Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m so ADHD,” describing being easily distracted? Although stereotypes suggest that difficulty focusing must mean you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), distractibility and ADHD are two very different things.
In most cases, being easily distracted is nothing to be concerned about. It could be a sign that you’re tired or simply bored. Moreover, it’s just one of many potential symptoms of ADHD, which in fact is not that common: The American Psychiatric Association (APA) estimates that only about 8.4 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults in the United States actually have ADHD. Read on to learn more about distractibility and when it might be a sign that professional help is warranted.
What Does It Mean to Be Easily Distracted?
Potential distractions are everywhere in a world in which we’re often bombarded with emails, texts, and social media notifications throughout the day. “It is hard to set healthy boundaries with time that allows the brain to decompress, rest, and restore to reduce distractibility,” says licensed clinical mental health counselor Amelia Kelley, PhD, of Kelley Counseling and Wellness in Cary, North Carolina.
What’s more, being easily distracted can differ from person to person. Some experience frequent internal distractions; they may feel anxious, dwell on certain thoughts, or worry about their to-do list. Others are more prone to external distractions; they may find it hard to stay focused on one task because it reminds them of another, unrelated task, explains Kara Naylon, PhD, a neuropsychologist at LifeStance Health in Boston. Both forms of distraction are normal and happen to everyone at one point or another.
Other common causes of distractibility, says Dr. Kelley, include:
- Parenting, especially when more than one child needs attention. Needing to stay focused on their needs can lead you to misplace important items like your keys, forget other important tasks, or make you late to appointments.
- Struggling to focus on work projects when you’re working from home. It’s easy to turn your attention to nonwork-related tasks, especially if other family members are also at home while you’re on the clock.
- Everyday stress. It’s easy to turn your attention away from the task at hand or forget about prior commitments when you’re preoccupied by other responsibilities or stressors such as fatigue, money problems, family conflicts, or illnesses.
What Does It Mean to Have ADHD?
More often than not, most people — even those who are prone to distractibility — can focus on a work or school project without simultaneously being disrupted by thoughts of what they need to cook for dinner tonight or what book they need to read next, explains Shanna Pearson, who lives with ADHD and is the founder and president of Expert ADHD Coaching, a company that helps adults and college students with ADHD.
In contrast, people who have ADHD have a neurodevelopmental disorder that falls under the same diagnostic category as autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, communication disorders, and motor disorders, according to the APA.
“Having ADHD is so much more than being easily distracted,” she says. “It involves a lifetime of living with a brain that isn’t able to easily compartmentalize. Not being able to compartmentalize or create separations between tasks, thoughts, ideas, and outcomes feels like living with everything occurring at the same place and time at once in your mind.”
This results in constant feelings of being overwhelmed for people with ADHD. In turn, these feelings lead to other common ADHD symptoms like impulsivity, says Kelley.
Along with impulsivity, key signs of ADHD include hyperactivity and inattention. Some people with ADHD experience only one of these behaviors as the main issue, while others experience a combination of them. These signs may also show up differently in children than in adults.
Symptoms of ADHD in children may manifest as:
- Hyperactivity They may talk excessively, fidget and squirm, or find it hard to sit still.
- Impulsivity They may lack self-control, have difficulty being patient or waiting their turn, frequently interrupt others, or overreact to frustration, disappointment, and criticism.
- Inattention They may daydream often, become bored easily, not follow through on tasks, or struggle with memory and focus.
Symptoms of ADHD in adults may manifest as:
- Hyperactivity In addition to experiencing many of same symptoms seen in children, hyperactivity in adults with ADHD may make it difficult for them to be patient or to relax. It may also make them move around too much, make them talk excessively, lead to outbursts of anger or frustration, or cause them to arrive late to appointments.
- Impulsivity This may cause them to act without considering potential consequences, interrupt others inappropriately, change jobs frequently, drive recklessly, or have more marital problems.
