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Impulsivity: A Major Sign of ADHD – Managing Your Mind

By Dr. Geri Markel on December 10, 2018


Do I Need to Slow Down? Am I Impulsive? 

When you are impulsive, you tend to act without thought, on a whim, often with negative consequences. For example, you might blurt ideas out of turn during a team meeting and receive glares for your insensitivity to others.

Here are some examples of impulsivity:

  • “ I know moving to a new design before we’ve finished the prototype isn’t how we voted, but this new idea can’t wait. We’ve got the venture capital.”
  • “There’s the lake right in front of us. You guys are so slow. I need to be the first one to dive in!” Hopefully, the lake is deep enough for that first dive. Was there a sign with a warning saying “No Diving?”
  • “I love that car. It’s got to be mine right now.” Too often, this young woman splurges on items she can’t afford. She bounces checks and makes charges on her credit cards over reasonable limits.

These adults with ADHD show the rash, non-thinking aspects of impulsivity. They court physical and financial danger. Unlike children with ADHD who display hyperactivity through gross motor functions, adults with ADHD more often exhibit symptoms of impulsivity, inattention, and/or poor regulation through executive functioning challenges. For example, impulsivity can take the form of hasty decision making, poor time management, difficulty following directions, short-term memory problems, excessive speeding while driving, difficulty engaging quietly in leisure activities, and poor follow-through.


What is Impulsivity?

“Impulsivity has been variously defined as behavior without adequate thought, the tendency to act with less forethought than do most individuals of equal ability and knowledge, or a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without regard to the negative consequences of these reactions” (

Impulsivity can drive ADHD adults into actions that should have forethought, but don’t. You act in accordance to short-term or immediate rewards and lack awareness of negative, long-term consequences. Thus, during team meetings, interrupting others and blurting out your ideas, undermines your desire for long-term career success.

Several researchers have discussed impulsivity in terms of three components. These include:

  • Motor: engaging in actions without forethought. For example, acting on the spur of the moment.
  • Thinking: making quick decisions and being inattentive to the task at hand.
  • Absence of Planning: being spontaneous or non-planning. For example, not thinking about the future. You are totally in the moment and not thinking about anything but the here and now.


What is My Impulsivity Pattern?

Understand your impulsivity pattern. For example, take a self-check, identify conditions under which you are most prone to act impulsively (e.g., fatigued, time-pressured, with certain people), and identify when and how to curb your impulsivity.


Impulsivity Checklist

___ 1. I blurt out comments or answers.

___ 2. I have difficulty taking turns or standing in line.

___ 3. I have problems sitting and engaging in quiet tasks.

___ 4. People say I interrupt conversations or engage in nonstop talking

___ 5. I weave in and out of traffic, hastily pulling out without checking. Sometimes I have road rage.

___ 6. Making rash, often destructive decisions.

___ 7. Often, I act before I think of the consequences.

___ 8. I can’t put on the brakes once I’m into teasing someone.

___9. Too frequently, I overspend when I see something I love.

__10. I know I should, but I don’t wear a helmet when biking, skiing or playing sports.   


How many of these symptoms of impulsivity do you see in yourself? Ask, “What are the consequences are of such behaviors?” If the negative outnumber the positive consequences, decide if you can benefit from greater impulsivity control. For example, are you in jeopardy of losing out on a promotion because of inappropriate interruptions or insensitive statements?


How do I Control My Impulsivity? Tips for Adults and Adolescents

  1. Walk away from something you want to buy on impulse.
  2. Take a deep breath or talk with a thoughtful friend before impulsively yelling at someone out of anger or writing a nasty email.
  3. Practice calming strategies, such as muscle relaxation, yoga and cardiovascular exercise such as jogging.
  4. Conduct a business meeting to review your dysfunctional impulsivity and plan to take action.
  5. Get into a routine for travel. Ask about safety and health precautions. What are possible pitfalls of traveling to a new place? Get photos of places you will visit to familiarize yourself about the ways to avoid impulsive action.
  6. Write checklists before you leave for a party or new experience. Limit the amount you will drink. Drinking reduces inhibitions and makes you more vulnerable to impulsivity and perhaps, you’re irritability.
  7. Watch your sleep and take naps. Don’t go to a new place, with a time change or significant altitude change and fail to get acclimated before exertion or extended exercise.
  8. Too avoid overspending or splurging, leave credit cards at home and pay with cash. Put expensive items on hold for 24 hours. Resist the pressure to buy now or lose the deal. Do not make purchases of non-returnable items.
  9. Touch base with family and friends before making a major purchase, especially on a vacation.
  10. Move to a calmer state. Practice yoga, get regular exercise and learn mindfulness.


