challenges Inventory™ Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy

IN ANY CASE, stay tuned.
There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some one-on-one (couples or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this Series, click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end, or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page. Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

Related articles right here on
(in case you missed them above or below)

BY THE WAY: Since is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

26 Responses to Working with Impulsivity

  1. Pingback: Executive Functions & YOU | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Pingback: Accountability & Systems on Auto-Pilot | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  3. Pingback: Productivity, Focus & Follow-through | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  4. Pingback: Executive Functioning Disorders – not just kid stuff | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  5. Pingback:

  6. Scott Fernie says:

    Very good article. I definitely appreciate this website.


    Liked by 1 person

  7. facial toning says:

    Everything is very open with a precise clarification of the
    issues. It was really informative. Your site is very useful.
    Thank you for sharing!


    Liked by 1 person

  8. Awesome issues here. I am very glad to look your article. Thank you so much and
    I’m having a look ahead to touch you. Will you please drop me a mail?


    Liked by 1 person

  9. Beatrice says:

    This article will assist the internet users for building up new
    weblog or even a weblog from start to end.
    Had to delete the link – video no longer available. Thanks for the thought. ~mgh


  10. 高品質 クロエ かごバッグ says:

    Genuinely when someone doesn’t know after that its up to other viewers that they will
    help, so here it occurs.



  11. Wonderful blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid
    option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely
    overwhelmed .. Any tips? Thanks a lot!


    • Thanks for your positive comment!

      RE: advice —
      It depends on WHY you are starting a blog. If it’s simply to connect with others on similar thoughts – similar life experiences – whatever, then is a great choice.

      Ditto, if you have a body of work you’d like to share without jumping through traditional publishing hoops – or if your blog supports (or is supported by) a website elsewhere.

      If you EVER intend to monetize, however, my experience leads me to suggest that you BEGIN on a paid platform – info available on about theirs.

      You’ll need to use plug-ins – VERY different functionality from widgets (which is all you are allowed to use on “dot com” because they can’t keep the platform stable if they allow everyone to start playing with plugins.)

      Check out what’s available in the “For Dummies” books about blogging & various blogging platforms, or take one of the bazillion how-to classes available. It really helps to have a bit of a roadmap — I jumped in BEFORE really understanding the consequences of my choices, and wouldn’t advise it.

      Hope this helps a bit – and good luck to you. Hope you’ll be back soon.


  12. says:

    I like looking through an article that will make people think.
    Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!



  13. รับนำเข้าสินค้าจากจีน says:

    I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your website.
    It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable
    for me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a developer to create your
    theme? Excellent work!



  14. andy wolmer says:

    amazing info

    Liked by 1 person

  15. bnb4dark says:

    I’m not happy until I spend all my money, don’t pay bills and forget important meetings or deadlines. My thoughts are always racing, which has prevented me from reading and comprehension. Forgive me in advance, if my thoughts are not in sync. I can’t type as fast as my thoughts, especially on this ipad.

    Spending- I have gotten paid one day and be broke the next. I always start out with good intentions. A Budget written out and I would have found some bills. But sometimes something that’s over me and I get focused on something outside the budget and start to splurge, and spend until I get to maybe 100 bucks to cover my gas. It’s not always bad stuff, like once I used my money to help my sister move, once I paid my daughters college tuition. But sometimes it’s bad like online purchases of makeup, clothes and investing in my business. That has not really launched (it’s a blog) that I’m afraid someone might read. Go figure. It frustrates me that I’m always buying online classes/seminars and audiobooks, I have even purchased books that I don’t read. Due to comprehension challenges. I just came back from a vacation in Atlantic city, not my choice.(better half bday choice) I won 600 dollars, put it all back in the machine came home with 100. Because of my impulsivity, I would not have chosen a gambling site for vacation, I would have chosen a site with more outside activity, because I know I have a weakness. Spend 900 on a cruise ship in the casino. I have had affairs on my spouse, it’s like I can’t choose one thing and be content I’m always looking for better.

    So I think I’m most impulsive with money and relationships. Thanks for your blog, you are reaching people. Even though I’m new here. I’ve been living in shame. I got humiliated and beat as a child in the 3rd grade for flunking a multiplication test. The some in the black community don’t believe ADD/ADHD is a real problem. So I grew up with no help, support or treatment.

    I still get upset that my mom would beat me but did not take the time to teach me. I just found some coping skills to hide and get by. Recently I found two old report cards from school I was further saddened to see I was a “D” student. No “A”s and out of 2 years I got about 6 “B”s language, music, art and PE, no core classes. I have grown kids now, and if my kids had problems in school I would support them by teaching them, found them tutors or after school programs to help. I just don’t understand how a 3rd grader goes all through the year with c’s and d’s.

    I have amazed myself to get through nursing school and to now be a senior application analyst who manages 25 medical offices by supporting their electronic medical record system. But being over 45years now, I’m tired of coping, I want to get it!!! I want to read a book, front to back, not listen to one. Sorry for being all over the place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This deserves SO much more time than I can give it right now (be back on Sept. 16) – I’ll revisit this comment then.

      FOR NOW, I want you to KNOW that you are not alone in your feelings *AND* I want to remind you to keep telling yourself that “feelings aren’t facts.”

      1-You are amazingly generous, courageous and kind to share this “in public” – THAT COUNTS – and far more than some grades on a report card, no matter whether they were all A’s or all F’s.

      2- You also got yourself through a tough curriculum, so you are clearly NOT dumb!!

      YET, as you so aptly point out, when most of what we hear when we are growing up, trying to figure out how things work here on planet earth, is on the order of “you are not enough,” we lay down tracks that continue to cause us pain LONG after the people who attempted to beat us into submission are gone.

