Inattention is a staple ADHD symptom, and inattention can occur when you’re distracted by something other than the task at hand.
When we talk about “distractions,” often we think about a distraction as something external. An interesting activity, a loud noise, a person who walks into the room while you’re working.
One way this happens is when you’re performing some task but have some parallel train of thought running simultaneously in the background. Your attention gradually shifts away from the external task and into your stream of consciousness – to the point where you start losing your ability to function in the external task. As a result, you make glaring inattentive mistakes or you drop the task altogether.
This can happen with any task, although it happens most easily with tasks that are automatic or rote. Hence why the internal distraction of your thoughts can stop you from completing even trivial tasks like putting something back in the place you got it from.
Even many external distractions start with an internal distraction – an idea. When you drop a task in the middle of doing it so that you can do some other activity, that often starts with a thought along the lines of “hey, I should do such-and-such” or “I totally forgot to do such-and-such earlier.”
Granted, anyone can get distracted by their own thoughts. But I suspect that ADHDers more easily transition from being focused on an external task to getting caught up in the flow of internal thoughts. This has to do with deficits in our ability to regulate our own attention, and in our tendency to operate on autopilot. And when we get lost in our thoughts, whatever we’re doing tends to get lost too!
The interesting thing about inattention is that it comes in a whole assortment of flavors. Sometimes your mind wanders, and sometimes it just goes blank. Sometimes you’re distracted by something and sometimes you’re distracted from something.
Even if you were to lock yourself in a silent, empty room and someone looking in from the outside would say there’s no way you could get distracted, you know there’s one major distraction to contend with that’s perfectly capable of delaying or derailing the task you’re working on – and that would be your own thoughts!
Image: Flickr/Frank Crisanti