For workers with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), focus can be hard to come by, and harder to maintain. Luckily, there’s hope. This article will explain why it’s harder for people with ADHD to focus. Then, we’ll share seven tactics that neurodiverse people use to great effect to hunker down and get stuff done.
Why focusing is harder for folks with ADHD
While the exact mechanisms of ADHD and ADD are unknown, research indicates the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine may play a role. The brains of people with these atypicalities may have lower levels of these neurotransmitters than average people. Norepinephrine mobilizes the brain and body for action. Dopamine gives you a little reward for action. Without enough mobilization and reward, many people find it difficult to start and/or finish many tasks.
People with ADHD may struggle with:
- Avoiding distractions
- Getting back to the task at hand after a distraction
- Getting and staying organized
- Finishing tasks
- Paying attention in long meetings
- Remembering certain things
- Communicating with others effectively
These struggles can then have second-order effects, such as:
- Missing deadlines
- Missing important details in conversations
- Feeling undervalued at work
Medication that impacts brain chemistry can obviously be helpful. But in addition, many people with ADHD find it useful to change their habits and environments to better facilitate focus. The idea is to work with your brain, rather than fighting it.
Here are seven tips that may help. The first five concern solo work, while the six and seventh tip can help with staying focused during meetings.
Staying focused during solo work
1. Limit distractions
Every technique on this list is going to help you deal with distractions as they arise. But the most effective way to ensure distractions don’t throw off your productivity is to avoid them as much as possible.
For most people with ADHD, a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed is ideal. But if that’s not happening, try to find a spot in the office or your home where you’re as far as you can get from conversations. If you can’t be in a quiet room alone, try headphones with soft music or white noise playing. Unlike earbuds, headphones signal to others that you’re concentrating and don’t want to be interrupted.
As for what kind of music to listen to, it may require some trial-and-error. Sportswriter Dave Hogg has ADHD and finds classical music helps him focus. Adam Justin Wright is also diagnosed with ADHD and prefers to work to pounding dance music.
On the other hand, some people with ADHD, like Mike Heitzke, Lead Designer at CarMax, prefer hustle-and-bustle. “I have to second the electronic music mention,” Mike said. “I find that the busier the surroundings, music, or beats the better the focus. I used to layer in coffee shop sounds on top of music for extra coverage.”
Research in and outside the lab consistently shows that most people perform worse at tasks while multitasking. And the damage continues after the multitasking is over. People who frequently multitask are worse at ignoring irrelevant environmental information and switching tasks effectively, even when single-tasking. In one study, students who multitasked with technology performed worse at studying, doing homework, and learning. Unsurprisingly, they also had lower GPAs than students who usually single-task.
So one key to focus for people with ADHD is to stop multitasking and instead make it as easy as possible to focus entirely on one task at a time. For writer Maggie McNeill, single-tasking has been key to finding focus with ADHD. “I reject the myth that human brains run Windows and can therefore ‘multitask,’” Maggie said. “When I'm writing I use a quiet space, without music or people asking me questions or visual distractions (for me, that means low light except on my desk, but YMMV).”
3. Set and reset your priorities daily
“Write down your major priorities at the beginning of each day,” Susan Lasky, M.A., BCC, SCAC writes. “This is a great way to block out annoying distractions and periodically refocus your attention. A daily focus list — a short, bulleted outline of three major and three secondary priorities — isn’t just a ‘to-do list.’ It’s a grounding tool that keeps your head out of the clouds and focused on what’s really important.”
If you need help deciding what’s a major priority, try the Eisenhower Matrix. The Eisenhower decision matrix is a box with four quadrants:
- Top left: Urgent and important. If it’s near tax time, filing your taxes.
- Top right: Important, but not urgent. Prepping for an executive-level customer review that got moved up a couple weeks.
- Bottom left: Not important, but urgent. Tasks you can outsource such as tax preparation.
- Bottom right: Neither urgent nor important. Tasks you should remove from your list because they’re not going to move the needle for you.
4. Try the Pomodoro technique
Speaking of single-tasking, let’s talk about the Pomodoro technique.
In the late 1980s, Italian business student Francesco Cirillo needed to figure out the best way to get more done in a day. One day, he tried using a kitchen timer to break up his projects into 25-minute work intervals, with five-minute breaks. After three rounds, he would take a longer break for 30 minutes.
Cirillo discovered this method allowed him to study and concentrate best. He named his technique after his kitchen timer, which was shaped like a pomodoro, aka “tomato” in Italian.
In June 2020, Dean Kissick explained how, during a global pandemic, he was able to “descend into a pomodoro-fueled delirium of work, creativity, household chores, tasks I’ve been avoiding for years, self-betterment and random undertakings from morning to night.”
The Pomodoro technique also encourages productivity-boosting breaks (and consequently, increased motivation).
5. Build a parking lot
Lasky also notes that for people with ADHD, the distractions often come from inside the house, so to speak. When racing thoughts or imaginary scenarios distract you from a task, instead of letting your anxiety and imagination run free, try putting them in a “parking lot.”
Write down any tasks or thoughts unrelated to the task at hand, such as needing to do laundry for an upcoming trip or return a text message. Put them in one place, either a notebook, sticky note, or task manager, where you can address them later, when you’re not already working on something else.
6. Chunk your tasks
ADHD can lead to feelings of overwhelm at everything that needs to get done. Task chunking is one way to overcome that feeling and get started.
To do it, you take larger projects and break it down into smaller steps. Let’s take tax preparation as an example. If you just add “do taxes” to your to-do list with a due date, that might cause you some dread and anxiety. Instead, you could break the larger task down into its component parts before you start working on it.
You might add micro-tasks to your to-do list such as:
- Gather your W2s and other required tax information
- Research and decide whether to use software, do it yourself, or hire a tax accountant
- Make an appointment/sign up for tax help if needed
- File your returns
As a bonus, task chunking offers the satisfaction of checking off more items on your to-do list, which can be motivating.
Task chunking is especially powerful when combined with the Pomodoro technique because the 25-min bursts of productivity are perfect for the smaller tasks associated with task chunking.
7. Give time blocking a whirl
Time blocking is very simple. It’s just three steps:
- Choose in advance what to work on
- Decide when to tackle priority tasks
- Block off a chunk of time on your calendar for each task
Since organization and getting distracted can be problems for people with ADHD, time blocking can help. First, it helps you get organized by having you choose ahead of time, whether that’s weekly or daily, what you should work on and what can wait or be delegated to someone else.
It also helps you avoid distraction by setting aside time to work on one thing and one thing only. While you’re in your time block for Task X, you agree not to get distracted by Task Y or Website Z.
A pro-tip for time blocking is to pay attention to your energy flows. If you’re better able to hyperfocus in the afternoons, schedule your most brain-intensive activities for then and schedule your mindless tasks for the mornings.
Pro-tip: If you have trouble finding time to address your parking lot items, try adding a block to your calendar with that purpose.
Focus and productivity aren’t always easy to come by for people with ADHD. But, all is not lost. There are several methods people with ADHD use to get more done in less time. They include limiting distractions, single-tasking, setting and resetting your priorities, trying the Pomodoro technique, building a parking lot, chunking tasks, and time blocking.
Regardless of what you choose, trying Clockwise for free should be on your list. Clockwise opens up Focus Time on your work calendar so you can work without distractions for longer periods of time.