Getting easily distracted and making hasty decisions makes accomplishing even the simplest tasks a challenge.
For people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — whose symptoms include distractibility and impulsivity — this is a daily struggle. Fortunately, however, there are many ways that you can manage ADHD successfully and minimize its symptoms.
Below is a primer on common ADHD-related problems and solutions along with general self-help strategies.
“The fundamental weakness for people with ADHD is that they struggle with pausing to consider their options,” according to Ari Tuckman, PsyD. He is a psychologist in private practice who specializes in ADHD and the author of More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD.
He gave the following examples: If the phone rings while you’re working on a project, you probably answer it instead of considering if it’s better to wait till you’re done. When you come home, you might head to the kitchen to speak with your spouse and leave your keys on the table. The next day you’re late to work because you spend an hour hunting for them.
You’ve probably experienced several variations of these examples. But the result is the same: You end up getting distracted and direct your focus to something else, letting the task at hand suffer.
To solve distraction difficulties, establish simple strategies that make it easy “to do the right thing at the right moment without having to think about it,” Tuckman said. If you lose your keys often, have a bowl by the front door to throw them in immediately. The close proximity prevents you from getting distracted with something else in the house.
If you have an upcoming appointment or another responsibility like making an important phone call, use your cell phone alarm to schedule alerts. “That way the phone remembers it, even if [you] get caught up in something else and lose track of time,” Tuckman said.
“Squeezing a stress ball or having a fidget toy can help maintain focus in meetings or in the classroom,” according to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a psychologist who treats attention deficit disorder and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Individuals with ADHD are prone to letting their initial feelings drive their behavior. “They are often impulsive, going with how they feel versus how they think about something,” Olivardia said.
Reducing impulsivity is a process that takes time, but you can manage it by “practicing mindfulness techniques, practicing being in the moment, becoming aware of one’s self talk [and] getting used to writing things down to express one’s thoughts fully,” Olivardia said. Research has shown that mindfulness can be very helpful for people with attention deficit disorder.
Like any disorder, stress tends to amplify ADHD symptoms. But stress is inevitable. As Tuckman said, “The only way to have no stress is to live a tiny little life where nothing happens.” So the key is to learn to manage stress effectively.
Leading a healthy lifestyle is essential. Exercise regularly, get enough sleep, eat well and take the time to relax, he said. Tuckman acknowledged that this is easier said than done for anyone. Since ADHD symptoms make it more difficult to create effective plans and follow through on them, this can seem overwhelming.
Work on simplifying your activities by taking stock of “your schedule from the last weeks or months and write a list of all the activities that you are involved in,” Tuckman said.
Don’t have a schedule? Then think about how you spend your time. This makes paring down your day easier because you’re able to “ evaluate individual activities if you can see them in the context of all your activities.” Then, ask yourself if you’re participating “in some activities that just don’t add enough to your life — at least relative to what they take away.”
Stress-relievers like yoga and meditation can help some individuals with ADHD, Olivardia said. “Vigorous exercise is a guaranteed stress reliever. If your body is tired, it leaves less room for stressful energy to prevail,” he said. The same goes for humor and laughter. Also important, according to Olivardia, is to surround yourself with people who calm and ground you (and make you laugh).
ADHD symptoms can be frustrating, especially when the smallest tasks can require so much processing and planning. Consequently, many people with attention deficit disorder experience low self-esteem.
First, acknowledge that ADHD has nothing to do with intelligence — a common misconception. “I have patients who are extremely bright individuals and are able to accomplish great things, but have trouble getting to a place on time,” Olivardia said.
Tuckman uses the phrase “change what you can, accept the rest” as his guiding treatment philosophy. This means “learning about how [your] brain processes information and adopting strategies that take these information processing tendencies into account.” Other options, according to Tuckman, might include medication, essential for many people with ADHD; coaching, which helps with “mastering daily demands”; and therapy, which helps to “understand [yourself] and [your] relationships better with less anxiety and depression.” Be sure to see practitioners who have an extensive knowledge of ADHD.
Also, accept that you’ll make mistakes, use them as learning opportunities and then move on, Tuckman said. “Setbacks and diversions will happen, but as long as you get back to your good habits, you will generally get to where you want to go.” He added, “work the process and the product will follow.”
Ultimately, remember that “Nobody is perfect, so self-esteem shouldn’t be based on an expectation of never doing anything wrong,” Tuckman said. “Playing it safe may prevent a bruised ego, but it’s boring and unsatisfying.”
General Self-Help Strategies
In general, “the most effective strategies are ones that utilize the senses as an environmental reminder,” Olivardia said. If time management is a common concern, use an alarm or sticky note — or both — as reminders to keep you on track, he suggested. If making decisions is difficult, consider the pros and cons of the situation. Write them down or say them aloud.
Remember that you don’t have to “re-invent the wheel,” Tuckman said. Seek expert resources that offer insight on managing ADHD symptoms. Experiment with what works for you. But don’t let self-consciousness foil your success. If being organized means your cell phone sounds like a symphony of alarm alerts, then that’s the better alternative. “As I sometimes tell clients, it’s better to be known as the guy who puts everything into his phone than to be known as the guy who misses meetings.”
If a strategy isn’t working, get creative. “Having ADHD is living outside the box, so strategies for getting things done have to follow suit,” Olivardia said. “There is no shame in using a strategy that seems weird to others, as long as it isn’t unhealthy to yourself or others.”
For instance, inventing a song might help you remember information. So might drawing a stick figure. One of Olivardia’s clients used to draw a stick figure to remind him to bring the essentials on his travels. He’d go from head to toe, drawing arrows from each part of the body to the clothes he needed. Even though his client felt silly, it was a successful strategy that worked for him.
Just because you aren’t organized, meticulous or focused naturally, “it does not mean [you] can’t be that person behaviorally,” Olivardia said.