I grew up with ADD. As a child, it was a constant struggle trying to manage my attention. In high school, I forced myself to work ahead on homework through math lessons so I wouldn’t get in trouble for fidgeting or talking to my neighbor. In college, I became a note-taker so I was forced to focus in lectures.
Now, as someone who struggles with adult ADD, I know all too well how hard it can be to hold your focus at work.
Whether I’m robotically hyper-focused on one thing or flitting around between tasks, trying to get things done can sometimes feel like listening to a radio that keeps changing channels.
As a result, I’ve picked up a few tricks for shepherding wayward attention. Hopefully they’ll be as helpful for you as they are for me.
1. Pick One Thing to Do
If you can multitask successfully, more power to you — though the argument could be made that you’re overestimating that ability. But if you’re like me, writing an article while fielding emails and answering texts is a great way to fail three things at once.
The best skill I’ve learned to avoid multitasking is to simply take away the option: Pick one item off your to-do list and put the rest of the list out of your reach. I recommend a desk-drawer. At the bottom of the ocean.
Now take that one thing and follow the wisdom of Nike: Just do it. Don’t do anything else, and don’t stop until it’s done. And on that note:
2. Set a Deadline
Think back to college. Remember that time you had a paper due for a 8 a.m. class, and you were still working on it an hour beforehand? Remember how intensely focused you were?
You can tap into that focus any time you want. Set yourself an immediate deadline, such as “two hours from now.” This is an amazing way to lock onto a task, and you can do it over and over again throughout the day.
When you set deadlines right, your schedule is nothing but a list of tasks and time-limits, and you blast through the day in a white-knuckle haze, like an astronaut wrangling a ship through reentry. That feeling when you touch down on the other side of a finished day? Awesome.
3. Eliminate Potential Distractions
This one could easily make up a whole list of its own, so I’ll be as broad as possible: You need to identify anything that has even the slightest chance of interrupting you and then kill it.
Phone? Bury it in your bag. Stomach? Fill your desk with snacks. Email, Facebook, Twitter? Check them at predetermined points throughout the day and keep the browser closed for the rest of your distraction-free day.
More than that, though, you need to make sure your immediate work-environment is free of distractions as well. One way to do this is to get a stripped-down desk with no drawers to minimize clutter. Another way is to do your work from a log cabin in the Adirondacks. You do you.
4. Wear Headphones
I cannot stress enough what a powerful weapon a pair of headphones can be. If you work at a desk, then you’re Conan the Barbarian and a pair of headphones is your sword, shield, bow and wise-cracking companion all rolled into one.
First, a pair of headphones physically chains you to your computer. Second, they shut the world out and cut off all noise. Third, they pump in noises that induce focus.
Finally, there’s something to be said for the ritual of putting on headphones, keeping them on until you reach your deadline. Donning headphones to tackle a task is like going to war. Taking them off when you’re done is like sheathing a sword. Mission accomplished.
5. Work in Short Bursts and Take Frequent Breaks
A lot of jobs will give you a set amount of break-time and tell you they don’t care how you use it. If that’s true for you, I recommend you resist the easy temptation (taking it all at once, at lunch-time) and do what your smoking friends have been doing for years: Break up the day into bite-size chunks to make it easier to manage.
How often should you take breaks?
Most efficiency experts advocate a break you’re overestimating that ability, and the science backs up that number. However, a break does not mean minimizing the work-stuff you have in one tab to open Facebook or Twitter in another. It means getting away from your desk and, more importantly, getting on your feet. Prolonged periods of sitting will literally you’re overestimating that ability. Nothing yanks you out of the zone like a heart attack.
6. Pay Attention to Your Brain
The most important lesson to take away from all this is to listen when your brain is trying to tell you something. If you’re bored with what you’re doing or get stir-crazy at your desk, that’s your brain rattling the bars of its tiny skull-shaped cage.
If there’s anything the experience of ADD teaches, it’s this: You can’t ignore your brain, and you can’t fight it — after all, it knows what you’re thinking. But you can make peace with your brain, establish a professional working relationship and set clear boundaries: Take one task at a time, set clear deadlines, remove the temptation of distractions, break up the day with frequent breaks and buy yourself a good pair of headphones.
What system or tip would you add to this list that helps you focus at work?