Have you ever wondered why some people have to be mobile when they’re on their mobiles, or doodle in meetings, or continually play with a stress ball? You might think that they are not paying attention, but, in fact, the opposite may be true. The reason may be linked to a disorder commonly associated with kids but rarely applied to adults’ behaviour, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD / ADD).
The term ADHD is a misnomer. It is not really a deficit of attention, and not all sufferers are hyperactive. It would be better described as an executive disorder. People who suffer from ADHD do not have a deficit of attention; they just have a problem controlling their attention and their working memory (the memory that we all use to buffer information while we process it) and can be very easily distracted. This leads to a loss of focus and poor organisation skills. However, regardless of the accuracy of the name, as many papers and books have already been written on the subject it isn’t going to change any time soon so ADHD it is.
ADHD is not a binary condition it is a spectrum disorder. That means that everyone, you included, has ADHD to some degree. Look at the following graph. It’s a fairly standard bell shaped curve commonly used to plot statistical distributions.
If you take the horizontal axis as ability to focus and the vertical axis as number of people with that given ability then, over to the extreme right of the graph you have the ultra-organised; we’ve all met these people, the Project Manager who effortlessly juggles several projects at the same time and never seems to drop the ball or the incredibly efficient PA who’s always on top of the boss’s diary or even the programmer who can code for hours on end seemingly without the need for breaks or food. At the other end of the scale, on the far left, we have ADHD sufferers. They can focus, but they are very easily distracted and struggle to maintain focus consistently. This leads to learning difficulty and poor organisational skills. In the middle, you have the rest of us. We can mostly manage to organise our lives and work, we can mostly focus reasonably well. Some of us are over to the right and manage a bit better, some of us are over to the left and don’t handle it so well.
Importantly, there is no hard and fast cut-off point at either end of the scale. It is, as I previously mentioned a spectrum. We all fit somewhere on that spectrum and, often, depending on how we feel, we can move left or right along the horizontal axis.
So, what does this have to do with productivity?
Researchers studying ADHD children have discovered that some of the so called hyperactive behaviours of ADHD kids; fidgeting, swinging on their chairs, playing with pens or pencils etc. are actually their unconscious way of maintaining focus and keeping their working memory on track.
The theory is that nobody can focus 100% of their working memory and attention to a single task, there is always a little bit of floating attention keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings. This floating attention is a safety feature that probably dates back to prehistoric times when the ability to focus 100% on a single task was not entirely desirable and would result in a person missing the large ravenous beast hiding in the bushes, the result being that the ravenous beast would become somewhat less ravenous.
These days, in the classroom or the workplace, large ravenous beasts are thankfully extremely rare, but, we all still have that little area of floating attention keeping a look out for us and distracting us whenever possible. Some of us are better at keeping that floating attention under control than others and some, the ADHD sufferers, have virtually no control over it at all.
Researchers have found that one way that ADHD children cope with these distractions is to unconsciously give their floating attention a nice mindless task, like fidgeting, swinging and fiddling to keep it occupied allowing the rest of their working memory to get on with the task at hand, learning, uninterrupted.
This is not so easy for adults. With maturity come expectations. Our peers expect us to sit still in meetings, to give some semblance of paying attention to what’s being said. It’s considered bad practise to sit doodling in your notebook when the CEO is addressing the meeting and could signify a sudden career change. However, we could all be wrong, the person doing the doodling may be the most focussed of us all.
So, the next time you’re in class and one of your students is seemingly more interested in re-organizing their pencil case, or you’re trying to concentrate in your cubicle while your colleague holds a mobile phone conversation in the corridor outside, or you’re addressing a meeting where one of your colleagues seems more interested in his Blackberry than the annual budget, cut them some slack, it may be their way of concentrating their focus.
In fact, why don’t you try it for yourself. Make a point of getting up and going for a short walk around the office or school when you need to think, get yourself a stress ball, don’t be ashamed to doodle in meetings, try using a standing desk. Do anything to get your floating attention busy and free you up to be a more productive and focussed person.