How to Help Your ADHD Brain Handle Disruptions Part II: Dealing with Distractions
As I mentioned in an earlier article, chronic disruptions, interruptions, and distractions are a big issue with the lawyers and professors I coach. According to research, 68% of lawyers surveyed in a 2017 Legal Trends report state that there are not enough hours in a day, while 28% report having trouble keeping track of both tasks and deadlines. In my earlier article, called How to Help Your ADHD Brain Handle Disruptions Part I: Inhibiting Interruptions, I focused on specific tips to help you curb external disruptions. Now, let’s shift the focus a bit and talk about how you can manage distractions, which I consider to be internal disruptions.
Gloria Mark is a Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine and explores topics like interruptions, self-interruptions, and multitasking in this digital age. According to Mark’s research, about half of all interruptions are what she calls “self-interruptions.” Self-interruptions occur when you stop directing your attention to what you are doing and, for no apparent reason, direct your attention to something else. These are internal distractions.
They work something like this:
You are working in a nice, focused manner on writing a memo, when you have the thought that you need to order that toy you’ve been wanting for your dog. You stop working on the memo, thinking it will only take a minute to order the toy. On the surface, this makes sense. You are reducing your cognitive load by eliminating the need to remember or think about the dog toy, right? Problem is that you have shifted your attention to something unrelated to the memo and it will take you longer than you think to get back into memo-writing-momentum.
You have also set yourself up for what my clients call “the rabbit hole” problem. Say you quickly find the online pet store and select the dog toy you’ve been wanting. While there, you see a dog bed that looks cool. You check it out. It says it is specially designed for Dachshunds. You wonder Do different breeds really like different kinds of beds? Now you’re off and running, researching dog breeds online. You’ve inadvertently entered the time-sucking rabbit hole.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
Dog beds aside, self-interruptions can often be work-related. Say you were working away on the memo when you felt the need to reply to an email you saw earlier... Do you think that might send you down a rabbit hole? How long will it take you to return to memo writing after poking around in your email, with all of its heavy risk for interruption?
Self-interrupting with work is an effective way to avoid doing what you set out to do in your plan. You’re still working, right? The problem is that lawyers and professors with ADHD can spend nearly all day on self-interrupting, distraction-based work that is less important than what they have planned. Assuming that they have planned in the first place.
How to Decrease Internal Distractions
So here’s the big question... how can you handle those internal distractions? Here are some things to try:
Label your task.
When you are doing a task from your planned tasks, make a label for it. Yes, an actual label. Remember that people with ADHD work most effectively when they decide ahead of time and externalize their decisions but can often forget what they decided or externalized. So, label it. Remember the case study about Amanda from the first article (if not, read more about her here)? This little tiny strategy worked so well for Amanda that she said, “It changes everything!” She would write the task at hand onto a small sticky note. Her note could say, “make client calls,” “write memo,” or “revise agreement.” The type of task doesn’t matter when making a label. Then she would stick the note to her desk right in front of her. If she had an internally distracting thought, she would look at the label. She was only permitting herself to be doing what the label said, so if her mind was telling her to check online news, the answer was no. Externalizing her intention in such an obvious manner helped her to direct her attention away from self-interrupting thought and back to her task.
Keep a capture notebook.
Keep a notebook with you at all times. Or have one at all of your regular places: on your desk, in your car, by the bed. When you have a distracting, self-interrupting thought, write it down. That is all. Do not act on the thought. Just write it down. This gets that thought out of your brain; it reduces your cognitive load and reassures you that the thought won’t be forgotten. Write it down and return to your task. Later, when you do your planning session, you can take a look at your capture notebook(s) to add to your task list. It could be that most of these random, distracting thoughts will no longer be important to you when you revisit your capture notebook. That’s fine. You are working here to minimize interruptions to your focus.
Set an interval timer.
What if labeling the task and writing in a capture notebook fail? What if you are unable to resist the distraction? Then, the objective would be to contain the damage done by the interruption. You could try setting a timer to ring at regular intervals while working. Then attach a question to the timer: Am I still doing what I set out to do? If the answer is no, then try to pull yourself back to the intended task using the label and capture notebook. Get out of the rabbit hole. Sometimes it helps to do a physical reset to help get you out of distracting activity. When your interval timer goes off, stand up. Shake yourself. Stretch. These small physical actions can help break hyperfocus.
You might be thinking to yourself, “There’s no way I can reign in my ADHD brain to curb my distractions... it’s just how I work!” I’m not trying to convince you that you can completely eliminate external interruptions or internal distractions. But these tips will help you train your brain to stay on target more often and more easily – to focus on the task at hand, which will decrease your brain’s tendency to jump around from thing to thing.
Looking for more ways to manage distractions? Click here for some tips to help your ADHD brain stop multi-tasking and focus, and here to for some simple steps to get your ADHD brain to start (and finish) tasks.