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.

5 Must-Do Habits for 2021

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA 1.19.21

Happy 2021!

As I predicted in my previous blog, we did not wake up on January 1 to a new world. Many of the things that stressed people out for most of the year last year are still creating stress. Pandemic, isolation, politics. But, despite the ongoing challenges we still hold hope for a better year in 2021, and there are some promising signs as we see people successfully being vaccinated across the country and as our incredible health care workers and medical scientists develop more and more effective interventions for COVID-19.

For many people, the things that are causing such stress over the past year are things that we just can’t control. It is so frustrating in life when situations are completely out of our control. Think about even simple daily things, like being a passenger in a car when someone else drives differently than you do – too fast, too slow, taking a different route (the wrong one, to be sure!). When we are not in control, it can increase our feelings of stress. In 2020, so many things felt out of control. In one post last year, I wrote about focusing on things you can control during times of stress. As things drag on with the pandemic, this would be a good time to re-group and consider what things each day are within your control and what things are not. Once you determine this, you can work on a plan to let go a bit of some of the worry about what you can’t control while focusing your energy on what you can actually do to make things better for yourself and others right now.

One thing we can all do, pandemic and politics aside, is examine our daily habits and routines. What is working well for you? What are some things you would like to change on a daily or weekly basis? I can easily think of five things I would like to do differently when it comes to daily habits, the question is how to make these changes in a meaningful and lasting way.

Habits are hard to change. I am not just talking about commonly known vices like overeating, smoking, or alcohol use. I am talking about all our daily habits and routines. There has been some research looking into habits, and the most common lore tells us that we can make or break a habit in 21 days. In reality, based on a study done in London, it can take anywhere between 21 and 254 days to achieve automaticity with your habits. A lot of this will depend on how much you like your current habits, and how badly you want to add some new, healthier habits.

To help focus on making some positive habit changes this year, here are some ideas for small, simple changes with big potential benefit:

  1. Take 5 minutes every day to reflect on one positive thing. This can be ANYTHING. Did the sun shine today? Did you have something good to eat? Did you do something fun? Accomplish anything? Did someone say something nice to you? Take those 5 minutes and really focus on one thing that was uplifting for you. Even on the darkest days you will be able to find one point of light if you let yourself look.
  2. Start a step towards one of your goals. If you have a big goal to be more organized, each day you can tackle one small thing towards this goal. Clean out a drawer, go through one pile of things that has been waiting for your attention. Every goal can be broken down into steps that are manageable. If you do one step a day, you will make progress and will have the benefit of a sense of accomplishment each day.
  3. Go outside. But wait, it’s January you say! It’s cold outside, and there may be snow. Ice. Wind. I hear you! Winter is NOT my thing either. But if you push yourself for even a few minutes of fresh air every day, you will get that benefit of being outside, breathing new air, seeing something outside your own walls, and in some cases challenging yourself to be a little bit uncomfortable in the process. (Extreme weather in the summer can be equally challenging to cope with for many people). You may even find that by stepping out for a few minutes for a tiny walk can lead to longer walks than you planned, and more enjoyment of fresh air.
  4. Do one nice thing for someone else. When we think of doing good deeds, often we think about things that include a bigger commitment than what we may be able to do every day. For example, helping at a soup kitchen, or taking food to a food pantry in your community. But kind acts can be the simplest things, and can make someone’s day. While doing things like helping at a soup kitchen totally count and are always encouraged, if you can’t do this type of service every day consider some smaller kind acts. Some examples include posting a positive comment on Facebook for a friend, giving a compliment to someone, sending a note to someone you haven’t seen for awhile (email or snail mail), doing something around the house to help out, or – one of my favorites – paying for the person in line behind you when you go to a coffee drive-thru.
  5. Treat yourself. Like with the positive thoughts, this can be ANYTHING. A favorite TV show. Ice cream. A conversation with a friend. Yoga and/or meditation. Every day should include one thing that is just for you. It will be important here to first of all, LET yourself do something just for you. Some people have a hard time allowing themselves to do things that are for their own well-being or satisfaction. It will be equally important to acknowledge things you may already do every day to treat yourself, even if you don’t think of it that way. For example, maybe you already do yoga or meditation every day, and then carry on with your busy life and routine. Remember as you cope with your day that you did take some time to do something that was just for you – in this example, yoga – to help you stay focused on the things that you do to make yourself happy every day.

These 5 small, manageable daily habits can make a big difference in your day and may even help with stress and overall happiness.

Information overload

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.   3.19.20

How quickly things can change.  Within the past week we have gone from being on alert for potential changes in our country while watching other countries struggle with this pandemic, to being in full-scale crisis mode.  This is especially true in certain areas of our country that are particularly hard-hit by COVID-19 and are scrambling to contain the situation.  The amount of information out there is completely overwhelming and ever-changing.

Resources are popping up everywhere to give people help and support during this challenging time.  I have seen great ideas being shared about how to help parents suddenly needing to have their kids at home and do their schooling from home, and in some cases including online schooling.  There are resources for how to work remotely, how to social distance, how to stay healthy, how to prepare your home for a period of isolation, how much you need to isolate to protect others and yourself.  Some are posting ideas on self care and finding peace in the midst of turmoil.  It is wonderful to see so many minds sharing ideas on how to cope with this surreal situation.

