It’s often said that people with ADHD are easily distra– hey, look, a squirrel! When we get distracted, though, we aren’t always being distracted by something external.

You know how the proverb goes: sometimes there’s a squirrel, and sometimes the squirrel is inside your head. OK, that’s not really a proverb, but it should be.

Mind WanderingHow do we distract ourselves? Let me count the ways. Wait, what was I talking about?

Sometimes when I have trouble sustaining attention, I’m not even being distracted by something in particular. It’s not that I’m focusing on the wrong thing – it’s just that I’m not focusing on the right thing, or anything at all really. As I’ve talked about before, ADHD is associated with “blanking out.”

Other times, though, I am distracted by my thoughts going off in another direction. It’s not like blanking out, where my train of thought goes off the rails entirely, then drifts into outer space. It’s just that the train gets switched onto an unexpected set of tracks. And sometimes these tracks lead so far in a different direction that it’s hard to remember what station you got on.

Psychologists refer to the phenomenon of getting distracted by your own thoughts as mind wandering. Recently, a study found that mind wandering is, perhaps not so surprisingly, related to the inattentive side of ADHD. That is, the stronger their inattentive ADHD symptoms, the more prone people are to mind wandering on average.

This study identified two inattentive symptoms in particular that seemed to get closest to the heart of the link between inattentive ADHD and mind wandering:

  • Failure to pay attention to details
  • Trouble following instructions

If you have ADHD, you might be nodding along in agreement. You might also just be thinking about what you had for breakfast and not even know what I’m talking about at this point. In any case, you probably know well enough from personal experience that when your thoughts stray, processing the details of things and staying focused on instructions becomes unlikely to impossible.

Symptoms like inattention to details, trouble with instructions and mind wandering are all different ways of looking at a similar underlying situation: when your brain has a tendency to automatically go down its own path, staying focused on the external path you want to be on (e.g., a task you want to complete) becomes a more complicated exercise. Even if you’ve gone out of your way to find an environment where nothing external will distract you, there’s always one thing left that can throw you off course: your own brain, a highly efficient self-distraction machine!

Image: Flickr/Sharon Hinchliffe