Focus is more challenging for those with attention deficit issues, and what can neurotypicals (without ADHD) learn from these tools?
I want to start with my journey with ADHD. My daughter was five years old when she was first diagnosed. She had tics as a toddler so we were already really spending a lot of time in doctors' offices trying to figure out what was going on.
The diagnosis came when we took her for extensive testing with a licensed educational psychologist. My husband and I wanted to try everything we could before using medications. There are a lot of differing opinions on this subject, but I want to be clear…there’s no shame in choosing medication. My son was diagnosed a few years later.
I have been very invested in trying to find tools and hacks to help my kids focus. School requires attention to things kids find very, very boring. ADHD kiddos tend to get into a lot of trouble and really struggle with focus.
Finding focus and regaining it when it’s lost is hard for ADHD brains because they are naturally low on dopamine and norepinephrine. I'm not going to get into all of the biologies here, but those neurotransmitters control brain arousal and attention levels.
Ready for some good news?
The ADHD brain has a superpower called hyperfocus. It means they spend hours doing a task or researching a topic they really enjoy. It's not that they can't focus, but it's difficult for them to focus on things that they find boring. Several successful entrepreneurs attribute their success to their ADHD superpower.
Another key factor in the ADHD focus struggle is impulse control. The inability to resist an urge. Here’s an example. A few years ago, my son was at a birthday party and the kids were all gathered around the table singing happy birthday., He blew out his friend's birthday candles. He knew it was like socially inappropriate but just couldn't resist the urge to blow out the candles.
Let's get into some of the tools of how to focus.
Yes, these can be medications like Ritalin. My son is on Concerta (a stimulant).
Coffee and sugar are also stimulants. They increase the dopamine in your brain and improve focus. Do you need to medicate? Absolutely not. It's a choice that you need to make with your doctor. There are side effects associated with a medication.
People with ADHD struggle with executive functioning, which is a set of cognitive skills. You lose your energy, motivation, and cognitive abilities when you work hard on a task that you find challenging. Breaks restore that cognitive energy. Recognizing when your body or your mind is ready for a break can also be taxing on your cognitive abilities.
The solution (backed by research) is to plan your breaks. It's more effective to take frequent and shorter breaks. I take a quick break every hour. Breaks early in the day are more effective.
Now you might be thinking what should I do during these breaks? You should do something that you enjoy and that will not emotionally drain you. Checking the news and scrolling Instagram are not wise choices.
People with ADHD are constantly getting lost in their thoughts. Their brain is like an engine of a Ferrari, running 1000 miles a minute.
With meditation, this is an advantage. Let me explain. If you want to be a great basketball player, the more time you spend practicing your shots, the better you will be. In a 10-minute meditation session, your brain is always busy and thoughts are constantly coming up, so you have more opportunities to recognize when it is getting pulled into thought and to bring it back.
The problem with meditation is ADHD brains find it boring. If that’s you, try guided meditations. I use the calm app with my kids. Having that little voice in their head reminds them to pull away from thought and focus on the inside or focus on their breath.
Another idea is to use sounds like ocean waves instead of breath as your focus. When your mind drifts away, you release that thought and bring it back to sound. This works because sounds like crashing waves is more interesting than just listening to your breath.
Meditation improves your focus because it strengthens your self-monitoring muscles. It's the same as the basketball player: the more you practice bringing your mind back to the goal, the better you'll do.
Fidgets can help redirect extra energy and improve attention.
When my daughter first got diagnosed mental health was not something many people discussed. Getting fidgets into the classroom was a challenge. A simple elastic band around just the front feet of her chair worked wonders for her. She could redirect energy by pushing on it with her feet. When you're listening in class that's engaging a different part of your body a different motor skill that you're not currently using.
Those with ADHD can benefit from this type of multitasking. There are a million different types of fidgets so play around and see what works for you. If you are a tactile person try stress balls. If you're a visual learner maybe you need like some colored pens or pencils to highlight important points while you're reading.
I'd love to leave you with this thought one thing to really direct your focus is by having a routine where you set what you want your focus to be at the end of each day. When you start the following day, you can implement all these tools I've given you to direct your focus The reset routine is an excellent way to set those priorities on a daily basis.
You don't have to chose between your personal and professional life. Here's my secret weapon for getting the family chaos to calm.