Dealing with Distractions

When the mind drifts away
Even when we’re trying hard to concentrate

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from The Challenges Series

This article (and Series) speaks to ANY of us who struggle with staying focused and on-task, by the way.  Distractibility is common with depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and in plain vanilla brains with too much to do and too little time in which to do it all. What do you think is behind procrastination?

More about Distractibility

As I said in the conclusion to an earlier post of this series, Distinguishing Distractibility, most brains screen out persistent stimuli.  That talent is part of the mechanism that ensures the survival of the species.

In order to be alert to something that might be life threatening, the brain automatically decides that ongoing stimuli are merely “background,” no longer important enough to pass along to the conscious mind.

I’ll use the sense of smell to give you an example of what I mean . . . 

Because smells are processed directly by what used to be referred to as the limbic area of the brain (instead of having to go through the thalamus, like the other senses), most ADD/EFD and “vanilla” brains – those without the cognitive mix-ins – usually have the same experience of the way it works.

Lessons from the Kitchen

Have you ever prepared a Thanksgiving meal, or been in the kitchen while one was being prepared?

Think back to those amazing smells. Mmmmmmmmm – heaven!

Yet, if you stay in the kitchen, after a while you stop noticing them.

In fact, when another person comes into the room exclaiming, “Boy, it sure smells great in here!” you can’t really smell those amazing aromas anymore, even if you try.

Because cognitive bandwidth is a limited resource, your brain has “backgrounded” the persistent odors so that you will be available to pay attention to any new ones, possibly needing immediate attention — like the fact that the rolls are burning.

If you leave the room (or the house) for a few minutes then come back into the kitchen, even a short while later, every good smell will hit you like a wave in the ocean. “Wow. It does smell good in here!”

YOU don’t have to think about handling the “backgrounding.”

Your brain does that for you, just as transparently as your brain tells you how to walk down a sidewalk without your having to consciously consider each little step in the process — allowing you sufficient “brain space” to think about something else.

The other senses don’t work the same for everybody

The vanilla brains of neurotypicals – sans ADD/EFD mix ins – have a similar ability to “background” with each of the senses.

  • If they live on a busy street, they “background” the sounds outside their windows unless something dramatic or unexpected catches their attention.
  • Those without tactile sensitives who aren’t allergic to wool are usually able to “background” the sometimes scratchy feeling so that they are able to turn their attention to something besides what they are wearing next to their skin.
  • If their preferred decorating style is Victorian, they are probably able to “background” what many might consider clutter, making it possible for them to locate an item belonging in one room that has been left in another.

For ADD/EFDers, “backgrounding” requires some work from the conscious portion of the brain — which is a great deal of what is behind what you will often read in articles about ADDers: they struggle with impairment with the “filtering and focusing” functions of the brain.

BUT, you don’t need diagnostic impairments to struggle with distractibility to the level that it practically decimates follow-through.  Nobody has to google “procrastination” to believe me about that assertion!

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Different strokes for different struggles

People vary considerably in how well they can handle competitive calls for focus and what scientists refer to as “action decisions,” even simple ones such as shifting our gaze from one call for attention to another.

Petroc Sumner and his team have found that an individual’s ability to rapidly resolve such competition is predicted by the concentration of GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, in a region of the frontal cortex that is relevant for eye movements, but not in a control region (occipital cortex).

More GABA, less distraction: a neurochemical predictor of motor decision speed:
Petroc Sumner, Richard A. E. Edden, Aline Bompas, C. John Evans, Krish D. Singh

So how do we control it?

An MIT study report that came out toward the end of the summer in 2013, described in the journal Nature, suggests how the brain achieves this task, looking at how the brain remains focused on long-term goals.

Their research leads us back to our old friend dopamine – which most long-time readers already know is the neurotransmitter that is implicated most often in Executive Functioning Disorders, including ADD.

Their study results indicate that dopamine may signal the importance of high-value long-term rewards – as well as the distance to completion – which has implications for any of us who are highly distractible and frequently wander off-task.

