When you have ADHD, it can feel like anything and everything hampers your focus. Everything is big and blinding. Everything is distracting. The TV. The slightest sound. The silence. Social media. Your coworkers. Your computer. Your dog.
It can feel like anything and everything is messing with your ability to get stuff done, whether you’re at work, at school or at home. And you need to get this stuff done. Which only adds to your already through-the-roof frustration.
In their book Transforming ADHD: Simple, Effective Attention and Action Regulation Skills to Help You Focus and Succeed, Greg Crosby, MA, LPC, and Tonya K. Lippert, Ph.D, share helpful tips for creating an attention-enhancing environment. They suggest thinking of yourself as an interior designer: You’re designing an optimal exterior environment that works with your interior. Which means that it’s very important to know yourself, to know your inner workings. It’s very important to know what distracts you and derails you. It’s very important to know what bores you and what excites you.
In order to enhance your attention, according to Crosby and Lippert, “your environment must contain cues, prompts, and reminders that guide your attention to where you need it and exclude distractions that tempt your attention away.” The authors suggest thinking of cues, prompts and reminders as guiding lights, “the reliable lights of lighthouses”; and thinking of distractions as flashing lights, “the blinking bright lights of a big city billboard.”
Crosby and Lippert share an excellent exercise for finding what works for you. It includes these steps:
- Pick an environment, such as work, school or home. Think about what you have a hard time doing there. For instance, you might struggle with writing at home. Next jot down the various flashing lights, the things that pull your attention away from that task. This might be anything from requests from your family to do chores to alerts on your phone to websites on your computer.
- For the same environment, list your guiding lights, the things that do or could guide your attention toward that task. This might be anything from posting a task list to using a white noise machine.
- Finally, identify how you can replace your flashing lights with guiding lights. For instance, you might work at a library, where you’re less available to your relatives. You might wear headphones while listening to classical music. You might tape a Post-It note on the side of your laptop with the three main steps you need to take to write your article. You might use an internet-blocking program. You might set an alarm to go off randomly, which prompts you to ask: “Am I on task?” (One example is the free Android app StayOnTask.) You might post visiting hours on your office door or a sign that says “crunch time.” You might use cues like checking your planner every morning while sipping coffee; and dedicating the same desk for solely studying and schoolwork. As the authors write, “our brains are association machines…Routines and rituals are brain reminders.”
Here’s a real-life example: Lippert’s husband, Sergio, has ADHD and was attending an MBA program. Even though he started with high test scores, by the end of his second semester, he was close to academic probation. His entire environment seemed packed with flashing lights: During class, he’d read news websites and articles on his laptop. When he’d lose his internet connection, he’d focus on getting it back. When a class didn’t have internet access, he’d play games on his phone. He’d also do work for his part-time job or study for another class. Every time he’d get distracted, he told himself this would be the last time. But it wasn’t.
What worked for Sergio? When he attended his class lectures, he’d leave his computer, phone, work for his part-time job and other class materials at home or in a school locker. He also got honest with himself about his distractions and tomorrow being different. As Crosby and Lippert write, “He had to acknowledge that if he brought his distractions with him, each day would be like the previous 180 days he thought would be different.”
Sergio’s guiding light was a paper planner that he color-coded. Each class had its own color, so it was easy to see what classes he was attending in a given day and what materials he needed to bring. He also set alarms that signaled when to start homework and when to stop.
When it’s time for you to get to work, you might feel like you have a thousand bells going off in your brain. And you might feel like you’ll never get anything accomplished. However, you can use your environment to facilitate your focus, and support you. Experiment with different tools and techniques, and you’ll absolutely find what works well for you.