Taking focus tips from the ADHD / ADD community

Studying is hard for everyone. Working effectively and productively, without getting distracted or bored or discouraged, can be nearly impossible—for everyone. Even if you have no diagnosed or confirmed issues with focus or attention, staying on task can be a struggle.

But imagine that you found it so difficult to focus that you brought it to the attention of a doctor, and it was found to be so serious you were prescribed medication. Imagine facing each day with this level of disorder in your own mind, fighting with yourself to accomplish daily tasks.

That’s what it can be like when you’re diagnosed with ADHD / ADD.

And it’s at its worst when you’re trying to get work done. When engaging with academic or intellectual work, members of the ADHD / ADD community are essentially living life on hard mode. We all know someone with ADHD / ADD, if we don’t have it ourselves. We’ve experienced or seen the struggles during testing in school, or at work and in other “heavy focus” situations.

If you have ADHD / ADD, you’ve likely learned to cope, and adapt, and thrive. So who better to teach us to concentrate when our brains say “no”? Luckily for us, many people from those communities have shared the strategies they developed to help them succeed in their work.

So today, let’s explore some of the strategies recommended by people with ADHD / ADD. Whether you have ADHD / ADD or not, I’m willing to bet you’ll benefit from them.

Start your work or studying at the same time every day

RescueTime Google Calendar Guide Lead

It’s vital to instill habits in your mind and body from all possible angles, including physical, rhythmic, and subconscious patterns of behavior.

If your life and schedule allow it, start your routine at the same time each day. After a few days of doing the same things at the same times, your body and brain will begin to expect it. “Oh, here’s when we try really hard to focus.” Almost like Pavlov’s dogs, your brain will prepare itself for hard work, and the surge of effort required might go down a little easier. But you also will become more effective when you do sit down to work. There will be less friction, less of an adjustment period. Hopefully, after enough practice, you’ll settle in quickly and just go.

Set aside more time and lessen the pressure


A lot of the frustration that people with ADHD / ADD feel is related to the passage of time relative to the amount of work they’re able to complete. They often find themselves working longer to do the same amount of work as fellow students or work colleagues. This causes heightened feelings of pressure, especially when deadlines are involved.

Why do you need to work on the same schedule as everyone else?

Give yourself more time to work. Set aside extra time for projects, so if you stray from your path, you don’t need to worry about it. If you want to spend extra time on one portion of your assignment—to make doubly sure you got it right, or even just to take a little longer to think about it—you’ve allowed yourself the space to do it.

You are your own person, and you work at your own pace—and you do your best work when you’re comfortable and not pressured.

Scan your body and your mind


People with ADHD / ADD often describe feeling restless or unsettled, even going as far as saying it feels like something is under their skin, or darting around their bodies. Some people might call it “feeling antsy”, and everyone has experienced it at least once.

It can manifest as the dumbest thing in the world: an itchy foot, or not settling perfectly in your chair, or a vaguely uncomfortable article of clothing. Or, it can be something more subtle, like simply not feeling centered in your body—feeling off balance. These feelings can make working seem impossible—you’re just too restless and off-kilter.

Try beginning your work with a quick practice of mindfulness. Use techniques like focused breathing or a body scan. Find your center in your environment, and in your seat, before you start. Deal with any quick itches that might have popped up. And that’s just the warm-up for doing the same thing with your mind.

There’s a wealth of information and resources about meditation and mindfulness in general, but on a basic level, a mind scan can show you a top down view of your thoughts as they come in, where you can see them for what they are—fleeting, unfounded, distractions and nothing more. After some practice, you’ll be able to see a thought for what it is and contextualize it, instead of getting wrapped up in it.

Prepare your environment to help you succeed


If you’re in the culinary world, there’s an expression you’ve likely heard: “mise en place.” It means “everything in its place.” For chefs, that means every little ingredient chopped and prepped to its exact specifications—that quarter cup of celery is chopped in half inch segments and placed in its own little glass ramekin.

