#Mental Health

Know Your Attention Span: How To Reduce Distractibility

Mental health and weight gain, reduce distractibility, internalised sexism, PCOS and mental health
Michael Phelps holds 23 Olympic gold medals in swimming. But when he was a child, he had a major problem with inattention. As early as kindergarten, his mother was told that “Your son will never be able to focus on anything.” He would speak fast and couldn’t keep eye contact for long enough. Gradually he started becoming a mischief-maker in the school in order to get more attention e.g. once he turned on all the gas burners to trouble classmates with the smell. He couldn’t sit in one place and found it very difficult to focus on the task at hand. When he learnt to swim, he found it liberating. He felt that swimming slowed down his mind. He was diagnosed with ADHD in sixth grade.

Inattention and easy distractibility are very common in Adult ADHD. In the 21st century, the attention span of non-ADHD people has also markedly reduced compared with what it was just 22 years ago. So in today’s article, we will take a look at some techniques which can improve the attention span of ADHD as well as non-ADHD people.

Know your attention span

Although finding out your exact attention span is difficult as it depends on multiple factors but an approximate amount of time you can sustain attention is important to know. The purpose of this exercise is to know the length of time you can sustain attention in a boring or unattractive task without stopping. So keep a record of how much time you can sustain attention in your work without getting distracted or taking a break. Repeat this multiple times to find out if a consistent “attention span” emerges.

Distractibility Delay

It is often reported by people with ADHD, that when something pops up in their mind, they keep the task at hand aside and do the activity which popped up in their mind. E.g. when reading a report, if they get thought about whether the boss has replied to the mail sent by them a day before, they will keep the report they were reading aside and start checking their inbox. Once they start checking the mail, they might see some other emails and start reading them. They feel that they might forget the new task and would never complete it. The purpose of the distractibility delay technique is to get the distractions in mind on the paper so that one can focus on the task at hand. So set a timer for a reasonable time which is more than your attention span e.g. 30-40 minutes for doing a task. Keep a paper and pen with you before starting the task. When a distraction pops up in your mind, note it down on the paper but don’t take any action on that. Again focus your attention on the task you were doing. Remind yourself that you will get back to the distracting thought later. After that timer goes off, look at the list and decide if any of the distractions require your immediate attention. If the list has some important tasks, add them to your master task list. This technique can also be used during meetings to avoid interrupting others during the meeting.

Controlling the environment

If there are fewer external distractions, people with ADHD can focus better. So controlling the environment can be of immense help. Think about what distracts you during work e.g. mobile phones, the internet, people talking, people walking around, food etc. Do something to reduce these distractions e.g. switch off or keep your mobile on silent, change the place you sit to work etc. Offices with an open floor plan where multiple employees sit together in order to increase engagement have become very common nowadays. Adults with ADHD can find it very difficult to sustain attention in such a place. If you can focus better in a quiet environment, check if you can get a separate cabin at least for doing tasks which require sustained attention. Use earplugs to reduce the noise from the office.

Use reminders

If you get distracted too often put reminders on your smartphone or alarm clock every few minutes. This is to remind you about the task you should be doing at that time and not get distracted. When the alarm sounds, ask yourself if you are doing the task planned or have got distracted. Bring your attention back to the task you were supposed to do if you find yourself distracted.

These techniques can help a person with ADHD but adult ADHD is a long-term condition. Many of these habits are formed after years of behaviour in a particular way. So medications for treating symptoms should be discussed with a psychiatrist. Behaviour therapy can also be required to deal with issues with adaptive thinking. Usually, a combination of these methods works the best. Many people have succeeded in their lives in spite of ADHD. So don’t let ADHD become an obstacle to success and happiness in your life.

Dr Chinmay Kulkarni is a practising psychiatrist in Mumbai. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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