I have long wondered if I have ADHD.

It seems to be all the rage these days, and I hear more and more people talk about having it. As they describe their symptoms and challenges, I nod in agreement. “Inability to focus? I can relate to that. Feeling scattered or disorganized? Yep, that’s me.  Lack of follow-through on completing tasks? Oh man, I struggle with that too.” My close friend with ADHD said that his hyperactivity was so severe as a kid in elementary school that he had to wear earmuffs in class to muffle noise distractions and get anything done.
I go through the mental checklist, certain that there’s some underlying diagnosis that explains my wandering attention and lack of productivity each day. Other common symptoms of ADHD include:
  • being easily distracted
  • difficulty sustaining attention
  • trouble with organization
  • squirming/fidgeting
  • trouble staying seated
  • forgetfulness
  • avoiding tasks requiring sustained mental effort
Now the funny thing is, I’m willing to bet that you also identify with many of these symptoms as you read along.
Looks like I’m not the only one who needs the doctor to write me a script for some Adderall or Ritalin.

Or is it possible that we’re jumping the gun in reaching for prescription meds to fix the problem? Maybe those are just a means of treating the symptoms, and not addressing the underlying cause.

The more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more evidence I’ve seen indicating that our chemistry is not to blame for our inattention, restlessness and hyperactivity, but our environment. Life itself moves faster than it ever has, we have more roles and responsibilities than before, we are expected to produce results in ever-shorter timelines, and there are a thousand daily distractions vying for our attention.

Consider even the nature of digital entertainment. If you watch a movie, TV show or commercial, you’ll notice that the average shot rarely lasts more than 3-5 seconds before changing scene or camera angle. When scrolling a social media newsfeed, our attention rests on a post only long enough to read the couple sentence caption. If someone writes a long story or rant, we tune out and seek the next easy to digest post with a picture that sums it up. Studies show that even if videos are engaging, the ideal length on something like Instagram or Facebook is one minute or less. We will rarely sit still to watch a 15-minute TED talk that our friend sends us, but we’ll sit on the toilet and watch seven two-minute videos of cats or fails or stupid human tricks back to back. We change the Spotify station while changing lanes and eating a breakfast burrito in between checking texts and driving directions on Google Maps, and then have phone calls discussing important business while keeping our eyes on the road about 70% of the time. No wonder that I go to cook breakfast, unload the dishes while eggs cook, find myself throwing dirty dishrags in with the laundry downstairs, and end up vacuuming for our next airbnb guest until I smell something burning upstairs.

I submit that most of us don’t have a chemical deficiency requiring medication. We have chaotic environments and structures that reward our short attention spans, and we’ve forgotten how to actually sit still long enough to finish reading a whole chapter at a time. We’d like to think that we’ve become more masterful at multitasking, when in fact most of us are actually just briefly engaging with more tasks and distractions throughout the day without ever being fully present and focused on one.

So if the problem is not genetic, but environmental, what can we do about it?

– Set up structures to have us win.

Some of these might feel grounding and others more akin to working with blinders on, but nevertheless, I’ve found them helpful in actually getting things done. Here are some tools and recommendations in no particular order:

1) De-clutter your workspace

Simply put, get any visual distractions out of the way. It’s hard to stay focused on one task when a simple glance away from your screen has you notice a full day planner, stacks of correspondence on the desk, 50 motivational quotes on the walls, and boxes on the floor waiting to be put away. Clean the space so your eyes don’t wander too often, and devote your mental bandwidth to what is directly in front of you. Sometimes we clean in order to procrastinate or avoid doing work, but in this instance, it is time well invested that will pay dividends in future productivity.

2) Silence your phone

 

Good – turn your ringer off.
Better – put your phone in ‘do not disturb’ mode, so you don’t hear the buzz of interrupting calls.
Best – leave your phone in the other room until the task at hand is complete

3) Select music that doesn’t distract

Sometimes having ambient music can provide a soothing background and help filter out noise distraction, and even put our brainwaves into a deeper state of focus. Each person has a genre they prefer, but my recommendations are to avoid super fast or aggressive music (unless you’re working in the garage or doing a Jackson Pollock splatter painting) as well as lyrical songs, as the brain will unconsciously devote some energy and attention to processing the language, further draining your cognitive bandwidth. The ‘Focus’ genre on Spotify has lots of great playlists that can help you tune in.