Manage Impulsivity: The Stop, Look, and Listen Strategy

The Stop, Look, and Listen technique involves several modalities and steps. Use this handy technique when you feel tired, ill, or stressed—also when you’re preoccupied about a life circumstance. Remember that even a positive event such as a vacation or wedding can trigger feelings of fatigue and stress.  You are more vulnerable to impulsiveness under these conditions.

The Stop, Look, and Listen technique ensures you’re being attentive when completing important personal and financial tasks or doing dangerous activities such as using power tools or driving heavy equipment. Impulsivity makes you rush and perhaps, ignore safety precautions.

  • Stop: Take a timeout for half a minute or even a few full minutes. Allow your mind and body to relax and refocus on the task.
  • Look: Visualize the situation. Be vigilant about the conditions under which you are to perform or complete a task. What materials do you need? What are the possible dangers or pitfalls? Did I ever do this before and get in trouble?
  • Listen: Engage in constructive self-talk, providing instructions about what to do or not do. You’ll find that when you give yourself directions, you focus more sharply and listen more carefully. In addition, you reduce the chances of distraction from outside noises or intrusive thoughts.

If you are a very impulsive person, you may need to practice this with a friend or therapist. Know what to do is very different from doing it in the moment.


What is the Cause of ADHD Adult and Adolescent  Impulsivity?

The most recent version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders” (Fifth Edition, May 2013) states, “ADHD is characterized by a “persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity or impulsivity that is more frequent and severe than is typically observed in individuals at a comparable level of development.” Learn more with this article at

Those who have ADHD wiring lack the ability to inhibit behavioral impulses and thoughts. It is a component of executive functioning managed by the prefrontal cortex. Often, the ADHD mind doesn’t see the social cues of others or doesn’t learn the lessons of self-regulation required of a person their age. The impulsive ADHD adult or adolescent lacks the ability to evaluate the consequences of their actions. See this article in the International Journal of High-Risk Behaviors and Addiction for more.

Impulsivity is often accompanied by symptoms such as restlessness, hyperactivity, inattention, problems doing quiet activities, problems with executive function, talking excessively and fidgeting.” 


Parent Guide: Impulsivity Control Tips for Children:

  • Encourage your child to think, “How I will feel afterward (after receiving the consequences of my actions)?”
  • Convey that, “What feels good to do right now, may not be good for me later on.”
  • Disclose, with discretion, about times when you as a parent fell into the impulsivity trap.
  • Remind your child about the value of taking deep breaths, counting to ten, taking a break, or healthily distracting oneself from stressful situations (model this yourself and you will have even more credibility).
  • Prepare for upcoming occasions, such as skiing, hiking, swimming. Spell out the rules and safety routines.
  • Things to think/talk about when exploring self-awareness with your child as it relates to impulsive behavior:
    • When do you tend to act impulsively?
    • How does it affect you?
    • How does it affect others?
    • What can you do to ensure you don’t make impulsive decisions during your trouble spots?
    • How can emotions affect impulsivity?
    • What are some alternative ways to handle your emotions?


Impulsivity: A Quick Review

Impulsivity in adults and adolescents with ADHD can be a serious, even a dangerous problem. Sometimes impulsivity involves decisions made in haste without evaluating the consequences. You block out the negative long-term consequences in favor of the smaller, immediate rewards. At other times, a person may display impulsive actions or behaviors. This reflects an inability to put on the brakes or inhibit an action that is inappropriate in a particular situation.

Due to your ADHD wiring, impulsivity may be your default setting. When you increase your awareness about the times and conditions under which you are most vulnerable, you can avoid the most devastating aspects of this ADHD symptom. Check out ways in which impulsivity may be hindering your work/life productivity and satisfaction. With questions or concerns, contact Geri at or go to