ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Fidgeting

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One of the telltale signs of ADHD can be a person fidgeting while in class or in a waiting room. While some assume that fidgeting means the person is distracted or not paying attention, the opposite is true for people with ADHD. Fidgeting is a sign that the person with ADHD is trying to stay focused, but the task they’re focusing on isn’t providing their brain with enough stimulation.

Causes of Fidgeting

One common feature of ADHD is strong delay aversion. The time spent waiting for something to happen without anything to do can be excruciating. Mundane or repetitive tasks that don’t have an immediate payoff—like learning chords and finger positions before learning to play a song on the guitar or saving money toward a big vacation—can make us want to give up before reaching the finish line.

Delayed rewards, no matter how big or worthwhile, just don’t seem to activate our motivation the way immediate rewards do—even if we really, really do want to learn guitar or go on that big vacation. The less stimulating the time spent during the delay before the payoff, the more difficult it is for someone with ADHD to tolerate it.

Multiple studies have found that children with ADHD are more likely to fidget or seek out other forms of stimulation (like playing or talking to others) in environments with low or no stimulation. In one example, children with ADHD were better at sitting still in a waiting room when there was a video to watch compared to when there was no form of stimulation.

Take studying as an example. Even if you’re learning about your favorite subject or studying something that will put you closer to getting your dream job, the process of studying typically involves sitting still in a quiet room alone for hours. You might as well be in one of those sensory deprivation chambers.

To cope with that feeling of deprivation, ADHD brains look for ways to increase the sensory stimulation they’re getting from the task. It’s essentially a self-regulating mechanism.

While people without ADHD might have an easier time self-regulating internally—if they need to do something boring, they can simply will themselves to do it—people with ADHD often need to seek out external stimulation, like tapping their foot or doodling in the margins of a notebook, to keep themselves on task.

Researchers suspect that this has to do with the fact that the delay doesn’t feel as much like a delay if the brain is receiving optimal stimulation. While everyone is liable to feel bored during unstimulating tasks, ADHD brains are less equipped to resist impulses and will themselves to get the task done anyway.

It’s no surprise, then, that the research shows people with ADHD focus better when they’re allowed to fidget during the task. More telling, those improvements in the ability to focus are most noticeable on tasks that require low to moderate cognitive effort—in other words, on boring tasks.

Constructive Fidgeting and Stimulation Tactics for People with ADHD

Because fidgeting is actually a mechanism for staying focused, it’s not really something you should worry too much about stopping. You may have gotten criticism or punishment for it growing up since it’s misinterpreted as distraction, but fidgeting is actually a helpful coping skill.

Instead of trying to stop fidgeting, you just want to make sure you’re finding ways to meet your brain’s need for stimulation without creating further distractions for yourself or others.

In general, a good fidget activity is one that doesn’t require your visual or auditory focus so you can keep your brain tuned into the task you’re actually supposed to be doing. It also shouldn’t interfere with your ability to do the task. If you’re writing a report, for example, any fidgeting involving your hands would keep you from actually writing.

Here are some tips for finding constructive fidgeting activities and tapping into other stimulation tactics to improve your ability to focus on under-stimulating tasks.

Add Non-Distracting Stimulation to Boring Tasks

At its root, fidgeting is a way to dial up the stimulation your brain is getting in the current situation. You can get similar effects by changing your environment to be more interesting and enjoyable so that you don’t feel quite as bored during the task as usual.

This can be useful as a substitute for fidgeting in tasks where you can’t really do it, like physical work where your hands and feet are occupied. But it can also be used to enhance the focus benefits of fidgeting.

Listening to music, for example, can help. In one study, children with ADHD were better at solving math problems while listening to music than they were when in a silent room.

If you have the option, try these tactics for making your environment more stimulating, without making it distracting:

  • Work outside in a park or at a café.
  • Invite friends, coworkers, or classmates, to get together to study or work on their own projects.
  • Put on ambient noise recordings like bird songs, rain, or waves.
  • Decorate your workspace with art and plants to create a more visually interesting (but not attention-grabbing) work environment.

