No, it’s not your ADHD. You just don’t know how to focus.
Ican’t count how many times I’ve heard people make excuses for their attention span. “My attention span is, like, two seconds.” “I’m just so ADHD.” “I can’t just sit down and work for six hours in a row.” “I’m like a squirrel — hey look, squirrel!” Our culture sees our attention spans as something fixed, immutable, like hair color and eye color: something you either have or don’t have.
Like most of our cultural narratives, this is total bullshit. The reason you can’t focus is that no one ever taught you how.
One thing not many people know about me is that I was raised in a household with two autistic brothers. I don’t mean a little autistic — you know, a little awkward, social delays, periodic obsessions — I mean a lot autistic. My childhood memories are not of going to soccer practice, but of sitting in the waiting rooms of speech therapy clinics for my brothers. The state sent medical professionals to our house for four to six hours a day, five to seven days a week, to teach one of my brothers basic skills, skills like using the bathroom and asking for food. As a result, I knew more about how to live with intellectual and mental disabilities by age 12 than many medical professionals themselves do.
The one lesson this taught me, more than any other, is that there is always a workaround. If he couldn’t form the words to ask for food, my parents could print out little pictures of his favorite foods he could point to. If he couldn’t figure out the name of the movie he wanted to watch, my mother could teach him how to put in the tapes himself. If he couldn’t stomach store-bought chicken nuggets, my grandparents could make him chicken nuggets that wouldn’t upset his stomach.
In the medical parlance, these are called interventions — specialists intervening on behalf of the disabled person.
So when I started displaying symptoms of ADHD around age 13 — an inability to remember my class schedule, let alone my homework assignments, a constant fidgety feeling in class, the nasty habit of reading a book for ten hours straight and forgetting to eat and go to the bathroom —I didn’t ask a parent for help. I didn’t tell my teachers I couldn’t remember what the assignment was. The solution was obvious: develop a workaround. So at age 13, I became the only student with a day planner, calendar, and to-do list.
My friends called me a nerd. My teachers thought I was just so responsible (until I brought a Palm Pilot to class — then they called me a distraction). I didn’t know what was wrong with me; I knew I didn’t care about school all that much, but I didn’t know how to tell anyone that I needed my hyper-organized binders and my day planner and my todo list and my Palm Pilot or I was going to melt down. It was eight years before a therapist correctly identified these as good interventions for severe ADHD.
By then, of course, I had already realized. Not only have I been using a calendar and to-do list since age 13, I’ve been using a matrix of coping mechanisms since my early adulthood:
- a serious dedication to minimalism (which also began at 13)
- a commitment to inbox zero
- a policy of spending at least two days at home every week to decompress
- a policy of immediately putting phone numbers, addresses, and other information in a contact file, lest I forget
- a policy of requiring first and last names for all contacts
- an advanced knowledge of how to use all computer search-and-find functions
- a complicated system of alarms and reminders
I’m sure there’s more… if only I could remember them.
These interventions work — for people with ADHD, and for anyone — because they reduce the load on your working memory.
Working memory is a cognitive system with a limited capacity that is responsible for temporarily holding information available for processing. Working memory is important for reasoning and the guidance of decision-making and behavior. Working memory is often used synonymously with short-term memory, but some theorists consider the two forms of memory distinct, assuming that working memory allows for the manipulation of stored information, whereas short-term memory only refers to the short-term storage of information.
— Wikipedia, Working Memory
When someone asks you to remember some numbers, that’s a load on your working memory. When you just remember everything you need to get done in your head, that’s a load on your working memory. When you just remember your schedule in your head instead of putting it in your calendar, that’s a load on your working memory.
The bad news is that your working memory is not infinite. Like RAM on a computer, too much information packed in your working memory will cause space shortages. Eventually, data gets deleted. For your working memory to perform well, it needs the most space possible. When people keep to-do lists, calendars, and binders of information, that’s what they’re doing — freeing up their working memory for more important things.
Unfortunately, our brains didn’t evolve for modern life. The demand modern environments place on our working memory is incredible. In addition to the normal todos, scheduled events, and information you need to remember, there’s sensory information like:
- Your constantly beeping phone
- Your useless Facebook account
- Your overflowing email
- The road noise outside your bedroom window
- Your neighbors stomping around or yelling at random hours of the night
To get even a minimally acceptable level of performance out of your working memory, you have to fight a torrent of stimuli. In modern society, nobody has a long attention span unless they do what it takes to have one.
So, when I hear people complain about their ability to focus, to remember names, to remember things they need to get done, I immediately take a look at them and ask myself “what interventions are they using?”
To-do List + Calendar
When people tell me they have the attention span of a fish, the first thing I ask myself is if they have a to-do list or a calendar. If they don’t, I think “no, your attention span is fine” — because if your attention span is short and you don’t have a calendar and to-do list, you will have a hard time getting your life together.
The first (and most basic) thing you can do to increase your ability to focus is getting a to-do list and a calendar and using them every day.
Of all the ways modern life is distracting, the phone is clearly the champion — your phone processes hundreds of notifications a day, all of them constantly vying for your attention.
