Focus: a Tool Box of Tips

“I feel like my brain is in a fog half the time.”

“I can be distracted by by a noise, by something I see, or just by things going on in my head.”

“I might start on my homework but after a while I find that my mind has just drifted off. Sometimes I have to read a paragraph three or more times to remember it!”

These experiences are common among individuals with ADHD. These are descriptions of having challenges with focus, one of the executive functions of the brain commonly impaired in ADHD.

ADHD expert Dr. Thomas E. Brown identifies aspects of focus as “focusing, sustaining focus, and shifting focus to tasks.” He also uses the following metaphor to explain it:

“Some describe their difficulty in sustaining focus as similar to trying to listen to the car radio when you drive too far away from the station and the signal begins fading in and out: you get some of it and lose some of it. They say they are distracted easily not only by things that are going on around them, but also by thoughts in their own minds.”

Students and focus: 

For students, challenges with focus can have a huge impact. For example:

  • Having fuzzy or in and out focus can make it difficult to follow the train of thought in reading, impacting both reading speed and comprehension.
  • Paying attention or taking notes on a lecture can be challenging with a wavering focus. 
  • Making note of assignments that are announced in class, rather than on a printed or electronic syllabus or handout, is a risky proposition when focus may intermittently fade. 
  • Keeping “on task” with any homework assignments, writing, or projects can also be difficult, and, as a result, the work can take much longer than it does for others of similar intelligence. 

Tool box of tips:

Fortunately, many with ADHD find that medication can assist with focus.  Some use caffeine for that purpose as well. When that doesn’t work, or is not enough, here are some approaches that may help:

  • Accepting that focus is a challenge – and that, as a result, reading, writing, and any other homework or studying may take longer than for peers – can reduce negative self-judgement and free up energy for the task at hand. 
  • Attending to adequate sleep, regular exercise, and healthy meals – including protein for breakfast, supports optimal brain functioning. 
  • Practicing mindfulness can help in developing the ability to notice more quickly when one is not on task, and to then redirect attention, providing for more in-focus, on-task time.It also helps reduce stress, a focus-buster.
  • When spending time on reading, or other assignments, articulating a clear intention to focus on that particular task,  and also setting a timer for intervals of between 5 and 20 minutes, provides a way of checking in with oneself about on-task behavior.
  • Competing against oneself – for example, setting a timer and seeing how many math problems can be done in 15 minutes, how many sentences can be written by 5 pm, and the like, can stimulate the brain to improve focus for periods of time.
  • Occupying the brain with non-distracting music, by chewing gum or by “fiddling” with a small object (aka “fidget”) can sometimes paradoxically aid focus on the task at hand. 
  • Similarly, setting up a work space that allows some movement, such as sitting on a yoga ball at the desk or table, can also stimulate focus.
  • Taking regular breaks to move around can refresh the mind’s ability to focus when attention wanes.
  • If your brain gets interrupted with too many thoughts and “to-do”s, keep a paper next to you to jot them down on so you won’t forget them, and then turn right back to the task at hand. 
  • One thing that is common for individuals with ADHD is that attention and focus are inconsistent, so being attentive to your better-focused times can help you make use of them for what most needs to be done.

If you need help customizing a “focusing” tool-box for yourself or your child, consider working with an ADHD Coach!

Photo credit: stockimages,

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