It would be an understatement to say that ADHD adults are prone to distractions. But does that mean you can’t do what you intend? Of course not. Sure, you’ll need to work at it, but you can learn and apply strategies to reduce ADHD distractions and their impact in your personal and professional life.
No doubt, your ADHD contributes to this tendency. Because that is the way your brain is wired. It craves the stimulation provided by something novel. And a distraction or interruption provides this novelty. But it has also become a habit. That is, you may automatically give in to interruptions or distractions, rather than trying to manage them.
And, if you want to change this, you can. So you do more of what is meaningful to you in alignment with your values, rather than going down one rabbit hole after another. Ready to see how you can do this?
What are Distractions and Interruptions?
Let’s begin with definitions to make sure we’re on the same page.
Anything that gets in the way of doing what you intend to do is an interruption or a distraction, whether it’s generated externally or internally. It might be a thought, somebody popping into your office, a sudden noise from outside, etc.…
And, while the impact of these interruptions and distractions may be similar, the strategies you use to minimize them will vary depending on the context. So, as you continue reading, think about how these occur in both your professional and personal life. And then consider which strategies you can use to mitigate both.
If you’re not sure what they are, the Urgent-Important Matrix below can help you identify the typical interruptions and distractions in your day.
How ADHD Adults Experience Distractions and Interruptions
Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario.
Though you’re not quite sure where to start, you set aside time when you’re not in meetings to work on a report due next week. But, just as you’re thinking about starting, a colleague pops into your office to ask a question. You’re trying to pay attention to the conversation but are distracted by the constant ping of your email notifications.
When he leaves 45 minutes later you just don’t feel like working on the report. Responding to emails feels more urgent now, and so you decide to tackle your inbox, telling yourself, “It’s almost time for the meeting with Bob. It doesn’t make sense to start working on the report now. I need to respond to these anyway, so I might as well do it now.”
By the time you get back from the meeting, it’s time for lunch. Then your afternoon is packed with meetings, including a meeting that was put on your calendar that morning. While you don’t think you need to go to that meeting, you weren’t sure how to decline. So, you didn’t.
Before you know it it’s already 5:00. While you’re not leaving the office until 6:00, you’re beat. So, you start looking at flights for your vacation, telling yourself you better get started, as you told your spouse last week that you would do it a few days ago.
On the drive home, you’re feeling frustrated because you didn’t even touch the report though that’s what you intended to do that day. And you wonder, “How am I ever going get this done on time?! I’ll probably have to do it at the last minute. Like usual…”
Time to turn scenarios like this around…
Step 1 – Create Execution Plans For Your Projects and Tasks
First, you’ll need an execution plan, starting with an objective — the outcome you want — at least the next action step and when you are going to work on it. You don’t have to flesh out the whole plan. But you do at least need to know where you’re heading and how to start. Otherwise, you will likely be more prone to giving in to distractions.
Because, if you don’t have this clarity, you might tell yourself, “I’ll figure it out later…” Though you have no idea when later is. It’s just not now. In these instances you’re likely deferring the discomfort of doing the hard work of figuring out what, how and when you are going do a task.
Then you may give into procrastivity – doing an easier task instead of what you intended to do. These are often manual tasks, like organizing your desk, sorting your email, etc. While these other tasks are distractions, you convince yourself it’s OK because, again, “They have to get done anyway.”
To minimize procrastivity, you’ll need to first be aware you’re procrastinating, of course. And then be curious by asking yourself:
- What are the objective(s) of this task/project? You should always be able to envision the outcome you want so you know where you are heading.
- What is the next action(s)?
- When is the next time I can start – work on this.
Just make sure you begin at the beginning wherever that is.
And, if you need help to get started, get help. While you may be reticent to ask for help because you feel you should be able to do it on your own, you also know the cost, of course, is remaining stuck. So, if you’re not able to do this on your own, externalize your thinking by processing aloud with somebody else.
