Miniature Hobbies and the ADHD

I thought I was done with my little “Gaming and ADHD” series, but I’ve been having so much gotdang fun painting up Orks and learning new wargames that it has unavoidably sent my mind spinning about how my executive function interfaces with the hobby. So, I offer some thoughts that I hope to be helpful.

I’ve mused about why I didn’t take to assembling and painting miniature models earlier in my nerd career. My wife, wise as ever, made the point that I had not yet done the heavy lifting in therapy, nor had I begun treating anxiety and ADHD with medication. So previous ventures into the mini space fell aside like so many other fleets of fancy; vaporizing into the ether before habit could take hold. It was simply too hard to settle in and focus except at optimal moments.

This is undoubtedly true. Another factor, however, was my own self restriction.

I’ve been wary of the miniature gaming habit since I first became aware of it, slightly frightened at the prospect of my money and shelf space sinking away into armies of insanely cool, but unnecessarily costly, greenskins or cyberrats or whatever. To that end when I finally opted to take the plunge and paint the miniatures included in boxed games like Mice & Mystics I enjoyed it but kept the entire affair at arms’ length. I bought no supplies but opted instead to use the acrylics and old brushes we had around the house; I didn’t bother basing at all; I only painted the characters I liked, which was a small number; I watched exactly one tutorial and went from there. The process was fun and the results were pleasing but that was it. No more paints, no more minis, just a short exhibition with a new branch of hobby.

In hindsight I was somewhat wise in my assessment and wariness of fascination, because the world of miniature painting and gaming is positively ripe with snares for the inattentive and it starts with nigh endless novelty.

As The Mini ADHD Coach says, novelty is not mentioned by any diagnostic manual as a symptom of ADHD but a study from UC Irvine (among other studies and limitless anecdotal evidence) showed a clear connection between ADHD and the constant hunt for “newness” or novelty. Like many neurodivergent symptoms this is, no doubt, a generally human condition. I’m reminded of many a meme about the cult of the new. But, again like many symptoms, it is amplified to the extreme by the underdeveloped executive function found in the ADHD brain.

I, personally, am always on the hunt for that Hot New Thing and, subsequently, the jolt of dopamine it produces. In my age and experience I recognize that this is not normal. That, while all humans love a nice hit of the happy brain juice and can use it in practical ways to build habits and goals, I experience this thing differently. I don’t always need that spicy injection of chemicals to get things done or enjoy them, but by God I do crave it.

In come the miniatures. For the process of finding, acquiring, assembling, painting, displaying, and using the little characters is an absolute gold mine of novelty. There are boundless numbers of figures to explore and collect. Even if one stays within the bounds of, say, Warhammer, the grandzaddy of miniature wargaming, you could spend a lifetime (and a lifetime’s wages) exploring and collecting figurines. Once you have the little guys the process of clipping and assembling them is in perfect alignment with hyperfocus. The little details are a delight and just plain cool; each turn of the figure a new set of recesses and features to explore. The manual task of putting them together is simple enough to avoid frustration but engaging enough to enjoy; its tactility a further bonus, as we need use less brainpower (a foible when the inattentive are tired or just having a rough day) and we can use more muscle memory. We’re doing the thing, completing the task, doing it well. And it feels good.

Painting alone is full of twists and turns, each one its own grand novelty. Exploring different types and brands of paints, endless color and texture variations, their application with different sorts and makes of brushes is again thrilling and enjoyable for its vastness, accessibility, and tangibility. Then one must create a paint scheme, which could be completely different even among models of the same kind.

The process of coloring the models is its own reward, likely to produce such spasms of joy and inattention that we can flit from shade to shade, color block to color block, even model to model if we’re not careful because it’s so dang fun and feels so good.

This also creates a perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness and good habits, but we’ll get to that later.

Monopose models, those with only a single configuration, are amazing enough but when we factor in customization, kitbashing, and multipose models then the field simply opens wider and wider into a nearly infinite pasture of novelty. Toss in too the sheer joy and ethos of engaging with something playful and cozy and childish just to sweeten the deal.

I imagine this entire portion of the hobby, perhaps appropriately, as a large module, a massive addition to the already labyrinthine mansion that is the gaming hobby en masse. Tabletop gaming, with its endless variety, rules to learn, and lovingly designed components is itself a trap for hyperfocus. So factoring in the process of acquiring, building, and painting our own components amplifies this trap tenfold.

We might say, Not only do I get to make my own army mans, but I get to play a game with them too?! Is this heaven?

Maybe. It can also be a purgatory of time blindness.

