We’re taught that we need to sit still and focus on one thing when we’re studying, writing, working or engaging in other activities.
But for people with ADHD those things usually don’t work. They’re especially ineffective when they need to focus on tedious or mundane tasks. People with ADHD often work best when they’re doing something else, too.
In their book Fidget to Focus: Outwit Your Boredom: Sensory Strategies for Living with ADHD authors Roland Rotz, Ph.D, and Sarah D. Wright, MS, ACT, share a variety of practical tools, which have helped their clients, support group members and others with ADHD.
According to the authors, “Fidgets are simultaneous sensory-motor stimulation strategies — the four S’s. If something we are engaged in is not interesting enough to sustain our focus, the additional sensory-motor input that is mildly stimulating, interesting, or entertaining allows our brains to become fully engaged and allows us to sustain focus on the primary activity in which we are participating.”
For instance, one college student with ADHD read while standing up or walking around. He also read aloud in the park. A wife with ADHD started taking morning walks with her husband because it helped her focus on their conversations. A man with ADHD started listening to a tape with white noise while he worked on washing and waxing cars. After a month, his income increased by 25 percent. An ER doctor with ADHD found that chewing gum improved his focus.
An effective fidget is both respectful to others — it’s not distracting to them — and arousing enough to activate the brain to sustain interest where it couldn’t before. Different tasks will require different fidgets. It’s important to pick fidgets that don’t compete with the task.
Visual fidgets are all about noticing details in your surroundings or watching something while performing the task. These include:
- Using colorful tools, such as bright folders, highlighters or pens
- Watching a fish tank or water
- Glancing out the window
- Looking at the flame in a fireplace
These fidgets include listening to something while you’re performing tasks such as reading or talking.
- Listening to music, such as classical music or jazz, or rhythmic beats
- Whistling, humming or singing
- Listening to a ticking clock
- Hearing background noise, such as traffic
These tips involve moving your body while you’re trying to focus on tasks such as studying or listening.
- Exercising, such as walking, jogging or bike riding
- Swiveling in a chair
- Rocking or fidgeting
- Wiggling your toes
- Tapping a pen
These strategies involve holding, feeling or handling something while you’re talking or listening.
- Using fidget toys, such as balls or a Slinky
- Playing with your hair
- Fiddling with your keys
- Taking notes
- Playing with paper
These fidgets can help while reading and working.
- Chewing gum
- Sipping coffee or water
- Biting your cheek or lips
These tips use textures, flavors and temperatures of foods and beverages to help you better focus on reading, listening and working.
- Eating or licking different flavors, such as salty, sour or spicy foods (like hot peppers)
- Drinking hot beverages, such as tea, or cold ones, such as ice water
- Eating chewy snacks
Strategies that involve the sense of smell aren’t used as much as the ones above. But because it’s linked to the emotional center of the brain our sense of smell can trigger emotional reactions, “which are themselves stimulation strategies.”
- Scented candles
- Freshly baked foods like cinnamon rolls (yum!)
Rotz and Wright stress the importance of giving yourself permission to fidget without shame, and finding the unique strategies that work for you.