Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
Have you ever had a day where you feel like you just can’t think straight?
Maybe you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, had a weird dream that you couldn’t quite shake, or something you’re anxious about is making you feel scattered.
Now, imagine that feeling every day of your life — and you’ll know what living with ADHD feels like to me.
People with ADHD tend to have problems focusing on tasks that don’t interest them. For me, it’s nearly impossible to focus on anything until I’ve had at least 3 to 5 shots of espresso in the morning.
Working in a creative field in the entertainment industry, my job is eclectic, and sometimes I feel like I’m doing eight different people’s jobs in a single day.
On one hand, I thrive in an environment like this, because it keeps my adrenaline-chasing ADHD brain stimulated. On the other, it’s quite easy for me to fall into a spiral of scatterbrain where I’m doing a dozen tasks at once — but getting nothing done.
When I’m having a day full of distractions, I can feel frustrated with myself and my condition. But I realize being hard on myself doesn’t make me any more focused.
So I’ve developed several tricks to shift from scattered to productive that may help you, too.
1. Make a game of it
If I’m not able to focus on a task, it’s probably because it’s a bit more mundane and fills me with little interest.
People with ADHD tend to be more curious. We love novelty and learning new things.
If I don’t feel like I’m going to grow from a task somehow, it’s a challenge to pay attention at all.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m fully aware that life has its boring moments. That’s why I came up with a trick to get me through the humdrum tasks my mind doesn’t want to focus on.
The hack I use is to find something interesting about what I’m doing — or potential to exercise my imagination. I’ve found that even the most boring tasks, like organizing a file cabinet, can have one interesting thing about it.
When I’m doing monotonous tasks, I like to try things like identify patterns while I pretend I’m a statistician conducting a research experiment, or make up an underlying story behind every file.
Sometimes I take this hack a step further, and see if there’s a chance to improve a workflow.
Many times, if there’s a task that’s particularly mundane to the point of multiple hours of boredom, it’s possible you’re dealing with an inefficient system. That’s an opportunity for your dopamine-seeking brain to focus on a monotonous task by bringing value with your problem-solving curiosity.
You might also need to learn something new in order to implement a new system, which will please the reward center of your brain, too.
2. Free yourself to move around with a standing desk
My love of working at a standing desk doesn’t stem from it being the trendy thing to do at a startup. It goes back to when I was younger — way younger.
When I was in grade school, I had so much trouble sitting still in class. I was always fidgeting and aching to stand and walk around the classroom.
I wish I could say I’ve grown out of that phase, but it’s absolutely carried over into my adult life.
My need to fidget is constantly interfering with my ability to concentrate.
I often work long days on film sets where we’re constantly moving and on the go. That type of environment naturally feeds into this need to move, and I find that I’m laser-focused throughout the day.
But other days, when I’m working in the office, standing desks are magic. Standing while I work allows me to bounce on my feet or shift around, which in turn, helps me naturally stay on track.
3. Fill some free time with sprints
This tip’s a bit of an extension of the standing hack.
If you’re feeling fidgety and aren’t able to focus on the task at hand, it might be worth setting work aside and going for a quick jog.
In my case, I do a round of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, like sprints or burpees. Other than clearing my head, it helps when I need to get a quick adrenaline rush out of my system.
4. Write all those ideas down for later
Sometimes, my brain comes up with the most creative ideas at the most inconvenient times.
In a meeting about data analytics? Perfect time to come up with a six-piece musical composition!
When my brain latches onto an idea, it doesn’t seem to care about the timing. I could be in the middle of an intense overseas business call, and my brain won’t stop nagging me about this new idea it wants to explore.
This distracts me to no extent. If I’m with other people and this happens, I can’t answer questions, I can’t follow long sentences, and I can’t remember what the previous person just said to me.
When I get into a free-flowing thought spiral, sometimes all I can do to regain focus is excuse myself to go to the bathroom and write everything down as quickly as possible.
I find that if I write it down, I know I’ll be able to safely come back to the thoughts when the meeting is over, and they won’t just be forgotten.
5. Find your own personal productivity music
If I listen to music with lyrics, I’m unable to focus on whatever I’m doing and just end up singing along. While enjoyable, I’ve realized music with lyrics isn’t helpful for my focus.
Instead, when I’m at work or need to focus on something other than impromptu karaoke, I listen to music that doesn’t have lyrics.
It’s made a world of difference for me. I can play epic orchestral music if I want to feel like I’m conquering the world from my office desk — and stay on task.
6. Coffee, coffee, and more coffee
If nothing else is working, sometimes the best thing that’ll help is a cup of coffee.
There’s a lot of research that shows caffeine affects ADHD brains differently, and helps them concentrate more. In fact, my intense relationship with caffeine is exactly how I got diagnosed with ADHD!
Hopefully some of these tricks will help you next time you aren’t able to focus at work, in school, or anywhere else.
Ultimately, do what works best for you and don’t be afraid to combine hacks, or develop your own tricks.
Nerris is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who has spent the last year exploring his newfound (often conflicting) diagnoses of ADHD and depression. He would love to get coffee with you.