Their findings also suggest that impaired dopamine signalling may be a reason why patients with Parkinson’s disease often have difficulty in sustaining motivation to finish tasks.

  • Yet again, however, ADD/EFD is not mentioned as a possible beneficiary of the research.
  • I can’t help but wonder why science seems content to leave us out here on our own, relying on each other to figure out what’s going on and how to work around it — especially after over 25 years in the field, watching this dynamic.

ANYWAY, it seems that their initial idea was that dopamine supplies were involved, but they weren’t sure exactly how they accomplished the deed (i.e, the “mechanism of action”).

Prior studies linked dopamine to rewards, showing that dopamine brain cells (neurons) fired brief bursts of activity every time a test subject received an unexpected reward.

Those neuro-chemical signals were thought to be important for reinforcement learning, the process by which we learn to, metaphorically, respond to the ringing of a bell to get the reward, salivating like Pavlov’s dogs.

The problem is that the reward had always been delivered quickly – within a few seconds – which said little about delayed gratification (or interim distractibility).

The description of the problem in the long-term goals study post is this:

A driver on a long road trip must remain focused on reaching a final destination while also reacting to traffic, stopping for snacks, and entertaining children in the back seat.

What they discovered

They were surprised to see a gradual increase in dopamine, peaking only as each rat approached its goal — as if the anticipation of a reward gave them increasingly more “keeping-on juice.”

From the article:

“The rats’ behavior varied from trial to trial — some runs were faster than others, and sometimes the animals would stop briefly — but the dopamine signal did not vary with running speed or trial duration. Nor did it depend on the probability of getting a reward, something that had been suggested by previous studies.”

“Instead, the dopamine signal seems to reflect how far away the rat is from its goal,” explained Professor Ann Graybiel, who led the MIT study (also an investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research). “The closer it gets, the stronger the signal becomes.”

The study also discovered that the size of the signal was related to the size of the expected reward: when rats were trained to anticipate a larger gulp of chocolate milk, for example, the dopamine signal rose more steeply to a higher final concentration.

Terrence Sejnowski of the Salk Institute, a computational neuroscientist, familiar with the findings but not involved with the study, had this to say:

“This means that dopamine levels could be used to help an animal make choices on the way to the goal and to estimate the distance to the goal.”

“This ‘internal guidance system’ could also be useful for humans, who also have to make choices along the way to what may be a distant goal.”

Still remaining is the question of how the signal arises within the brain of the rats, and whether it operates in a similar fashion in human brains, but this is news with encouraging implications.

According to study lead Graybiel, “It’s known that Parkinson’s patients, in whom dopamine signaling is impaired, often appear to be apathetic, and have difficulty in sustaining motivation to complete a long task. Maybe that’s because they can’t produce this slow ramping dopamine signal.”

Source: Researchers reveal how the brain remains focused on long-term goals

Meanwhile, back at the ADD/EFD ranch . . .

Parents of ADD/EFD children can probably underscore the importance of immediate positive feedback during smaller “chunks” of a task — too bad the value of what many call bribery has been underestimated.

Perhaps reading this article will open a few paradigms a bit.

Rats don’t run mazes for the sheer joy of the task – and neither do humans, young or old.  What do I get if I do it? is always in the back of our minds, even if we’re not consciously aware of it.

Our satisfaction with different types and sizes of rewards varies, of course, but most of us need more than an ataboy.

That brings me back to the vital importance of reward and acknowledgment to continued focus and accomplishment – in ALL of our lives, not just those of us with diagnostic struggles (or those who are still in grammar school!)

STAY TUNED, and while you’re waiting for the next installment of this Series, take some time to read more about inner three-year olds and the value of an anticipated reward in three articles formerly published.  Let me know what you think.

