How to Focus with ADHD
You sit down, ready to power through that work task. But first, a quick peek at your inbox.
Sounds innocent enough, but then you see a note from a colleague that takes you to a TikTok link. Ten TikToks later, you see an ad for your bank.
That reminds you of the check on the counter you need to scan into your account. On your way to take care of that, the dryer buzzes. So you grab the hamper to gather your clothes. But when you go downstairs to the dryer, you trip over your dog.
Then you feel bad because what if he thinks you did it on purpose? The only compassionate choice is to take him for a walk. Before you know it, you’ve lost an hour. Blink-and-you-miss-it, right?
Such is life with ADHD—where hyperfocus is a frequent visitor and lack of focus is the status quo. ADHD affects roughly 5% of all adults. That means more than 11 million people in the US are navigating the same challenges as you throughout their workday.
But here's the thing: ADHD doesn't have to be the boss of your day.
It's not about battling symptoms but rather learning to work with and around them. How do you do that? Let’s explore practical strategies to help your ADHD brain focus throughout the day.
What is ADHD?
ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental condition. According to BetterHelp, the ADHD brain has trouble managing dopamine, a chemical that helps with focus and motivation. So, good news—your trouble with focusing isn’t laziness. It’s a trait you can chalk up to brain chemistry.
Here’s how it works: Think of neurotransmitters (like dopamine) as tiny bike messengers in your brain, zipping around to keep things running smoothly. In ADHD brains, there are fewer dopamine bike messengers. How can anyone expect the same amount of productivity with fewer messengers? That staffing shortage leads to these three main symptoms:
- Inattention: It’s not defiance or lack of comprehension. It simply means that staying on task, maintaining focus, or staying organized is a challenge.
- Hyperactivity: Maybe you move constantly (even when it's not appropriate) or excessively fidget, tap, or talk.
- Impulsivity: You might act without thinking, struggle with self-control, or crave immediate rewards. This can lead to interrupting others or making rash decisions without considering long-term consequences.
That’s a lot to manage during any day, much less a workday when you’re expected to focus on tasks, projects, and conversations. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that if you have ADHD, you might experience one, two, or all three of these symptoms. But remember, everyone's experience with ADHD is different and affects focus in unique ways.
How does ADHD affect focus?
Understanding the nature of ADHD allows us to make sense of how it impacts focus. Think of your brain as your web browser. Trying to focus with ADHD feels like clicking furiously between 72 open browser tabs and being unable to focus on just one.
Here's how ADHD might impact your focus:
- Forgetfulness: You might notice things slipping your mind more often than you'd like.
- Organizing tasks: Structuring tasks or projects can feel like a herculean effort.
- Impulsivity and restlessness: Acting on a whim or feeling fidgety is common.
- Time management: Tracking or managing time effectively can fall by the wayside.
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms might be less obvious in adults, but challenges with forgetfulness, difficulty prioritizing, or problems handling stress persist.
Jennifer Alumbaugh, a Neuroinclusion Accessibility Consultant who has both ADHD and autism, offers a unique perspective. Not only does she experience life with ADHD, but she also guides businesses and organizations in making their workplaces more neuroinclusive.
People with ADHD often experience fluctuations in focus, depending on what's demanding their attention, Jennifer points out. “If it is something we enjoy and want to be doing or learning, we can hyperfocus for hours, losing track of time,” Jennifer says. “If it is something we are not particularly interested in, it becomes increasingly more difficult to remain focused and present.” As you might have guessed, finding that balance between hyperfocus and lack of focus is a puzzle that has a massive impact on your work.
How will my symptoms affect my work?
If you’re always onto the next shiny thing or spend your time staring at the wall waiting for your muse to gift the perfect thought, you could find your workday extending long beyond what it needs to. You might find copywriter Amber L’s inner dialogue resonates.
ADHD symptoms like Amber’s can throw a wrench in your work life engine, impacting your attention to detail, time management, and follow-through. Here's how:
- Staying focused during meetings stretches your willpower to the brink.
- Keeping your workspace tidy feels like a constant uphill battle.
- Tracking time and meeting deadlines is like trying to catch a firefly.
Specific triggers—like stress, lack of structure, or mundane tasks—amplify these symptoms to add to the challenge. It's like driving in a traffic jam; the more chaotic it gets, the harder it is to navigate smoothly. But with the right strategies, you can navigate these obstacles.
8 tips on how to focus with ADHD
Beyond ADHD Coach Dr. Olivia Hua's tips above, keep in mind that the very term “neurodivergent” implies that your brain works differently than a neurotypical brain. “Unfortunately, many of the tips that are usually given to ADHDers are not developed by ADHDers and are not actually designed to work with an ADHD brain,” Jennifer says. “Try different methods and see what works.” Consider these tips worth trying:
1. Swap out to-do lists for project task lists
Instead of working through an endless list of tasks, swap out your to-do list for a project-based planning approach. Ask yourself: Which projects are urgent and must be finished now? Then, make the most of your time with these methods:
- Break down complex projects into manageable subtasks.
