Recently, one of my clients Kaya, with adult ADHD made an astonishing discovery. She read an article in the New York Times about brown noise, and wondered if it could help her focus on the unpleasant but necessary tasks. Like doing her taxes, writing proposals for projects or creating a listing to hire an assistant. According to the article, Brown Noise is “a category of neutral, dense sound that contains every frequency our ears can detect, with a lower deeper quality than white noise.” Kaya struggled with focus and distractedness on dreaded activities. She tried listening to all types of music to no avail. Perhaps this could help.
The next morning, when Kaya sat down at her desk and turned on her computer, she put on her headphones, tuned to Brown Noise. Then, something strange happened. The constant buzz in her brain that she called “a mix of anxiety and a nonstop whirring sound” became quiet. She told me that for the first time in years, she worked for thirty-minutes straight and finished a memo that had been plaguing her. She tried it again after lunch and it happened again. Finally, she had a workable solution to help her concentrate and get stuff done at her job.
How to maintain focus with ADHD
While listening to Brown Noise may also help you concentrate and perform, the real issue here is how to maintain focus while living with an ADHD brain. Focus is a key executive function that affects how long people can sustain attention and work towards a goal. Focus is a dynamic process of choosing what is critical to notice, do or recall. It’s like a spotlight of your attention.
In fact, as you are reading this, make a fist with your left hand and put it on your forehead. Where is the spotlight of your attention directed now? Hopefully at this blog but maybe at the bird singing outside your window or wondering if you have time to grab a latte before your next appointment? For many people with ADHD, it’s tough to stay focused on a task unless it’s super compelling, has an immediate reward attached to it or results in something unfortunate if it’s not completed.
You can improve your focus
But, you can actually improve your focus by noticing where it is and redirecting it back to what’s at hand without negative judgment. Most people with ADHD struggle to catch themselves when their focus drifts.
Instead, they notice when they return from drifting off, often worried if anybody noticed and frantically trying to catch up. Instead of berating yourself, I’d like to encourage you to expect these short drifts and matter-of-fact create a strategy for coping.
Taking a quick mental trip to the Bahamas, glancing at a shiny object or considering your favorite take-out lunch restaurant at 10 a.m. is normal for folks with ADHD. Jordan, age 28 describes his frustration, “not being able to focus when you want to. I have a very bad attention span. Really, I get really distracted easily. People talking, one. Looking at something, I would just daydream off into it, forget everything I was just doing. And when I see it start snowing, I’ll look at the snow. Just something that catches my attention.” Jordan’s self-criticism, though, makes things worse for him.
Metacognition, is the ability for self-evaluation and personal awareness. It is directly related to focus. Metacognitive thinking, along with self-regulation, helps you choose, monitor, and evaluate how you approach a task, measure progress and how close you are to achieving (or not) your final goal. It helps you transfer learning and information to different contexts and tasks by being more aware of strengths and challenges. It also affects your ability to think about your thinking, ask open-ended questions that foster self-reflection (like ‘How am I doing?’) and to reframe self-evaluation from good/bad to working/not working. These aspects of metacognition improve how you perceive yourself and notice where your attention is directed.
Four Types of Focus
Let’s look at each one and some helpful tools for improving focus with ADHD.
Selecting refers to choosing what to focus on. It’s related to prioritizing because you have to decide what’s most urgent (time-related) and what’s most important (value-related). Selecting also encompasses time management (like ‘How long will this take?’) and initiation (How can I get started? and What type of procrastination am I engaging in?’)
Suggested Tool: Before you begin anything, do a brain dump and make a big to-do list. Now, take the three most pressing items from that list and put them in another document or piece of paper. Decide which of these tasks is toughest, easiest and medium in terms of effort and break each of them down into two smaller parts if you can. Next, think about how you like to get started when you work–with something easy to warm up or something hard to get it over with. Pick whichever task fits with your preferred order of activity and begin.
Monitoring refers to noticing where your attention is and where it isn’t. You have to be as intentional about what you’re not going to pay attention to as what you are going to do. If you are focusing on a distraction, bring the puppy in your mind back to what’s in front of you with kindness and encouragement. Ask yourself: ‘How am I doing? What am I doing?’
Suggested Tool: Take a minute right now and write a list of things that typically distract you. Leave nothing out. Now, consider the task ahead of you. Which of these distractions will likely occur? How will you notice when you’ve drifted off? The important thing is to create a plan for your return. Give yourself a few seconds to look at what is happening around you or what you are working on. Instead of panicking or judging yourself for something that your brain naturally does, create a new coping strategy to guide you.
Shifting refers to moving smoothly from one task to another. This is where many folks with ADHD get waylaid. It’s tough to navigate a change due to limited working memory, slower processing speed and weaker emotional control. Frustration builds up quickly and often rigidity sets in, making it tough to transition your attention to something else. In addition, worrying about forgetting something or not finishing it makes shifting concentration even harder.
Suggested Tool: When you start to feel anxious, reduce the worry through positive self-talk. Remind yourself of a time in the past when you changed your activity with flexibility, confidence and competence. What can you say about moving to something new that validates your effort instead of doubting your ability? What internal resources or assistance from others helped you in those situations? Leave yourself a voice memo or written note on your phone to describe what you are letting go of and what you want to remember about it for the future.
Hyperfocusing refers to tuning out the environment around you because you are completely absorbed in a task. It’s is a state in which everything else falls away and the only thing you are paying attention to and engaged with is activity in the present moment. This differs from being in a flow state. When people are in a flow state, they are humming along and concentrating but they aren’t so zoomed into a task that they are unaware of their surroundings. Hyperfocus can lead to intense periods of productivity and/or periods of intense stress where someone forgets to eat, use the bathroom or sleep.
Suggested Tool: For hyperfocus to be useful, you need to give yourself a scheduled, screen-free break. Set a timer and take a walk, have a snack or do a Sudoku puzzle. Choose something that is pleasurable in its own way but won’t drag you in. These pauses give you time to integrate the work that you’ve just completed and let your brain simmer with leftover ideas. Before pausing, leave notes about where you were and what you were thinking about so you can return right to it.
Remember, learning to notice, manage and improve your focus takes time, practice and habits. Develop a routine for when, where and how long you work using timers so you take a break before your brain tires out.
Set realistic expectations for yourself and talk through potential obstacles with a friend, colleague, therapist or coach. Try the Pomodoro Technique for effective 25 minute blocks of concentration with short breaks. Think about times when you focus the best and set up scenarios that have these elements.
And, give brown noise a try. If you’re like Kaya, it could make all the difference. Remember, our goal is doing more of what works: applying the focus you have effectively and increasing it over time.
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