Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Derailed by Distraction?

“I pulled a Lucy again,” my friend Cathy joked the other day, a reference to the TV character of old whose antics constantly confounded her husband, Ricky, and who occasionally reminds us of ourselves. “I had another ADD moment! I went to go out and I got in the car, I started it, forgot my list inside and went back to the house to get it, the phone rang, I answered it, and well, you know the rest! An hour and a half later, I was looking for my purse and remembered it was in the car, and I went out and found the car still running in the driveway!”

And so it sometimes goes for those of us with ADHD, who find ourselves suddenly distracted from the task at hand and winding our way from one activity or idea to the next, “like somebody is clicking a remote control and switching the thought process in your mind,” as one of my clients put it.

Cathy and I are lucky, though. We joke about what we sometimes do because we can joke. When we give in to distractions, we know how to pull ourselves back. We acknowledge our ADHD tendencies, and we’re able to recognize when we wander off course. We’re beyond the dysfunction that led to our respective diagnoses long ago, and we accept moments like Cathy’s latest “adventure” as part of what living with ADHD means. We can laugh about things we do because (1) we already know we are not our ADHD – we’ve separated ourselves from this sporadic behavior, and (2) we have strategies and structures in place to keep us on track. Our occasional wanderings don’t define us in our own or in other people’s minds.

When they say they’re distracted, most people mean that they’re temporarily unable to focus or concentrate, a situational condition that will pass when the factors underlying it change. When ADHD individuals are distracted, however, their condition is ongoing, a brain anomaly that leaves them unable to screen out competing stimuli or hold their focus on something long enough to do anything with it. Distractibility is a condition with which they live, a particularly troublesome one given a culture that appears bent on aggravating it.

Sometimes it seems that one would have to live out a vow of silence in a monastic cell somewhere not to be on sensory overload, scattered and frenzied and off in a million directions. As a people, we’re wired and connected, clicking our way through the days, and for all the ways in which technology serves us, it also manages to keep us at its mercy. There’s a constant demand from this technology-driven environment to shift attention quickly and often, to shift and shift again, so we have little time or impetus to think, let alone think deeply, about anything. The minute we try to focus on one thing, a light flashes or a ring-tone sounds or a buzzer vibrates, and off we go to answer the call of what’s next.

How to keep up, we wonder? How to be everywhere, yet feel nowhere? So many devices, so little eye contact; so many rushed emails and voicemails, so little thought-provoking dialogue; so much noise, so little meditative silence. Who even knows what to do with quiet these days, except turn up the volume to drown out the discomfort of a solitary thought: What am I missing?

Most of us are stretched to the breaking point, with so many demands on our time and so many people wanting so many things from us, that without the wires of interconnectedness, we fear we’ll fall behind. And where will we be then, we wonder. Who’ll get the edge if we turn down the volume and disconnect?

To one degree or another, everybody is rushed, everybody is scattered, everybody has those miles to go before sitting back and taking stock. The wonder is that somehow, despite their hectic and crazy lifestyles, most people manage to get on with the business of doing what they have to do, and still remain in control of their lives.

Then again, most people aren’t living with ADHD.

There’s a difference in the degree and the frequency to which individuals with ADHD are susceptible to all the distractions out there, and there’s a major difference in the consequences of their behavior. They start off with a compromised ability to stay on task, and the demands of the click-click, push-button world make everything worse. “Oh, well, everybody feels this way,” doesn’t apply to them. ADHD individuals know full well that that everybody does not feel out of control the way they do. What they don’t know is what to do about it.


You can create strength-based strategies for dealing with distraction. I’ve had clients who write on their bathroom mirrors with dry erase markers to remind them of their priorities for that week, and others who pretend to be taking notes during meetings to stay alert. Try any of the following, adapting them to your own needs and style.

Filter out background noise to enhance focus.

Distractible individuals are overly responsive to both the external stimuli of their environment and the internal stimuli of their own thought process. They act on the stimuli, jumping from thing to thing or thought to thought, captive to every whim and fancy.

Be honest about the kind of environment that suits you. To avoid getting carried away and lost, you might have to put yourself in a setting that is completely free of distractions — nothing on the walls, no music or ringing phones, total quiet.

Find the right place that works for you.

If you know that working in a totally quiet space doesn’t help you concentrate, then give yourself permission to go to a cafĂ© or a coffee shop, someplace that has a bit of a “buzz” in the background. Many of my clients leave the office for a while and go to such a place to work on a particular project. They say that the “buzz” helps to activate their brain to screen out the background noise so they can focus.
Use music to stay on track.

When I need to put in several hours of writing, I have one CD that I play over and over again. I only use this particular CD to write to. I’ve trained myself to sit down and start to work as soon as it begins playing. It took a while, but it works! Try it!

Be aware of the passing of time.

