ADHD isn’t just about distraction, but getting distracted can be a symptom of ADHD.
Like other ADHD symptoms, distractibility can come in different flavors. It can show up in different ways depending on the situation.
This is clear even in the way we use the word “distracted.” We can get talk about getting distracted by or about getting distracted from something. These two elements of distractibility often go together, but they aren’t necessarily one and the same.
When we get distracted by something, there’s something else that redirects our attention away from the original task. We aren’t doing the task we’re “supposed” to be doing because it suddenly occurred to us that there’s some other interesting activity to do, or something happened around us that we’d rather direct or attention to. The focus is on the new, probably more interesting, thing that is distracting us.
When we talk about getting distracted from something, we’re still talking in terms of the original task. In fact, it’s possible for ADHDers to get distracted from something without necessarily getting distracted by something else.
This happens when we just can’t sustain our attention on the task at hand. There isn’t always something more interesting that is pulling our attention away. But we lack the ability to keep our brain engaged with the task we want to do, possibly because that task is understimulating.
When we talk about getting distracted from and getting distracted by, one of these two types of distraction can lead to the other, and they can happen in any order.
For example, sometimes getting distracted by something causes us to get distracted from something. We get pulled away from the task at hand because something else we want to do suddenly occurs to us, or something in our surroundings grabs our attention.
But it can also go in the other direction, where we get distracted from something first, which then causes us to get distracted by something. We disengage from the task at hand and can’t concentrate on it, which subsequently leads us to seek out something that will hold our attention instead.
So why does the distinction between distraction from and distraction by matter? If you know which type of distraction tends to interfere with certain tasks you want to do, that can change the coping strategies you use.
If you often find yourself getting pulled away from a task by external distractions (getting distracted by something), it might help to do that task in an environment that minimizes distractions – somewhere quiet, with limited access to other activities.
On the other hand, if you tend to get distracted from a certain task (you have trouble engaging because the task is uninteresting, not because of external distractions), you might want to try putting yourself in an environment that makes that task more interesting. That might mean doing the task with other people around or listening to music while you do it.
Of course, distraction from and distraction by go together in many cases, and there isn’t always a clear difference between the two. But building an awareness of when inattention happens because of external distractions and when it happens because you can’t zone in on the task at hand can help in finding effective coping strategies.
Image: Flickr/Ivan Rigamonti