Friday, November 22, 2013

Adult ADHD: 7 Simple Tricks to Stay Focused in Class

From deep in the bottom of the mailbag comes this excellent question from Moosab. I'm sharing it here because the question is likely one most people with jobs have asked themselves at one point or another, especially adults with ADHD.

let me start off by saying that some of your advice has been very helpful and inspiring. That being said,i need your help, my classes are all 90 minutes, i always try to start out concentrating, and i do, for 45 minutes, then my brain goes into rest,i need to focus for more than half the class, but i don't know how, any ideas? 
~ Moosab

Thanks for writing in, Moosab. From what I have heard from various experts, 45 minutes is a normal attention block for adults with ADHD before their attention wavers. A class or meeting that extends far beyond your ability to focus can feel like torture. It's also stressful because, as I'm sure you've found out, losing focus means you miss out on material.

So what do you do?

The first question you should ask yourself is if this is a sign that you are pursuing a field that will tax your ADHD mind uncomfortably. I have found that I can override boredom and distraction if the subject is one that engages me. This doesn't need to be hyperfocus either, but simple interest. Perhaps a change in your classes or major will alleviate the problem. However, this is not always a viable option, especially when meetings or classes are mandatory.

If there is no way to get out of the meeting or class, then you need to develop coping strategies to replenish your attention. Consider coping strategies as tools that you put into a belt around your waist. You have ready access to them, and you can mix them up depending on the situation. You are probably doing some of the following suggestions already, but you might be feeling guilty about them because you feel you should be focusing instead. The fact is that you may not be able to concentrate past the 45 minute mark until you replenish your attention span, however. You're getting distracted anyway because your brain is trying to tell you it is time for a break. You need to find ways of taking a productive break without missing the rest of the lecture. I have found the trick is to treat distractions as a reward for focusing. Let's look at the following five ADHD actions as coping strategies instead of as the killer distractions we typically think of them. I've organized them from mild to more extreme:
  1. Stretch – Make sure you sit in the back row so that you do not disturb anybody behind you. Then, when the 45 minute mark comes up, give your neck, shoulders & back a nice, slow, tension release. Stop listening to the speaker briefly as you shift your attention to the stretch. Once you are done stretching you may find your ability to focus restored, at least for a short time.
  2. Fidget – Have you ever found yourself tapping your pencil jiggling your feet when feeling anxious and trapped. Set a timer and let yourself fidget on purpose when it goes off. Obviously, you must be mindful of the people around you. A timer that goes off only in the earphones of your MP3 player or smart phone is best. Let yourself fidget for a bit, then reset the timer and refocus your attention. Every 15 or 20 minutes might be helpful.
  3. Change Your Pen Color – One way to keep your mind engaged is to stimulate it visually. Wait for the 45 minute mark and change the color ink that you are using for note taking, or switch colors every 15 to 20 minutes. It seems simple, but the change in color can be visually engaging. If you are sensitive to odors, you may even try using different scented pens.
  4. Doodle – Tried and true world wide, many people get bored and scribble in the margins of their notes. This usually means that you have lost interest in the meeting or class. However, if you set a timer you can use doodling as a coping strategy instead of a distraction. At the 45 minute mark, allow yourself to doodle for a few minutes, then return your attention back to the lecture. Repeat it again when you need to replenish your attention span. If you set smaller blocks of time, you can use doodling as a mini break to continually refresh your attention every 20 minutes or so.
  5. Get Up & Move – If it is possible, get up and change your seat or go stand in the back of the room. Ideally, I'd love to pace back and forth in the back and burn a trail in the rug while jotting down notes. Since that is definitely distracting to others, I usually find standing in the back of the room for a bit helps clear my head. 
  6. Leave – Standing in the back or changing seats may be too disruptive for certain situations, like business meetings, so it might be better to leave the meeting or classroom entirely at the 45 minute mark instead. You facilitate this by sitting in the back of the room for an easy and unobtrusive escape. Visit the men's room, go for a quick walk, or both, but give your mind a break by changing the setting. If you are concerned about becoming distracted and not making it back to rest of the lecture, set a timer. Give yourself ten minutes, then return. You'll find your mind will be able to focus again. In some classroom settings you may have to discuss this technique with your instructor prior to implementing it.
  7. Take a Mental Break – If none of the above techniques give you lasting relief, and getting up and moving isn't an option, you may want to switch tasks to let your mind think of something new—to let it spin in place for a bit. This might be a great time to check on social media, email, texts, news, or blogs. In order for this technique to be effective, however, you cannot do any of these activities prior to the break so that they provide new stimuli for your brain. Also, you must use a timer. I would not recommend tuning out with videos or games. They are too immersive and you will likely find yourself unable to pull away, plus you may either disrupt people around you, or risk looking irresponsible to your peers. The quiet, secret break is best.
I have used each of these techniques to help me make it through meetings. Most of the time, I've had to use multiple techniques to provide variety and keep my attention refreshed on bad days. Although it is true that ADHD makes it difficult to stay single-mindedly focused on boring tasks for long periods of time, if you use your natural distractions as a reward, you can pace yourself and get more out of the lecture. That's the trick of it. Set a timer, and let your natural proclivities give you a mental break. You're going to get distracted anyway, so you might as well control them to your benefit.

If you've got tips of your own, please share them in the comments section. Thanks for reading.