15 ways to improve your attention and stay focused

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Focus

Focus.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

15 ways to boost your ability to pay attention and stay focused.

Most of us were never taught how to stay focused and pay attention. We were told to “pay attention” and if you didn’t or couldn’t you were told that there was something wrong with you. Maybe you were even told you had ADD/ADHD. You may have that disorder and need professional help, but my suspicion is that a lot of us could stay more focused and pay better attention if we tried a few simple techniques.

Getting organized and staying organized are skills you can learn and practice to keep yourself focused and on track. Here are some tools that well-organized and focused people use to keep themselves moving forward.

1. Tell yourself you can do this – not that you can’t focus.

Tell yourself that with or without an attention issue you can and will learn ways to improve your focus. Self-talk is powerful. If you say you will improve your abilities in this area you will. Continue to say you can’t and you will not ever improve in this area.

If you find it is difficult for you, find out why. What is the thing you still need to do or learn to be more focused and better organized?

2. Make lists of to-do’s.

If your mind is full you can’t process new information. Trying to remember all you have to do today will reduce your ability to pay attention to the task at hand.

Making a list of what you need to do and writing it down will help you get organized. You can pick from the list the most important thing to do first and then move on down the list. What you do not get to was probably not that important. That or if you still are not getting to everything on your list – too much to do is the problem.

3. Prioritize to help you remember what is important.

Which thing needs to be done first? You need to write a report. You decide you need to look for sources, write an introduction and then complete the report.

Bouncing all over the place doing one thing and then another leaves you with lots not done and increases the chances you will forget things.

4. Do the most difficult thing first.

Leaving large tasks for last means they never get done. Your mind will protect you by taking you off task. Go after the big one first and once this is out-of-the-way the other things you need to do will be the more manageable.

Whenever possible avoid all those have-to-do things that people do before the project. Doing too much getting ready puts off the task until you run out of oomph.

Forget sharpening all the pencils and cleaning off the desk before you can start to write. Write first and then sharpen those pencils or clean off unneeded things during the breaks.

5. Set a specific goal first to stay on task.

Decide what you want to do. Work on that goal as long as possible. If you find yourself off task relax for a moment and then refocus on the original task.

For very large projects build in some step back and think some more time. This keeps you from wearing yourself out working on things that do not help you achieve your ultimate goal.

6. Break your task up into small size parts.

Slice big tasks up into small chunks. This coupled with the list making technique can allow you to do small things and do them one at a time rather than becoming overwhelmed trying to stay on task over a large task and a long time frame.

7. Do not let your mind distract you – add things to your list and keep going.

If your mind keeps talking to you about other things you need to do, avoid thinking about those other tasks right now. Write them down on your to-do list and clear your mind then refocus on the original task.

8. Plan what you will be attending to ahead of time.

Are you listening to a talk on your favorite topic? Will you be learning a new skill? In what area? Knowing why you are going to need to pay attention lets you stay focused when you need to and lets you go on autopilot when this is a fun attention-is-optional activity.

9. Set a routine that gets you in the groove.

If we humans had to think over each and every thing we were going to do today many of us would still be in bed. If you have a routine way you do routine things you can get more accomplished and leave mental capacity for the new tasks you will need to tackle today.

Whenever possible establish a set procedure for things you do often. Having a set do-step-one then step two, the process helps you stay focused.

10. Practice your routine until it becomes automatic.

Professional athletes, Olympic hopefuls and other performers know this well. When the ball is coming towards you is no time to have to think about what you will need to do. Practice your skills. Practice them over and over until they become automatic. When they are automatic moves practice some more.

Over-learning, continuing to practice skills that you have already learned is the key to being able to stay on track during times of stress or excitement.

11. Do not try to do two things at once.

There are very few times that people can really do two things at once. Good multitaskers are even rarer. Multitasking is the great myth of our times. Focus on one thing at a time for optimum performance. Do not be thinking about what you will do after work while working.

The time needed to switch back and forth and decide what task to do next takes time away from all the tasks you are working on. Do one thing at a time for best results.

