How to focus with ADHD

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Imagine this: You buy a new, shiny planner to Get Things Done™.

After two days of absolutely not getting things done, you come across helpful stickers that, combined with your planner, can help you check off every item on your to-do list.

And ooh! There are some new pens too that can help with color-coding your calendar. They’re so pretty!

You watch around seven to nine videos to learn how to use color coding, stickers, and your planner.

But oops, you’ve completely forgotten where you kept your planner. You probably lost it — along with your motivation.

Sound familiar?

It’s a common scenario for all of us, but it’s especially frequent among people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And it’s not their fault.

Why it is so hard to focus (and harder with ADHD)

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity.

When it comes to deep focus, several things are working against the ADHD brain:

  • Our brains have a Default Mode Network (DMN) and a Task Positive Network (TPN). DMN lights up when we daydream, remember the past, or plan for the future. It’s when you hold your focus loosely, and you’re not trying to accomplish anything. TPN, on the other hand, is responsible for focusing on a task that requires your uninterrupted attention.

In neurotypical people, DMN activity decreases as TPN activity increases. But in ADHD brains, the correlation isn’t negative — meaning both networks of the brain remain active at the same time. This dysregulation of the default mode network explains why you experience that magnetic pull away from the task at hand and into a distraction.

  • The ADHD brain has an impaired executive function — the part of the brain that helps us get started on our to-do lists, organize projects, and sustain focus. This impairment is why despite really wanting to tackle a task, you find yourself unable to begin and maybe even experience a sense of paralysis.
  • Studies have also found atypical activity in the reward system in people with ADHD. The reward system is a group of structures involved in reinforced learning, motivated behavior, and anticipation. Unusual activity in this part of the brain is why you overestimate the value of short-term rewards compared to long-term rewards — directly affecting your ability to plan and make decisions.

Dr. Rebecca Jackson, a neurodivergent coach, says ADHDers need their jobs to be exciting and interesting to keep going, but that condition isn’t often fulfilled in the current workspace and society:

We don't fully understand everything about ADHD and ADHD brains, and we need more research. However, it seems like ADHD might be linked with brain systems to do with motivation and reward somehow, as well with the regulation of attention. Western Capitalism prioritizes and rewards visible productivity and funnels people towards repetitive work for regular pay — the "reward" is the wage, and not the work itself.

The conclusion? Forcing focus is not possible for your brain chemistry. So, the “buckle down and do it” advice can be maddening when you have ADHD.

The good news: You can use strategies to create an ideal environment for deep focus. It might be challenging, but it’s not impossible.

Here are five tips to help you stay focused — specifically for the ADHD brain.

5 tips to help you stay focused

Disclaimer: While we ensure all studies we link to are high-quality sources and interview experts or people within the ADHD community, none of the tips mentioned below should be considered medical advice.

Please consult your doctor for medical purposes or if you have doubts about incorporating any method in this article into your current treatment.

#1: Monotask by manipulating your environment

Multitasking is a myth, regardless of whether you’re neurotypical or neurodivergent. But for the ADHD brain, staying focused on the task at hand can be a daunting challenge. Inattention or getting easily distracted is all too common and one of ADHD's core symptoms.

What’s worse? Our computer devices, the Internet, and social media are designed to keep us glued to them and disrupt concentration.

So how can you — who’s used to doing everything at the same time — gasp, monotask? By tweaking your environment to encourage monotasking instead of multitasking. Here’s how:

  • Fullscreen: Use the fullscreen option when working on your computer, so you aren’t distracted by other applications.
  • DND: Put your phone and laptop in the “Do not disturb” mode while working on important tasks. Most notifications from emails, social media, or texts are like attention auto-debits — they aren’t urgent but take away your focus from the task at hand.
  • Enter Sunsama’s focus mode: Do you know your biggest distraction from the present task? All the other tasks on your to-do list. You want to get started on a vital job A, but all the other B-Z items obstruct your focus. To combat this, use Sunsama’s focus mode. When you enter the focus mode, all the other tasks on your to-do list get blocked out, and you only see the title of the task you’re currently doing.
  • Practice time-blocking: Block time on your calendar to do the important tasks on your to-do lists. You’re carving out and protecting this time only for the scheduled task — without feeling like you’re supposed to be doing something else.

