Must. Focus. How to Concentrate
"Your brain on stress more or less functions like the brain of someone with ADHD," says Mary Solanto, PhD, director of the ADHD Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. People with ADHD tend to focus on whatever seems most pressing or interesting to them at the moment while everything else goes out the window. "The brains of those with ADHD have less activity in the prefrontal cortex -- the area where organization and time management take place," Dr. Solanto explains.
The thing is, even if you don't have ADHD, that same area of the brain starts to shut down when you're anxious, stressed, or depressed, and your attention shifts to whatever's upsetting you. This ability to narrow your focus is a handy trick if, say, you're a cave woman being chased by a bear. Planning and time-management functions fade into the background as the stress response harnesses your attention and funnels it into one all-important task: Run! The problem is that nowadays you have little need for a fight-or-flight response, but because your brain is still wired for a prehistoric encounter with a beast, even non-life-threatening stressors can slow down the brain functions you need to tackle your to-do list. You can become overly fixated on one thing -- a stressor that isn't likely to kill you -- and be unable to concentrate on much else.
I know this feeling well. Several months ago I received an email from my boss with this subject line: "Can you stop by my office around 3, there's something I want to chat about." I went cold. It was incredibly vague and I immediately began filling in the blanks with the most awful possibilities. I worried that she was going to lecture me about my morning lateness or, worse, lay me off despite having just enthusiastically hired me. Not surprisingly, my work performance that day suffered: I missed a meeting because I was calling a friend to dissect the mysterious e-mail and I spaced out during a phone conversation with a coworker and misrouted a manuscript as a result. (Incidentally, the meeting was about a fun assignment I was happy to take on.) It was as if I'd caught a case of ADHD. Turns out, I basically had.
I asked Dr. Solanto if techniques that work for her ADHD patients could also work for a garden-variety stress case like me. Absolutely, she told me -- though her first piece of advice would be to address the source of the stress. Exercise and deep-breathing techniques could also help. In the meantime, she says, if you're having trouble staying focused for any reason, whether it's ADHD or stress, you need to be extra careful and extremely consistent in using standard organizational strategies. It may sound basic, but get a day planner and find ways to motivate yourself to actually use it. Create a ritual: Every morning, once you get your coffee, take 10 minutes to write out the day's to-do list and prioritize it. Be realistic: Ask yourself what has to be done no matter what, which tasks can wait, and what you can delegate. Then map out your day, thinking about each task and how long it will take. If you have a smartphone or a computer, set alarms and reminders about your appointments and deadlines.
To stay focused during a conversation, take notes if you can and get in the habit of restating what the other person just said in order to stay on point and gel the content. If you find it hard to start something because you're stressed or overwhelmed, don't even think about tackling the whole project, Dr. Solanto advises. Instead, break it down into smaller tasks.