12. Avoid sounds that will pull you away, use white noise and background music to neutralize the distractions.

Some people can focus best with background noise. If you do this look for instrumental music or white noise sounds. Avoid talk radio or interview shows where you will be tempted to switch your attention back and forth between the noise and the task.

Mindless sounds, instrumental music or other non-interfering sounds can help drown out distracting sounds.

Some tasks are best performed in low noise environments with the door closed.

 13. Plan breaks and movement.

Frequent breaks do not interfere with attention, they improve it. Move around in your chair, get up and walk, take a mental break and your overall attention will improve. Every few minutes look far away and blink. Give yourself small diversion to improve your concentration. If you try to stay in one position and focus your eyes on one task for too long you will discover that your body will develop aches and pains to draw your attention away.

14. Do not stay stuck on something you can’t do – try skipping it and coming back later.

Avoid getting stuck in a loop going over and over something you are unable to do. Take a break, move on to another task and plan on returning to the project later.

Sometimes a break will allow your subconscious mind to keep working on the issue and the solution will suddenly come to you. At other times you may decide you need to seek out help or advice from someone who knows how to accomplish this task.

15. Simplify your life to improve your attention.

If you find you are chronically off task. If you bounce from thing to thing but rarely get anything done or if you are always forgetting things, the problem may well be that you are trying to do too many things and that they are all getting the same priority. Sometimes more is less, especially in the area of staying on task and being productive.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

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What causes Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – ADHD?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Sad child

ADHD?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

What do were really know about who gets ADHD and why?

Developmental Psychopathology is the discipline that studies why one person gets a mental illness and another does not. This discipline also looks at how a disorder develops over the lifetime. Developmental psychopathology has a lot to tell us about who gets ADHD and why.

The picture, when it comes to ADHD and most other disorders is not as clear as we would wish. With all the people currently taking meds for ADHD, you would think that professionals would know what ADHD was and what was causing it.

Both of these questions are fuzzy.

Developmental psychopathology tells us that there are two primary ways of behaving. Some people internalize and hold it all in. They are prone to depression and anxiety.

Other people externalize and let it all out. They are likely to get in trouble, get labeled oppositional defiant, conduct disordered or even anti-social.

People with ADHD may internalize, externalize or do both.

What we call ADHD is in essence three different problems and those problems can occur in multiple combinations. First the three problems and then the possible causes.

1. Impulsivity – poor behavioral inhibition is the defining characteristic.

Poor impulse control is a prominent feature of most children. It also affects many adults both with and without ADHD. So if you find it hard to control your impulses you are at risk of getting an ADHD diagnosis.

This makes ADHD hard to differentiate from bad behavior or criminal behavior for that matter. Some have argued that most people in prison are there because they have ADHD. I find that hard to believe.

But when we see the way addicts and alcoholics struggle to not drink and use, then that feature of loss of behavioral control seems to fit a lot of socially unacceptable behavior.

Impulsivity looks a lot like acting out or externalizing behavior.

2. Inattention.

Paying attention, in my view, is a skill that people can learn or improve. We believe, partly based on the existence of the ADHD diagnosis, that there are some people who have difficulty focusing their attention when they try to do that.

Impulsive people have more difficulty sustain their attention because they keep getting distracted by other things that catch their attention.

Inattention or impaired ability to sustain attention is a characteristic of internalizing disorders. When you are depressed you can’t pay attention. Neither can the anxious person. So professionals need to be very careful to not call depression or anxiety by the wrong name – ADHD.

3. Hyperactivity.

This is a problematic criterion some of the time. What is hyper or excessive activity is in the eye of the beholder. The child who will not sit still in class looks hyperactive when they are in class. The child who sits quietly in their seat looks normal.

But put these two children out on the soccer field and the child that sits down and watches rather than plays looks under active and the child that runs after the ball for long periods of time, they become the star player.

Increase the amount of exercise and the child that is hyperactive may calm down and sit still. This running to cure ADHD is the precise opposite of the fall-behind-in-your-work and you lose your recess approach.

All three of these factors, poor inhibition of impulses, inattention, and hyperactivity can occur in varying amounts and combinations in any one person. This makes us wonder about causes of ADHD.

Is there one cause of ADHD or many?

A number of things have been identified as risk factors for ADHD.

