For those with ADD or ADHD, trying to stay focused and on task are stereotypical problems. Getting work done, especially when there is no deadline, is a challenge for an adult with ADD/ADHD that many people don't understand.
Most time management and organizational books talk about things that seem impossible to the person with ADD. These books exist because everyone finds it hard to do some things without a little coaching. But someone without ADD/ADHD can learn new tasks and implement new habits more readily than someone with an ADD mind.
Here are some suggestions on what has helped other adults with ADD get focused and accomplish their tasks. Use all 5 of these or just a couple that can help you stay focused and accomplish more whether you are at work or trying to get organized at home.
ADD Tip: Work For 10 Minutes
When there is a big task to accomplish, the ADDer will become overwhelmed with how long it will take to complete it. Breaking the work into smaller 10 minute chunks will allow you to accomplish more in 40 minutes worth of work, than you normally would in an hour.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and focus to do as much of the task as you can during that time. This will help focus your mind. Then when the timer rings, it is time to take a 5 minute break. You must take the break. During this time you can allow your mind to wander and play. When the 5 minutes are over, it is time to dive back in for 10 minutes. By being careful to always respect the timer, you will learn that you only have to work for 10 minutes. If you don't obey the timer then you are training your mind to think that the next 10 minute work period will be longer than 10 minutes. You begin to distrust the timer and start to feel overwhelmed again.
Keep a notepad handy to capture any thoughts that come up during your focused 10 minutes of work. You can jot down these thoughts without fear of losing them since they are on your paper. Use the 5 minute break periods to explore the items you jotted down while working.
ADD Tip: Find a High Stimulation Environment
This certainly depends on the person, but many people with ADD work best in high stimulation environments. Having a radio playing in the background or a TV playing in the corner of the room may be just the amount of stimulation you need to keep you focused.
While eliminating multi-tasking is often suggested as a way to help a person with ADD/ADHD to focus, sometimes there is a need for a couple of tasks to keep the mind occupied enough so that it doesn't wander away. Maybe listening to your favorite podcast or showtunes will keep you from studying your homework like you should. But have you tried listening to a foreign language TV show? When your mind knows that it is not expected to understand or follow the conversation on TV, it is receiving the extra stimulation it craves, but not losing focus to it.
Play with different types of stimulation to see what works for you. Maybe you can't seem to read while your family is in the room. Even if no one is talking you become distracted by their presence. However, sitting on a bus or train, where you are not expected to interact with anyone around you, may be the perfect place where your mind will allow you to read and enjoy the process.
ADD Tip: Break Tasks Down to Smaller Steps
When looking at a large project, work to break it down to smaller tasks. Create project lists. These are not strict to-do lists, rather more granular steps in a bigger process. If you have smaller steps listed out it makes the task seem less daunting. When you know you can accomplish something on your list in less than 2 minutes, you become more excited about working through the list.
A to-do list might have things on it like: interview Bob for project, repair son's bike, write proposal, etc. But a project list might look more like this:
Interview Bob for Project
- Send Bob an email to set up interview time (Tuesday or Thursday is best)
- Write out proposed questions
- Get microphone and recorder
- Buy new Allen wrenches
- Replace front brake assembly
- Clean rims (or get him to do it)
By having your projects broken down into smaller steps it makes it easier to find something that you are able to do right now instead of making excuses for not having time to start. Always have your lists with you so that you can add to them and find something that you can complete. David Allen of Getting Things Done fame talks about having a weekly review where you can work on creating these more granular lists. This may not be as practical for someone with ADD since you have trouble focusing enough to create the list in the first place (that is, if you even remember to do the weekly review). But having your project lists with you at all times will help you jot something down on the appropriate list as soon as it comes to mind.
ADD Tip: Change Environments
Like the high stimulation environment above, sometimes it helps to just get a change of scenery. Working from the coffee shop with new people constantly coming in may help you focus and get more done than sitting at your desk that never changes (can you even find your desk under that pile?). Finding a park bench, even though it does not have a nice desk and all of your fancy work related tools, may do more for your productivity than having a phone with 30 buttons on it.
A change of environment is probably most effective when you don't take your office-mates with you. Though you can try it and see. Sitting in the office knowing there is a water cooler may be too distracting because Bob's office, which is always a time sink, is just 3 steps away. But you and Bob sitting in the office conference room with your laptops may become laser focused for the time you are together.
Don't become too familiar with your alternate environments. Familiarity is what often keeps you from getting anything done at your desk. Keep a rotating list of places you can go when you know you need to focus to get a job done.
ADD Tip: Create Deadlines
Even though you are known for accomplishing amazing things when a deadline is looming, arbitrary and fake deadlines don't often help. You have to figure out a way to create a deadline that will help you produce. The 10 minute timer game mentioned above can help with this, but the timer is designed for task level items. This is more about creating "do this before you can do that" type of deadlines.
- Want another cup of coffee? Not until you finish setting up that interview with Bob.
- Going to the big game this weekend? Unless you get the brakes on your son's bike attached, you can only have 1 pizza.
Figure out ways that you can create deadlines that will help you focus. You will be amazed as to what you can trick your mind into doing with the thought of eating all the pizza you want at the ball game next week.
As someone with ADD or ADHD you understand the struggle to stay on task. Use these 5 tips to help you focus. One may be more effective than another, but give them all a try and see which ones work for you. They may all have different levels of effectiveness depending on the task at hand.