The problem is real, but so are the solutions.
Just ask a person who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Seriously. They know what it’s like to deal with distraction. And they have strategies to cope.
To create order out of chaos, we typically use what experts call “executive function,” which is how our brains can take sights, sounds, or other information from multiple sources, distill what’s important, and decide what to do. But our frontal lobes may not have evolved enough quite yet to deal with the influx of information that modern life throws our way. In the meantime, there are tricks that have been developed for people who suffer from ADHD that might just hold the answers the rest of the world so desperately needs right now.
“Pretty much everyone is distractible,” says psychiatrist and author Dr. Edward Hallowell, whose Hallowell Centers in New York, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco specialize in treating ADHD. “The main differences between modern life and true ADHD are the intensity and duration of the distractibility and the extent to which it impairs performance in life,” he says.
Hallowell suggests that people start by focusing on developing healthy habits—having consistent sleep and wake times, eating right, and getting regular physical fitness. Developing these high-priority routines—which requires focus—empowers people to ward off other distractions or stay on-task better.
“The less time you spend on stupid decisions, the more time you can spend on things that matter,” says entrepreneur and author Peter Shankman, whose book Faster Than Normal: Turbocharge Your Focus, Productivity, and Success with the Secrets of the ADHD Brain offers practical advice for setting clear priorities and avoiding known distractions to get things done.
“Most people with ADHD don’t do well with moderation,” he says. For Shankman, an adult living with the disorder, that means finding an environment that helps him shut out distraction. “A library, a café, or a park—find what works for you,” Shankman says. In other words, modify parts of your environment that are within your control so that there are fewer shiny objects catching your eye.
To master anything, you need practice. Learning to focus is no exception.
Begin, he advises, by figuring out what your major distractions are and finding a place where you won’t encounter them. Focus on one thing for 15 minutes, then take a break. Maybe you can do 30 minutes, or an hour. If you set 45 minutes after work to power through that stack of thank you notes you want to write, turn off the cell phone and park yourself in your distraction-free place. When you’re done, celebrate what you’ve accomplished. And do it over again next time you have work to get finished.
“Essentially, if you don't follow your rules, that's when the negatives, the sidetracking, the spacing out, the forgetfulness, come into play. As long as you follow them, you’re golden,” Shankman explains.