There are also ADHD protective factors.

1. Genetics play a role in who gets ADHD.

Up to 75% of the risk of getting ADHD can be accounted for by various genetic factors. Wish this explained something. There are at least 7 different genetic mutations affecting two different neurotransmitter systems that increase the risk. This 7 genes in all the possible combinations results in up to 5,000 different combinations of genes that may increase the risk. But this risk factor does not guarantee you get ADHD and there are other risk and protective factors.

These genes are not specific to ADHD so they may be causing other mental illness and these illnesses may be risks for ADHD.

2. Environment, especially parenting, is a risk factor that may explain the other 25% of ADHD.

For most people parents provide both genetics and environment which makes it hard to disentangle the effects of the two.

One thing we find that helps solve this puzzle is that if a parent has two of the symptoms of ADHD, say dad has ADHD and is inattentive and impulsive, there is a high chance that his son will not only have ADHD but will also be inattentive and impulsive.

The children of parents that have ADHD have a high incidence of the same form of ADHD the parent had.

Things would be simpler if people had one and only one disorder. But most people with ADHD have two, three or more.

Almost half of all children with ADHD also have a diagnosis of Anxiety disorder. This complicates treatment for children with ADHD. In adults, one thing we are told to recommend to our clients is to reduce their intake of caffeine and other stimulants, like amphetamine. But for kids with ADHD and anxiety disorder, the treatment is to put them on a prescribed amphetamine.

I find this confusing. If it makes you wonder, talk with your prescribing psychiatrist about your or your child’s meds. (Yes there are non-stimulant ADHD meds but they do not get prescribed all that often.) Side effects of prescribed medications can look like a mental illness. If you have confusion, depression or anxiety and are taking prescribed medication discuss your emotional problems with your doctor and see if your meds could be causing some of your symptoms.

A second disorder that coexists with childhood ADHD is a substance use or abuse disorder. Occasionally the ADHD child is doing drugs but a lot of the time it is mom that is on drugs and this increases the risk of the child having ADHD even if mom does not start drugs until after the child is born. Yes having a mother who is using increases childhood ADHD.

Having a depressed or anxious mother also is a risk factor for developing ADHD.

There have been even more studies on dad than mom in the ADHD area. If dad had any acting out problems as a child there is at high risk that the child, boy or girl, will also act out and get in trouble at school and with the law.

We do know that the ability to pay attention develops over time and that there are ways to increase your ability to pay attention other than taking meds. It also appears that the brain circuits that control attention also overlap those for emotional regulation. More on these topics in posts to come.

Did that help explain ADHD and its possible causes?

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

How many kinds of attention are there?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Attention sign

Attention sign.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

You need more than one kind of paying attention skill

One kind of paying attention skill is not enough. From the first day of life, you had to pay attention. As you grew and developed you needed to learn other attention skills. There are reasons why you may have found one kind of paying attention more difficult than another.

In a previous post, we looked at ADHD and how people get the ADHD diagnosis because of behavior. That behavioral deficit gets blamed on the attention paying part. Turns out that we are not all talking about the same thing when we say “pay attention.”

Starting from the day you were born here are the paying attention skills humans need to learn.

1. Alert attention – recognize that there is something out there

From that first day, babies begin to attend to physical sensations. They recognize and respond to hunger and thirst, hot and cold and all the other physical needs.

You will never stop paying attention to those feelings of hunger or the startle response to loud noises.

Many people have their alert attention volume set to high. The result is that a nose in the next room causes them to jump out of their skin. This can result in an anxiety disorder. Some people get ADHD diagnosis because of anxiety not any lack of attention. The just respond to and attend to sights, sounds or smells in an excessive manner. They can’t seem to ignore these Alert attention cures.

Life experiences, single or complex traumas, can increase this startle response form of “paying attention.”

2. Orienting attention.

By three months of age, a baby not only alerts to a stimulus but tracks that stimulus. You hear a sound, you jump. Then you look intently for where this is coming from. You stare at the stimulus. In the meantime, you have forgotten all about what you were doing and thinking about.

