Attention, Focus, and Organizational Strategies for Getting Things Done
Whether you have ADHD, think you might have ADHD, or simply have occasional difficulties with focus and follow through [like most humans], this is the blog entry for you.
I don’t have to tell you that in this era of smartphones and social media, we are more easily distracted than ever before. Here are some strategies that can help you be more focused, organized, and to get things done:
OHIO (Only Handle It Once) – The concept of OHIO works because there is less to keep track of, and thus perhaps less overwhelm, when you wait to do things until you can manage the whole portion. That can apply to a lot of things but some examples would be only checking email when you have time to respond, only checking texts when you have time to respond, only starting homework when you have the time set aside to get [at least some of] it taken care of, only getting your snail mail when you have time to sort it. It’s less for the brain to track and remember.
Use of Future Self – “My future self will be happy if ___________” Generally, along with our principle of OHIO (Only Handle It Once), doing the task sooner than later will help your future self. For example, “My future self will be happy I put gas in the car on my way home versus having to scramble the next morning on the way to school or work”.
Have a Place for Everything and Everything in its Place – Having a designated spot for important items – such as keys, phone, wallet, glasses – will cut down on time and frustration looking for said items. A decorative bowl, hooks, or a small table all close to the door to your home or room are some ideas of a good place for your important items.
Placement of Your Keys – If you drive on a regular basis, put your car keys in a place next to something you want to make sure you don’t forget to bring when you leave home. An example would be putting your car keys in the refrigerator so you don’t forget to bring the lunch you packed with you when you’re heading out. I know I just said have a designated spot for your keys, so this strategy may conflict, but see what works for you and/ or use it in combination. An alternate strategy is to put the things you don’t want to forget in front of the door you will exit, so that you are more likely to remember to grab them on your way out the door.
Sticky Notes – Make sticky notes your friend. Write reminders on your door or mirror or another place where you will see them regularly. Things to write on sticky notes may be important dates coming up, assignments due, daily reminders such as “phone, wallet, keys”, or safety reminders (“Did you turn off the stove?”).
One Thing at a Time, All the Time – Multitasking can tend to make us do multiple things more poorly than if we focused attention on one item at a time. (this is especially true for important items that need your concentration) This also helps with when you’re overwhelmed because, when you’re overwhelmed, everything seems overwhelming. If you take one thing at a time, all the time, you can move from what’s right in front of you/ what’s most important then on to the next task rather than starting multiple things at once that you may not remember to finish or may be time sensitive (eg, getting food out to make a sandwich but then leaving it out for an hour while you got distracted doing something else = not great).
15 Minute Cleanup – how cluttered your environment is can have an impact on how disorganized or overwhelmed you may feel. The 15 minute cleanup strategy is to daily take at least 15 minutes to do some tasks to keep yourself organized. Examples are: picking up your room, putting dirty clothes in the laundry hamper, washing the dishes, straightening your desk, or sorting your mail and recycling the junk mail.
Temptation Bundling – bundling an activity or reward you like with something that you don’t like can be a strategy to get the non-desirable activities done. Examples include only watching [insert show you like] while you’re cleaning or folding laundry; only allowed to drink [insert beverage of choice] if you’re cooking, so that you’re cutting down on take out, etc; listening to [favorite podcast] when you’re exercising. I know I said that multitasking isn’t a great strategy, but it can sometimes help in this temptation bundling way and especially with activities that don’t take your full concentration (eg, folding laundry).
Screen Time Trackers – Do you tend to get sucked in to the vortex of social media? You go to check one thing and then all of a sudden you’ve basically wasted 45 minutes? Policing yourself by setting screentime limits on your phone may help you better focus on the things that are more important to you, saving social media for when you’ve earned a well-deserved break and for a certain amount of time per day.
Break Tasks into Smaller Steps – Sometimes the “big picture” goals can be overwhelming and thus hard to get started on. Breaking larger tasks and goals into smaller steps helps make them more manageable and therefore more likely to get done and/or be able to track your progress on something. Google can be a helpful resource for identifying smaller steps to something; for example, googling “how to find a job” will give you small steps such as create a resume, make an account on indeed.com, etc.
Distraction Free Zone for Working/ Homework – What are the optimal environments in which you can get productive work done? My guess is it’s not in a space where there are a lot of distractions. College students may do well to study or do homework at the campus library versus in their dorm room where there may be noise, friends stopping by, or other things to suck attention. Finding a separate room or corner in your home that can have decreased stimuli, or taking your laptop to a coffee shop are other suggestions.
Building Habits by Bundling Habits – when you want to create a new habit, it helps to bundle the new one with a habit or activity you already have in place. If you brush your teeth regularly, put a new medication/ supplement by your toothbrush to help build the habit of taking your medication daily. If you make coffee in the morning, do push-ups or sit ups during the five minutes you’re waiting for the coffee to be ready, to help you with that exercise goal. Think of what habits and routines you already have in place and see what you can add to those.
Shift Focus When Needed – If you lose focus or interest in something you have been working on for awhile, put on a short timer for a short break, move to another important activity, or focus on something else that is important to you but less stressful than activity #1.
Using Your Optimal Time-of-Day Energy – Some people have more energy at certain times of day, such as being “a morning person” or “a night owl”. Use your natural energy spurts to your advantage and save less important tasks or free time activities for times of day you are not as naturally energetic or focused. Other people describe having a certain amount of time per day in which they can be productive, so harnessing that for priority items and 15 minute clean-up may be a good idea.
Reward and Discipline Yourself/ Be Your Own Parent – Using things that you like or that motivate you (eg, meals, treats, phone time, screen time, fun with friends) can be helpful as a reward for tasks. For some of us, as children, our parents set up reward charts. While we have outgrown the need for M&Ms to reinforce our making the bed, it certainly couldn’t hurt! Examples include “I can have lunch as soon as I read two more chapters”, “I can go on my phone as soon as I send those three important emails”, “I can have dessert tonight if I have done my workout”
Got Motivation? – if you have trouble motivating yourself or staying motivated, this goes hand in hand with focus and attention strategies. You may benefit from a blog entry in my archives on motivation strategies: https://hopeintherapy.com/how-your-teen-can-motivate-themselves/