Virtue is NOT its own Reward
Doling out the Cookies
When the Game is Rigged

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There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

76 Responses to Dealing with Distractions

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  6. dgkaye says:

    This was supposed to be a quick visit, but this article is so intensely rich with lots of thought, it couldn’t be quick, lol. I am wondering why you don’t have your own talk show!
    I wanted to stop in and say hello. Just signing off, ready to hop on another big bird in the sky, off to Az tomorrow. I shall catch you from the other side. 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Interesting! – My world

  8. Your post reminded me of a university article except this one is actually interesting☺️. I’m going to share it on WordPress if you don’t mind!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Gemma says:

    Good morning, Madelyn.

    I found your site through my pal Alex, who is as gifted a mind as any I’ve met. My own interest in psychology is the subconscious – and academics are usually shy of this as it isn’t something that is easy to measure. After all, if you’re going to measure something, you will need to be conscious of it…

    Now, you say something that intrigued me, given the nature of Parkinson’s disease*: “Their findings also suggest that impaired dopamine signalling may be a reason why patients with Parkinson’s disease often have difficulty in sustaining motivation to finish tasks.”

    As we all know, sufferers have a problem with their limbs – what in the broadest terms can be spoken of as “the sphere of the will”. No surprise then to learn that they lack the motivation to engage with this sphere! If there is one thing that has surprised me, it is how pretty well everything that is described in psychology reflects one or other of these cognitional spheres; the will in this case.

    (*More properly spoken of as a ‘condition’, not a disease.)

    You then say, “Our satisfaction with different types and sizes of rewards varies, of course, but most of us need more than an ataboy.
    That brings me back to the vital importance of reward and acknowledgment to continued focus and accomplishment.”

    If there is one thing that is lacking in our society, it is engagement. In the way our modern society has formed itself, the bosses shout and the workers have to do as they’re told. Where’s the engagement? Everything’s based on the “attaboy” level of human engagement; that is to say, force and fear.

    That’ll do for now; perhaps we can discuss the nature of distraction later?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Gemma, and welcome. I agree with you about Alex, btw. I only recently “met” her and was immediately impressed.

      I’m not sure why, since there were no links in your comment, but Akismet autospammed it and I only found it today. I’m glad I did. We seem to be of like minds on more than a few things.

      I, too, am fascinated with the subconscious – and science is learning more practically daily how and why it controls so much of our behavior. Another area I follow closely is affective neuroscience – the link between emotions, movement & cognition. I share your objection to the terms used to describe mental differences as well – and the “carrot and stick” studies are by no means new – with the carrot coming out the clear winner.

      It is ironic that you wrote about lack of engagement, and then received no response. I’m truly sorry – it was certainly not intentional.

      I’m lucky I found it, actually. I rarely go digging through the spam-trash, since I attract SO much link-spam for some reason (WELL over a million since I began almost 6 years ago now, according to the counter on my sidebar — and I believe it!) Among over 100 emails I “deleted permanantly” I only found TWO that were not link-spam. ::sigh:: Sorry you’ve been languishing after taking the time to leave such a lengthy and thoughtful post.


      • Gemma says:

        As mentioned in my response to you on my own blog, WordPress has its own ways of making people’s lives less easy. One of which is to hack a person’s comments and have them spammed when they’re not spam.

        I did know you could engage; you’d engaged with me on Alex’s blog. I knew it’d be the software engineers having a laugh at my expense.

        It’s immoral, that’s how people work when they are unaware of the fact that their fears of other people actually lie within themselves.

        The problem for the subconscious is that it isn’t something that can be written down or analyzed statistically. It is something that a person really has to sit down and think about – not all the time, but certainly when something comes to mind and you’re sitting on the train going to work or whatever.

        As to spam, I can’t tell you how stupid the spammers must be. I have an upcoming post on spam – another one, there’s also a third from way back that never got itself published on my newer blog. These guys think they’re so right, and couldn’t be more wrong…

        But that’s what mental illness is all about, isn’t it?

        Catch you in the morning. Your morning; the birds are waking up here. xx

        Liked by 1 person

        • lol – the birds have been awake for quite a while and are now hiding from the rain as I am just on my first cup of coffee. My long-haired pooch isn’t fond of rain since I don’t take him out until it stops, so he’s not a happy camper right now.