Then, in the flash and quick-paced rush of cooking, there’s no stopping to retrieve other items or chop more ingredients. The focus is singular—on the pot or the pan or whatever is cooking. Incorporate ingredients and stir. Simple.

This idea can be applied to your personal workspace. Files are at your disposal. Your stapler is put away in a drawer because you don’t need it right now. You’re less likely to get distracted or held up by something not being where it’s supposed to be, or any kind of clutter or extraneous items getting in your way.

And, as you begin your work, there’s one more thing you can do to give yourself the upper hand: start a Focus Session with RescueTime.

Set the timer for as long as you want to focus, and for the length of your session, RescueTime will monitor the time and your activity to keep you on track.

If you’d like, it will block unwanted websites and apps from stealing your attention while you’re in the middle of a Focus Session.

The hardest step of all: keep going


The heart of an issue with focus is, of course, distraction. And distraction, in its very simplest terms, is the temptation to do something else. To look somewhere else, to get up and go somewhere else, to open a new tab in your browser or see what games Steam has on sale.

But if we start with a tiny repository of will power, and we keep adding to it, and making it easier to access when we need it, overtime, we will see our ability to fight distraction growing.
When you feel that temptation to stop – even to do something harmless like “check what time it is” or “stretch your legs” – just don’t.

Play a game with yourself. See if you can work an extra 60 seconds without stopping. Then try 90 seconds, or three minutes after that. Impress yourself with your sheer force of will, negate those powerful messages your brain is sending you. Every minute that passes where you don’t give in should feel like an achievement—because it is.

Don’t make it harder than it needs to be

work fist bump

There can be a vicious cycle at play when you’re struggling with ADHD / ADD or inability to focus. Problems getting work done can lead to fear, avoidance, or resentment of work, when the solution is actually giving more time to work, and approaching work time without worry.

If you start to feel pressure even thinking about work, because you envision all the troubles you’ve had before, do your best to remove these thoughts from your mind. Lighten the load, and go easy on yourself by giving yourself more time, a little mindfulness, and a proper environment. Every new workday (or school day) is another chance to do better. The past is irrelevant. Believe in your capacity to work effectively, give yourself permission to be yourself, and go for it. Good luck.

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Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

8 comments

    1. Can’t tell you how much that means to me David! Thanks so much for the kind words.

  1. How can this be used to learn a new skill. I have attempted to learn Python programming I find it difficult to stick to the tutorial, loose concentration easily and give up.

    1. That’s a hard one. A good place to start would be with a low-pressure AND distraction-free environment, and maybe an ample supply of snacks and willpower. The key is what happens when you encounter your first bouts of resistance. Make it your whole intention to push through that wall and you might see an easier time on the other side.

  2. ADD is no longer the official DSM term. It has been subsumed into ADHD, and should be referred to as such if you want to properly signal ADHDers that your articles are legitimate and not just feel good mental health BS. Research is being done into what what was once thought to be ADD but with no hyperactive-impulsive symptoms might actually be, and the name of that new categorization is still being decided, but in any case is substantially different from what you’re discussing in this article, which is ADHD.

    1. Rob, thank you so much for the feedback and the important information! It’s so important to get this sort of thing right. We went ahead and updated the article a bit to reflect what you’re talking about. Our team is still learning and trying to do our best without being outright experts in this field!

      Appreciate you 🙂

  3. Rob is correct. There are three ADHD categories now. Hyperactive, Inattentive and Combo. Inattentive ADHD is what used to be called ADD. Plus you’ll find that makes usually have (but not solely) are Hyperactive, while females are (not solely) Inattentive. External struggles as opposed to internal struggles. I have inattentive. And I can sit on my butt all day long and never move.

    1. We cannot express how much grateful we are for this added information and context. Our understanding of this world continues to grow! Appreciate you deeply!

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