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Four Strategies to Improve Focus with ADHD

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

You open your computer to start your day's work... and immediately get stuck down a social media rabbit hole. An hour or so later, you finally open your task... only to directly click into emails to see if anything came up this morning. Another hour later, most of the emails done, you look at the clock and realise it might be time for a coffee break. Surely after that, you'll be able to get into focus and complete your task.

This idea of 'focus' can be a real anathema to many with ADHD. And there are neurological reasons for this. Studies have found those with ADHD don't process brain chemicals, like dopamine, in the same way as neurotypicals [1] This is particularly when there is a disconnection between the task and the reward (such as taking a weekend off after a long week) [1]. For neurotypicals, a reward following a task can act as a positive reinforcer. This means that starting the task itself can become associated with the reward (for example, anticipating a great meal you will eat motivates you to start cooking). However, for those with ADHD, this reinforcement between the tasking the reward may be weak or non-existent [1].

If rewards are less helpful, how can we motivate ourselves to focus on tasks? It's clear neurotypical ways of working don't work for ADHD. We need something fitted for our brains. Below I have outlined a method that I have developed and tested in group coaching to help ADHDers focus. The purpose of this method is to use what we know about dopamine to our advantage. Below I have outlined some of these steps in more detail.


Step 01: Start the boring tasks with a high dopamine activity.

As described by Tripp and Wickens (2008), we know ADHDers don't respond as well to rewards after a task as their neurotypical counterparts. One way we can adapt to support this difference is by including a reward for just getting started. For example, if you need to sit at your desk to start work, but you're stuck on the sofa, try rewarding yourself with a coffee and a chance to watch a video once you're sitting at your desk. Sometimes just sitting down to start can be the hardest part of the task.


Step 02: Add dopamine to the task you're doing

Once you're in your space ready to get started, one of the ways you can support yourself to continue working is to add stimulating, fun activities to your task. Fidget toys, silly putty, music, background videos, or even white noise can help support your focus. A study by Söderlund and colleagues [2] found that, unlike their neurotypical counterparts, white noise helped children with ADHD perform better on their tasks.

Step 03: Swap your distractions.

As we saw above, some items that might be considered distractions (toys, white noise, a video playing in the background) can help ADHDers complete tasks. But that doesn't mean all distractions are created equal. For some, scrolling through social media or watching Netflix is an all-consuming distraction that is hard to break out of. If that's the case for you, consider shutting off your high distraction activities using apps like Freedom.com and replacing them with things that still provide some dopamine.


Step 04: Support working memory by outlining tasks.

Sometimes, we can sit down to do a task and realise we have no idea what we're meant to be doing. ADHDers, in particular, can struggle with breaking tasks down and working memory. So taking time to note down the task you want to accomplish (for example, writing a paper) and separating it into subtasks (collect resources, read, outline, write paragraphs one and two, etc.) can help you avoid that 'where was I up to?' feeling. To set yourself up for success, only note down tasks you are likely to get done within the time you plan to focus.

Hopefully, these strategies help you understand how to support your focus in an ADHD-friendly way. Hopefully, these strategies help you understand how to support your focus in an ADHD-friendly way.


Talk again soon.

Skye.


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References


[1] G. Tripp and J. R. Wickens, ‘Research Review: Dopamine transfer deficit: a neurobiological theory of altered reinforcement mechanisms in ADHD’, J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry, vol. 49, no. 7, pp. 691–704, 2008, doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01851.x.

[2] G. Söderlund, S. Sikström, and A. Smart, ‘Listen to the noise: noise is beneficial for cognitive performance in ADHD’, J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry, vol. 48, no. 8, pp. 840–847, 2007, doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01749.x.


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