Focus!

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA 4.12.21

Has anyone else been feeling more and more distracted by the world? Having a hard time focusing on things? It seems that the distractions in the world are ever-growing, between nonstop news, social media, and the entire world at your fingertips everywhere you go when you carry your smartphone with you. This phenomenon has been growing for years, and does not seem to be getting any better.

Recent studies have looked at increasing trends for ADHD in children and adolescents. In 1997-98, 6.1% of children between the ages of 4-17 were diagnosed with ADHD. That number rose to 10.4% in 2015-2016. There may be many reasons for this disturbing trend, but most experts agree that access to devices most likely plays a role. Parents and teachers can and should work on structures, guidelines and limits for using electronics to help with this situation.

What about adults? Several studies have shown a marked increase in adult ADHD diagnosis, with reports of between 2 and 3 times as many cases of adult ADHD in recent years. Some of this seems to be due to greater understanding of symptoms and recognizing the need for assessment. However, is not out of the question that an increase in symptoms of ADHD for adults is also due to constant access to distraction from our devices.

Over the past year, many people have had to adjust to working from home and finding a balance that is healthy between productivity and leisure in the home environment. Some have surely been successful with this. Others may have great struggles staying focused when working at home. There are all kinds of distractions, including household tasks (“I’ll just go put in one load of laundry now”), food (“I’m a little hungry and bored and the kitchen is right here”), neighborhood activity (“it’s too loud to work when someone is mowing the lawn so I will just have to take a break”), and kids (“I can’t get anything done when the kids need my help”). How is one supposed to manage?

On top of that, whether you’re working from home or not, for people who have access to devices during the day it can be difficult to stay focused on work when your phone alerts you to something. You may also be distracted by the impulse to look up answers to every question that pops into your head throughout the day, pulling you away from your work. Or you may be feeling a little lazy and unmotivated so a quick game of Candy Crush seems like it might be ok. All these little distractions add up.

So, what can we do?

That is mainly up to us, as individuals. Whether a lack of focus is affecting your studies, your professional work, or your responsibilities at home, you can do things to improve your focus and motivation.

  1. For starters, set daily goals for yourself. Make a list of reasonable priorities for the day, and when you have gotten those things done, reward yourself with one of your distractions.
  2. Work on changing how you are thinking about your time and your tasks. For example, if you have the thought to check your phone for something unrelated to your current task or goal, talk yourself out of it. Remind yourself of your current goal and remember that whatever you wanted to do on your phone will still be there in a little while. Try to avoid impulsive distractions.
  3. If you are distracted by thinking about other things you have to do or want to look up, jot them down for later.
  4. If you are able, put your phone away or put it on airplane mode, or do not disturb mode, when you are trying to finish other things.
  5. Practice mindfulness. Focus on the moment, and if you find yourself having a hard time with focus, pause for a couple slow breaths to help you bring yourself back to your focus.
  6. Take intentional breaks when possible. Use your breaks to re-set. If this is a scheduled lunch break or a coffee break, enjoy the time and allow your mind a break from your work.
  7. Avoid multi-tasking. This applies to work, but it also applies to leisure time. Are you on your phone or your laptop while you watch your favorite series on Netflix? Try to allow yourself to enjoy one thing at a time. This will help improve your focus habits, both for leisure and for work.
  8. Self-care. Even though this comes up all the time, sometimes we forget. Having a healthy diet, good sleep habits, and taking some time for exercise every day are all positive tools for maintaining focus and a good balance in your day-to-day life.

Coping with the information, one day at a time.

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.     5.15.20

We’ve been isolating ourselves as much as possible for a bit over 2 full months now.  At the beginning, there was so much information coming in from sources around the world that it was hard to keep up with everything. Now, it may be a little less of on onslaught, but there is still a lot to process.  One of the big questions now is re-entry.  How do we gradually move back to life as we knew at? Can we do this in the near future?

For many people, there is an overarching sense of anxiety now.  What is going to happen in the world?  What is going to happen with the economy?  What about the food chain? What if we go back out and people start getting the virus in large numbers?  What if my parents or kids get sick?  What if I get sick?  The questions still overwhelm the answers  in many respects.  And if you are a parent with kids at home, it can be challenging to answer questions about what’s next.  If you have kids at home on the autism spectrum, your challenge is further increased because there is little sense of long-term predictability, which can be a problem.

Reflecting back on these past few weeks and the ever-changing information along with fears and worries that come with the unknown, something that has been helpful is to focus on what I do know, and what I can control.  What is that right now?

  • My daily routine.
  • My weekly list of tasks.
  • My level of (remote) social engagement.
  • My sanity activities (getting outside, doing yoga or meditation, reading, watching a good movie).
  • Who I spend time with in-person and how to do that safely.
  • How much I go out and how I prepare for that.
  • How much I look at the media.

What can I not control?

  • Medical progress with the virus.
  • Changing information about the virus.
  • The behavior of other people when it comes to safety and distancing.
  • The decisions of leaders in government at every level.
  • The decisions of businesses starting to re-open with different rules everywhere.
  • The media (but remember, you can control what you read).

It takes some thought to put together your list of what you can and can’t control right now.  If you have kids at home (with or without special needs) who are feeling tired of being home or showing signs of anxiety about the situation,  this is a good time to teach them about what we have the power to control.  This is much easier if you start with the smallest picture, which is today.  What can we do today to make it the best day possible?  How much structure do we want today?  For some kids, it will be helpful to have a good plan every day, while others will manage well with looser structures and routines.  One of the most important things will be to focus on what can and should be done today and this week, instead of spending too much time thinking about what may or may not happen in 2 weeks, 2 months, or even a year.  This is especially true right now, because we just don’t know how things will look in our town, our state, our country or even our world.   Is it possible that schools in your area won’t start again in September?  Yes, it is possible.  But mostly we don’t know.  Letting yourself or your kids spend a lot of time and energy worrying about this will only prevent happiness and productivity right now.

Take another look at the list I made of what I can control right now.  Do any of those concepts apply to you?  Do any of those translate to action for your kids at home? How can you wrap your arms around the things that are in your control to help yourself and your family move forward in the midst of endless information but not a lot of concrete answers?  Focus on here.  Focus on now.  Don’t worry to much about re-inventing yourself or your family, just do the best you can with what you know and what you have in front of you, today.

So ask yourself, and ask your kids, what can we control right now?  What can we do with the things that are in our control to make the absolute best of each day?  What can we do to try not to put a lot of our energy into predicting or worrying about the future?  Make lists, make visuals, and celebrate the things that go well every day.