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Fidgeting for Focus

Have you ever won dered wh y some people h ave to be mobile wh en th eyre on th eir mobiles, or doodle in meetin g s, or con tin ually play with a stress ball? You mig h t th in k th at th ey are n ot payin g atten tion , but, in fact, th e opposite may be true. Th e reason may be lin ked to a disorder common ly associated with kids but rarely applied to adults beh aviour, Atten tion Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD / ADD). Th e term ADHD is a misn omer. It is n ot really a deficit of atten tion , an d n ot all sufferers are h yperactive. It would be better described as an executive disorder. People wh o suffer from ADHD do n ot h ave a deficit of atten tion ; th ey just h ave a problem con trollin g th eir atten tion an d th eir workin g memory (th e memory th at we all use to buffer in formation wh ile we process it) an d can be very easily distracted. Th is leads to a loss of focus an d poor org an isation skills. However, reg ardless of th e accuracy of th e n ame, as man y papers an d books h ave already been written on th e subject it isn t g oin g to ch an g e an y time soon so ADHD it is. ADHD is n ot a bin ary con dition it is a spectrum disorder. Th at mean s th at everyon e, you in cluded, h as ADHD to some deg ree. Look at th e followin g g raph . Its a fairly stan dard bell sh aped curve common ly used to plot statistical distribution s. If you take th e h orizon tal axis as ability to focus an d th e vertical axis as n umber of people with th at g iven ability th en , over to th e extreme rig h t of th e g raph you h ave th e ultraorg an ised; weve all met th ese people, th e Project Man ag er wh o effortlessly jug g les several projects at th e same time an d n ever seems to drop th e ball or th e in credibly efficien t PA wh os always on top of th e bosss diary or even th e prog rammer wh o can code for h ours on en d seemin g ly with out th e n eed Bell Curve for breaks or food. At th e oth er en d of th e scale, on th e far left, we h ave ADHD sufferers. Th ey can focus, but th ey are very easily distracted an d strug g le to main tain focus con sisten tly. Th is leads to learn in g difficulty an d poor org an isation al skills. In th e middle, you h ave th e rest of us. We can mostly man ag e to org an ise our lives an d work, we can mostly focus reason ably well. Some of us are over to th e rig h t an d man ag e a bit better, some of us are over to th e left an d don t h an dle it so well. Importan tly, th ere is n o h ard an d fast cut-off poin t at eith er en d of th e scale. It is, as I previously men tion ed a spectrum. We all fit somewh ere on th at spectrum an d, often , depen din g on h ow we feel, we can move left or rig h t alon g th e h orizon tal axis. So, wh at does th is h ave to do with productivity? Research ers studyin g ADHD ch ildren h ave discovered th at some of th e so called h yperactive beh aviours of ADHD kids; fidg etin g , swin g in g on th eir ch airs, playin g with pen s or pen cils etc. are actually th eir un con scious way of main tain in g focus an d keepin g th eir workin g memory on track.

Th e th eory is th at n obody can focus 100% of th eir workin g memory an d atten tion to a sin g le task, th ere is always a little bit of floatin g atten tion keepin g a watch ful eye on th e surroun din g s. Th is floatin g atten tion is a safety feature th at probably dates back to preh istoric times wh en th e ability to focus 100% on a sin g le task was n ot en tirely desirable an d would result in a person missin g th e larg e raven ous beast h idin g in th e bush es, th e result bein g th at th e raven ous beast would become somewh at less raven ous. Th ese days, in th e classroom or th e workplace, larg e raven ous beasts are th an kfully extremely rare, but, we all still h ave th at little area of floatin g atten tion keepin g a look out for us an d distractin g us wh en ever possible. Some of us are better at keepin g th at floatin g atten tion un der con trol th an oth ers an d some, th e ADHD sufferers, h ave virtually n o con trol over it at all. Research ers h ave foun d th at on e way th at ADHD ch ildren cope with th ese distraction s is to un con sciously g ive th eir floatin g atten tion a n ice min dless task, like fidg etin g , swin g in g an d fiddlin g to keep it occupied allowin g th e rest of th eir workin g memory to g et on with th e task at h an d, learn in g , un in terrupted. Th is is n ot so easy for adults. With maturity come expectation s. Our peers expect us to sit still in meetin g s, to g ive some semblan ce of payin g atten tion to wh ats bein g said. Its con sidered bad practise to sit doodlin g in your n otebook wh en th e CEO is addressin g th e meetin g an d could sig n ify a sudden career ch an g e. However, we could all be wron g , th e person doin g th e doodlin g may be th e most focussed of us all. So, th e n ext time youre in class an d on e of your studen ts is seemin g ly more in terested in re-org an izin g th eir pen cil case, or youre tryin g to con cen trate in your cubicle wh ile your colleag ue h olds a mobile ph on e con versation in th e corridor outside, or youre addressin g a meetin g wh ere on e of your colleag ues seems more in terested in h is Blackberry th an th e an n ual budg et, cut th em some slack, it may be th eir way of con cen tratin g th eir focus. In fact, wh y don t you try it for yourself. Make a poin t of g ettin g up an d g oin g for a sh ort walk aroun d th e office or sch ool wh en you n eed to th in k, g et yourself a stress ball, don t be ash amed to doodle in meetin g s, try usin g a stan din g desk. Do an yth in g to g et your floatin g atten tion busy an d free you up to be a more productive an d focussed person .