Every ADHD yin has its yang. The same social media and messaging that keeps us connected to far-flung family and friends also sucks untold hours of productivity and attention away from more pressing (less enjoyable) tasks and deadlines.
The digital world lets us work, be entertained, share, learn, and get connected, unhampered by walls, geography, time zones, or language. But the neurochemistry of the ADHD brain can quickly turn these digital wonders into "extraneous stimuli" that are very difficult to screen out. The result? They become major distractions.
Here's how neurochemistry works. My mother loves to gamble. On her 91st birthday, I took her to Harrah's casino. When she wins, the coins no longer drop out of the machine. Instead, the casino plays a soundtrack of coins tumbling out with a loud ka-ching, ka-ching. Harrah's knows that the sound of money plopping out entices Mom to sit at her machine. When a person gambles, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sharpens mental arousal. Gambling hooks even non-ADHDers like Mom.
The ADHD brain is a little sluggish when it comes to dopamine, and so may crave it continuously. And the ping of a text or an incoming e-mail can light up the same parts of the brain that are ignited by drugs, sex, and gambling. ADHD specialists Ned Hallowell, M.D., and John Ratey, M.D., observe that "people with attention deficit live on the stress of constant fixes of information, and physically crave the bursts of stimulation from checking e-mail, voicemail, or answering the phone."
The stimulation of screen-based distractions is particularly hard to resist because computer, tablet, and smartphone screens are interactive and can "steal" your attention, a phenomenon Hallowell calls "screen suck." Recent research reveals that we are bombarded with as many as 100 screen-based messages before lunchtime! An ADHDer's mental filters, part of an already-weak executive function system, strain against the onslaught of incoming stimuli. Something resembling forgetfulness occurs. The overtaxed working memory pushes away that errand you were going to do in the excitement of the latest tweet. Poof! The errand is forgotten.
What's an ADHDer to do? You can't secede from the digital world, so how do you get a grip on all that digital distraction?
Spec Out Your Priorities
Recognize that digital messages are dumb. They don't know what you are engaged in. They don't know what is important to you. But if you keep your priorities front and center when distraction strikes, you remember what matters most.
A daily to-do list keeps your priorities to a manageable quantity. Make a list of three to five simple tasks every day to keep you focused. Digital Post-it notes that pop up on the screens of your devices will help, too. Good ol' sticky notes on your bathroom mirror and your car's rearview mirror remind you of what you want to accomplish, so that you don't get distracted by texts tweets emails and calls.