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ADHD and Half-Attention

There’s attention and inattention. You’re paying attention or you’re not. You’re focused or you’re distracted.

We often talk about attention like it’s a black-and-white, on-or-off thing. But in many ways, it’s more of a spectrum.

Out of FocusThink of the most vividly focused you’ve ever been in your life. Then think of the most distracted you’ve ever been – probably you weren’t even bothering to do the thing you were supposed to be doing. There’s a good chance, though, that most of your experiences fall between these two extremes.

Rather than being totally focused on something, or totally distracted by something else, it’s entirely possible to pay half-attention to something. In fact, this twilight zone of concentration is where those of us with ADHD often get into trouble.

For example, say you ask someone a question. When they respond, you’re paying enough attention to more or less register the overall gist of their response in the back of your mind. But you might not be paying enough attention to really process their response and send it along to your memory – so you end up asking them the same question again later.

Another scenario: you’re working on a routine task that to some extent you can do automatically. However, as you drift out into half-attention, you start doing it a little too automatically. And that’s the milk ends up in your cupboard.

Of course, it’s not necessary, or even possible, to pay full attention to everything. You really can do good work at 80-percent-attention. But when you get down to 50-percent-attention, or even 30-percent-attention, problems start to crop up. Careless mistakes start to multiply, and things that should be easy start to go strangely awry.

If you have ADHD, you might notice that you spend a disproportionate amount of your life at half-attention. It’s not quite the same as not paying attention at all – but it sure isn’t the same as paying attention completely either.

The good news is that when it comes to treating and managing ADHD, you don’t have to make 100-percent attention your goal. Even going from half-attention to three-quarters-attention can make a big difference in your life and ensure that the milk always arrives safely in its proper, refrigerated home!

Image: Flickr/Amro

ADHD and Half-Attention

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2017). ADHD and Half-Attention. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Sep 2017
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