Staying Focused When You Have ADD (And Even If You Don't)

Last Updated May 16, 2011 10:55 AM EDT

In response to my post Do You Have ADHD-Or Are You Just Easily Distracted, Jake Dempsey, who runs a small startup in Denver, wrote to me about his lifelong struggles with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and how he learned to overcome his inability to stay on task. The tactics he describes below can not only help those with the disorder, but can help anyone who has issues with procrastination or who has become easily distracted by the internet and their multi-tasking lifestyle. Here's Jake's story:

"I was diagnosed in middle school with ADD. My mom was a bit of a hippy and asprin was about the strongest medication we ever had in our house, so I was never medicated. I muddled through college and worked in construction, but I had to find a trade where I was only on a job for a couple of days or I would end up going nuts. It was frustrating.

I worked my way into the white collar sector after getting married. I started in customer service, where I was talking to new people all the time so it kept my mind busy. From there I moved into sales, and then into management. I have been mostly successful because I embraced my limitations and have surrounded myself with reliable people that understand how I work. The things I can do, I do well, and other things I delegate.

But more recently, I learned to manage the lack of focus from a mentor who was in the same situation. She pointed them out after she watched me work furiously all day long, leave the office completely exhausted, and get nothing done (some days were better than others).

I became infinitely more productive. Here are a few things that have helped me get through my day, and in fact I believe I am more productive than most people in my office:

  1. I listen to Beethoven or some other classical composer playing very quietly in the background. If I am home working I like the TV on very quietly. I never know what they are saying, but the background noise helps me focus for some reason.
  2. Accordion file. I number it for each day of the month. When I have a task to do I print it out and put it in the file for the date I need to address it. Every morning, I sit down, check my email, and pull out that day's tasks. Once I work through them, that pressure is gone. I no longer have that nagging feeling that I may have missed something important.
  3. Exercise. Every hour or so, I get up and walk around. I just need to get my face out of the computer and get the wiggles out. I find that a few minutes away helps me, then it is right back to the grind.
  4. Plan B. Under the "must-do" pile, I have other tasks that need to get done. When I am done with my daily stuff, I can transition right into the next group of things to do. I don't have to hunt for more work and get distracted. If I wait until I am out of things to do for the day to decide what to do next, I will take forever to decide what to work on.
  5. Planning. At the end of the day, I get my Plan B things ready for the next day. I find that once I am in my groove for the day, it is easier for me to plan the day before for the next day comes.
  6. Just do it. The first task of the day is the hardest to start. Once I do it, the rest just flows. The longer I wait to get started, the harder it is to get going.
  7. Communicate. In the past, I would let people pile things on my plate until it became overwhelming, at which point I would shut down and nothing would get done. Now, when I am getting tasked with too much, I just tell the people that they need to slow it down.
  8. Be honest. I, unfortunately, have little in the way of a verbal filter. I have since learned to tame it down. However my honesty has allowed me to communicate my unique needs to my managers. This has helped them to understand how to better manage me, to see when I am getting overwhelmed before it starts to build to a destructive level, and has earned me a great deal of respect.
  9. Accountability. I made "reasonable and attainable" goals with my management or by myself, but I always told someone else. I found that when I was accountable for things, I would strive harder to hit those goals, even if it meant staying longer.
I still have off days, like everyone else, but they are fewer now. Since I know how to manage the problems brought about by my ADD, it does not define me."
Do you have tactics that help you stay focused at work?
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy of flickr user rmkoske
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.