- Inattention A shorter-than-typical attention span may exhibit as overall disorganization, forgetfulness, trouble prioritizing, careless mistakes, or avoidance of tasks requiring concentration.
Mental health professionals use specific diagnostic criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to diagnose people with ADHD, per the APA. ADHD symptoms must have been present before age 12 to diagnose an individual with this condition, according to the DSM-5.
Although experts don’t know exactly what causes ADHD, they have identified several factors that likely play a role, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Exposure to alcohol or nicotine in utero
- Having a parent or sibling with ADHD
- Issues with the parts of the brain that control attention and activity level
- Concussions or other serious head injuries
- In rare cases, a buildup of environmental toxins, such as lead, in the body can raise the risk of ADHD
How to Tell the Difference Between Distractibility and ADHD
The severity of one’s concentration difficulties and whether they happen along with other symptoms like impulsivity or hyperactivity are often what sets ADHD apart from everyday distractibility, Kelley says.
In general, it’s easier to focus on tasks you enjoy and it’s more challenging to focus on tasks that are difficult or unpleasant. However, people who are easily distracted but don’t have ADHD can almost always consciously refocus and get back on track once they realize they’ve been distracted — especially if they get rid of the distraction, for example, by turning off the television or a cell phone. This is not the case for people with ADHD, says Kelley.
Bottom line: General distractibility doesn’t typically impede one’s ability to go about their day, get important tasks done, or fulfill commitments, Dr. Naylon notes. On the other hand, ADHD typically impairs a person’s functioning, including their ability to work, succeed in school, or maintain personal relationships.
ADHD symptoms also cause a lot of frustration and distress. People who have ADHD feel overwhelmed by their thoughts and environment almost all the time, Pearson says.
“It's the overwhelm that has people with ADHD being easily distracted, disorganized, fidgety, and impulsive, and having more difficulty managing their emotions,” she says.
Management Strategies for ADHD
If you or your child have been diagnosed with ADHD, consulting a mental health professional could be very helpful. Evidence-based treatments for ADHD include psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy), medication, skills training, and educational services, according to Mayo Clinic.
The most commonly prescribed medications for ADHD are prescription stimulants, which, according to the Cleveland Clinic, improve ADHD symptoms in about 70 percent of adults and 70 to 80 percent of children shortly after beginning treatment.
For children with ADHD, Mayo Clinic states, common forms of psychotherapy include:
- Behavioral therapy to help parents and teachers learn strategies that can lead to positive behavior changes among children
- Social skills therapy in which children learn appropriate behaviors for social settings
- Parenting skills training so that parents of children with ADHD can better understand and improve their child’s behavior
Common psychotherapies for adults with ADHD include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on strategies to replace negative thinking and behavioral patterns with healthier more productive ones
- Marriage or family therapy to learn better ways to communicate and solve problems with an ADHD partner or relative, as well as learn ways to cope with any stress related to the loved one’s condition
Additional Coping Tips for People With — and Without — ADHD
- Practice mindfulness. There are types of meditation, but Kelley specifically recommends mindfulness meditation, which can help people with or without ADHD learn to focus on the present moment rather than on what happened yesterday or might happen in the future.
- Create to-do lists. “Most people who identify as organized and successful keep some kind of list in order to recall important dates and information,” says Kelley. She suggests keeping your to-do list short — no more than three items — and adding start and stop times for each task.
- Write down competing and distracting thoughts. Try jotting them down on a Post-it note or in a notebook and saving them for later. This way, you put them aside until you are done working without worrying that you will forget, explain experts at the Learning Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Reduce distractions. “Our environment can either make or break our ability to focus,” says Kelley. “For example, if you are checking your email while also chatting online and watching TV, you are demanding that your brain engage in a division of focus.” She encourages single tasking, also known as monotasking. For instance, if you need to check your email, consider turning off the TV while doing so.
- Consulting a professional. You don’t need to have a specific diagnosis to benefit from professional help. Even if you don’t have ADHD, a trained therapist can help you find ways to better manage distractibility.