I Can’t Concentrate. Do I Have ADHD?

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I have the attention span of a goldfish at work. Should I be worried?

Before jumping to the conclusion that you have adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), take a look at your computer desktop. Do you have open an email draft, a Word document, and a browser with 12 tabs, including a Gchat window? If so, multitasking could be the real problem here, says Gordon Logan, Ph.D., centennial professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

“I think a lot of us feel distracted because we actually are distracted,” Logan says. “When you’re multitasking, you’re opening channels of information that you’re going to be sensitive to. You’re making it so that you can’t focus.” Each thing distracts you from the others, and as you shift between them you might feel like you’ve missed something important.

It’s natural to want to multitask, especially if your list of job responsibilities has gotten longer and longer. But Logan emphasizes that it’s not always the most productive strategy. “If you have to switch between activities, there’s a cost of kind of reprogramming your mind to deal with the new activity,” he says. “You can get better at it, but the cost is always there.”

He suggests trying to focus on actually doing one thing at a time, and seeing if the distracted feeling goes away. You’ll need to remove as many of the other attention-stealers as you can: Put your phone on do-not-disturb mode, close out of Gchat, finish the email you started, and then you can give your attention to the proposal you’re writing.

This may not be easy at first, or even in the long term: Email notifications will still come up, your boss will continue to stop by your desk, and co-workers will talk too loudly in common areas. But Logan says it’s important to remember that those things are the result of your work environment, not your brain. If you’re multitasking in a place that’s already full of distractions, you’re just adding to the strain on your attention span.

And you will likely still need to take short breaks from in-depth projects. That’s pretty normal: Unless you’re a robot, it’s basically impossible to concentrate intently for hours on end. Lack of focus in and of itself doesn’t mean you have ADHD. Logan compares it to sneezing. “If you sneeze, well, it’s part of having a cold but it’s also part of having an allergy,” he says. “You have to look at other things in order to interpret the sneeze appropriately.”

If you had ADHD, it would consistently and significantly affect your daily life. You wouldn’t just be bouncing around from task to task at work, you’d also find it hard to focus in your personal life as well, like tuning out people when they talk or frequently forgetting things. Disorganization and impulsivity are other hallmarks (ironically, the Mayo Clinic lists “trouble multitasking” as a symptom). If the list of symptoms really does ring true, Logan says to see a professional to get a diagnosis.

Otherwise, he says, you should consider another possibility: “the environment is disordered, not you.”

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