If you have ADHD, you may have trouble sitting still, but there are ways to harness fidgeting behaviors to help improve your focus.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can make it hard to focus and sit still. While doctors often diagnose ADHD in childhood, it can affect people of any age.
Feeling restless when you’re required to sit still or pay attention for long stretches can make it difficult to function from day to day.
For example, not being able to concentrate on a task can make it hard to finish work projects or schoolwork. You also might feel the urge to tap your foot or stand up during meetings when most people remain seated.
Fidgeting behavior may help folks living with ADHD improve their attention and focus.
Not everyone with ADHD will experience the same symptoms. But yes, fidgeting is a common symptom of ADHD, says Dr. Brian Zachariah, a psychiatrist at Mindpath Health.
Fidgeting may look like tapping your foot, drumming your fingers, or constantly shifting in your seat. Many people with ADHD tune out when tasks are understimulating.
Sitting still is understimulating, so it would make sense to want to keep your hands busy or your body moving.
Zachariah explains that fMRI imaging in people with ADHD shows reduced cortical thickness in front parts of the brain, responsible for motor control and response inhibition. This may explain why fidgeting commonly occurs in people with ADHD.
“Fidgeting and whether it has been beneficial has had mixed results in studies,” Zachariah says. “Fidgeting has been shown to help with cognitive tasks in adults with ADHD, but not in children.”
Research from 2013 suggests purposeful fidgeting can increase the neurotransmitters that control attention span, helping improve focus. Fidgeting can also make sitting or staying still for long periods more tolerable.
In contrast, one 2020 study involving children with ADHD found that using fidget spinners helped decrease activity levels but adversely impacted attention.
The theory, says Zachariah, is that people with ADHD fidget to reorient themselves on the task at hand and maintain focus. “The only caveat being to make sure the [fidgeting] methods themselves don’t serve to excessively stimulate and be a distraction,” he says.
“Contrary to how it may seem, fidgeting can actually serve to increase a person’s ability to concentrate, provided that it does not require constant attentional awareness,” says Dr. Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, clinical services instructor at Newport Healthcare.
When harnessing fidgeting to improve attention, Dragonette recommends opting for mindless fidgeting. “Intentionally incorporating movement or fidgeting can be effective to help with focus as long as the fidget itself does not require concentrated effort or thought,” she says.
It’s important to choose a fidgeting strategy based on how you naturally fidget and what task you need to complete. The ideal fidgeting strategy helps you release excess energy while being respectful to the people around you, explains Dragonette.
Some fidgeting activities that fit these criteria include:
1. Using stretchy bands
One potential way to harness fidgeting is to place stretchy, resistance-type bands across the legs of the chair you’re sitting in. Bouncing your feet off the elastic band is a repetitive movement that may help improve focus, explains Dragonette.
2. Sitting on balance balls
Bouncing on yoga or balance balls may help you focus your attention on the task at hand, suggests Dragonette.
Consider your ability level when attempting this fidgeting strategy. If you have poor balance, trying to keep yourself upright might be more distracting than helpful.
3. Working on the go
Another way to focus your attention is to keep your body moving while working. If taking walking breaks isn’t possible, consider a treadmill desk or under-the-desk bike pedals to keep your mind focused during your workday.
Doodling or drawing is another way to shift your focus. Keeping drawings simple helps you avoid creating a distraction for yourself. If drawing or doodling feels too distracting, consider coloring instead.
5. Playing with texture
Touching items with different textures may also help, Dragonette says. Things like sandpaper or similarly bumpy, rough surfaces may help resettle the mind. Keep a mini-box of sensory things handy at your desk.
This commonly used strategy can help in a pinch. If pacing heightens your anxiety, consider short walks instead. Going outside and temporarily changing your environment can help reset your focus.
Knitting and crocheting are good options for harnessing fidgeting. But they may be most helpful for people who are proficient knitters. The task will likely be distracting if you’re just learning to knit.
Once you’re a pro, you might find that the repetitive action helps you center your attention.
Tapping your foot, pen, or fingers on a hard surface may help improve your attention without proving distracting.
9. Using fidget toys
While there’s some evidence that fidget toys can decrease attention in children, adults may find these tools helpful for improving focus. Everyone responds differently to various toys or stimulation, so your child might find it helpful to experiment with fidget toys.
10. Chewing gum
Chewing gum can be a refreshing way to harness your fidgeting behavior and help you zoom in on the task at hand.
Fidgeting strategies that support you or your kid could distract or annoy others nearby. Consider fidgeting that will have minimal impact on others.
You may find it helpful to tell others, whether it’s your child’s teacher or your co-worker, why you or your child is using the fidget item. You might also think creatively with them for alternative fidget ideas if one that you’ve chosen is too distracting for someone else.
It can be tough to learn ADHD management strategies on your own. If you’re having trouble focusing and don’t find any of the above recommendations helpful, talking with a mental health professional or an ADHD coach might be helpful.
“It may help to remember that humans did not evolve to be constantly still and immobile,” says Dragonette. “While movement and fidgeting are certainly more noticeable in individuals who are diagnosed with ADHD, all humans have an innate need to move.”
ADHD is a manageable condition, but it can be tough to go it alone. If you’re interested in learning more about ADHD or finding a good therapist, consider checking out the following ADHD resources:
- CHADD offers extensive free resources, links to directories, and useful blog posts.
- The Attention Deficit Disorder Association offers many free directories and resources.
- Practical ADHD Strategies is a podcast hosted by an ADHD coach who shares actionable tips.