Ask the Experts

Manage Your Distractions

Have you been called scattered? Flaky? Out to lunch? Distractibility is a key symptom of ADHD — one that should be treated, not ridiculed. Use these strategies to overcome internal and external distractions.

Can't Focus? Treat Distractions and Distractability
Can't Focus? Treat Distractions and Distractability

Can’t focus? The concept of “distractibility” in ADHD usually means that people are unable to block out unimportant distractions or visual distractions in order to focus on matters at hand. Many children, adolescents, and adults with ADHD absolutely cannot work or pay attention at school if there is the slightest noise – the graphite of the pencil used by the person at the next desk, the footsteps on the stairs or the telephone ringing down the hall.

Others get distracted when something in their visual environment changes. They go upstairs to get a book but discover more distractions. They walk into a room and find themselves exploring all its contents.

Simply put, many people with ADHD lack the “filters” that most people have to block out environmental distractions. Too many sounds and sights come through and compete for their attention.

Coping Techniques

Many with ADHD have strategies and skills to block out these distractions, only to be snagged by a third type of distraction: their own thoughts. Specialists refer to this syndrome as “internal distractibility.” Too many thoughts compete for the person’s attention. They appear to jump from one topic or activity to a totally unrelated one.

Acquaintances may consider the silent “jumper” to be inattentive, drifting, or spacey. But the internally distracted people that jump from one thought to another OUT LOUD meet with an often shocked response: “Where did that come from?” or “Why are you mentioning that now?” There are also those people who jump from one activity to the next and never finish anything.

[Free Download: How to Focus (When Your Brain Says ‘No!’)]

People who live with internal distractibility often do not understand it or don’t know how to explain it. They are often seen as airheads, flakes, or space cadets. Often I find that when I ask a patient if they have multiple thoughts, or if they jump and drift, or jump and speak, or jump and act, they are amazed that I know to ask. They’d thought for years that they were merely scatterbrained or disorganized, not suffering from the symptom of a disorder.

Don’t forget to consider internal distractibility in your treatment plan for ADHD. If left unaddressed, it can be overwhelming to you and to those with whom you live, play and work. Just like external distractions, internal distractibility is treatable and responds to a combination of medication, education, and behavioral techniques.

How to Defeat Distractions

It is not easy to function successfully when you are internally distractible. Here are some simple coping strategies.

  • Understand that the problem is related to your ADHD. You are not crazy or incompetent. There are reasons for your internal distractibility.
  • Medication can help your internal “filters” function more efficiently and decrease your flow of irrelevant thoughts.
  • When speaking with other people, remain aware of your problems. Sometimes you can catch yourself before you inadvertently change the subject.
  • Maintaining eye contact in conversation helps you better focus on the other person’s thoughts.
  • When at a meeting or lecture, try to sit close to the front.
  • Keep a notepad with you and write down your distracting thoughts instead of blurting them out. Many people verbalize whatever is on their mind because they’re afraid they’ll lose the thought if they save it for later.
  • Explain the problem to people whom you know and trust — friend, partner, spouse. Ask them to signal you privately when they notice you “jumping” and to help you refocus your attention to the matter at hand.

[9 Productivity Tricks for the Easily Distracted]

6 Related Links

  1. This article seems so close to my personal “distraction”. I often find myself rehearsing a possible dialog about some upcoming event or contact. “If they say…I’ll say” on and on untill I almost have developed an emotional position even if that converstaion or discussion will never take place! Holy distraction! I will pace while on a phone call and almost copy that practice when I am having this “Mental Conversation Masterbation” as I call it. The distraction is so overwhelming that I get lost while I am in the middle of some household task or boring activity where I find myself wndering what is next.

    Writing it down is a great tool for this, thank you. I have also tried to apply a “S.T.O.P.” strategy/rule using “S” for stop when I realize what is going on, “T” takes a breat, “O” observes what I am thinking non judgementally and “O”rganizes any appropriate thoughts, and “P” allows me to pray for understanding and then I can simply “P”roceed.

    I wish there was a “save” button or “like” to keep articles nearby that I find helpful. Like this one! Thanks!

    1. Hey man, I literally mad this account just to reply to your comment because over the last few months especially I have noticed the same thing with my self. Its really hard to explain to people but I’ve really been struggling lately with not being able to stop these deep thought trains. My mind just seems to run away on these tracks why I too run through hypothetical conversations in my head and get completely consumed by them making it really hard to focus on literally anything I do. When I was younger my issues with add were more external distractions and just motivation in general. But it seems like as I’ve been getting older these issues with racing thoughts and internal distractions have been getting worse and worse. Especially if I’m really stressed out about something or if I’m going though a change in environment which my college education provide quit a bit of lol.

      1. @distracted golfer…

        Your reply is much appreciated. It seems you have defined these “hypothetical conversations” perfectly and I would like to incorporate your analysis into my personal definition/understanding since it appears very “on track”! Deep thought “trains” like ours seem so powerful that even when I recognize that the train has left the station and running at full steam it is seemingly impossible to S.T.O.P, an acronym I made up to try to get this train off track. Often when I recognize this familiar train, I can stop it and look at it, but it can still find its way back on track as though I never intervened.

        Thank you for your reply! JoeG

  2. Pingback: My ADHD and Squirrel Blog » Blog Archive » The Squirrel Moment

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