Focus — Our Fourth Executive Function
Welcome back to the ADHD: Bitesize Guide to our Six Executive Functions!
Last time we took a look at Activation, the third of our executive functions.
We examined how our ability to organise and plan are affected by ADHD, and how those impairments can affect our lives. We also looked at ways we can improve our organisation, avoid procrastinating, and get started on the things we don't want to do. If you missed it, you can read it here!
This time we're looking at Focus—the fourth of our six executive functions.
Focus includes focusing on one thing at a time, sustaining our attention on one thing for a period of time, and shifting our attention from one task to the next.
Those of us with ADHD often have difficulty in these areas. We find it hard to focus on what we want—or need—to. It's a huge challenge for us to sustain our attention for any period of time without getting distracted, and shifting our attention from one thing to the next can be a source of difficulty and frustration.
The result can manifest itself in the following ways:
Bouncing around rapidly between topics of conversation.
Finding it nearly impossible to stay focused on something that doesn't interest you.
Finding it difficult to stay focused on something that does interest you.
Getting very easily distracted from whatever it is you're doing.
Getting very easily distracted by what most people would be able to ignore.
Being unable to "tune out" anything in your environment, or your mind.
Taking a long time to stop doing one thing and start doing another.
Sometimes focusing so intently on one thing that you exclude everything else.
Do any of those sound familiar to you?
The Trouble With Our Focus
Our lives are affected in several ways by these Focus impairments.
It's very difficult for us to stay focused on the things we need to get done in our lives, such as paying attention at school and doing our homework, accomplishing tasks at work and staying focused on our jobs, and getting things done around the house.
We often "tune out" in the middle of conversations, miss important bits of information when someone is talking to us, or change the subject seemingly out of nowhere.
As a functioning adult, it's vital to be able to get the important things done in our daily lives. Work, school, home life, personal development, all require our most valuable resource; our time. Distractions suck up this valuable time, preventing us from getting the things done that will allow us to both function in the adult world and, more importantly, feel happy and fulfilled.
Distractions can also cause us to make what are often labelled as "careless" mistakes, as we find it hard to pay attention to detail.
Our school, work, home, and social lives are all affected by these impairments in our Focus. Additionally, we often find it hard to stay focused on our own personal goals, affecting our own sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
Why Do We Have Trouble With Focus?
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) that helps us regulate our emotions (see "Emotion — Our First Executive Function" if you haven't already) is also the part of the brain mostly responsible for regulating our focus. It controls when we pay attention, to what, and for how long. It also helps us get back on track if we get distracted.
With ADHD, these functions are impaired. We have a hard time regulating our attention, and are easily distracted. Once distracted, it's difficult for us to get back on task.
Less obvious to others, but likely most obvious to ourselves, are the internal distractions of our own thoughts and feelings competing for our attention. We often jump from thought to thought, or get preoccupied with distracting thoughts and feelings that are irrelevant or even harmful in that moment.
Blocking out distractions is just that much harder for those of us with ADHD. Scientists are starting to understand that a tendency for distractibility can be caused by too much of the brain chemical norepinephrine in relation to dopamine, and ADHD is associated with having too much norepinephrine and not enough dopamine.
We are often labelled as scatterbrains, space cadets, or airheads. We can see this reflected in our school or work performance, social relationships, and self-esteem.
It's important to remember that this is a symptom of a chemical imbalance in our brains. We are not crazy or incompetent.
What Can We Do About It?
There are many areas that are impacted by the impairments in the Focus executive function. Thankfully, there are things you can try to help improve each of them.
Clear your desk. Remove anything from your desk/workspace that isn't related to the task you're working on. Sticky notes, memos, pens and pencils, food, other tasks—pile it up and put it out of sight. What you're working on now is important, and these things will have to wait until this task is done otherwise they're bound to distract you.
Turn off notifications. Silence your phone (unless you must have it on for work). Turn off pop-up notifications such as those telling you a new email has arrived. Turn off news alerts. Disable automatic software updates. Set your status to "busy" so people are less likely to interrupt you.