This tracking, attending behavior, draws you away from what you were attending to in the first place. This easily distracted form of attention tracking can keep you safe if something dangerous is going on but it can be annoying to other people, notably adults if the child stopped paying attention to the adult to attend to tracking this sudden stimulus.

3. Sustained Attention.

This paying attention skill causes the most problems for most people who end up in therapy. Too much or too little of this attention paying skill gets you an ADHD diagnosis.

In sustained attention, you need to keep your attention on one thing while ignoring all others. So the teacher tells you to read your storybook for the next ten minutes. Sustained attention keeps you reading.

People who find that they are paying attention to alerts have problems sustain attention. Someone in the back of the class starts talking you turn around to listen and you get in trouble for “not paying attention.”

If you are good at tracking attention you might see someone walking by the classroom window and you track their progress. You might even get up and walk over to the window to see where they are going. This gets you in trouble for “not paying attention” to your reading despite the fact that you are getting really good at tracking attention.

Too much-sustained attention is a bad thing.

After the ten minutes, your teacher tells the class to stop reading it is now time for math. You, having mastered sustained attention, do not hear her and continue to read. You are now attending to the story and it is interesting. The result is you get in trouble for “not paying attention” to what the teacher is saying.

There is a related phenomenon we see in substance abusers. When under the influence of a stimulant drug, methamphetamine, in particular, they have excessive sustained attention. They refer to this as “getting stuck.” The person may begin to clean the kitchen floor and two days later is still down on their knees cleaning the cracks in the tile with a toothbrush. They have become stuck and can’t shift their attention.

This makes me wonder if some of the benefits of stimulant ADHD medications are the result of “Stuck attention” in which the person can sustain the attention for long periods of time but may not be able to use the other forms of “paying attention.”

What you needed at this point is the next form of attention “Executive attention.”

4. Executive attention is the ability to move your attention around as needed.

With good executive attention, you can attend to what you want to or should be attending to. Sometimes as in the last example these two attention demands are in conflict. You want to continue reading but you need to shift your attention and take out your math book. This attention issue is one you will continue to develop across your lifetime.

Remember your first-grade teacher’s demands for attention when you are retired and your spouse asks “where you listening to me?”

5. Selective attention.

Most attention researchers list three kinds of attention. The trouble is they do not list the same three types. Some researchers include selective attention under executive attention others under sustained attention.

What happens is that over time you develop personal rules for how you decide what you will pay attention to. This may have to do with your interests. It may also have to do with how hard you get hit if you do not select the form of attention an adult is expecting.

Worth noting is that problems with selective attention overlap almost all known forms of mental, emotional or behavioral disorders. Defects in selective attention processes are linked to autism spectrum disorders, depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety, psychosis, ADHD, learning disorders, behavioral and conduct disorders.

This makes me wonder if ADHD, or selective attention defects specifically, is a cause of symptoms in these other disorders or is it a symptom of another problem that is not getting recognized until much later in life? You can have ADHD, Anxiety, depression and a substance abuse problem. But which is causing which is another topic.

Stay tuned for more posts on the subjects of attention, ADHD and how you might learn skills to improve your attention.

Keep working on your ability to use all the types of paying attention.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

What is causing the ADHD epidemic?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Sad child

ADHD?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

What is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and why is it on the rise?

ADHD appears to be everywhere. It is spreading faster than obesity. In my therapy practice, most of my adult clients tell me that they were diagnosed with ADHD at some time in the past. Most of them have children with an ADHD diagnosis. It is common for the young people who come to see me to have, as their first diagnosis, ADHD.

ADHD is now something everyone gets. Over a nine-year period, the number of girls diagnosed with ADHD increased 600% (Robinson et al., 2002.) It is no longer exclusively a diagnosis of children as adults and even senior citizens are receiving the diagnosis.

One author tells us that if the current trend continues, within 20 years, half of all children will be on an ADHD med (paraphrased from Shannon, 2009.)

Why is ADHD so common and what is fueling its spread?

To answer this question there a number of factors we need to look at. What is ADHD? Even more basic, what is Attention and what is hyperactivity? We also need to know is attention abilities something you are born with or does it develop over time? Are there things you can do to improve your attention or is this just the way you are? Are there alternatives to taking stimulant meds and do those alternatives really work?

