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Perhaps you don’t need to get an ADHD diagnosis after all, or: why you may want to focus on problem solving

It’s 5 pm, and you’re in the middle of a big project at work. You’ve been working on it for hours and it’s starting to get late. You have a bit of an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), so it’s getting harder and harder to stay focused on your work. You know you will be in trouble with your boss if you don’t finish your project soon. As you start losing even more focus, your mind starts wandering off into thinking about what you have in your fridge and cupboards. Your productivity plummets, and before you know it, it’s 10 pm and you haven’t finished anything.

Abdicating control: the pathology-centered approach

This is a common scenario for people with ADHD who work from home or are self-employed. ADHD has been defined as a chronic condition entailing symptoms such as attention difficulty, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. People suffering from ADHD can find themselves struggling to stay focused on their work because of distractions like social media, phone calls, emails, or other things happening around them. 

But let’s cut you some slack. In today’s world, it is very easy to get distracted. This applies to pretty much anybody. You don’t necessarily have to have ADHD or suffer from any other health issue. Often reasons for distractions are more practical. While it is surely appropriate to acknowledge a health issue where warranted, one should also refrain from over-pathologizing. 

Viewing a problem from a different perspective, perhaps in more solvable terms, opens up space for individual agency. And reframing has been identified as a powerful tool by positive psychology for overcoming cognitive impasses in affected individuals. When it comes to agency, it makes a substantial difference to view, for instance, phone addictions in pathological (e.g., ADHD) vs. more practical terms (e.g., lack of self-discipline). Focusing on the former will most likely lead an individual to seek external help via medication. Framing the problem in terms of habits allows you to reclaim control, and devise a practical plan to regain self-discipline, routine, and order.

Regaining agency: the problem-solving approach

The first thing we need to do is identify what may be more proximate causes that render us unable to focus. Usually, when easily distracted people try to study or do something important for more than 5 minutes, they have issues staying on a given task. The brain’s been programmed for instant gratification and it is craving a dopamine rush. If you see yourself in this, you know those are the moments in which you start looking on Instagram or YouTube for entertainment because you cannot devote yourself to the work at hand. If you, in addition, make yourself believe that there is nothing else interesting going on in your life at that moment, your urge for distractions may be further heightened. So many fall prey to procrastination, making them fail at school, work, or whatever else they want to accomplish at a given time. This is where the vicious cycle begins. Self-fulfilling prophecies take hold. Negative self-talk wins over.

No need to throw the towel. There are ways to get out of the rabbit hole. Here are six practical tips for you to regain agency:

  1. Have a clear plan and set a timer (For a useful methodology, see our article on the POMODORO technique)
  2. Turn off your phone (and any other distractions) if you know you have to get work done – Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, for instance, recommends putting it into another room altogether for as long as you plan to focus (e.g., 1.5h).
  3. Focus on one thing at a time, don’t multitask.
  4. Reward yourself when you finish an important task or study session with something that doesn’t involve the internet. Let that ice cream wait for after you are done.
  5. Connect with others. Programs such as body doubling help you find a partner for mutual productivity support. 
  6. Leverage technology to help you keep track of your habits and stay disciplined (Download the Zario App)

The problems you’re dealing with may be just outside your field of focus. You will look for an external solution if your mind is constantly distracted. However, once you force yourself to turn that part of your attention back to the task at hand, one step at a time, you will eventually be able to break the cycle. Habits take time to change. Believe in the process.

So the best thing you can do for yourself is to start trusting yourself. If you really want to do something, no force in this world will be able to stop you. It would be best to start by endowing yourself with the proper mindset and an appropriate environment in which to thrive.

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