So, if you tell me you have the attention span of a fish and I see your phone’s lock screen is completely filled with notifications, I am going to think the only reason you’re distracted is that you let yourself be distracted.
If you want to be able to focus, turn your phone notifications off. Like, all of them. Not just when you’re working, but all the time. The only notifications I get for my phone are for:
- Phone, Messages
- Clock (alarms)
- GroupMe (My D&D group)
- Slack (work)
- Calendar (reminds me of events)
- Postmates, Lyft (so I know when they’re here)
That’s it. No games, no social media (in fact, I deleted all of it), no news, no podcasts, no nothing. I can’t afford to have my phone distracting me when I’m trying to focus.
Minimize Your Possessions
Everything you own produces a cognitive load. Every possession you own is something you have to look at, think about, process, clean, rearrange, and take care of. And like your phone notifications, you don’t notice the cognitive load until it’s completely out of your control.
For maximum working memory, own only things you use regularly. You don’t have to pare down all your possessions to one backpack James Altucher style, but you should be able to fit all your possessions in your own home without the aid of walk-in-closets, complicated closet systems from The Container Store, or an external storage unit. That’s not minimalism, that’s common sense.
What’s also important is that things are out of sight; we operate at peak capacity when we have a clean, uncluttered, simple space that allows us to focus on what’s in front of us (instead of the random clutter around us). If you can put all your papers, books, clothes, and possessions either away in drawers or organized on shelves, your working memory will thank you.
P.S. If you have anything sitting around the house you are going to donate, resell, or “fix up,” either get it done or get rid of them. Items like this are just physical to-dos, distracting you with their needs every time you lay eyes on them. Remove the distraction once and for all.
Clean Your Email
Just like how your phone notifications cause sensory overload, your email does as well. It’s hard to know what you’ve got going on in your life when your inbox is an endless pile of things you haven’t dealt with. The good news is, cleaning out your email is simple business:
- Pick one personal email and make it your primary email. Send everything there. Don’t use a “junk account,” don’t send personal matters to your work email, and don’t have separate emails for separate purposes (if you can avoid it). Every email account you have is an email account you have to check, manage, and clean.
- Unsubscribe from every newsletter you haven’t read in the last month. I don’t care if you think you’re going to “read them later,” or if they have coupons or funny jokes — if you haven’t read them in the last month, you’re not going to. Now all they are is another to-do.
- Delete everything older than six months. If you haven’t gotten back to someone by now, it will look bad for you to even try.
- For any newsletters or spam you cannot unsubscribe from, drop them in the spam folder so your email system can learn what is spam and what isn’t.
How Else Can You Make It Easier?
These are common ways people ease the load on their working memory, but they are not the only ways. Anything in your life that represents something you have to keep track of, for five minutes or five months, is something weighing on your working memory. The easier you can make it on your working memory, the better.
Use These Interventions At All Times
Your working memory will not instantaneously improve the moment you start doing these things. If anything, your working memory will get worse — now you have to remember to update your todo list and calendar, check your phone manually, etc. These habits will take time to build. But after two or three weeks, the habits will stick, and your working memory will increase dramatically.
This is because, like your muscles, your working memory needs to be trained. It doesn’t improve or get worse instantaneously. Instead, it needs time and space to grow.
In “How to Remove Facebook From Your Life,” writer Dan Silvestre notes how deleting his Facebook account produced an increase in his own working memory:
Similarly how smokers breath better every week after they quit, the increase in my attention span was incremental. At first, it was hard to focus for more than a handful minutes on a task. Gradually, it became easier and I am now a lot better at doing Deep Work for a longer period of time.
My own story is somewhat similar. Over the course of a few months…
- I broke my phone addiction. Now, I use my phone for less than one hour a day.
- Then I deleted my social media.
- I got serious about minimalism. Now I own: One closet bar full of clothes. A handful of books. A watercolor painting set. Some climbing gear. Some camping gear. With the exception of my furniture, everything I own fits in the trunk of a sedan.
- I unsubscribed from nearly all my emails. Even the few that remain get deleted nearly instantly. Now email can’t distract me either.
- I opted out of my junk paper mail.
Then I noticed something happened all on its own, like a miracle from heaven — I could remember people’s names. All my life, I couldn’t remember to even feed myself, let alone remember people’s names, and suddenly now I’m the person everyone asks for name reminders. In fact, the original title for this article was “How To Always Remember People’s Names.”
But it’s not just names. I can remember all kinds of things. I remember new people’s names the first time. I remember where my boyfriend put his keys when he came in the house. I remember the great idea I had in the shower. I remember the way to get out of neighborhoods I’ve never been to before. My God, I remember.
When I combine all my newly-available working memory with the hours of time I’ve reclaimed from my phone and social media and email, my productivity goes insane.
It’s not because I’m so smart, or super-motivated, or blessed with a neurotypical brain (I’m arguably smart, but I’m not always motivated and I’m definitely not neurotypical). It’s because, instead of just consigning myself to a life with a poor attention span, I did something about it.
The good news is, if a woman with ADHD so severe she forgets to eat can figure out how to get hours of uninterrupted productivity on a regular basis, so can you.