⚡Pro-tip: Assign time blocks for your distractions as well — like, say, setting a fixed 15 minutes for email or social media at the end of each workday. This way, you batch-check your distraction rather than getting interrupted by them throughout the day.

  • Mix up two tasks: Doing one job at a time can feel too restrictive for people with ADHD — especially if the tasks aren’t interesting enough. So, Jessica of How to ADHD recommends choosing two things to do, like a project at work and reading, and alternating between the two. Got bored of work? Switch to reading. Too distracted by reading? Switch back to work. It might take longer, but it’s a great option if you need variety.

#2: Make timers your BFF

The ADHD brain has trouble meeting deadlines because of its frequent struggles with procrastination. Why? It’s because you have a different perception of time than the neurotypical brain.

This flawed processing of time is why you might put off things until the last moment — it introduces enough stress to help you focus.

But high-pressure deadlines and procrastination aren’t the healthiest strategies to get things done.

Enter: The Just-Enough-Stress Timer.

Timers are an ADHD brain’s best friend because they help you structure your tasks into short bursts of focus time. Having a mini-deadline of the timer gives you just enough stress required to stay focused.

For example, if you have to give the house a quick dust, set a timer of how long you think cleaning would take you, and get started after playing the timer.

Timers can be immensely helpful in pushing yourself to begin tedious tasks you don’t really want to do — helping you think, “Just for X minutes, and then I can take a break from this boring task.”

The best part? Having a timer tick-tick-ticking in the background can also help you monotask because you know you only have to do the assigned task for the timer’s duration.

But what about when you start doing a task and can’t stop to take a break? Hyperfocus is a common symptom of ADHD — where you concentrate on something so hard you lose track of time. You tune out your surroundings, forget you have to eat, and breaks go out of the picture.

Timers are also helpful if you tend to hyperfocus because when it shuts off, you know it’s time to stop.

They also gamify boring tasks: Set a timer ➡️ Do the task with the highest focus only for that duration to win ➡️ If you win, hurray! You get a break.

You can use a Pomodoro timer — where you work for 25 minutes and take a 5-minute break. Decide in advance how many pomodoros you want to finish for a particular task.

Kunal Pathade, a TikTok content creator and mental health activist, vouches for the Pomodoro technique:

I put on the 25 minute pomodoro timer and watch the clock countdown which motivates me to get started on the first step. I continue to reset the pomodoro timer, so as to essentially break up my day into 25-min blocks.”

If you’re using Sunsama’s focus mode, you can simply hit the “break” button and take a short break from your task without ever leaving the screen.

But there’s a catch: ADHD brains often underestimate how long a task would take. It’s the voice in your head lying, “It won’t take that long!” or “I’ll have time to do this tomorrow!”

There’s even a term for it with an apt name — magical thinking.

But keeping track of how many pomodoros you need to finish things can be another task in itself. And who has the focus for that?

Sunsama has an in-built timer that helps you track how much time a task took versus how much you had planned.

Tracking this data will help you get a sense of how long your tasks actually take — helping you plan better for the future.

Take this a step further and use Sunsama’s shutdown ritual to set a cap for when you’re done with your day.

Damon Manley, an ADHD coach, says the shutdown ritual is one of his favourite Sunsama features:

My first experience with this feature blew my mind! It was something I knew I needed, but never expected to get from other products that may be similar to Sunsama. At the end of my first workday, I was in the process of slamming myself with negative self-talk due to having, what I thought was, an “unproductive” workday. I felt as if I had only truly worked 2-3 hours out of my 8 hour day. That was until I started my Daily Shutdown on Sunsama and realized that I had in-fact overworked myself. I had tracked over 9 hours of work throughout my day.