Do you know the objective(s), next action(s), and work time for your current task(s) and project(s)?
Step 2 – Commit to Planning Your Day
The other key to mitigate giving in to distractions is to plan out your day. Otherwise, aside from scheduled meetings, you know you’ll likely default to whatever catches your attention or feels most urgent.
And these tasks may be dictated by other peoples’ agendas, which may or may not align with your own. That is, they may not be the ones that are most important in helping you reach your goals. If they aren’t, then you might end your days feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Because you didn’t do your essential work.
I know you may be working off a task list right now, telling yourself each day, “I need to get all this stuff done!” But I bet you often don’t have a good sense of whether it’s possible to do everything on your list. And so, your daily to-do list functions more like a wish list, right?
Step 3 – Decide How to Plan Your Day
Instead of using a “wish list,” use one of the following strategies to be more intentional about what you do each day.
One strategy is to choose the 1-3 tasks you must get done for the day. This works well when your day is highly structured with students, clients, meetings, etc. Setting this intention will help maximize the chances of getting at least these 1-3 tasks done, in addition to whatever is on your calendar.
You could also try time blocking, shown below. This strategy is particularly useful if your days do not have a lot of external structure. Be sure to add buffer time so you can reorganize your day as needed. Because you know your days rarely go exactly as planned, right?
A third option is to schedule reoccurring blocks of time to do certain types of tasks. For example, you may do your weekly review every Friday from 9:00 to 10:00 and misc. administrative tasks every Tuesday and Thursday 3:00-4:00. This can help reduce distractions because you can be confident you have a time when you are going to do these types of tasks, and will be less likely to do them whenever they pop into your head.
However you choose to plan your day, be sure to also pay attention to your energy levels and schedule accordingly, as much as possible.
Step 4 – Anticipate and Engineer Your Environment to Minimize Distractions
But, no matter how proactive you are in planning your day, your ADHD brain will seek out any novelty it can find. Think of your ADHD brain as a stimulus-seeking missile. 😉 So, despite your best efforts, interruptions and distractions can still blow up your plans. Unless you are proactive in engineering your environment to reduce the possibility of this happening.
Of course, how you decide to engineer your environment will depend on the context. For example, if you decide you want to close your door for 2 hours, and your workplace culture promotes an open-door policy unless there is a meeting, you may want to tell your colleagues about your plan.
With this caveat in mind, here are a few options you could try:
- Close your door. Alternatively, work in another location, maybe a cafe or a conference room.
- Delete distracting apps on your phone.
- Set aside 2 to 3 specific times the day to answer emails that are not urgent.
- Use a piece of paper to write down random thoughts and address them later.
- Work with an accountability buddy either in person or online. Many people I’ve worked with have raved about Focusmate.
- Set boundaries. You might say to your colleague when he pops into your office, “I really would like to discuss this with you, but I need to get this report done. Could we talk later this afternoon at 3 or 4?”
- Review the in-house messaging app, such as slack, once an hour.
- Set a timer to work distraction-free for short spurts of time, like the 25-minute Pomodoro.
- Use an app, like RescueTime, to block certain websites during times you intend to work.
What other strategies can you think of to reduce potential distractions and interruptions?
Why ADHD Adults Need to Manage Distractions and Interruptions
Transitions — stopping, starting, and task switching — brought about by interruptions or distractions means you end up doing less of what is meaningful to you. That is, you are less productive because you:
- forget where you left off.
- need time to ramp up and re-engage in the original task each time you need to start again.
- may not do your best work when you end up not having enough time.
- lose time to other distractions because it is more difficult to tune them out as you transition back and forth.
- become stressed and overwhelmed, maybe even frustrated or angry.
I know this sounds familiar…
What Is Your Next Step to Reduce ADHD Distractions?
So, what is one action you can take this week to reduce interruptions and distractions so you can do what is most meaningful to you in alignment with your values and allow you to reach your goals?
What is going to help you in following through in taking that action?