Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT
For those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), almost all aspects of their lives can get overwhelming, from meetings at work, family, and social requirements to timely bill payment. ADHD can cause issues for adults in health, personal, and work relationships. The symptoms can cause serious procrastination, impulsive behavior, and difficulty meeting deadlines. You may also start to think that friends, family, or co-workers do not get what you are dealing with.
A wandering mind is a regular thing for people with ADHD. You might quickly find it hard to keep up during conversations with a friend or your boss, get distracted easily, forget what you were engaged in, or miss vital details and make unnecessary errors. However, this is not an omission problem on your part – problems with focus is a major sign of ADHD.
Although you may not be able to control your attention completely, you can learn strategies to sustain focus. With practice, you can improve your daily habits, learn to identify your strengths, develop methods to work more effectively, stay organized, and interact better. Part of this might include helping others understand what you are dealing with. This article contains tips to get things done if you have ADHD. The differences in your life will not be noticeable immediately, however with practice you can improve your work and your life.
Why Is Focusing Hard With ADHD?
You have drawn the plan and gathered what you would need. You understand what needs to be done, but when the time comes to undertake the day’s tasks, your brain drifts away. You may wonder why focusing is challenging for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The answer to this question lies in brain chemistry – ADHD brains are short on norepinephrine and dopamine. These are the chemicals that regulate brain arousal and attention levels. Some people may discover that when the condition demands it, they can get serious and induce focus. For those with ADHD, telling them to “just focus” is frustrating for them – it just doesn’t happen.
It is impossible to force concentration, but you can build an ideal condition – both mental and physical – to make it happen. The point is to work with and not against your brain and employ various tools that help improve your focus.
Focusing On ADHD
The following are ways to focus if you have ADHD:
The Zeigarnik Effect Works
The Zeigarnik effect is the principle that incomplete tasks are more difficult to forget than the tasks you have not started. This means beginning a task – even if you are only going to work on it for about 10 minutes – will make it difficult for your brain to overlook it in the future. If you catch yourself daydreaming rather than starting, set a 10-minute timer and do something (anything) within that period. The moment you start, the project will turn into an uncompleted task, meaning your brain will remember it and find a way to complete it.
Create A Daily To-Do List
When you start your day, write down your major priorities. This is a great way to eliminate distractions and orient your focus. A daily focus list – a small outline of primary and secondary priorities – is more than just a to-do list; instead, it is the training tool to keep your head focused on what really needs to be done. Sort the tasks by priority or difficulty, do the simplest ones first and cross them off the list. The sense of accomplishment you get from completing a task gives you the motivation you need to keep going.
For these goals, you can keep a visual reminder of the rewards that will come after completing them. For instance, you can keep a picture of the car you are saving for or the amount of money you will earn after completing the project.
Create A “Storage Compartment.”
Hyperactive imaginations and clouded thoughts mean people with ADHD are easily distracted by thoughts about dry cleaning or returning a missed call. Combat the sidetracking thoughts and the anxiety by creating a storage compartment – an easily reachable place to store unwanted thoughts until a more suitable time. The storage compartment could be a small notebook in your bag or a sticky note around your desk – whatever it is, it can help de-stress and keep your concentration unwavering.
So that you do not fidget or feel restless, go ahead and move about at the right time or place. If you are not disturbing other people, you can walk around or jump up and down during breaks so that you can focus afterward. You can also have a large exercise ball by your table to sit on when you start to feel restless.
Work With Your Flow
If you have ADHD, you already have certain superpowers, like hyper-focus, but it is hard to tell when they will set in. Trust your brain. Knowing when you are in that phase and tackling the projects that need focus and attention is just as vital as knowing when your brain is clouded. When you are no longer “in the mood,” allow yourself to transfer your attention to less-demanding things, like sorting clothes or rearranging your table. You will accomplish more in the long term.
Discover The Overwhelm Triggers
When the brain of someone with ADHD faces stress, it resorts to fighting or flight situation. This seems like a lack of motivation – you leave the uncompleted tasks and find a distraction, like binge-watching Netflix shows. You can disrupt the cycle by recognizing the triggers that make you feel overwhelmed. In some cases, it is hunger, and for some, it is conflicting priorities. Understanding the causes of the overwhelming feeling might not be enough to stop it, but you will be better prepared for its occurrence if you make proper plans.
Seek Positive Distractions
Distraction is not always a bad thing. Some diversions can help accomplish more in the long run. For instance, exercise – pausing an ongoing task to go for a walk may appear as avoidance. Physical activity stimulates brain function and can help you pay attention and function more effectively when you are ready. People with ADHD often have excess energy, and exercise helps to dissipate energy. Look for the positive distractions that are practical for you. If you are wary of getting lost in the distraction, use a timer, and stick to it.