          I distinguish mental illness from self [only]-involvement and lack of empathy for others, btw. Tho’ we may well find I am wrong about that, I still believe that folks must be held accountable for their actions – and that all forms of bully behavior is inexcusable.

          MANY who ring in on have been diagnosed with various mental illnesses, and they fight valiantly to keep life on an even keel and to attempt to treat others kindly. Reading what they write on their own blogs, I find that MOST are more empathetic about the behavior of others than the so-called neurotypicals with whom I have engaged over the years (who seem to lack “the kindness gene”).

          Thanks for understanding why I seemingly ignored your comment for so long.


          • Gemma says:

            “I distinguish mental illness from self [only]-involvement and lack of empathy for others, btw.” From what you say, those who are suffering from a more serious kind of mental illness have to be aware of its nature because of its effects on their life. That brings them the realization of what it is to be mentally ill.

            A lack of empathy only means that the person hasn’t realized that they have problems…

            We all of us have problems of one kind or another; that’s the point of being alive, and our problems are our gift, as it were. What was it Carl Jung said? “Every problem has a silver lining”?

            You’ll only ever discover that silver lining if you accept that the problem is yours.

            Gem xx

            Liked by 1 person

            • Another way of saying it is, “denial is a recipe for a lousy life.”

              I once dated a man who used to say, “The unexamined mind is not worth examining” (a bit of a sardonic twist on the old saw) – but I think I’m a bit more optimistic than he – or naive, as he would most certainly say.

              After 3AM here, so I’m off to bed. Any further comments won’t be approved until I am awake again, just so you know.

              G’nite sweet Gemma.


            • Gemma says:

              “The unexamined mind is not worth examining”

              Was he in a state of denial? The real problem here is that we cannot see our subconscious; thus for people who lack a sense of empathy, it simply doesn’t exist.

              How can it? The paradox of the subconscious is such that we are conscious of everything we can be conscious of… to the uninquisitive, what else is there???

              To them it’s ridiculous to imagine that there can be more…

              Thus: it’s not worth examining.

              Believe me, this is the root cause of mental illness. Just because a numptie wearing a white coat can’t poke it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. This root will take leaf, flower and set seed.

              The only way to tackle this is through self-consciousness, and that means grappling with the things one cannot perceive…

              … the question is: how?

              Liked by 1 person

            • Not denial – total cynic – one reason why we are no longer involved AT ALL. Me – big believer in the subconscious, so no need to convince me of the import.

              Rushing since it is after 4AM here and I have been on phone with tech support since i-net suddenly stopped working earlier ::sigh:: and just got back up.

              I am trying to respond to all comments quickly and then head to bed, since I may not be available again until afternoon/eve Friday – personal problem that MUST be handled.

              Will connect again with a more thoughtful response when I can focus online once more.


  10. Very well written – excellent article!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I get distracted all the time. Like right now I’m trailing off about why I can’t smell freesias. It makes me pure sad because everyone goes on and on about how great they smell. :0)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow and Wow again Madelyn. This is an incredible informative post. I have read and re-read it to absorb the many nuggets of information. You have done such an admirable job of presenting it in palatable bites. In my years of working with so many personality types you begin to see groupings. I hate labels but after awhile one cannot help begin to categorize the groupings. This is interesting about proximity to the goal increases the signal. This leads me to many questions and thoughts on motivation and self motivation from a personal perspective.

    Now I know why I exercise like I do… its for the chocolate milk, lol. I like the cartoon about Pavlov’s dog.

    I did discover from my experiences in working with ADD/EFD persons the thing of “bribery” as some would call it does work. In time and bribes a pattern of learning would be stimulated enough for learning to take hold. The “what’s in it for me” thing really does apply in so many peoples motivations. I like it when I do something NOT for what’s in it for me but rather what’s in it for the other person. To me my day is a success when I accomplish this feat. In so doing hopefully others will follow along. Aren’t we hopefuls, lol.

