“My son’s teachers tell me he spends too much of the time daydreaming in class.”
“I try to do the reading for my college classes, but so often my mind just wanders.”
“I m having some trouble at work because my mind keeps wandering during meetings and I can’t participate effectively.”
If you have ADHD, you probably recognize these types of concerns. Daydreaming or mind-wandering are frequent experiences with ADHD and expressed by our These symptoms can interfere with ease of functioning and effective participation in a variety of daily activities. Mind-wandering can also impact feeling successful in various roles at any age.
Previous research has demonstrated a link between mind-wandering and symptoms of ADHD. A recent article in Journal of Attention Disorders(see citation below) examined the relationship of ADHD symptoms to mind-wandering in detail. In this study, the researchers also looked at what they termed “detrimental” mind-wandering (being stuck in rumination on a problem for example) as well being aware of one’s own mind-wandering. Awareness of one’s thinking is called “meta-awareness.”
You can read about this study and its findings, or just skip down to the “tips” section if you prefer.
The research study
This study included 105 adults, 77 of whom were female, with a mean age of 23.1 years. Study subjects were recruited from fliers posted on the campus of the University of British Columbia. There were some financial incentives for participation.
This study participants were not clinically diagnosed with ADHD. Instead, ADHD symptoms in the participants were determined by combining the measurements on two scales of ADHD symptoms. So, it’s important to note that we don’t know if any of the participants were actually diagnosed with ADHD.
Mind-wandering was examined in a lab setting, during some tasks such as reading, as well as during daily life.
Key study findings
It will probably not surprise you to learn that study participants with higher scores on the ADHD measure demonstrated more mind wandering, more “detrimental” mind-wandering, and less strategic, or future planning-oriented, mind-wandering.
Higher ADHD scores were also related to lower scores on meta-awareness measures. That is, participants with higher ADHD scores were less likely to be aware of mind-wandering when it occurred. This lack of awareness led to more detrimental effects.
This study suggests that some of the negative consequences of mind wandering can be ameliorated by strategies improving meta-awareness (see tips below).
Finally, this study suggests a positive finding about ADHD: there may be a relationship between ADHD symptoms and interesting – or more creative – mind wandering, and possibly a more rich internal life as well. Mind-wandering has its benefits!
Tips for managing mind-wandering
This study suggests that strategies improving meta-awareness of mind-wandering may have a beneficial impact. Here are some strategies that might help:
1) Use of interrupting alarms
How? Set a phone alarm, or kitchen timer, to ring at 5-15 minute intervals. When the alarm rings, ask yourself if you are in task. If yes, celebrate and continue! If no, you can choose to get back on task. Either way, re-set the alarm.
2) Mindfulness practices
How? Becoming more mindful can assist awareness of what your mind is doing at any point in time. The more one practices mindfulness meditations and exercises, the easier ti can get to both notice your thoughts and also to bring yourself back from a distracting thought to the task at hand.
Also, a mindfulness practice called the STOP practice focuses specifically on encouraging attention to the present moment. Here’s how it works:
S – Stop what you are doing/thinking
T- Take a deep breath
O – Observe what you were doing, thinking, feeling
P – Proceed with choice, either return to what you had intended to be doing or decide to consciously shift to another task.
Resources for developing mindfulness include Lidia Zylowska’s book The MindfulnessPrescription for Adult ADHD, a 9-session tele-class I teach on mindfulness and ADHD, and any other mindfulness classes or resources you might find.
How? Developing self-talk around sticking to a task can help curb mind-wandering. For example, when starting a task, tell yourself “I am going to be doing (name of task) now.” You might even include how long you intend to be doing it: “I am going to spend the next 20 minutes doing (name of task).” Then, periodically check in to see if your action is matching your intention: ”Am I doing (name of task)?” If you are, pat yourself on the back and stick with it! If you are not, you can choose to get back to it: “OK, I am going to get back to (name of task) for 10 more minutes.” This self-talk can help keep you on-track.
Combining the use of alarms, mindfulness practices and self-talk can be especially powerful in addressing distraction and mind-wandering.
It’s also valuable to identify and celebrate the benefits of mind-wandering for creative thinking and for their contribution to a rich internal life. You might even want to set aside some time in your schedule to let your mind wander. You may come up with some great ideas or interesting solutions to problems you’ve been facing!
Franklin, et al. (2014). Tracking Distraction: The Relationship Between Mind-Wandering, Meta-Awareness, and ADHD Symptomatology. Journal of Attention Disorders (online Aug 1, 2014). DOI: 10.1177/1087054714543494