ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Lack of Focus

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ADHD Symptom Spotlight is a series that dives deep into a hallmark or overlooked symptom of ADHD each week. This series is written by experts who also share their tips on managing these symptoms based on firsthand experience and research-backed insights.

The issue of focusing with ADHD is a strange and seemingly contradictory one. Someone with ADHD can struggle to stay on task for more than a few minutes when it’s something they find boring or frustrating. Though, if you sit them in front of their favorite video game or give them a project they’re interested in, they will hyperfocus so intensely they sometimes forget to eat or go to the bathroom.

Lack of Focus in ADHD

A growing body of research is revealing that ADHD brains are structurally different than brains without ADHD. The frontal cortex, basal ganglia, and parts of the cerebellum are typically smaller in the brains of people diagnosed with ADHD. Those three regions all play important roles in focus and attention.

So in ADHD, you have a situation where low dopamine levels mean motivation is already in short supply and the regions of the brain responsible for pushing you through uninteresting or difficult tasks are smaller. This means that tasks that are boring but manageable for others can be all but impossible for someone with ADHD.

Specifically, the hardest kinds of tasks to focus on include:

  • Slow tasks (like reading a book or doing long homework assignments)
  • Tasks with a delayed reward (like learning a new skill or preparing for an event far in the future)
  • Repetitive or predictable tasks (like math worksheets or most household chores)

Rather than lack of focus, then, it might be more accurate to think of it as a lack of control over what you focus on. The ADHD brain is always buzzing, always thinking about something. The problem is motivating it to focus on the thing that you need to get right done now.

This lack of control over what you focus on can manifest in three key ways:

  1. Trying to make yourself start a task but just not being able to get your brain to do it.
  2. Starting a task but then having your mind wander off and constantly needing to bring it back, only for it to wander again.
  3. Getting hyperfocused on the wrong thing (and sometimes not even realizing it for hours)

How Lack of Focus Impacts Your Life

A lack of focus can show up in your life in a lot of ways. Here are some of the most common signs:

  • Overlooking details or instructions
  • Failing to complete a project
  • Making careless mistakes
  • Brain fog (or difficulty thinking clearly)
  • Struggling to listen to someone during a conversation
  • Re-reading sentences or paragraphs over and over because your brain just isn’t absorbing the contents

These problems can create a lot of conflict and problems in your everyday life. For example, when I was younger, I often got in trouble with teachers because I regularly failed to turn in homework but always got A’s and B’s on tests or essays.

The problem, I felt, was that the homework was usually tedious and repetitive: doing 30 versions of the same kind of math problem or identifying the same three parts of speech in 30 different sentences on a grammar worksheet.

When it came to essays, though, there was more creativity and freedom involved which I enjoyed. With tests, there was usually enough variety in question types combined with the adrenaline-rush of the time limit to complete it. In both cases, those features made it much easier to stay focused.

From the teacher’s perspective, though, I was a frustrating mystery: smart enough to do well on tests and essays but “inexplicably” stubborn in my refusal to do homework. In reality, I tried desperately to make myself sit down and do homework, I just wasn’t able to most of the time.

How to Stay Focused When You Have ADHD

Unfortunately, we don’t all have jobs or daily responsibilities that allow us the full control over our schedule and environment to create the perfect conditions for staying focused. Even so, using these strategies to whatever extent possible can help.

Minimize External Distractions

External distractions aren’t the only source of distraction if you have ADHD, but they can provide triggers that a brain, already desperate to find any other thing to focus on, will jump on as a way to get away from the boring or difficult task.

Getting rid of those triggers leaves your brain with fewer excuses to get off track. Here are some of the ways I create a distraction-free environment:

  • Putting my phone on silent (and face down). I did program exceptions for calls from people important to me, and who would only ever call me if something or someone was on fire.
  • Removing unrelated items from my view. When it’s time to write an article, I put the book I’m reading away where I can’t see it. I hide the unfolded laundry that’s been nagging me in my room. I put anything that my brain could latch onto away for the time being.
  • Using noise-canceling headphones. Noises can be just as distracting as visual triggers so headphones that can block out as many sounds from your environment as possible help. I don’t wear them every day because they’re bulky and can hurt after a few hours. But they’re lifesavers on days when I’m struggling to focus.
  • Listening to music. Music isn’t a cure-all, but a recent meta-analysis confirms that music improves the ability to sustain focus in people with ADHD. The trick seems to be going for instrumental music (so no lyrics are competing for your attention) and playing it at a low volume to become background sound.

Write Thoughts Down

For the background noise inside your brain, one of the easiest ways to quiet off-topic or sidetrack thoughts is to write them down. Instead of worrying you’ll forget to do the laundry when you get home, write down “do laundry” in a notes app or in your planner so your brain can let go of the thought more easily.

This can also work for distracting thoughts like “I wonder what kind of tree that is” or “I should memorize what all the kinds of trees are right now so I can instantly identify any tree I pass.” If you snap a picture of the tree in question and write down a note to memorize every species of tree, your brain might be more willing to let the impulse go.

Whether or not you follow through later is up to you. Either way, writing it down now can be a way to coax your brain back to the task at hand.

Use Distraction Time Wisely

If you find yourself struggling to stay on task for more than a few minutes at a time, it can help to give yourself a short break to do something that will quiet the background noise. If it’s distracting thoughts, set a timer and work on a creative or fun project—or do that chore that your brain is so fixated on.

If it’s physical restlessness, go for a walk, dance, or do jumping jacks. Get some physical movement. Not only does exercise release dopamine—which your ADHD brain desperately needs—it can also help strengthen impulse control and improve executive functions.

Make a Plan

If the lack of focus you’re dealing with is an inability to even start the task, make a plan for it instead to regain a sense of control and break it down into less intimidating, shorter tasks.

Start mapping out the different steps that need to get done. Then, figure out a good order to do them in or rank them in order of which steps you’re most interested in or which are easiest. Start tackling it step by step instead of thinking about the whole project at once.

Learn Your Own Rhythms

Your brain will oscillate between hyperfocus and fog. Rather than forcing a foggy brain to sustain focus, try to be more aware of the shifts, including what times of day you’re more or less focused and what factors might be triggering each state.

Break up your to-do list into “hyperfocus tasks” (things that require sustained focus) and “fog tasks” (things you can still do while your mind more or less wanders off where it wants). As you switch between states, switch between tasks.

Of course, you’re not always going to have enough of each task type on any given day to match your rhythm. Before medication, I had maybe 15-20 hours of solid focus time a week, and that’s simply not enough to cover a full-time workload.

But, if you follow your rhythm as much as you realistically can and use other management techniques to accommodate when you have to go against the rhythm, you can strike a balance that works for you.

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4 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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