In a world where Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the diagnosis of the decade, few people realize that problems with attention could be the result of an under developed attention or immature attention. Immature attention is the under development of attention , which is often developed during childhood into adolescence. But what if this developmental goal is never reached?
During childhood we naturally explore our environment and relationships with others to develop skills and abilities that we will continue to use throughout our lives. One of these skills we learn is attention. Now, anyone from an older generation can reflect on their childhood and recall times when they were playing outside without any toys. They climbed trees, sat with a book, or investigated the daily life of a bug. Car trips revolved around inventing games such as I Spy and children were expected to sit through weekly religious meetings without disruption. These activities were simple in nature and gave us the opportunity to develop our sustained and focused attention. We did not require constant stimulation to be entertained, we could sit quietly when needed and would use our creativity to keep ourselves entertained.
The generation of young adults entering the work force today and subsequent generations would describe their childhoods differently. They grew up with computers, tablets, cell phones, digital books, video games, and constant stimulation. These children redefined what after school activities meant as they took advantage of extra circular activities that were available, and joined various clubs. Their world was a whirlwind of stimulation from the beginning and what would have overwhelmed the previous generation was taken in stride.
Looking at the surface, one could say, “these generations were different, but each childhood has its strengths.” True, children today need to be technologically savvy to make it in this world. However, more young adults are entering into the work force where they struggle to reach their maximum potential because they are easily bored and unable to focus on the tasks at hand. This often results in unsatisfied feelings about their position, and can lead to frequent switching of jobs. I have seen what I call immature attention in many young adults and children these days and the numbers appear to be increasing. Research has supported this theory suggesting it may be the result of constant stimulation during childhood. It is theorized that the introduction of technology and constant stimulation of children never allows them to fully develop their attention abilities. In fact, researchers are recommending that children under the age of 2 not be exposed to any technology (tv, computers, video games, etc) and that growing children be strictly limited to small amounts of time each week.
More and more I see children and young adults complain about their inability to focus or pay attention. It is impacting their school/work and they come seeking help. I frequently see that they can pay attention to things that interest them such as video games and internet surfing where they can sit for hours. But they never developed the skills necessary to utilize sustained attention for unexciting tasks that are often required for work/school. Part of this takes self-discipline and patience while another part is the immaturely developed attention skills. If the necessity to implement sustained attention had never presented itself, then it’s safe to say it never developed out of a lack of necessity. It only becomes problematic when their environment changes and they are now required to sit at their desk and work for long periods of time, they suddenly realize they can’t.
For some the best solution may be medication, however, for others there are many behavioral options that you should try first. Some suggestions are:
1. Clear your work space from all distractions. One of the most common distractions at work/school is the cell phone. We are always texting and checking email as if being unreachable for an hour would be the end of the world. Try turning your cell phone off during work hours, allowing yourself to check it during your lunch break. If you are not disciplined enough to do this, try leaving your phone in the car or at home. Don’t use excuses as to why you must have it, you can give the school nurse your desk extension or anyone else who might call in an emergency.
2. Try using ear plugs when you work. Eliminating sound distractions can really help someone focus on what they are doing. I recommend using water ear plugs that do not enter the ear canal thus reducing the pressure that builds up after extended use. If you can’t use ear plugs a similar trick might be to run a white noise machine or play instrumental music softly in the background. These noises create uninteresting competition for your attention, and help generate a focused attention on your work.
3. Watch your intake of stimulants. For some, small amounts of stimulants (tea, coffee etc) will increase focused attention for a short period of time, allowing them to be productive. But be aware that too much stimulation will create the opposite effect, leading to hyperactivity that prevents being able to focus and will create a dependence on the stimulant. I recommend first trying natural stimulants such as harnessing your own adrenaline or endorphins if you can. This can be achieved through setting deadlines you must meet and telling others your plan so that you are more likely to be held accountable (adrenaline) or through regular morning exercise (endorphins).
4. Monitor how much time you spend focused and working and how much time you spend goofing off. Then work towards extending your focused time, and reward yourself when you are able to do so. Try focusing on work for an extra 15 minutes, and then reward yourself with 2 minutes of internet surfing or a walk around the office. You can find what rewards really motivate you, but try to limits distractions, extend your sustained focus, and reward yourself with a distraction.
These are limited suggestions to help get you started. Having poor sustained attention does not have to follow you forever. It can be a skill that you learn to develop or utilize compensatory strategies to make things easier. When attention is immature, it can be developed just as you can improve your speech skills and golf swing. It is a skill that we develop and perfect similar to others and with determination they can be improved.
Please comment below if you have additional strategies that have worked for you!