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Woman with ADHD keeping organized with post-it notes on the window

Tips on How to Pay Attention: At School, At Work, At Home

Reading time | 5 mins
Inattention can be a common symptom of ADHD. Terry Matlen shares her tips on how to get and stay focused. 


I can clearly remember struggling in college, trying hard to pay attention to my professors.

The worst classes were in lecture halls where every sound and every movement was amplified by the hundred or so students surrounding me. Clicking pens, feet shuffling, and gum snapping were enough to throw me off into Terry Land.

During those years, I had no idea that I had ADHD, but I did know that I had to figure out ways to rein in my tendency to daydream.

When I did a major de-cluttering of my home years ago, I found notebook after notebook from my college days, and I was struck with how I’d doodled my way through each class.

Every margin on every page contained mini sketches of classmates, professors, and enough designs to wallpaper my entire house.

I also remember having to sit within the first three rows of the instructor’s podium so that I could be close enough to see the teacher’s mouth moving. Without that visual connection, my brain went on a 45-minute vacation.

Paying attention in school is not just an ADHD “kid” problem. It’s an issue for adults with ADHD as well. Lack of attention can make or break any college student, but with ADHD in the mix, we know that paying attention to complicated or boring information is extremely difficult. Attention can wane at work, too.

Most of us have jobs that involve at least some boring tasks (think: paperwork and filling out spreadsheets), and it is far too easy to zone out while handling these parts of our work responsibilities.

Some with ADHD find talking on the phone to be problematic, which is not good if you’re making sales calls or checking in on clients. I remember weekly clinical meetings where we’d go around the table discussing our therapy cases. That was interesting.

What was not interesting was going over clinic protocols, rules, regulation updates, and so. Bye-bye attention. Hello doodles.

Problems don’t stop at the door

Our attention — or lack of — follows us just about everywhere.

After a long day at work, we want to go home to relax, but if you’re in a relationship or have children waiting for you, your attention is needed again.

In my work with many adults with ADHD over the years, one chief complaint I hear from their partners and spouses is: “He/she tunes me out. I don’t feel like I’m being heard, and I feel ignored, neglected, and unloved.”

Even playing with children can be boring for many, and a parent can easily get distracted and not give their child the one-on-one attention kids so badly need.

Taking care of home responsibilities can also be a challenge. There’s nothing intrinsically fun (for most of us, anyway) in cutting the grass each week, washing dishes, keeping up with laundry, and the most popular complaint of all that I hear: paying bills and filing paper.

It’s endless! How do you keep your attention on such dreary tasks, knowing in days or weeks (or even minutes) these piles of work will return with a vengeance?

Let’s find out ways to help you manage your attention and stay focused.

How to Stay Focused at School

Did you know that if you carry an official diagnosis of ADHD that you may be able to get special help in college under certain provisions laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

Not everyone with ADHD qualifies, but if your symptoms make learning difficult, you may have a fair chance. Visit your school’s disability office to learn more about specific types of accommodations they may offer. Some examples of academic accommodations might include:

  • Having a person take notes for you
  • Taking exams in a quiet room
  • Extended time for projects and exams

How to Stay Focused at Work

The ADA can provide some resources in the workplace as well. You may be eligible for accommodations to help you stay on task. Some examples might include:

  • Having an office far from the others to cut back on noise.
  • Asking for flex time so you can come to work early or leave late, in order to remove distractions.
  • Working with an ADHD coach to help you set up systems to minimize distractions and improve your focus.

You may choose not to reveal your ADHD at work and try instead to find your own ways to help improve your attention. In that case, you might try:

  • Putting a sign on your door (or a message on office chats or emails) when you cannot manage any interruptions. Suggest, for example, that you are working on a project but can be reached between certain working hours.
  • Moving your chair away from distractions, like noises or windows.
  • Visiting the water cooler for breaks or taking short walks.
  • Getting up to stretch frequently.

When it comes to managing boring tasks, I recommend:

  • Dividing your tasks into shorter segments so your attention doesn’t fade quickly.
  • Taking frequent breaks.
  • Making a game out of boring tasks. For example, time yourself and see if you can beat your record.
  • Dancing, singing, and being silly (when and where appropriate).
  • Rewarding yourself. If you’ve accomplished something extremely difficult, give yourself a treat.
  • Working with an accountability partner to check in on tasks and timelines.

How to Stay Focused with your Family

As discussed above, relationships can be especially challenging for those of us with ADHD — whether with intimate partners, kids, and other family members. You may want to try a few of these tips to give those relationships a bit more TLC:

  • Find activities you and your spouse/partner both enjoy. If that’s not always possible, take turns: one weekend you go skiing; the next weekend you go on a movie date.
  • Figure out ways you can stay focused in activities with loved ones. For example, if your child loves playing with jigsaw puzzles but that bores you to death, add something novel to the experience. Perhaps you can make up a story to go along with the puzzle or maybe sing while playing. Also, remind yourself that it’s not the actual activity that’s important. It’s the time you have together.
  • Be playful.
  • Ask questions. Ask your partner or older child what their favorite childhood memory is, for example. This helps you to stay focused.
  • Maintain eye contact while talking.

The takeaway

Inattention is a hallmark symptom of ADHD, so don’t be harsh on yourself. With these tips and help from your doctor, you can identify a variety of methods to help improve your lack of focus.

For more information on how to manage ADHD, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.