Find Discreet Ways to Fidget When Other People Are Around

Fidgeting shouldn’t be a source of shame, of course. But noisy or disruptive fidgeting, like clicking a pen or tapping your nails on a table, can be distracting for others. You don’t want to improve your focus at the expense of taking away another person’s ability to focus.

With that in mind, have some more discreet fidget activities ready to go for meetings or sitting in class. If you have already disclosed your neurotype to the people in question, you can use visible but non-disruptive strategies like doodling, chewing gum (or chewable toys and jewelry), or using noise-free fidget jewelry or fidget toys.

Alternative Ways to Fidget

  • Keep a smooth rock or stress ball in your pocket so you can fidget with your hands out of sight.
  • In virtual meetings or classes where you can turn the camera off, pace around the room or do stationary exercises.
  • Wiggle or flex your toes inside your shoes in lieu of tapping or shaking your foot
  • Tap your fingers on your leg instead of on a desk
  • Wear a textured shirt or blazer and brush your fingers over it. Velvet, wool, or anything with a more tactile fabric that you find pleasant will work.

Turn Mundane Tasks into Fidgeting Activities

In my experience, some of the most tedious, impossibly boring chores make for some of the best fidgeting activities when the situation is right. Mopping, folding laundry, dusting shelves, or finally fixing that wobbly drawer are all tasks that keep my hands busy but require minimal cognitive effort.

Ordinarily, that makes them way too unstimulating to do on their own. But as a “fidgeting” activity while I’m on the phone, in a meeting, or listening to a recorded lecture, they’re perfect.

I have an especially hard time with listening. I find myself tuning out much sooner than I do when reading or becoming more focused on resisting the urge to interrupt than on what’s actually being said. So being able to combine listening tasks with chores has made enormous improvements in my ability to actually listen—and increased the odds that I’ll actually get those chores done. It’s a win-win.

Learn “Fidget” Hobbies

Like chores, there are some hobbies that work well as fidgeting activities while also making you feel like you’re getting something done. That’s useful for those who find themselves getting bored with other fidgeting techniques.

Tapping your foot or squeezing a stress ball help for a bit, but, in my experience, they eventually become too repetitive and unrewarding. As the effects wear off, the fidgeting is no longer enough to keep me focused on the task.

If you have the same problem, learning a hobby that you can use for fidgeting gives you a way to get the benefits of fidgeting without losing the sense of reward.

A great example of that is knitting. It’s a simple, repetitive motion you can do to keep your hands busy. It’s quiet enough that you can likely convince your boss to let you do it during meetings. And, in the end, you’ll have a new blanket or hat to show for it!

Knitting is also a great hobby for ADHD fidgeting because it doesn't have to be redundant. For instance, you can use different stitches, make different projects, and experiment with different yarn textures to keep the activity engaging.

Similar hobbies include:

  • Painting
  • Sewing
  • Crochet
  • Cooking
  • Embroidery
  • Jewelry making
  • Candle or soap making
  • Gardening

Not all of those can be done at work, but when studying or working from home, you can find ways to work them into those boring tasks where you need to fidget.

Exercise Before Boring Tasks

When you know you’re about to do something where you can’t fidget even though you need to, getting some vigorous exercise ahead of time can help improve focus and reduce the need to fidget. Research shows that aerobic exercise, or anything that gets your heart pumping, can improve focus and reduce hyperactivity. (Of course, hyperactivity and attention regulation differences are not inherently "bad." But you may find aerobic exercise can help you on days when you want to concentrate on a specific task, for instance.)

Aerobic exercise is a broad category so you have a lot of freedom to choose an activity you actually enjoy if the thought of “working out” sounds awful. Swimming, cycling, playing basketball, dancing, and hiking can all be enjoyable ways to get some physical activity in that will make it easier to stay focused during the more boring parts of your day.

For those who don't want to or cannot exercise, there are other options that produce similar effects as aerobic exercise. For instance, try cleaning the house or taking a walk. Any type of movement, however that feels good to you, is beneficial.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.