Distractibility is a big issue for people with ADHD. They don’t have enough activity in the area of the brain that controls attention, said Ari Tuckman, PsyD, MBA, a psychologist, author and ADHD expert. That means you have a harder time filtering out things you don’t need to focus on. “So a kid dropping a pencil in class pulls at [your] attention just as much as the teacher announcing the next test.”
The ADHD brain also is constantly scanning for more stimulating things, said Dana Rayburn, a certified ADHD coach who leads private and group ADHD coaching programs. So often anything can become a distraction: sights, sounds, physical sensations, your thoughts and ideas, she said.
ADHD and attention coach Jeff Copper, MBA, PCC, PCAC, CPCC, ACG, worked with a woman who was very sensitive to sound. While writing at home, she’d get startled and distracted by everything from the house creaking to a car honking.
Many adults with ADHD don’t realize the degree of their distractibility, Tuckman said. Or they overestimate their ability to return to a task after they’re interrupted, he said. You might think that you can quickly peek at your emails or look something up online, he said. While sometimes you can, often, “a small diversion becomes a larger chunk of time.”
Rayburn’s clients tend to get distracted when they’re transitioning or shifting from different tasks. This includes getting to work, coming home and starting work after the weekend, she said.
Not surprisingly, distractibility is problematic. “It’s unproductive,” said Copper. It takes you longer to accomplish a task, and, when you’re interrupted, you have to keep starting over, he said.
You can lose important things. “I left my gym bag in the locker room yesterday morning because I got distracted by an interesting conversation with another woman,” Rayburn said. Plus, your “relationships suffer when [you] can’t stay focused on conversations.”
But distractibility does have another side: curiosity. This is similar to Ned Hallowell’s idea that “creativity is impulsivity gone right,” Copper said. He noted that it’s about perspective. For instance, a student keeps looking outside at a butterfly. Is he distracted or curious? “How you label that depends on your perspective,” Copper said. (For instance, a teacher would likely label the student as distracted.)
That’s why Copper recommended paying attention to where your attention goes. If you find yourself distracted a lot, try to relax and notice the types of things that grab your attention, he said. “Be curious [about] what they have in common.” Your distractions might reveal the things you’re naturally curious about, which you can even leverage, he said.
For the times you really need to focus, here’s what you can do:
1. Reduce or eliminate distractions.
“It’s easier to change your environment than it is to change yourself,” Copper said.
Rayburn suggested making a list of your top three distractions, and controlling them. “Many of my clients realize they have to stop playing games like Candy Crush on their phone or stay off of Facebook.” You can make small changes, such as leaving your phone across the room at night so you don’t play with it in the morning, she said. Another option is to turn it off altogether, Tuckman said.
If the sound of people talking bothers you, work in a conference room, he said. If a cluttered desk is distracting, remove some of the disorder or find an empty workspace, he added. Copper’s client who had a messy bedroom worked in a different room, which only had a desk and chair.
2. Make important things stand out.
Want to remember what someone is saying? Look at them and repeat their words in your head after they’re done, Tuckman said. Need to mail an envelope the next morning? Instead of leaving it on a cluttered table (where it disappears), put it on the floor in front of the door, he said.
3. Beat the clock.
Setting a timer for a specific task helps to enhance focus, Rayburn said. “Deadlines stimulate our brains.” She often suggests clients set a timer for 15 minutes to start on projects or chores.
Also, use a timer for checking in with yourself. When it dings, Rayburn said, ask yourself: “Am I doing what I intended to do?”
4. Focus on self-care.
Rayburn notices that her clients are more distractible when they aren’t sleeping enough, drinking enough water, eating enough nutrients or exercising.
Both she and Tuckman stressed the importance of engaging in healthy habits. As Rayburn said, “Something as simple as drinking more water can make it easier to focus.”
5. Have a plan for your work.
Everyone has a limit on how long they can pay attention to a task, Tuckman said. This is why he suggested planning out your work. For instance, if you know you can focus fully for 30 minutes, plan a short break afterward. “Procrastination [leaves you] working past the point of optimal focus.”
6. Play music or white noise.
Background noise that doesn’t distract you is often helpful for tasks requiring mental work, such as writing or homework, Rayburn said. She has white noise apps on her phone and computer. For activities that require more energy, such as cleaning the house, upbeat music may help, she said. Because everyone is different, Rayburn recommended experimenting to decide what works best for you.
7. Seek out a “white noise” experience.
Copper has coached people who find it helpful to work in the airport because they’re less distracted by the surrounding white noise. For some people one person walking around is a big distraction. But working at Starbucks, where there’s lots of movement, is actually helpful, he said.
Getting easily distracted is frustrating. But remember that your lack of focus “isn’t a failure of will,” Rayburn said. Rather, it’s an issue of brain chemistry, she said. Also, what helps you focus today might not help you focus tomorrow. That’s why it’s key to have a “variety of tools and increased awareness of [your] distractibility.”
As Tuckman said, “it’s amazing how little attention we pay to our own attention. But by noticing how your attention works — and when it doesn’t work for you – you’ll be in better shape to use your attention to its fullest.”
Student with headphones photo available from Shutterstock