Wear a sports watch, and set it to beep every hour on the hour to help you “hear the passing of time.” When it beeps, stop and do a self-check. Ask yourself, “Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing?”
Create self-accountability every hour on the hour.

To make sure you stay on course and focus on what you need to be doing—and to learn to be accountable to yourself—take a post-it or a blank piece of paper and write down the three tasks you will complete over the next hour. At the end of the hour, throw away the piece of paper or post-it, and write down your next three to-do items on a new sheet. These need to be concrete and doable, things like “call Charlie” or “water plants” or “mail letter.” Knowing that you have to complete the tasks within the designated time will keep you moving so that you don’t hyper-focus on one activity to the exclusion of the others on your list.

Park it!

Whenever you get the urge to veer off course, park it. Designate a notebook or an electronic file for those extraneous thoughts that pop up. Get them out of your head and onto a piece of paper, delegate them to another time and day, and keep going! This way you feel as though you’ve acted on whatever it was, so it’s out of your head and therefore out of your mind!

If you’re someone who often complains that great ideas come to you in the middle of meetings or when you’re concentrating on something else, you can capture those ideas by writing them down as they occur to you. This helps you gain more control over your creative ideas and your impulsiveness, and it provides a way to follow up on your many great ideas.

Make it a personal policy not to make stops en route.

Many of my clients, already on the verge of being late for a meeting or appointment, will decide to make a quick stop at a store or run a quick errand on the way. History, of course, will tell you the consequences of these actions: getting stressed, being even later, missing your appointment altogether, disappointing others, and beating yourself up for repeating the same mistake over and over again.

Post a sign on your dashboard that says DON’T STOP! If you walk or use public transportation, stick a post-it on your wallet reminding you to GO DIRECTLY TO WORK or GO DIRECTLY HOME! And do what it says!

Avoid those traps!

Don’t fool yourself into thinking, “Oh, I can read one more e-mail before I leave for my appointment,” or, “I can do X, Y, Z really quickly before I go.” Don’t listen to that voice inside your head! It will only get you into trouble. “Just one more minute” doesn’t give you more time; it only makes you late. If you know, for example, that e-mail distracts you, use a timer to signal you to turn off your computer an hour before your appointment.

Beware of “see do.”

Most of my clients respond well to their immediate physical environment, meaning they get caught in what they call the “see-do” cycle and forget their designated priorities. They answer each e-mail that comes in, for instance, or notice dry plants and begin watering, or look for a snack and start cleaning out the refrigerator.

If this describes you, set up visual cues to keep you on track. Post signs to yourself like, “Complete project X by 5:00,” or create a screen saver to scroll across your computer screen saying, “Where Is Project X?” For longer-term goals and follow-through, you might want to post a calendar over your desk or in your kitchen with the due dates clearly marked in neon colors.

Distinguish the NOW from the NOT NOW.

Ask yourself, "Does this have to be done by today?" If it doesn’t, type or write it into your calendar with the date by which it needs to be done. Then you know that for now, it's dealt with.  If you follow this process all the way through your list, you’ll be left with only the things that must be completed now!

One of my clients uses this strategy to help him prioritize his to-do lists so that he’s always working on the most important things on the list. He says it reduces his temptation to act on non-essential items, and best of all, it keeps him honest.

“If I have a long list to handle every day, I’m setting myself up for failure,” he said. “I’m lying to myself. I’ve promised myself a million times that I’ll finish the entire to-do list, but it's impossible. In the end, I look at all the undone items and feel demoralized…again. So I got rid of the lists, and it works for me, especially because nothing gets forgotten!”

Maybe his strategy will work for you!

Prepare ahead of time.

If you know you’re frequently late to appointments because you get distracted, prepare as much as you can the day before the appointment. Put the files you need in your briefcase, the PowerPoint files on your computer desktop, your coat by the door, and so on. Do anything you can to make it as easy as possible for you to simply grab what you need and run.

Use distractions as rewards.

Come up with a list of things you know will distract you, and use them as rewards. Plug these items in upon completion of a task or at the end of a designated time segment.

One client, for example, knew that computer games were definitely a distraction, so he scheduled playing a few into his work plan to keep him motivated. By saying, "If I work 1 hour on my report, I can spend 10 minutes on computer games," he was able to complete his reports.
Do whatever fits! For this strategy, you have to ask yourself, “Is the reward motivating enough to keep me working at my assigned task no matter how hard it is for me to stick with it?” You also have to be very careful that you keep the reward time limited. If not, it will become a distraction again, rather than a reward.

I’ve coached many clients with distraction issues, and while it hasn’t been easy, it really has been fun. The strategies that we’ve created might seem outrageous to other people, but I can say unequivocally that they’ve worked. Try your own, and be as creative as you want!

Nancy Ratey