No, It’s Not ADD or OCD!

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.” — Henry David Thoreau, American philosopher

“It is very difficult to be learned; it seems as if people were worn out on the way to great thoughts, and can never enjoy them because they are too tired.” — George Eliot, British novelist

No, It's Not ADD or OCD! by Laura Stack #productivityInattentiveness and impulsivity aren’t just symptoms of psychological disorders like ADD and OCD; indeed, they also apply to many people in the workplace. The go-go-go nature of modern business, with its constant stress and distraction, drives this pseudo-disorder—and it’ll kill productivity if you let it.

External factors like background noise, foot traffic, visitors, and ringing phones jerk you out of your productive trance, while internal distractions such as multitasking, addiction to technology, and procrastination keep you from focusing in the first place. You can fight all these factors, especially the external distractions, but you still may have difficulty buckling down and focusing on your priorities. Why? What’s the real deal behind distraction and impulsivity? Why do we find it so hard to concentrate?

Many time-wasting diversions can hinder your focus, including:

1. Human nature. Our ancestors lived in an environment of constant danger, where they had to stay on the lookout for the puma on the ledge, the charging wildebeest, or the viper on the riverbank. Mother Nature has programmed us to pay attention to every sudden sound or movement. To overcome this tendency, cut yourself off from the sensory input that involuntarily distracts you. Turn away from busy hallways, listen to music or ambient noise, and turn off your phone ringer.

2. The feel-good effect. Completing even a small task makes you feel good. In biochemical terms, whenever you check something off your list, your brain gets a little squirt of dopamine—the equivalent of a party in your cerebral cortex. So of course, you feel compelled to do a whole bunch of low-priority tasks to keep your natural high going. But of course, you know “busy” doesn’t equal “productive.” A dozen minor tasks may not matter as much as one big one. So hold off on the inconsequential and push hard to get something significant done. Wait for the big checkmark, and see how good it feels when it you hit it!

3. Fear of forgetfulness. You know what it’s like to have an idea flit across your mind and then lose track of it. Rather than have that happen, many of us jump at the shiny new idea and DO it, dropping whatever we’re working on. Don’t listen to your brain! Instead, just write it down—so you can remind yourself about it later—and then move on. As my father taught me years ago, “If you think it, ink it.

4. Multitasking. Technology has fooled us into thinking we can do more than we really can, so we try to juggle multiple items at once. In truth, multitasking just slows you down; cumulatively it takes you longer to switch back and forth, rather than completing one task at a time. Whenever you switch between tasks, you break your focus and spend at least a few seconds regaining it. Single-tasking, where you focus fully on one task until you’ve finished, works better. Avoid having 7 browsers open, 3 half-started emails, 5 open Word documents…

5. Practicality. You may need to keep your smartphone on at all times, so you can more easily refer to your calendar or address book…but that leaves you wide open to texts, alerts, and calls that can derail your focus. When you need to concentrate, turn on “airplane mode.” Similarly, when you’re writing an article in Word, you may need Outlook open to refer to Sent Items. So turn off your email alerts altogether (my preference), so you don’t go there by default, or turn off your wifi, so you’re not bothered by incoming emails.

6. Technology. You never know when one of your electronic tools will distract you, forcing you to deal with it and then hunt for the loose threads of your focus later. So when you want to focus, create your own “Cone of Silence,” like the one Max used in the old TV show Get Smart. Turn off the blinking light on your cell phone or shut it off completely (not on vibrate), close your browser, and shut down your email. Turn everything off that will distract you except the task you’re working on.

7. Creative avoidance. When you stay busy, you feel like you’re doing something…and maybe you are, just not the most important thing on your list. Don’t focus on the operational, day-to-day responsibilities, to the exclusion of the long-term, strategic projects. Rather than let minor tasks steal your time, stop procrastinating on the big items. Force yourself to do them first, even when you don’t feel like it. If necessary, break them into smaller, more palatable pieces you can handle more easily. Set a plan, prioritize, and stick to your goals.

Step Up to the Plate

We tend to get distracted and make impulsive decisions for perfectly logical reasons, and no doubt I’ve just scratched the surface here. It wouldn’t surprise me if you could provide plenty more reasons you lose focus (please do in the comments!). But I hope this list provides you with enough to get you started on your distraction eradication program. The more you know about what pushes you out of focus, the better. It’s not ADD or OCD slowing you down, just real life. All you have to do to beat it is realize that—and fight it with these strategies.



  1. i STRONGLY agree with your comment on Multitasking. Multitasking is the biggest myth known to mankind next to Bigfoot and the Lochness monster.

    Our brain cannot multitasking. Instead it just flips back and forth between tasks but it does it so rapidly that we think we are doing everything all at once.

    We accomplish much more when we apply our full focus and concentration to one task at a time.

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