#3: Create a distraction journal

You’re doing the laundry when you suddenly remember you need to do the dishes. You leave the laundry midway and arrive at the sink — you glance over to your dog and remember his vet appointment is due.

You stop and open your phone to book an appointment, so you don’t forget. But you opened TikTok first, and now you’re scrolling until you have a string of unfinished tasks haunting you at the end of the day.  Ugh.

There’s no doubt about it: Distraction and ADHD are synonyms.

An excellent way to not follow every thought that comes to your head is to create a distraction journal — write down the thoughts, subsidiary chores, and anything else that pops into your head while trying to finish the present to-do list item. Come back to this list after the task is complete.

Keep a notebook handy in every room of your house, or use an app for this to-do list dump.

Dani Donovan, an ADHD content creator and illustrator, recommends creating an ‘idea parking lot’ in your planner — like she has done in her own activity book, The Anti-Planner: How to Get Sh*t Done When You Don’t Feel Like It:

“Freely put those ideas in an ‘idea parking lot' that sound really pressing and important right now, but aren’t the priority. This allows you to come back to your ideas later without feeling like you’ll forget about them.”

Your distraction journal can also be helpful if you have trouble sleeping — a common problem diagnosed in people with ADHD. Emptying your brain into a digital or physical journal makes your brain feel lighter, increasing your chances of falling asleep.

#4: Ask for what you need

You have different needs, and that’s A-OK. Be comfortable asking for what you need — whether it’s not wanting to sit near a window in the office because it’s too distracting or needing an accountability partner to stay on track for a project.

Clearly asking for what you need will help you become the best worker/partner/friend/employee — a win-win for everyone.

#5: Break down your tasks into smaller chunks

Sometimes, you can’t focus because you know you have a huge task ahead of you, but you don’t know where to get started. And if you do begin, you feel you’re dropped in the middle of the ocean, not knowing which direction to take next.

Cue: New shiny distraction!

The harsh truth? Avoiding a task doesn’t make it go away. Getting it done does.

So, how do you start to climb the mountain of a project ahead of you? By breaking the big assignment into smaller chunks.

Let’s say you have to prepare for an important client meeting next week. Instead of getting overwhelmed by directly beginning your research, take a step back and break down all the research you need to do into clean and simple steps.

Now, just focus on taking the first step and forget the rest. Then take the next step. Then the third one after that. And before you know it, you’ve done your meeting prep whispers early.

Use Sunsama’s sub-tasks feature to break down these steps and get a clearer picture of everything you need to do to finish a task.

If you’re still unable to get started on the first step, notice what’s holding you back:

  • Is it a lack of structure? Set cues or a schedule for yourself. For example, “Once I finish an episode, I’ll work on my project for 20 minutes.”
  • Is it stress? Maybe you feel what you do won’t be good enough. Or perhaps you’re afraid something bad will happen. Combat your stress by breathing techniques, taking a walk, or talking it out to someone who’d understand.
  • Is it because the task is boring? Find elements of the job that interest you or play music while you work or gamify it by setting up a reward (oh! A cookie!) for each step you complete.

Start small — you’ll be surprised how many times you want to keep going.

You’re not lazy — be kind to yourself

It is easy to compare yourself to the capacity of a neurotypical person and feel incompetent.

If your internal monologue is often harsh, saying things like, “Why can’t you just start?” or “Why do I keep doing this!” you’re going to have a hard time making peace and adapting with your productivity and concentration.

Focus is like the weather — sometimes it's all clear sunny skies. Other times, there are sun-blocking dark clouds. Rather than forcing the weather to change, ride the wave and accept where you are in the moment. Zone in what you can manage — the key is working with your ADHD brain (rather than against it).

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