“Why can’t I focus?” You learned long ago that good intentions don’t magically translate into concentration — particularly when your task is boring, difficult, or extra critical. Designed for ADHD brains, these 12 strategies will help you develop the muscles for real, sustained attention.
You’ve crafted your to-do list. You’ve gathered your supplies. You know what you need to do. And yet when the time comes to actually complete the day’s tasks, your brain drifts off.
Why is focus — both finding it in the first place, and pulling it back when it starts to stray — so difficult for people with attention deficit disorder (ADHD)? The answer lies in brain chemistry: ADHD brains are naturally low on dopamine and norepinephrine, which control brain arousal and attention levels. Other people may find that, when the situation calls for it, they can “buckle down” and force their brains to focus. For people with ADHD, the advice to “just focus” is maddening; it simply can’t be done.
You can’t force focus, but you can create an ideal environment — both physical and mental — for it to thrive. The key is working with (not against) your ADHD brain, and combining the specific factors that help your focus flourish. When you're wondering, "Why can't I focus?" follow these 12 tips to get started.
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1. Remember the Zeigarnik Effect.
The “Zeigarnik Effect” is the principle that unfinished tasks are harder to get out of your brain than are tasks that haven’t been started. This means that starting a project — even if you work on it for just 10 minutes — will make it harder for your brain to forget or dismiss it. If you find yourself daydreaming instead of getting started, set a timer for 10 minutes and do something (anything!) during that time. Once you start, the big, scary project will turn into an unfinished task — meaning your brain will latch onto it and figure out how to get it done.
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2. Use a “daily focus list.”
Write down your major priorities at the beginning of each day. This is a great way to block out annoying distractions and periodically refocus your attention. A daily focus list — a short, bulleted outline of three major and three secondary priorities — isn’t just a “to-do list”; rather, it’s a grounding tool that keeps your head out of the clouds and focused on what’s really important. (Download an example of a daily focus list.)
Racing thoughts and hyperactive imaginations mean that ADHD brains are easily thrown off course by passing thoughts about dry cleaning or returning Aunt Linda’s phone call. Deal with sidetracking thoughts — and the anxiety they can create — with a “parking lot,” an easily accessible place to dump unneeded thoughts until a more appropriate time. The parking lot could be a notebook you carry in your purse, or a post-it note stuck to your desk; whatever it is, it will save you stress and keep your focus unbroken.
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4. Identify your “overwhelm” triggers.
When the ADHD brain gets stressed, it jumps into fight or flight mode. This looks like a lack of motivation: You abandon your piles of laundry or half-done taxes and binge-watch Netflix instead. Break this cycle by identifying the triggers that cause you to feel overwhelmed. For some, it’s hunger; for others, it’s too many conflicting priorities. Getting a handle on what causes your overwhelm won’t be enough to deter it every time, but you’ll be better equipped to anticipate its arrival and plan accordingly.
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5. Go with your flow — not just the flow.
ADHD comes with plenty of superpowers (like hyperfocus), but you can’t always predict when they’ll kick in. Respect your brain! Recognizing when you’re “in the zone” — and able to tackle tasks that require attention and focus — is just as important as recognizing when your brain is in a fog. When you’re totally out of it, give yourself permission to shift your attention to less-demanding tasks, like filing papers or folding socks. You’ll get more done in the long run!
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6. Look for “positive distractions.”
“Distraction” need not be a dirty word. Certain diversions can actually help you get more done in the long run. Take, for instance, exercise: stepping away from a project to go for a walk might seem like avoidance, but physical activity actually boosts the brain and can help you operate more efficiently when you come back. Seek out the “positive distractions” that work for you; good examples include meditation, a quick dance break, or a creative art project. If you’re nervous about getting lost in your distraction, set a timer — and stick to it.
Hyperfocus isn’t always a force for good. Sometimes, it can lead people with ADHD to obsess over small, unimportant details — and kill their real productivity in the process. Work on letting go of perfectionism and settling for “good enough.” This is a journey, not a destination, so don’t expect your perfectionist tendencies to disappear overnight — but you can expect to reduce your anxiety, build your self-esteem, and improve your productivity along the way.
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8. Buddy up.
Recruit an “accountability partner” — someone you talk to daily, weekly, or monthly — to help you prioritize goals, chart progress, and celebrate successes. Accountability builds focus — and, in the long run, creates change — because everyone (particularly someone with ADHD) thrives on being able to say, “Yep, I did it.” A partner — whether it’s an ADHD coach, a close friend, or even your mom — can help get you where you want to go.
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9. Set aside planning time.
Lack of planning is one of the biggest focus drains; it’s hard to stay in the zone when you don’t know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing! Even one minute of planning can save you as much as 40 minutes of work, so it’s important that you schedule regular, short planning sessions to sketch out priorities and deadlines for the upcoming days or weeks. Of course, nothing is set in stone — priorities can shift and emergencies can arise. But having even a general sense of your goals and how to plan to achieve them — even if you get thrown off course — works wonders for retrieving your focus from La-La Land.
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10. Find clarity.
The greater your clarity, the easier it is to stay focused and get things done. If you’re having trouble paying attention to a project, ask yourself these questions to expose the root of the problem: What do you want to achieve? Whose expectations are driving this project — your own or someone else’s? Do you understand what you need to do? Getting a handle on what’s expected of you will make it easier to ignore distractions and maintain a positive mindset.
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11. Set deadlines.
Ever wonder why you do everything at the last minute? It’s because deadlines are actually neurologically useful to the ADHD brain — they eliminate competing priorities and boost adrenaline, making it easier to dive into hyperfocus and crack down on a task. Not every task comes with a clear deadline, however — so you need to create your own. These could be deadlines for each phase of a project — “On Tuesday at 4 PM, I’ll pick up the paint supplies from the hardware store” — or for the project itself: “The bathroom needs to be painted by February 1.” Post your deadlines prominently and set frequent reminders — they’ll increase your likelihood of following through.
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12. Acknowledge — and then dismiss — negative thoughts.
Rumination is the enemy of focus. Repeatedly dwelling on, say, a recent argument with your spouse can block out other important thoughts, making it nearly impossible to get anything done. Trying to block out negative thoughts entirely, however, usually backfires. Instead, acknowledge your natural thought patterns, and plan a time when you can give them the attention they deserve. Tell yourself, “Yes, the argument last night upset me, and my feelings right now are valid” to help you manage strong emotions and circular thought patterns — without letting them hold back your focus.