I’ve mentioned Dr. Russell Barkley before. He has been one of the foremost voices in bringing awareness of the true scope and experience of ADHD in public spaces and uses the phrase “time blindness” liberally. He’s wont to explain at length how, especially in adults, ADHD is not the “squirrel!” meme of focus loss, but a much more complex and nuanced suite of symptoms. As I said, many of these symptoms are part of the human experience but mental disorders amplify them. So we all experience time blindness, that feeling when we’re “in the zone” and almost completely unaware that the clock is ticking at all. Something like the gaming hobby for folks with ADHD becomes an inescapable vortex through which hours go by in a blink. Like, I know I should be nudging my kids along to bedtime…but that Deff Dread is looking pretty lonely and unfinished. Let’s just add a shoulder pad right quick…

And then its well past bedtime and I’m cursing myself an idiot for falling into the snare again.

Perhaps my past self was wise. Maybe I should have kept this genuine trove of wonderfulness (and peril) out of my life.

But it’s far too late for me now. My ork collection grows every month and I’m already looking at new lines of models to get into in addition to creating a Warhammer club at my school. So what do we do? As I mentioned, the miniature hobby is a lovely space for practice. Let’s start by taking our meds, shall we?

Missing that morning dose, or bedtime dose, or whatever, is easy to let slip. When I settle in to paint and I just can’t. Get. Focused. It’s a cue that maybe I forgot a dose or that it would be okay for me to take a bump of as-needed ritalin or whatever. Even if I don’t “feel like” taking pills the little treat of a calm and rewarding painting experience is enough of a reward.

Pills don’t teach skills, I’m told, and there is no more enjoyable a place to try those skills than a hobby you love so what about the notion of sticking to a single task?

Bulk painting, that is painting multiple models at once, is a peril for the inattentive. It may seem efficient and will undoubtedly give you the dopamine response you crave as you find yourself in a free space where you can flit from task to task as your chemical-soaked brain thinks up more and more of them. Sometimes it is objectively wiser to paint a batch of Space Marines instead of just one, but really honing in on a single miniature is great practice for task completion. Sticking with one, from assembly to varnish, is rewarding and will keep your life in one piece; otherwise we run the risk of coming home one day to a room covered in sprue and model bits, half-assembled and quarter-painted, wondering where our lives struck such an egregious slump.

And yet such a slump is not a big deal. Miniatures can be a fine way to practice acceptance because, in the end, they are inconsequential. They’re toys. If your hobby is not causing conflict with the important people in your life, then it’s truly okay if you bought too many Chaos hounds or your painting skills can’t seem to advance because your short-circuited brain would not let you focus long enough to make a clean go with the brush. Human life, especially one lived with a difficulty like ADHD, can be a big mess and we can learn to accept it while also living with the resolve to always move forward (even if it is one micron at a time) and there are few tools more indispensable in moving forward than the braindump.

When your mind simply “blanks” and you come-to with a fistful of kettle chips in your hand, like some scene from Memento, it can be important to write things down. Except you forgot your notepad or you left your phone in the car…

But when we remember to, making a regular habit of jotting down those manifold wonders that phase in and out of the brain is extremely helpful. In a practical sense it lets us get things done because, oh yeah that paper says I need to email the phone company. In the sense of self-care it allows us to empty our minds of that clutter and store it somewhere else, even if that clutter is literally just nonsense.

Notes are also a useful weapon against the impending threat of ADHD-induced anxiety. I fret often because I know, I just know, that I’m going to blank and forget that one thing or that I already did forget or whatever. Building the habit of getting things down somehow, even if it’s just as a task on Habitica, helps ease some of that anxiety because I can always go back and find what need. Well. Not always, but you know what I mean.

However writing tasks down is lame and boring and, you know what? I’ll remember it anyway.

Except that I won’t.

So composing lists around my hobby is a genuinely enjoyable way to practice the braindump. So we can have lists of paints we want to try, models in need of touching up, ideas for color schemes or terrain we want to build. That’s way more fun than making a list of bills to pay or some other vile adult task.

To that same end of simply remembering, and not being swept up in time blindness, we might set alarms to go off so we, ya know, remember to drink water so we don’t die. It’s another skill that can be practiced while painting or playing.

Most important of all is the practice of acceptance. Even if I absolutely wanted to, I’m not sure I could muster up the focus and determination to become a world class painter. And that’s okay. I may not bullseye the goal I set out for when I started building and painting, and that’s okay too. I’ve found a great joy in reaching many happy little accidents painting miniatures. It’s extremely similar to the writing process: we stumble upon new characters and ideas that we did not expect. That ork has a green smudge on his powerklaw not because I messed up and couldn’t correct it, but because…he got in a fight with another Ork! Or something.

The upshot is this: miniatures, like any hobby, can be absolutely wonderful for folks with ADHD. It can also be perilous. But any danger is an opportunity to do a little better than you did last time, to have some fun, and make your fucking way.



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