But it is also just overwhelming.

So, this post is not going to link you to a thousand great resources.  It is not going to tell you what to watch and what to read and what to ignore.  Instead, this post will give you my own take on what to do now.  For yourself, for your family, and for your community.

 

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For Yourself.

Breathe.  Every day you will wake up with some sense of unrest.  What will be in the news today?  What is the status in my own community? Am I healthy?  Are my loved ones healthy?  The potential for overarching fear and anxiety is through the roof.  So, remember to breathe.  I am not talking about just a deep breath here and there, I am talking about intentionally taking moments throughout your day to stop and take at least 5 focused, quiet deep breaths.  Stop thinking for a few minutes and focus on the air you are breathing in and the air you are breathing out.  Breathe in slowly through your nose and out slowly through your mouth.  Let some of the anxiety go out with your breath each time.

Make a list.  What are all the things you wanted to have time to do, but never made the time?  Being stuck at home, this is a good time to look at some of those projects, and spend some time with those.  How you do this is up to you.  Maybe you say, I am going to spend one hour per day working on project x, or catching up on miscellaneous tasks.  Or maybe you jump in wholeheartedly to one big project that you have been putting off for a long time.  Whatever you do is up to you and will depend on your own schedule and circumstances.  But many people in the United States and around the world are finding themselves with a bit more downtime right now.

Share enjoyment.  Can’t get out to socialize as much as you want?  Set something up online.  Of course it is not the same as person-to-person contact, but it is better than not seeing people you like.  You can use any number of technologies, from FaceTime to Facebook video to Google Hangouts or Zoom.  I have seen posts for musicians doing virtual living room concerts you can livestream and hear good music.  You can also use Netflix, who has set up a way to watch movies with friends.

Get some fresh air.  If you live somewhere where you can get outside without being near a lot of people, a daily walk is refreshing and good for your health.  If you can’t leave your building without rubbing elbows with people on the elevator, open your window and let in some fresh air.

Workout from home.  You do not need a home gym to work out from home.  Not only are there loads of resources for using bodyweight exercises to get full body workouts, some gyms are now posting exercise classes online for you to livestream or view.  They are doing this with the understanding that people do not have equipment at home, so you can do the classes from your own place.

Stay the course.  If everyone does their part to flatten the curve and keep this pandemic in check, we will be back to normal sooner.  Remember that this feels awful right now, but we will get through it and we will be back to normal.

For your family

Implement structure now.  If you have kids or teenagers at home, start out by setting up a structure for the days.  Most kids still have school work, and college students are finishing up their courses online.  Have your family set up times for work and leisure every day.  Implementing and maintaining structure can reduce stress.

Schedule family time.  More time with family always sounds great, it feels like the right thing to wish for, but in reality being cooped up with your family for weeks can be a bit difficult.  So make sure individual family members are getting their own space as much as possible, but also set aside time regularly, even daily, to do something fun as a family. Movies, games, puzzles, making video journals of your time in isolation, cooking and baking are all good ideas.  All you need to do to get ideas is search online for things to do in quarantine and you will find a lot of recent posts and articles.

Stay positive.  By taking good care of your own needs, as noted above, you will be able to stay more positive for your family members.  And remember, this will pass.  We can do this.

For your community.

Stop the spread!  This is my most important advice right now.  Not to get too much on a soap box about this, but we all have to do our part to stop this now. The horses are already out of the barn, so to speak, but it is up to us now to slow them down.  Because our testing is way behind in this country, the advice from experts is to assume that everyone has it.  That’s right.  Assume that everyone has it.  Including yourself.  So this means you are isolating yourself as much as possible.  Staying in your home, working from home, socializing only remotely, OR only with people you know are also being very strict about their interactions.  When you do go out you are distancing from everyone.  You are washing your hands much more than usual.  If you think you may have been exposed, even if you don’t have symptoms, stay home.  **If you are a young adult or you know a young adult, tell them to stop attending social events and gatherings!**  Because they often don’t show symptoms but are contagious anyway, they are super-vectors for this disease.  And even if they are lucky enough to not get really ill, they could easily give it to someone who isn’t so lucky.  All you have to do is read about Europe right now to see that if we don’t slow down now it will soon be mandated, but not before lots of vulnerable people get really, really sick.  Stop doing things.  Just stop.

Help local service organizations.  There are a lot of people who shouldn’t be going out at all.  Community organizations everywhere are setting up delivery services for vulnerable people take them food, groceries, medications, and household needs.  If you are healthy – and if you can follow all the precautions to protect others – contact local groups to see how you can help.

Donate to food pantries.  Food pantries are going to see a growing need for supplies as people lose hours at work and need more help.  If you are able, drop off food and necessities (toilet paper for example!) at a local food pantry.  Every bit helps and they will need it.

Donate to charities.  If you are financially secure  through this crisis, consider directing some of your charitable contributions to organizations who are going to struggle.  This would include shelters, soup kitchens, churches, and volunteer agencies who help those in need.  Also consider helping community businesses who may struggle during this time.

This is a time when we need to reflect as individuals and as a society who we really are.  Let’s take care of ourselves and each other, and let’s try to breathe through this and remember that only with each others’ support will we come out on the other side of this as whole and as together as possible.