    Wow again Madelyn for such an in-depth article that as you say “open a few paradigms”. Not a bit…. but a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great comment. You just made my day.

      I believe that “What’s in it for THEM” is still “what’s in it for me” at its base – because helping someone else rings my bell like little else. I’m guessing that’s true for you as well – and most parents where their children are concerned, most likely. The good ones, anyway.

      The reason I focus on motivating Self with “cookies” is that those of us with helping natures tend to get enough out of it that little motivation is needed to keep us on task – and those who do not aren’t likely to care enough to learn how. When it comes to doing something for ourselves we tend to flounder — especially with items like laundry, dishes, cleaning in general, and all the “boring” tasks of life that nevertheless must be done to keep body and soul together (and the Board of Health at bay).

      I loved tripping across that cartoon, so I’m thrilled you mentioned it. As you surely know, the dog’s eye view amuses me endlessly, but it illustrated the point I was trying to make perfectly as it lightened what is actually a serious post.

      Thanks for ringing my bell!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is true isn’t it how we are able to keep ourselves motivated in complex and simple ways allowing us to keep giving of ourselves for the betterment of others. I have learned myself well enough to know when I need to hide in my cave awhile and re-fuel with quiet reflection, reading and just immersing in nature. Then when the energy meter starts peeking in the green zone its off to serve. I am so in awe of the human brain and what we are capable of, good and bad. There is such joy though as you know when able to assist others in unpacking the baggage and seeing with new vision. Just watched the Helen Keller movie the other night with Patti Duke (actually Patti wasn’t with me, lol) but you know what I mean. The sequence when Helen Keller makes the connection between the water coming out of the pump and the word water always brings me to tears. There was not just the joy of Helen making the connection but the ripple effect on the teacher, parents and friends. I guess that’s what we feel as we grow and learn about such topics as your article so well illustrates. Keep up the great work Madelyn.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. -Eugenia says:

    It’s such a delight reading your posts, Madelyn. You’re very inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. robjodiefilogomo says:

    Even though I don’t struggle with this that much, It’s really helpful to realize how others can be dealing with this issue. It makes me more empathetic to why my husband doesn’t finish his book or other things he starts!
    I can’t stress enough how this can be enlightening for everyone….not just those with ADD!


    • God bless you for saying that, Jodie. Expanding awareness and understanding into the “vanilla” community is one of the goals of the blog.

      AND, we *all* have troubles with every single Executive Function at times – when we are under the weather, as a result of some medications or following accidents, when we are otherwise dealing with emergencies, as we age, etc.

      Life expects us to motor on regardless, so tips and techniques that help those with life-long struggles can be just as useful to those whose struggles are brand new or temporary.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Love it! I find music is a really good background. I know other people with TBI/ABI that can’t concentrate without music. I find it much more motivating……and bigger chores I mange better by breaking them down into smalle tasks. Or just leave that crafty ‘thing’out to guilt me to get to it. Cheers,H

    Liked by 1 person

    • So fascinating to me how different we are in what works and what distracts. I know many who need a bit of music to focus the rest of their brains, *avoiding* cognitive distractions. Unless I need to clean or paint, etc., I can only do background music without words – and I mean music that *never* had lyrics. Otherwise my brain sends me off to recall the lyrics and that’s all she wrote. For those “boring” physical tasks that always seem to take forever, I like a driving beat and lyrics so I can sing along. That’s what keeps me going, distracting me from the time on task.

      lol re: things left out. After a while I have a trail of items that overwhelms me, so I have to be extremely selective with that one. I’m with you on chunking larger tasks down into smaller bits – more “completion” points to serve as wind beneath my wings. Thanks for ringing in with your experience.


  16. thanks for this post… I saw me in some things you described… and I have to deal with distractions… probably caused by my multi-tasking quirks :o)

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Great informative and inspiring post Madelyn. I always find so much meaning in your words. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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