How to Focus With ADHD

Person at a coffee table looking through a textbook

D3sign / Getty Images

Approximately 5% of people in the world live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a condition that affects the brain’s development in ways that makes it hard for the person to sit still and pay attention. As a result, people with ADHD may struggle to focus.

Being unable to focus may make it difficult for a person with ADHD to complete tasks, pay attention to details, or participate in tasks that require extended concentration. Therefore, the person may struggle at work or school and have difficulty maintaining relationships.

This can be upsetting and discouraging for the person and frustrating for others around them, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.”

It’s important to seek treatment for ADHD because without it, a person with ADHD may simply be unable to focus, despite wanting to do so.

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Too many people still treat ADHD as a behavioral problem or an issue of disobedience, when without help, someone with ADHD simply cannot focus or do what they're expected to do.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

This article discusses the causes and symptoms of ADHD that can make focusing difficult and suggests some strategies to help people with ADHD improve their focus.

Why People With ADHD May Struggle to Focus

People with ADHD have differences in their brain’s anatomy and functioning. Below, Dr. Daramus explains some of these differences and how they can impact the person’s ability to focus.

Neurochemical Imbalance

There are chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, that help regulate attention and the ability to focus, among other things. People with ADHD may have low levels of two such chemicals, known as dopamine and norepinephrine.

Dopamine helps us take action to achieve a specific goal or reward, so low dopamine can limit the ability to initiate action and feel a sense of reward when the task is completed. As a result, a person with ADHD may have difficulty initiating tasks and seeing them through.

Norepinephrine is a chemical that acts to calm down adrenaline, which is a stimulant, so too little norepinephrine can contribute to hyperactivity. As a result, a person with ADHD may not be able to sit still and focus on a single task.

Limited Visuospatial Memory

People with ADHD also often have limited visuospatial memory. Visuospatial memory is the ability to see a picture in your mind and rearrange it, like you would when figuring out how to solve a puzzle. 

For most of us this is motivating, but people with ADHD have trouble with motivation because they can't visualize the end goal, making it harder for them to figure out the steps in between.

ADHD Symptoms of Inattention

People with ADHD have difficulty focusing, which can result in a persistent pattern of symptoms. These are some of the symptoms of inattention they may experience:

  • Difficulty focusing on tasks or activities, such as chores, schoolwork, or job duties
  • Tendency to get distracted easily, leaving tasks incomplete
  • Avoidance or dislike of tasks that require sustained attention and mental effort, such as preparing reports or attending lectures
  • Lack of attention to detail, resulting in mistakes
  • Tendency to misplace things
  • Difficulty staying organized, resulting in messy home and work environments
  • Trouble managing time and meeting appointments and deadlines
  • Frequent forgetfulness
  • Lack of focus during conversations and difficulty following instructions

In addition, people with ADHD may also display symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Tips to Help People With ADHD Focus

Treatment in the form of medication and therapy can help manage the symptoms of ADHD and improve focus. In addition to treatment, Dr. Daramus suggests some tips that can help children or adults with ADHD improve their focus:

  • Time your medication schedule: If you’re on medication, work with your prescriber to tweak the medication schedule so your most productive parts of the day align with your school or work hours. 
  • Limit distractions: Switch off your phone and other distractions like the television or radio when you’re trying to do schoolwork or work assignments.
  • Break tasks down into smaller pieces: When you start to feel frustrated or overwhelmed by a task and want to give up, break the task down into smaller pieces that feel easier to manage. Then, focus on completing one step at a time.
  • Plan for activity breaks: Plan your schedule so you can take quick activity breaks during the day, and come back to your tasks with renewed focus.
  • Take steps to stay organized: Use tools to help you stay organized. Take time each day (except maybe vacation days) to make to-do lists of chores you need to do that day, assignments you need to complete, or groceries you need to buy. You can write the list in a planner or use a phone app. Set reminders for appointments and important deadlines.
  • Refer to a complete picture: You can help your visuospatial memory by having an idea of how to solve a problem and what the finished task would look like, so you know what you’re aiming for.
  • Maintain consistency: Always put objects in the same place to make it easier for you to locate them.
  • Use sensory stimulus to control impulses: When you feel like doing or saying something impulsive, get some distance using sensory stimulus. Pet the cat, have some tea, play a quick round of a video game on your phone, exercise, or do anything that will grab your attention for a few minutes.
  • Exercise regularly: Physical exercise can help you improve your focus and feel more positive.
  • Practice mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation can help you improve your focus. While meditation techniques like focusing on one thing such as breath or stillness may be hard for you, you can try other types, such as focusing on music or practicing a movement-based meditation.
  • Share your struggles: It can be helpful to share your struggles with the people at your school or work, so they can understand what you’re going through and offer support. For instance, teachers can offer students with ADHD additional time to complete assignments, seat them in a quiet spot with fewer distractions, or suggest helpful resources.
  • Focus on your strengths: While ADHD can be discouraging, it’s important to focus on your strengths. Perhaps you’re kind, smart, funny, creative, or sporty. Make time for your interests and the things you care about. Appreciate your strengths and spend time with people who see you that way.
  • Be patient: If your child has ADHD, be patient and remember that this isn't a discipline issue. If a child with ADHD throws a tantrum it's usually because they're at least as frustrated by their difficulties as you are. Show them how to calm their emotions and get ready to try again. Reward effort and progress rather than just the end result. Rewards can be as simple as praise or hugs.

A Word From Verywell

Having ADHD can make it difficult to focus, making it hard for a person to perform at work or school, or maintain friendships or relationships with family members. It can also cause the person to feel frustrated or misunderstood. While there is no quick fix for ADHD, treatment and coping strategies can help reduce symptoms and improve focus.

Was this page helpful?
8 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.
  1. Polanczyk GV, Willcutt EG, Salum GA, Kieling C, Rohde LA. ADHD prevalence estimates across three decades: an updated systematic review and meta-regression analysis. Int J Epidemiol. 2014;43(2):434-442. doi:10.1093/ije/dyt261

  2. Nemours Foundation. ADHD.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms and diagnosis of ADHD.

  4. National Institute of Mental Health. ADHD in adults.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Causes of ADHD.

  6. Jamkhande PG, Khawaja A. Role of norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A mechanism-based short review. International Journal of Nutrition, Pharmacology, Neurological Diseases. 2016;6(4):146. doi:10.4103/2231-0738.191660

  7. van Ewijk H, Heslenfeld DJ, Luman M, et al. Visuospatial working memory in ADHD patients, unaffected siblings, and healthy controls. J Atten Disord. 2014;18(4):369-378. doi:10.1177/1087054713482582

  8. American Psychiatric Association. What is ADHD?

Additional Reading