Write a short summary on a sticky note of the task you're working on right now. "Laundry." "Sales Project." "English Essay." Stick it somewhere prominent to act as a gentle reminder of what it is you're supposed to be doing and do just that until it's finished.
Have a notepad for spontaneous thoughts. If you remember something you should also do, don't do it immediately — instead write it down in a list on a notepad and tell yourself you'll do it later (and you won't forget, because you've written it down).
Take it easy on yourself. Remember that the problem is related to your ADHD. You are not crazy or incompetent. There are reasons for your distractibility. Don't berate yourself when it happens.
Consider medication. Medication can help your internal "filters" function more efficiently and decrease your flow of irrelevant thoughts. Talk to your doctor, and take your medications on schedule.
Practice mindfulness. When speaking with other people, try to be mindful and catch yourself before you inadvertently change the subject. It will be very difficult at first, but little improvements come with practice.
Stay engaged. Eye contact in a conversation helps you focus on the other person's words. When at a meeting or lecture, try to sit close to the front to remain engaged with the speaker.
Recruit allies. Explain the problem to people you know and trust (friend, partner, spouse). Ask them to signal you privately when they notice you "jumping" to help you refocus your attention to the matter at hand.
Limit screen time. There are apps that will help you manage your screen time. Many of them are structured like a game, with rewards for less social media usage. With video streaming sites or computer games where there are no such apps to help you, gameify it yourself! Set time limits with a timer, and reward yourself for sticking to them.
Remove apps, unfollow pages. Consider removing apps that you find yourself mindlessly using instead of direct social interaction with friends. Unlike or unfollow accounts you find yourself scrolling through for hours.
Watch what you post on social media. Think before you like or repost cute pictures or memes. Instead, try to fill your own posts with interesting and meaningful original content. A great creative opportunity!
Use fidget toys. Studies have shown that fidgeting can help improve attention span and the ability to concentrate. So in situations where you know you tend to lose focus, such as that boring sales meeting or the one class you find really dull, take a fidget toy and play with it while you listen.
Block time. Divide your time into blocks—25 minutes is usually a good length—and do that ONE task for the first block. Take a 3-5 minute break, then change tasks (set timers to avoid clock-watching). Do three or four 25-minute chunks, then take a 15-30 minute break away from your workstation. Your brain has a chance to rest, and your body a chance to move.
Use background noise. This provides just enough secondary focus to prevent your attention from scattering, but not so much that it takes your attention away from the task at hand. So when you have to focus on something you really don't want to do, or at times you tend to find it difficult to focus, try playing some white noise or gentle instrumental music.
Choose your seat wisely. At work, try to get a cubicle that's private and away from distractions. At school, in meetings, or at presentations, sit near the front so your attention remains on the teacher or speaker. If you have a homework assignment or work project to do at home, go to the library or have a specific "work desk" at home that's free from distractions.
Make boring tasks interesting. A boring task won't stimulate the ADHD brain enough for it to take action. But there are a few ways you can spice it up! Make it a competition with yourself; how many clothes can you fold in five minutes? Play music while you work; chair-dance as you write that essay! Incentivise the task; have a reward waiting for when you've finished.
Proofread on a different day. Often when we write something, some details have been overlooked. But if we read it back straight after we've written it, we tend to read what we think we wrote instead of what we actually wrote. Go to sleep on the project and re-read it the next day with fresh eyes. If you don't have time, ask someone else to read it for you.
Specific time. If you have a tendency to miss details in your work, set aside a few short, specific periods of time throughout your task that are exclusively for checking the details. Keep them to five minutes, and if that isn't long enough to check all the details, mark where you got to and take a break.
Get moving. If you're finding it hard to concentrate when doing a task, try adding movement. Even just a change of scenery can have the same effect—take the work to a different room, or throw some cushions on the floor and do it there.
One thing at a time. We ADHDers tend to try to do several things at once, even if we don't intend to. Remove as many distractions as you can before getting started—distractions will make it more likely to derail your train of thought.
Diffuse negativity. If you make a mistake, acknowledge negative thoughts and feelings, but don't dismiss them. Use mindfulness techniques to sit with them for a moment. Note your feelings about the situation and, if you can, write them down.