ADHD and Distraction

Diane Labombarbe/Digital Vision. Getty

When you are distracted, your attention moves from one thing to the next. You can’t focus on anything for very long. The ADHD brain has difficulty blocking out stimuli in the environment; which means the mind is inundated with information, which makes focusing on one thing very hard. Everyone feels distracted from time to time. However, for a person with ADHD, distraction is a constant.

Distraction can mean you are physically active, hopping from one thing to the next.

For example, you are cooking and notice the kitchen bin is nearly full. You decide to take it to the outside garbage bin. On the way, you notice the flower bed has some weeds, so you pop the garbage bag on the lawn and bend down to pull some weeds. After a few minutes, you hear your home phone ringing. You run to answer it. Meanwhile, the food is still cooking, the garbage bag is on the lawn and the weeds and stray earth are on the path. This is a 5 minute snapshot. Your whole day looks like this; leaving you feeling scattered and unproductive.

Alternatively, you might be physically still, but your mind is distracted. It leaps from one thought to the next. For example, you are sitting in a meeting or in a class lecture and although physically present, you are in a world of your own and not absorbing the information. Or you are talking to people and your mind is leap-frogging from one thought to the next and not hearing what the conversation is about.

This can be embarrassing when you are asked a question or for your opinion, and you aren’t sure how to answer. It leaves you looking as though you don’t care, aren’t interested, or are ‘stupid’.

When there is a meaningful deadline, your brain can click into action, block out distractions and work productivity and effectively until the task or project is completed.

Unfortunately, it takes the pressure of a deadline for this single focus to kick into gear. This is very confusing, because having experienced what it's like to be able to focus, you wish it would happen all the time.

Here are 7 suggestions to help you manage and overcome distractions.

  1. Each day, write a short to-do list. This helps you to prioritize what the most important things in your life are at the moment.
  2. Create a plan for the day using your to-do list. Do not deviate from the plan. This stops a short trip to the bank from morphing into a whole day of errands. You might feel some resistance to this at first. A plan can feel constraining. Though the ADHD brain thrives on structure, and the discomfort will pass.
  3. When you think of something you would like to do, don't do it! Write it down instead. If it is still important tomorrow, you can add it to your to-do list for the day.
  4. You may want to have some unstructured time in the evenings or weekends. Promise yourself that you can then follow your nose.  This way, having structure in the week doesn’t seem so bad.
  1. Use a timer. Set your timer for short periods of time (of maximum 30 minutes) and set yourself challenges. ‘Can I load the dish washer in 10 minutes?’ Or ‘How many pages of this report can I read in 20 minutes?’ This way, using a timer helps turn mundane things into a game with a deadline. It also helps to stay on task.
  2. When you are having a conversation, think of questions to ask. This helps to keep you engaged in what the speaker is saying.
  3. Start practicing mindfulness. Lidia Zylowska, M.D., author of The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD, says mindfulness gives you a greater awareness of your attention and helps to reduce distraction.

 Lidia Zylowska, The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD, Trumpeter, 2012

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