      We ARE enough – we are ALL *more* than enough. We are the only *us* there will EVER be, and I believe we are all here for a reason, uniquely fashioned to sing the song we were born to sing.

      My heart is with yours – we ALL need to band together to stop the acceptance of shaming and blaming. Who better than those of us who got so MUCH censure growing up. Maybe that was our proving ground?

      Keep coming back – the only people who are not affirmed on this blog are the ones I refer to as “the intractably ignorant” – not willing to even ATTEMPT to see things through another’s eyes. Even so, we are ALL God’s children doing the very best we can!

      Onward and upward. SINCERE THANKS for your comment.


      Liked by 1 person

  16. Tina says:

    Stumbled upon your blog from your comment on a post on The Positive Writer, thankfully.

    My job is in a law office managing the real estate department where purchase and loans are closed along with all legal real estate matters. The channel changes CONSTANTLY! Walk-in clients expect immediate attention from me; emails, phoneslips; phonecalls; co-workers needing direction; my own files needing completion with fast-approaching deadlines.

    Overwhelmed or bored I am easily distracted by my personal emails and creative projects where I waste valuable time instead of working on my files. I start in one file, jump to another, and then another as the calls and people come and go.

    I struggle with feeling like I cheat my employer, like I’m inadequate, like a freak.

    One co-worker, when asked to describe me in one word, said “striving”. I hate it and it has stuck on me like thread on a lint-roller. I want more fulfillment in all areas of live impacted by my disorder. Hopefully, I will find encouragement in your posts.

    Thanks for investing in others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your thanks, Tina – SERIOUSLY – none of us get enough acknowledgment, and many receive way too many comments that only to ask for more (a.k.a. “the teachable moment” — lousy educational paradigm that refuses to die – based on a misunderstanding of the term).

      Hearing only what you do “wrong” (i.e., doesn’t work for a particular individual, who wants it faster, slower, inside/upside/downside different) is extremely disempowering to those on the receiving end — from a kid trying to learn his math facts to an admin assist doing the work of 3 people to . . . well, ME!

      (search for “If the Shoe Doesn’t Fit, Don’t Blame the Foot!”)

      It’s been a “you’re not doing it right” few weeks for me, and your lovely comment might just have saved the existence of this blog!!

      I was on the cusp of deciding it was simply not worth my time to share if my info wasn’t “landing” with anyone – which is what it was beginning to look like from my end. Your encouraging comment came at JUST the right moment!!

      AS ALWAYS, it is my desire that what I write will encourage and inform you and everyone else reading — BEFORE any of you reach your 60’s with little more life-satisfaction than you have now, accompanied by A LOT more frustration to overcome.

      May I suggest beginning with “When You Are New to ADD” – part of the “Brain Transplant Series” begun as a way to work around the blog “age off” format so that I could maintain an Evergreen Site.

      The articles of the Brain Transplant Series consist of a collection of links to articles covering Executive Functioning basics from a topic-focused, brain-based perspective. Each one has links to others in the Series at the bottom.

      AGAIN – thanks so much for taking the time to comment, and I truly hope that articles here help you figure out how to shift a few things that make life more effective and A LOT more fun. Come back and tell me about it as it happens, ok?


      PS. LOVE your “thread on a lint roller” metaphor – check out “Are we hard-wired to focus on the bad news?” for a bit of context on that

      Liked by 1 person

  17. renee says:

    i dont know if this is impulsivity. but i struggle with beginning and sticking with a project that may bring up feelings of self-judgement- i wont do this the right way or it will fail or be too hard. i then procrastinate and create a much bigger issue- especially with work related projects.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry for the delay in approval and response. I have been at the ACO Conference [<==link] and *just* returned, playing catch-up as quickly as I am able.

      For me, managing at a conference (especially when I am one of the presenters) takes ALL available cognitive bandwidth, so I have *finally* learned to set my systems up in accordance to what I know, avoiding that “failure feeling” most of us know so well by avoiding overpromising and the resultant underdelivering (at least where keeping up with the blog during a conference is concerned ::BIG grin::)

      Thanks for visiting, and especially for letting me know that you DID — I DO answer comments as soon as I am able, but sometimes my schedule makes it impossible for me to do so in a timely fashion.

      ANYWAY, from what you have written, it sounds like your *impulsivity* is not nearly the problem as much as trouble with activation, transitions and SHOULDs (that internalized shame and embarrassment we ALL feel when we drop things out that we think we “should” be able to handle with ease, and how much more difficult it is for us to initiate once that dynamic rears its ugly head).

      I am rushing to approve and respond to a week’s worth of blog comments, so if you find this BEFORE I can take the time to suggest links to some articles that you may find helpful with your situation, be sure to bookmark and return.

      I will append the links to articles that can help below (but in the same “reply” box). I can promise that understanding alone will help your functioning, and that there will probably be a few suggestions that you can use (or adapt) to work around your challenges more effectively fairly quickly.

      MEANWHILE – explore the links included in THIS article (and the ones linked to those), both within the articles themselves and the “related content” at end of each one.

      You are NOT alone, btw – what you report is something I have heard from EVERY ADDult I have coached in the past 25 years (and experienced myself — still do sometimes!) Life does NOT have to be this hard – there are work arounds!! The trick is to find (or develop) the right ones.


      Links below open in new windows or tabs
      Trouble with Transitions (part of a Series — links to more in article)
      Shame on Shoulds
      ABOUT Activation
      The Link between Procrastination & Task Anxiety


And what do YOU think? I'm interested.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: