Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Tell if You Have an Attention-Deficit

Some people never know they have attentional challenges associated with ADHD.

Key points

  • The attention deficit associated with ADHD is misunderstood, leading to some being missed for the diagnosis.
  • Many people with ADHD can pay attention when they are interested, but struggle to do so when bored.
  • Analyzing where and when focus is easy can help individuals understand their attentional patterns.
  • If attention is an issue for you, you might consider talking to a medical professional about ADHD.
Chase Clark / Unsplash
Source: Chase Clark / Unsplash

Having a deficit of attention is often associated with the diagnostic criterion of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. Historically, this trait has been stereotyped and misunderstood (Hallowell and Ratey, 2021). Recently, scholars have clarified that people with ADHD do not necessarily struggle with a lack of attention but, instead, have difficulty managing and directing their attention (Hallowell and Ratey, 2021).

This misunderstanding of what it means to have the attention-deficit part of ADHD is why I never thought I could have the condition and likely why no one around me thought I could have it either (I was diagnosed at age 37). Because I was able to focus in school, I thought that there was no way I could have ADHD. However, we now understand that people with ADHD often have an abundance of focus when they are interested in something. This ability to focus for long periods on particular activities or topics is described as hyperfocus (Mutti-Driscoll, 2024).

People with ADHD have interest-driven nervous systems, which means that if they are not interested in the subject matter or the context they are in, it is extremely hard for them to focus even if they want to (Dodson, 2024). Despite common misconceptions about people with ADHD “not caring” or “being lazy,” people with ADHD so often want to do well, frequently becoming people-pleasers and perfectionists in their drive to meet expectations. However, if people with ADHD brains are not interested in the content of a situation, it can be very hard for them to perform (Dodson, 2024).

If you are wondering if you might experience the telltale attention deficit of ADHD, the question should not be, “Can I focus or not?” because most people with ADHD can focus sometimes. Instead, ask questions about your attention patterns and whether the themes guiding it are interest-based. Try these questions instead and see if you might discover some possibly more nuanced attentional challenges:

  1. In what situations is it easy for you to pay attention?
  2. In what situations is it difficult for you to focus?
  3. How does your attention differ when working in an interest area versus not an area of less personal interest?
  4. How do boredom and fatigue affect your ability to focus?

As you reflect on these questions, you should be able to determine if your attentional patterns seem to have an interest-based arc to them. If these attentional challenges are getting in the way of your goals in multiple settings, you might consider talking to a medical professional about being assessed for ADHD.


Hallowell, E., & Ratey, J. (2021). ADHD 2.0: New science and essential strategies for thriving with distraction - from childhood through adulthood. Ballatine Books: New York.

Mutti-Driscoll, C. (2024). The ADHD workbook for teen girls: understand your neurodivergent brain, make the most of your strengths, and build confidence to thrive. New Harbinger Press.

More from Psychology Today