As I write this, I’m sitting in my office on my lunch hour. I can hear six different conversations going on around me along with the usual background noise: telephones, fax machines, printers, paper shuffling. Someone walks past my office and I’m distracted by her shoes. The bright red reminds me of watermelon. I need to buy some. I glance back to my computer screen and my open Excel spreadsheet, numbers blurring. It occurs to me that I should make a grocery list. But first, I need to look up some new smoothie recipes. When I click on my browser I notice that I’m at the login page for the financial management program I’m working with. I need to finish the requisitions I’m working on so I log in, then return to my Excel sheet for some more calculations. I reach for my pencil but as I turn my head, I see my notepad. On it, I have written: Grocery list items. I begin making my list. Cucumbers, kale, broccoli, almond milk, frozen blueberries for my smoothie… Yes! I need smoothie recipes. I turn back to my computer screen and the process begins all over again.
Distraction: this is the disease of the 21st century, and my generation is on the cusp. We’re sandwiched between the younger generation of kids who grew up having always had technology at their fingertips, and my parents’ generation, who grew up largely “distraction free.” I find myself increasingly getting carried away if I’m not careful, and jumping from task to task. The amount of information available online is truly overwhelming, and things like Twitter can easily fool me into sitting down for three hours to read interesting research articles. In the end, I feel exhausted and irritable. More and more of the people I talk to are feeling the same way, and the term “ADHD” gets tossed around casually by friends, colleagues and the news media. I’m left wondering: what is actually going on?
With the updated version of the DSM-V being released this year, the definition of ADHD is being broadened, as are the diagnostic criteria. Changes such as the requirement that symptoms merely “impact” daily activities, rather than “disrupt,” or changing the requirement for symptoms to have been present before 12 years of age, rather than 7 years, will mean that more adults and adolescents will qualify for a diagnosis. For many of them, this will also mean taking prescription drugs.
The treatment for adults diagnosed with ADHD is a combination of stimulant drugs and psychosocial interventions. These include training in skills such as organization and planning, as well as emotional regulation techniques and mindfulness. The results tend to show that while medication does help, adults benefit more by learning practices that help them to control their attention.
And as far as drugs are concerned, their use only addresses part of the problem. As a society, we’re so plugged in to social media that we’re losing touch with ourselves in a big way. Ours has become a culture of quick fixes and instant gratification. The attitude is that if you’re not instantly entertaining and engaging, you won’t earn anyone’s attention. Why should you? People have options, and if you aren’t going to be interesting, they will find someone else who is.
This is all well and good on the Internet, where we can click away from a website that doesn’t interest us, or open up twelve different tabs on our browsers because we keep coming across articles we simply “must” read, but what this translates to in the real world is inattention, forgetfulness, distraction, an inability to follow a train of thought to its logical conclusion, being constantly pulled in a million directions, and the illusion that we’re actually able to “multitask,” even though all research indicates otherwise.
We’re systematically training our brains to be ever more inattentive and rewarding that inattention. We do this every single day. How many of us have checked our personal emails during a work meeting? The emails themselves likely were not that important. But we were bored, so what’s the harm? I believe that consistently engaging in these types of behaviours sends a subtle message to our subconscious mind: you don’t need to pay attention. If you’re bored and restless, I will reward you with email, a text message, or a quick scroll through my Twitter feed. The end result may not be very noticeable in the short term, but cumulatively it may result in even more forgetfulness, inattention and distraction—and I’m speaking partly from personal experience, but also from careful observation.
Now more than ever, we seek practices such as mindfulness and yoga in to quiet the mental noise, to regain a sense of stillness within our mental space. As a yoga teacher, I hear people talk about this need for quiet. It’s a recurring theme today. There is too much mental noise. There is not enough time in a day. People can’t focus. They don’t know what they want. It isn’t so much about ADHD, but the culture we’ve created and have allowed ourselves to become a part of. The culture which says that it’s good to fill up our calendars with social engagements every week, and with project after project…and the never-ending “To-do” list. It’s too easy to fall prey to any of those things, and to the illusion that you can engage in “tabbed thinking” the way you do with tabbed browsing. It’s easy to imagine why it’s hard to sit down and focus on reading a book or a magazine article the old fashioned way, when you’re used to reading information online, where you can check out any time you please.
But if you’re finding yourself overwhelmed, frustrated, annoyed with interruptions, unable to focus or continuously checking your mobile during your team meeting at work or worse, during dinner with friends, you have to recognize at some point that you have a problem. And it might not necessarily be ADHD. So before you go diagnosing yourself (or allowing your doctor to diagnose you, for that matter) with a mental disorder, take a moment and think about what you could be doing differently. Maybe the answers are closer than you think.
Tips for removing distractions from your environment
1. At work: if you work in a large office, as I do, all the background noise that you think you’re ignoring is actually bogging you down. Buy a pair of headphones and find some good classical music. It’s soothing, and the fact that there are no lyrics is fantastic. If you have Internet access at work, sites like Soundcloud or 8Tracks are great options.
2. At work: If you have a document open and you’re working on something, finish your task before you go back to check your email. Don’t jump around. Switching tasks over and over in response to your inattention or lack of creativity reinforces the behaviour. Subconsciously you’re sending your brain the message that if you’re bored, you’ll be rewarded with something else, with a momentary break. Don’t give in. If you have to stare at a blank spreadsheet for half an hour, do it. Take breaks every hour but don’t use them to surf the net. Get up and walk somewhere—the kitchen, water fountain, bathroom, photocopier.
3. At work: If you have a tendency to get carried away while you’re doing other things, keep a notepad on your desk. Whenever you get a brilliant idea or think of something you simply must research, jot it down. It can wait for later. Set aside some designated time every day to do this. Don’t do it on your lunch hour, and don’t do it over dinner.
4. With friends: put away your cell phone. Pretend you’re in a movie theatre. Nobody is allowed to look at their phone until dinner/lunch/coffee is over. The world isn’t going to come crashing down if you ignore your phone for a few hours. And every time you give in to that urge to check your email, your text messages or your Twitter feed, you’re taking precious moments away from your relationships and sending the message that whoever is sitting in front of you isn’t that important. Furthermore, you’re reinforcing the idea of distraction to your brain, by rewarding its inattention and obsessiveness with those mini interruptions. So stop doing it. It’s not worth it.
5. Anywhere else: Stop playing with your phone. Resist the urge to “check” if something is happening in the online world. Nothing is happening and nothing is more important than your life, right in this moment. You don’t need to respond to a text message right away. Doing so sets up a precedent and the expectation that you’re always available at the push of a button. You’re a human, not a robot. Stop behaving like one.
6. At home: clear the clutter! Clutter in our environments affects our mental state. Seeing a stack of papers or a disorganized desk contributes to the feeling of mental noise.
7. At home: listen to a meditation tape or some soothing music. Take some time to just breathe, and be as you are. Resist the urge to get up when you remember something important. Take ten minutes and really be there, in the space. Nothing else matters.
8. In general: go to the gym, do some yoga, or take a walk—without your smartphone. Breathe deeply and really inhabit your body. Allow thoughts to come and go. It will do you a world of good physically, but exercise will also burn through tension and frustration, and leave you feeling more clear-headed.
Take some time throughout your day—whenever you want to reach for your computer or your phone, and take five deep, conscious breaths before you do anything else. Then, move forward consciously and deliberately. You are in control, and you can surround yourself with stillness. You just need to take the first step.