The relationship with other mental emotional and behavioral disorders is also important. There is a lot of overlap between having ADHD and having Autism, depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.

There are also cultural factors in ADHD. Certain population groups are more likely to get the ADHD diagnosis than others. Who gets diagnosed also is affected dramatically by who does the “testing” and who gives out the diagnosis.

There has been a lot of research on ADHD and its treatment recently. As I am able to read that research I want to report back to you what I find out and how you may be able to apply these ideas to your life or the life of someone you care about.

From the day a child is born there is pressure to behave in certain ways. Some children are more active than others. Some from day one have better abilities to “pay attention” but genetics is not the whole story of why some people are diagnosed with ADHD and others are not.

Learning to pay attention.

Regardless of age, a person can learn skills to improve their ability to “pay attention.” We can also learn skills to reduce or increase our behavior. Let’s begin our review of the ADHD phenomenon.

ADHD is not one thing but several.

We professionals used to have two separate diagnoses for these issues, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD.) If you go back farther in the psychiatric literature these issues had other names.

The idea was that some people, mainly children, were not good at “paying attention.”  Mostly we thought that this was a lack of effort on their part and that they just needed to listen better. Most people with a predominantly inattentive issue did not cause anyone any problems and so did not get noticed until they were much older and came asking for help. Sometimes this inability to “pay attention” was written off as low intelligence or a learning disability. Sometimes those things were factors but often they were not.

We have studied attention a lot and it turns out there are a number of different skills that we call “paying attention” and that those skills develop with time and can be learned. More on the subject of what attention is and how it develops in upcoming posts.

Most ADHD diagnoses are about Behavior!

Most ADHD diagnoses come about because the child’s behavior is upsetting an adult. The child does not stay in their seat, talks too much and generally disrupts the classroom. Some parents tell us that their children are “hurricanes” and are always in motion. So if the child does not stay in one place, moves a lot and causes problems for adults, this gets them evaluated and probably diagnosed.

Hyperactivity is very situational. If a child runs all through the soccer practice and is fast at running around the track, they get A’s from the coach and may become track stars or pro soccer players. That same child who is never in their seat in the classroom will get in trouble and probably placed on meds.

To avoid this ADHD diagnosis the child needs to develop the ability to regulate his behavior. A whole lot of factors, like diet and opportunities for physical activity, can affect a child’s ability to sit still. When most people lived on farms and in rural communities there were more opportunities to “work off” that energy. Now, most people on planet earth live in cities and they stay inside a lot more.

Some of my clients have told me they are not allowed to go outside because of the gangs and the drive-bys. Their parents tell me they are scared to let the kids out of the house. One client has two bullets in him from drive-bys. Any questions why his kids never leave the house?

One theory is that ADHD, the hyperactivity part, is a failure of human evolution to keep up with our changing environment. This may also be true of the inattentive part as we will talk about in the future.

ADHD also coexists with depression and anxiety

Many children’s first diagnosis is ADHD. They are then placed on a stimulant medication to treat this hyperactivity on the premise that the behavior problems are caused an inability to “pay attention” meaning a failure to do what the adult says.

It does not stop there. Before long, because their behavior is causing adults problems, we change this diagnosis to “Disruptive Behavior Disorder.” Eventually, this may run the gamut of “bad child diagnoses” to Oppositional Defiant Disorder or even Conduct Disorder.

In the teen years or adulthood, we then discover that this person was depressed or had an anxiety disorder all this time.

One treatment for anxiety disorders in adults is to tell them to avoid caffeine or other stimulants. This is a conflict if they are taking stimulant meds for their “ADHD.”

I fully believe that there are children who warrant the diagnosis of Disruptive Behavior Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder or even Conduct Disorder. They and the others in their lives need help. Just saying that we professionals and society need to be looking for depression and anxiety issues also.

So next stop would need to be this area of attention. What is the ability to “pay attention” how much are we born with and how does it develop.

The day you were born you had some ability to “pay attention.” In the next attention post, let’s look at this day-one ability and how your attention abilities change and develop over time.

Please think about how you learned to pay attention or what the barriers to that were.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.