How to Focus

Do You Need a Facebook Intervention?

If left to its own devices, the ADHD brain may pay more attention to Facebook and e-mail than it does to job and family. Here’s how to block out digital distractions to improve productivity and attention.

A woman on a computer struggling with Facebook addiction
Person on a laptop computer

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 — or even morph into a full-blown Facebook habit.

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 people who don’t have ADHD, 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.”

[Free Download: Secrets of the ADHD Brain]

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! The mental filters of someone with ADHD, 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 adult with ADHD 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.

[The Power of a Well-Crafted To-Do List]

Checking your Facebook status, joining LinkedIn groups, and commenting on blogs will distract you from any task at hand and derail your train of thought. Fight back. Instead of reacting, develop a routine for social media. Schedule times to check it. Better yet, use tools like TweetDeck, Hootsuite, or Buffer to schedule tweets, posts, and status updates across several platforms at once.

Snack on Digital Distractions

Indulging in some digital distractions will help balance work and leisure, release tension, and foster creativity. “Snacking” on them is especially good for an adult with ADHD, who craves variety and often needs to dissipate psychic energy. Go ahead and check your Facebook status, play Candy Crush, or read the comments on your blog, but set an alarm on your phone or device beforehand to tell you when “snack time” is over.

Tame Your Devices

Devices are chock-full of built-in distractions. My client, Rose, is a book reviewer. She starts to read a book on her tablet and ends up watching a movie trailer and shopping online. “My productivity dropped through the floor,” Rose said. “So I work on a Kindle without the goodies on it.”

Just because you can take your devices anywhere doesn’t mean you should. Some people with ADHD head for Starbucks. The din of voices and the surging sound of the espresso machine — perfect white noise — settle their ADHD brains and they can get work done. For others, sitting on a park bench works. But the Starbucks crowd may find that green leaves and fresh air make them zone out. Pay attention to your attention habits. Try working in different locations.

[Finally, Apps That Build Productive Habits]

Master Your Digital Domain

If you want to gain control of your digital devices, appoint a family Device Captain to do it. Unless it is somebody’s job to take responsibility for the devices in the house, the job won’t get done. It’s a great job for a teenager, and the job can be rotated. The Device Captain can:

  • Keep up with software patches and upgrades
  • Label the cords
  • Charge up the devices
  • Recycle devices no longer wanted or needed
  • Donate unwanted items to charities
  • Sell used items — as a reward, the Device Captain gets to keep any money from the sale
  • Place a beautiful basket in a family-central location (the dining room table is OK). Fill it with ear buds, batteries, flash drives, and all the little things you can never find when you need them