- Whittle down your day’s subtask list to a max of seven tasks. Include any that are almost across the finish line but not quite there yet.
- Batch similar tasks to reduce your mental load.
- Contrary to the popular Eat the Frog Theory, you might find starting with an easy task and a quick win more suited to your ADHD brain.
2. Create a structured routine
Following a structured framework to guide you through the day's tasks removes much of the guesswork that usually leaves you wondering how to prioritize your time. Following the framework frees your mind to focus on ideas and quality work. Here are ways to add structure to your day:
- Use project management tools like Sunsama to see your daily and weekly plans.
- Try the Pomodoro technique to stay on task, and remind yourself to take regular breaks.
- Schedule opening and closing routines for your days and weeks to enter the right headspace for focus.
3. Fight hyperfocus
Hyperfocus—when you're so into doing something, you lose track of time and everything else around you—can be a double-edged sword. While it can occasionally enhance productivity, it can also lead to hours lost on non-essential tasks. Consider some of these tips to avoid falling into a hyperfocus trap:
- Note what causes you to hyperfocus.
- Avoid scheduling these tasks near essential appointments or other important times.
- Set loud alarms or alerts that lift you out of hyperfocus to manage time spent on tasks.
- Use a visual timer like an egg timer, hourglass, or this popular visual timer.
4. Limit distractions
Distractions are the nemesis of focus. “All ADHD brains don't work the same way—what works well for one person may be a distraction for another person,” Jennifer says.
“Many ADHDers find working remotely helps with their focus because they have greater control over environmental and sensory factors that could otherwise be distractions in the workplace.” Here are some great ways to eliminate distractions before they’re an issue:
- Let the people around you know it’s time for you to focus.
- Set your phone to work mode to send calls directly to voicemail.
- Disable social media notifications to remove the multitasking temptation.
- Close or minimize tabs on your web browser and windows on your computer.
- Use tech tools like Sunsama’s focus mode and focus bar to block internet distractions.
- Wear comfortable clothes so things like scratchy sweaters and tags don’t annoy you.
- Consider using noise-canceling earphones to listen to music or white noise.
- Respond to calls and messages in batches at specific times.
- Set your thermostat to a comfortable temperature.
- Adjust your lighting and shut the door.
5. Power through boring tasks
Tasks that lack stimulation are also a struggle for the ADHD brain. Jennifer says, “If it is something we are not particularly interested in, it becomes increasingly more difficult to remain focused and present.”
The Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) suggests adding interest to boring tasks. Here are some ways to add an element of novelty to help you focus during your workday:
- Set a timer and race against it.
- Use aesthetically pleasing tech tools and office supplies to make tasks enjoyable.
- Use fidget toys, knit or crochet (discreetly), or draw so your brain can focus during meetings.
- Schedule each task and celebrate your victories—big or small—with a reward. Maybe it’s a cup of tea, a short walk, or anything else that brings you joy.
6. Use cues
A little reminder can go a long way because folks with ADHD tend to forget about objects they can’t see—out of sight, out of mind. Stopping what you’re doing to remember where things are or what to do interferes with focus. Here’s how you can use cues to help you remember:
Leave sticky notes with reminders in visible places.
- Record auditory reminders on your computer or smart home devices.
- Use tech tools that directly merge email and Slack messages into your daily tasks.
- Follow morning and evening rituals so your mind recognizes it’s time to start or stop your day.
7. Take care of your health
Since physical health directly impacts your mental health (and ability to focus), it’s beneficial to incorporate sensible health practices into your day. Here are some easy ways to take care of yourself that also help manage your ADHD:
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Get enough sleep each night.
- Practice meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness.
- Schedule regular physical activity like a walk, yoga, or stretch breaks into your day.
8. Voice your needs
While confusion and fear of rejection can lead to procrastination, keep in mind that your support network is on your side. Your colleagues, friends, and family all want to see you do well and can help provide you with resources to help you gain more focus.
One of Jennifer’s favorite focus strategies is working alongside someone else. “Body-doubling or co-working is when people get together for a set amount of time, check in about their tasks, then go on to do those things in the presence of others; or in some instances, having a friend on the phone or come along with you while doing chores or errands.”
Consider these other ways your network can support you:
- Let HR know accommodations that help you focus on quality work.
- Pair up with an accountability partner and check daily to discuss your progress.
- Ask questions of your clients, manager, and team until you fully understand your tasks.
While these personal and network-based strategies are valuable, there are also tools designed specifically to aid focus, such as Sunsama.
Find calm focus with Sunsama
Tired of those blink-and-you-miss-it days where you feel like your to-do list is defeating you? Sunsama is a tool that helps you gain better control over your workday. Features like Focus Mode and Focus Bar help you stay on track and get more done with less effort.
Sunsama also has a timeboxing feature that lets you break your day into smaller, manageable parts by dragging and dropping your tasks to specific times on your calendar. Using the “today” view, you can take advantage of filters to focus on what’s most important.
These features of Sunsama are designed to work with your ADHD, not against it, supporting you toward a more productive workday. Sign up for Sunsama’s free 14-day trial to bring more focus and less stress to your day.