Do You Have Difficulty Staying on Task?

ADHD often involves both psychological and practical challenges.

Posted Dec 22, 2019


An individual familiar with Albert Ellis's Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) emailed me:

"I have always had a hard time focusing on tasks. I can only focus on my work for 5-10 minutes at a time before I need a break to walk around. This is true for things I like to do (such as playing video games) as well as for things I don’t want to do such as work. Do you have any suggestions?"

My response: 

Begin with the Problem Separation Technique: address your practical and emotional problems separately. Each require their own kind of solution.

Emotional Problem

Identify the fundamental cognitive cause of your poor concentration: your demands (musts and shoulds), global evaluations (condemning oneself, others, and your situation), low frustration tolerance (it's too hard, unpleasant, or boring). Then question, challenge, and contradict them. Again and again and again. Here are a few common ADHD demands: 

Demand #1. It feels like hard work to stay focused. I absolutely must escape these uncomfortable feelings.

My preference to avoid discomfort is reasonable. What is the evidence I absolutely must do what I prefer to do and avoid uncomfortable feelings?

It would be heavenly if life were always comfortable. Unfortunately the human condition involves one discomfort after another. It always has, it always will, and there's no reason it must not. I had better face, rather than compulsively escape, discomfort. 

Demand #2. Focusing for more that 10 minutes should never be so difficult.

Where is it written completing important tasks should never be so difficult?

It's not written anywhere except in my brain where I foolishly wrote it.  The fact is it is hard for me. Yet I've faced difficulty in the past and I can damn well face it this time. Compulsively escaping doesn't help and only tends to reinforce and magnify the feeling of difficulty.

Demand #3. I must not feel bored.

Who says I absolutely must not feel bored? 

Most worthwhile endeavors will have their boring aspects so I had better accept this reality. Facing boredom is a positive sign I'm sticking to my goals. Feeling bored is unpleasant, never awful, terrible, or horrible. I can look forward to having accomplished my goal and no longer having it hang over my head. 

Demand #4. I need a break.

What is the proof I need a break? 

Passing up a break and meeting my objective will allow me more break time in the long term. If I skip breaks and get the work done I'll avoid feeling guilt and depression later on. It's not the lack of breaks that creates my compulsive break-taking, but rather it's my needy thinking about it that's my fundamental problem and I can change my thinking. I can learn to unconditionally accept working non-stop without a break no matter how difficult it seems.

Demand #5. I must get over my ADHD immediately.

Is my demand logical?

No! It does not follow that because I prefer to cure my ADHD immediately, I absolutely must. This is a non-sequitur: a preference never automatically translates into a demand. A preference is just that, my subjective desire never a law of the universe. Demanding doesn't help and only makes me feel worse. 

Practical strategies

1. Gradually increase the amount of time you continually work, for example 10 minutes a shot the 1st week, 11 minutes the 2nd week, 12 minutes the 3rd, etc. 

2. Use target goals with rewards and penalties, for example, when you complete 11 minutes you get a point. 5 points earns you admission to the next Netflix episode of "Rough and Tumble."

3. Use the Pomodoro technique: Allow yourself a break after working for 25 minutes. Use a timer to signal when 25 minutes have expired. Take a 5-minute break, then repeat the process. You can modify this by working for a briefer duration at first as in #1, or using rewards and penalties as in #2. 

4. Regard this as a procrastination problem, i.e., you are procrastinating on working longer than 5-10 minutes. Reread my chapter on procrastination in Three Minute Therapy and experiment with some of the recommendations. 

5. Use Premack's principle, originated by psychologist David Premack.  It states a higher-frequency behavior reinforces a lower-frequency behavior. If you're more likely to make yourself a cup of coffee (a higher-frequency behavior for you) than to work (the lower-frequency behavior), don't allow yourself to have the coffee until you do the work. This is a variant of #2.  Having the coffee, in this example, serves as the reward for doing the work and no coffee serves as the penalty. 

Regard these suggestions as experiments. Try 1 or 2 for 1-2 weeks. If they seem unpromising, try another.

Please feel free to email me with questions:


Edelstein, M.R., & Steele, D.R. (2019). Three Minute Therapy. San Francisco, CA: Gallatin House.