4) Set a timer and work in blocks

Rather than sit still for long periods of time during which you try to tackle a wide variety of tasks, break your time up into chunks of 15-55 minutes (no more than an hour) and focus that block on only one thing. It may be responding to emails, working on your resume, studying for an exam, making customer calls, or whatever needs to get accomplished. Don’t do anything other than the designated task during that time block, and don’t let yourself get up to address any interruptions.
You may set a timer on your phone or computer. I use the analog 8-inch Time Timer because it is a constant visual reminder of how many minutes I have left to tackle that specific task.

5) Move

 

After the block of focused time and productivity, get up and circulate some energy for anywhere from 2-10 minutes. You could use the bathroom, drink water, stretch, eat a snack, play some guitar. Whatever you choose, just get up from your desk and give yourself a short reprieve from sitting and staring at a screen. As a fourth grade teacher, I’d have my students stand up between lessons and do some in-class yoga or brain gym activities. It was impressive to see how the investment in five minutes of play and movement translated into better focus, behavior and information retention when we returned to the next assignment.

6) Prioritize your to-do list

Sometimes, when faced with a mountain of tasks to complete in a day, we end up devoting the majority of our time to the minutia, or little things that are less important. We fold laundry, clean the house, read emails, get an oil change, etc… essentially – we spend a great deal of time doing chores rather than taking actions that will really move our business, our art, or our project forward. We then finish the day feeling like we did a lot, but didn’t invest in the actual IPAs, or income-producing activities to have us feel successful or closer to our goals.
Thus, it’s helpful to distinguish your laundry list from your business list and determine what’s most important to fulfill on that day. There are two tools I use to help me separate the two:
1) The Passion Planner – This is a handy day planner created on kickstarter by a college student named Angelia. In addition to the general calendar including monthly and weekly layouts, it also has a roadmap where you can create your 3 month, 1 year, 3 year and lifetime goals and thereby prioritize the actions you need to take each week to get you closer. Perhaps my favorite feature is that each week has two To-Do lists – one for personal and one for work. This keeps me focused on what’s paying the bills rather than feeling really good about all the weeds I spent hours pulling out of the backyard.
2) Asana – This is an online project management software that helps you manage multiple projects at once and break them down into the smaller tasks that must be completed in order to fulfill on them. Additionally, you can change views to only focus on one project, or view all tasks according to their completion due date and structure your day according to what’s most important right now. I use this to remind me of everything from recurring tasks like watering plants weekly or paying quarterly taxes to following up with business clients on specific days after our meetings. As an added bonus to the dopamine hit you get when checking the box next to each task, little unicorns and narwhals fly across the screen from time to time, incentivizing you to continue getting shit done.

7) Use Self Control

 

This may sound like a vague and patronizing way of saying to just remain on task and resist temptation, but I want to actually show you how.
It’s a free app on your computer, called Self Control! The principle is simple, and the result is highly effective. Download the app and then create a ‘blacklist’ of websites that are frequent temptations and distractions for you (e.g. email, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, TED, Reddit, or whatever you scroll for mindless entertainment). Then set the length of time you wish to focus, enter a password, and boom – you will be unable to access those specified websites for the designated period. The app is so smart that even if you try to quit, open a new web browser or even restart your computer, you will still be unable to log in to those sites until the timer is up.

I’m no doctor, and don’t play one on the internet. I do, however, advocate for natural remedies in lieu of prescription solutions as frequently as possible. In adopting one or a combination of these practices, I believe that you’ll find yourself better set up to tackle the seemingly insurmountable day of tasks without feeling exhausted from being mentally pulled in 100 directions at a time. Perhaps you won’t feel like you need a prescription to fix you.

Perhaps the only thing missing was earmuffs.