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How to Help Your ADHD Brain Handle Disruptions Part I: Inhibiting Interruptions

Are you tired of feeling disrupted, interrupted, and distracted?

Does it seem like there is never enough time in a day? It’s not surprising. The lawyers and professors that I work with are chronically disrupted, interrupted, and distracted at work. According the nearly 3,000 lawyers that responded to a 2017 Legal Trends Report, 68% find that there are not enough hours in a day and 28% have trouble keeping track of both tasks and deadlines. These stats are for lawyers in general, not specifically those who have ADHD. When you add ADHD to the equation, the likelihood of struggling with time and task management increases even more. I know that the professors I speak with would report very similar levels of disruption. While I have not found any research specific to professors with ADHD, I’m confident that the lawyer-specific stats illustrate what work-life is like for all demand-ridden professionals as well.

The Problem with Interruptions

Interruptions are a big issue and are at least partly to blame for this problem. Lawyers experience chronic interruptions – 55% report being interrupted 6 or more times per day.* I’m sure professors would report similar stats, if the research existed.

According to the Trends Report, “Interruptions are especially counterproductive when they require shifting attention to different tasks on unrelated topics. For example, taking a call from a client or prospect not associated with the matter at hand forces a shift in cognitive resources that makes it more difficult to resume the original work.” Accepting an interruption is like changing which play you’re performing in the middle of a performance. Your actors will be worn out if you ask them to try that 6 or more times per day!

Switching your attention back to your original task after an interruption is no walk in the park either. Gloria Mark is a Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. As an expert in “informatics,” she explores topics like interruptions, self-interruptions, and multitasking in this digital age. Her research shows that getting back to work after being interrupted by an unrelated task takes an average of 23 minutes. Take a moment to think about how these stats will affect your billable hours, grading productivity, or writing quality. Six interruptions on an unrelated task, each of which takes 23 minutes from which to recover, adds up to 2.3 hours lost to interruptions per day. Ouch.

Why ADHD Loves Interruptions

When you have ADHD, you might welcome interruptions. You tell yourself that you must be available 24/7 and take every interruption because your brain prefers to be interrupted to focusing on a boring, complicated, or onerous task. Interruptions are novel, and therefore easier for the ADHD brain to aim attention towards. Interruptions might be frustrating, but they are usually more appealing than planned work. So, you could be more accepting of interruptions than you really need to be.

The interruptions measured in Legal Trends are external, meaning they come from things other than us -co-workers, clients, or students stopping by to chat, email notifications that need to be taken care of immediately, phone calls from frantic family members, or even urgent revisions of a brief. Admittedly, some external interruptions are necessary and inevitable. But if you’re being honest with yourself, I’d imagine you’d admit that some (or even maybe most) of the things interrupting your day aren’t. So that begs the question... is there a way to reduce the number of interruptions you face so you can have more control over your time and simply have more time?

How to Inhibit Your Interruptions

In order to limit the number of external interruptions, Mark suggests staying home, away from an office filled with potential interference. While this strategy might work well for some, if you have ADHD you need to be careful. Working at home, alone, requires self-regulation. People with ADHD are, by definition, not able to self-regulate well. If you work at home, you will need to construct an environment to help you regulate your behavior, to keep you on track, to limit your non-work activities.

A Case Study

Amanda was able to work from home one day per week. She usually stayed home on Fridays, as there were fewer meetings and she could spend some of her time doing her weekly planning away from the office. Problem was that Amanda would get very little accomplished on Fridays. She didn’t want to give it up –yoga pants, hanging out with her dog on the sofa, listening to music. But she was not able to regulate her own efforts. She spent too much time “easing into” her day by making tea, reading the news, playing a little Candy Crush. She was missing her helpful external set up that she had at the office, so she forgot to look at her plan. She drifted from unimportant task to unnecessary task, unconsciously avoiding the important, but less appealing, tasks. Being alone with discretionary time is high risk for negative ADHD behaviors. Therefore, working at home might not be the best solution for limiting distractions for you.

Are we really so subject to external interruptions that we have to run away from the office to minimize them? Perhaps not... As we saw with Amanda, working from home isn’t always the best solution.

Here are some helpful tips to help you limit interruptions in the workplace:

Be less accommodating

Tell people you are busy and will get back to them. If you are not used to setting boundaries with others, it can help to have a script, like I’m in the middle of something right now. Can we chat at another time? Or, I’ve got to wrap this up, so I need to follow up with you later. Practice saying not now.

Set up an interruption unfriendly environment

Close your office door more often. Wear a noise-canceling headset. Set your status to Do Not Disturb. Let the phone go to voicemail. Turn off all notifications. Schedule time blocks to check voicemail and email. Turn your desk so that you face away from the door.

Practice pausing during decision points

When someone stops by, the phone rings, or your email notification dings (you still have those on?!), you can take moment to pause. This is a decision point. The decision is between accepting the interruption and not accepting it. Because there is pressure to move one way or another immediately, and because the ADHD brain enjoys new stuff much more than old stuff, it is easy to accept the interruption by default. So, practice pausing. Take 2 or 3 seconds. Don’t turn your head toward the door, pick up the phone, or switch to your email screen. Just sit still. Ask: Do I needto accept this interruption? Try to remember that it could take you a long time to return to your task if allow it (an average of 23 minutes). If you decide not to accept the interruption and there is a person waiting for you, pull out your “not now” script. If it is the phone or email, just ignore it. You will not forget to check your voicemail or email later. If there is true emergency, then people will let you know by calling again or knocking louder.

It might feel hard (or even impossible) to fend off interruptions, especially when you’re used to being “on-call” to everyone at every moment –but these steps will become less uncomfortable with practice. They require you to retrain your brain. The bonus? They will ultimately help you retrain others and teach friends, family, and colleagues how to interact with you in a way that respects your boundaries and allows you to limit the amount of interruptions throughout your day. Sound good? I think so, too!

Stay tuned for a follow-up to this article – How to Help Your ADHD Brain Handle Disruptions Part II: Decreasing Distractions.

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