Another healthy distraction is medication and breathing exercises. Deep breaths might appear obvious, but many people forget this vital part when they feel stressed. Meditation and deep breaths can help you focus better. With ADHD, your blood does not flow to the area of the brain responsible for making high-order decisions. Meditation and breathing exercises can be relaxing and improve your symptoms. In a relaxed state, more blood flows to the brain for better function.
Do Not Aim For Perfection
Hyperfocus is not always a good thing. It can often lead people with ADHD to fixate on small, unnecessary details – and compromise productivity in the process. Try to leave out perfection and go for “good enough.” This is a process, and the results will not change overnight, so do not think your need for perfection will vanish automatically. However, the plan is to lower your anxiety levels, build your self-esteem, and improve productivity in the process.
Create Planning Time
Failing to plan is one of the major obstacles to focus – it is difficult to stay attentive when you have no clue what you should be doing at that time. As little as one minute of planning can help you save up to 40 minutes of work, so you must make time for planning sessions and create priorities and deadlines for the coming days or weeks. Remember that nothing is permanent – priorities change, and emergencies may occur. However, getting an overview of your goals and the plans for completing them – even when you get distracted – can be effective for restoring your attention.
Get An Accountability Partner
Getting support from people who are looking out for you can help. The accountability partner can be someone you talk to regularly – your friend, family member, or ADHD coach. They will help you prioritize goals, track your progress, and celebrate successes. Plan to email or text them about the tasks that you have for the day and let them know as soon as you finish the task. Accountability improves focus. In the long term it can be a change maker since everyone thrives on accomplishments. You can even keep their picture close to you. A 2013 study done by the University of Wisconsin discovered that flashing the name of some friends and family members helped students work more on tasks that require the utmost concentration.
Get An Overview
The more understanding you have, the easier it is to concentrate and get things done. If you are struggling to focus on a task, answering these questions can help reveal the underlying problem: What do you seek to accomplish? Whose expectations are behind the task – yours or another’s? Do you know what needs to be done? Understanding what you need to do will make ignoring distractions easier and keep you positive and motivated throughout.
Suppose you are wondering why you prefer to do things at the last minute. In that case, it is due to the neurological benefits of deadlines for the ADHD brain – they remove conflicting priorities and boost adrenaline, making it convenient to get into hyper-focus mode and complete a task. However, not all tasks have a known deadline, so you need to set your deadlines. These could be deadlines for each stage of the job. Note when you need to complete the job and write it down prominently and set regular reminders – it will increase the chances of seeing them through.
Work On Negative Thoughts
Rumination is not beneficial for focus. Constantly thinking about a recent argument with your partner, for instance, can block other vital thoughts, which could make it almost impossible to complete important tasks. Attempting to block negative thoughts completely, however, often backfires. Instead, acknowledge and accept the natural thought patterns and schedule the time to address them. For instance, admit that you were upset with your partner and that what you feel is okay. This will help you handle the powerful emotions and inconsistent thought patterns without allowing them to disturb your focus.
Practice Healthy Habits
Healthy habits can help boost focus on the long-term. These include physical exercise, good nutrition, regular sleep, low caffeine intake, careful planning, and as much as possible, a workspace free of distraction.
Distraction-free workspace: If you want to stay focused as an adult with ADHD, work in a space where there are minimal, if any, distractions. Try to move away from a TV or radio that is always on. Working in a noisy setting is not helpful for ADHD symptoms – request an office or cubicle separated from others, so their discussions do not cause a distraction. Another option is to get a white noise device to stop complete silence, which may be an issue for some people with ADHD.
Eat healthily: Eating is more than just a requirement for your physical body – it helps your brain as well. Your eating patterns affect your energy level and focusing ability. Adopting a healthy diet can help improve several ADHD symptoms, including your focusing ability. People with ADHD should ideally start their day with protein for breakfast. When you eat too many carbohydrates, you will quickly lose energy and it will be hard to focus. Reduce the number of sweets and processed foods you choose during the day. They are metabolized quickly, causing a spike in sugar levels. Then it falls just as fast, leading to ADHD brain fog and loss of concentration.
If you have ADHD, you can focus – it might just be hard to sustain that focus, especially if the task is not exactly exciting or engaging. Boring meetings and lectures are difficult for everybody, but for those with ADHD, they may present a unique challenge. Also, following multiple rules can be challenging for them as well. The tips above can help you focus and get things done.
Suppose you have not gotten an ADHD diagnosis. Still, you discovered that you have issues paying attention and other symptoms of the condition – in that case, you should consult a mental health specialist for an accurate assessment. An ADHD assessment test is also a good place to start your journey.