My clients with ADHD are struggling on a daily basis with "executive functions" - the ability to plan, inhibit, sequence, and choose. Focusing on what's most important to them, rather than on what's novel or pink or reflective or buzzing.

And it occurs to me that this is the essential struggle for all of us: identifying what we want more of - and less of - and developing strategies for reaching these goals, and ignoring everything else. In a real sense, we're all ADHD now.

There's more to "time management" than some superficial sense of efficiency or ticking off to-do lists. This is self-management, self-regulation, or self-stewardship. What will I do with this limited soupcon of time? What will I make of myself while I'm here? What kinds of experiences and learnings and relationships do I want? What do I not want to miss? What is mine to offer?

There's a great quote from Elkhonon Goldberg (neuropsychologist and student of Alexander Luria) that captures the existential challenge of all this:

"The best defense against the manipulation of our attention is to determine for ourselves - in advance - how we want to invest it."

Now, who would possibly want to manipulate our attention? I was in Palo Alto the day the iPad2 dropped. Driving past the Apple store was a line of customers out the front door and around the block. And there'll be an iPad3 within a year or so. And another after that. Madison Avenue is bending itself into pretzels in efforts to distract my client - and you and me - from what we're here to do and be and have.

And then there are the leaves that fall down in swirling patterns, and the smudge marks on the classroom window, and incoming phone calls, and mail. The iPad, the leaves, and the mail: any one of these might be exactly the right thing to focus on right now. Or not. And the only way to know that is to "determine for ourselves" in advance what we'll define as important and worthy of our focus.

In order for my great grandparents to put 300 calories on the table, they had to plant and weed and harvest and peel and cook - a lot of work. But I can walk into a 7-11 right now and point to 15 different ways to get 300 calories for about 79 cents. My great grandparents might have waited all year for a traveling burlesque or some other entertainment. And I can access hundreds of cable or satellite channels 24 hours a day. And there's Hulu for everything else. Compared to my not so distant ancestors I've got a lot more of everything right at my fingertips. In most ways I think it's "better" and I wouldn't quickly swap places with them. But I am faced with the contemporary necessity of single-mindedly "deciding in advance" what I'll focus on. And ruthlessly eliminating other options.

In each moment, there is something that's best for me, and then there's everything else. And I've got an endless number of distractions right now from what is genuinely the Next Most Important Thing. Beautiful colorful spinning and buzzing chocolate-dipped distractions.

So if it's true that in some small way we all have ADHD now, it makes sense for us to pay attention to what works for adults and children with Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder.


One practice that ADHD coaches recommend is "chunking," or committing a brief (about 25 minutes) period of time to a dull or difficult task. Setting a timer, working on that task, and doing nothing else until the buzzer sounds.

The Body Double

The "Body Double" is another approach to work through tasks that are important but not fun or inherently rewarding (think tax preparation, or invoicing, or math homework). The principle of the Body Double is that if my friend or coach knows what task I'm supposed to be working on right now, and he's in the room with me (maybe not even assisting me, but just being with me) then I'm less likely to drift off, check scores online, or make notes for a screenplay. Just having him there increases my focus. I've worked with an attorney who tells me that he uses this strategy when he has to do some of the filing and paperwork that are the least interesting and compelling for him.

Thinking About Time

Another regular practice we recommend for adults with ADHD is to spend regular periods of time thinking about their time, and taking it seriously. A weekly review of upcoming commitments and obligations. And a daily check-in each morning - reviewing the upcoming schedule with questions like "which parts of this are firing me up?" And "which commitments and obligations make me feel bored and numb?" And considering seriously when, and how, we'll be able to get more of that stuff on our schedule which seems deep-down important and meaningful, and how to begin to let go of activities that are less centrally connected to our core values.

Humor and Heartbreak

Finally, in all of this, we'll need an immense capacity for humor and heartbreak. This business of "deciding in advance" how we'll invest our energies - and sticking with that through the day - are the fundamental attentional challenges for people with ADD/ADHD.

And the rest of us.

photo: istockphoto/hidesy

About the Author

David D. Nowell, Ph.D.

David D. Nowell, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist interested in motivation, focus, and fully-engaged living.

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