Get Back on Track — Dealing With Distractions Effectively
ADHD brains are more likely to be distracted than neurotypical brains, but it's also harder for the ADHD brain to refocus on the task at hand once a distraction has occurred.
This means it's important not only to minimise the chance of distractions occurring in the first place, but also to redirect our attention back to the task at hand when a distraction does occur.
We can get back on track with a technique called "Listen, Validate, Redirect".
Imagine working on an important work or school assignment at home, and suddenly noticing that the laundry needs doing. You stop working on your assignment to put the laundry on, then you realise you need to pre-treat a stain on your favourite shirt.
You pre-treat the stain, but as you're in the cupboard grabbing the pre-treat stick you notice you're low on washing-up liquid, so you write that down on the shopping list. Seeing that there are a lot of items on the shopping list, you decide to go to the shops.
Two hours later, you're at the shops looking for items that aren't even on your list... and you've forgotten about your assignment.
How can we avoid getting derailed like this? One way to deal with interrupting distractions is with the Listen, Validate, Redirect technique. Here's how it works:
Firstly, when a distraction occurs that might derail from something that's already being worked on, listen to it. The listening stage involves stating the distraction out loud. This is listening to what the distraction is trying to say.
It might be an external distraction, such as a work colleague or family member interrupting with a question or request, or an internal distraction, such as suddenly noticing or remembering another task that needs doing.
Here are two examples of listening to distractions:
External distraction: "You're asking me to take the bins out. Got it."
Internal distraction: "I see a pile of laundry that needs doing."
Secondly, validate the distraction. This means acknowledging the significance of the distraction, and involves both stating it aloud and writing it down.
In the case of an internal distraction, validation allows a moment of pause to process the distraction and assess its relative importance.
If it's an external distraction from another person, validation also shows them that the relative importance of their request has been understood, making them feel acknowledged and appreciated.
In both cases, writing it down means that there's no need to worry about remembering to do it later.
Here are two examples of validating distractions:
External distraction: "I agree that I should take the bins out. Let me write it down so I don't forget."
Internal distraction: "The laundry is an important thing that needs to get done. I'll write that down so I remember to do it."
Thirdly, redirect back to the activity or task that was happening before the distraction occurred. Stating out loud the intention to redirect to the task at hand actually helps the brain to re-engage.
Here are two examples of redirecting to what was happening before the distraction occurred:
External distraction: "I'll do the bins right after I've finished my schoolwork, which I'm doing right now."
Internal distraction: "I'll sort out that laundry once I'm done writing my assignment, which is what I'm working on now."
Sometimes, the distraction is more important than the current task. For example, sorting through some old emails at work before suddenly remembering that the daily finance report is due in ten minutes!
You can still use the Listen, Validate, Redirect technique to help you.
In this case, validating means acknowledging and writing down the task that was being worked on rather than the distraction. After all, what was being worked on is still important, and by writing that down it can be resumed right after this more important thing that caused the distraction.
Then redirect, only this time the redirection is to shift the focus away from what was being worked on and towards the more important distraction.
Listen: "Oh! I've just remembered that the finance report is due in ten minutes."
Validate: "The project I'm working on now is still important, so I'll write it down."
Redirect: "I'll resume the project I was working on when I'm done with the report, and I'll start the report right now."
If the distraction isn't important at all, simply state out loud why it caused a distraction, then redirect to the task at hand.
Validate: "It's totally understandable that I'd get annoyed by the dog barking outside."
Redirect: "I'll put on these headphones and keep working on my assignment."
What This Means...
With this powerful technique, three common roadblocks can be avoided.
Avoid being derailed
The most obvious benefit to this technique is that it allows us to redirect our attention back to the thing that was being worked on and avoid bouncing around from one thing to the next.
It's particularly useful at work, where the demands and requests from colleagues, bosses and clients can overlap and lead to a string of unfinished work. Listen, Validate, Redirect can help us acknowledge, prioritise and remember all the demands that are made of us and get everything done.
Avoid becoming overwhelmed
Starting a task, then getting distracted part-way through by another task, then a third, means that there are now three unfinished tasks that need processing and remembering!
Since ADHD also means our working memory capacity is reduced and our processing speed impaired, holding that amount of information in our brains all at once is near-impossible.
This can easily create overwhelm, either causing mental paralysis meaning nothing gets done, or causing a meltdown. By validating and writing down the distraction, the information can get out of your head and onto paper.
Avoid disappointing others
Sometimes we deal with distractions from other people by shutting them out or even telling them to leave us alone. This isn't because we're trying to be mean, it's simply a coping strategy to avoid getting derailed or overwhelmed by distractions, even if they're important.
However, it can have the effect of making others feel as though their needs aren't important. By validating their requests and writing them down for later, the derailment and distraction is avoided and they still feel acknowledged and important.
Have you found the Listen, Validate, Redirect technique helpful when you get distracted? What else do you do to help you stay on track?
You can find more strategies and techniques for staying focused in moments of inattention here.