By Douglas Harris
I recently lived an ADHD dream. I was given the use of a powerful, luxurious car for a long drive in the country on a beautiful, clear day. The ADHD-perfect angle was that during this trip I was continuously encouraged to distract myself from my driving. For doing what came oh-so-naturally to me, I would receive a crisp $100 bill at the end of the drive!
When I signed up for this study all I knew was that it involved research into a touchscreen navigation radio and that I fit the target demographic. The researcher I worked with explained that this study was looking at a system designed to determine if you were distracted from driving and then to regain your focus when necessary. This opportunity seemed almost too good to be true!
Through sensors that followed my eye and head movements, the system determined how much time I spent looking at the navigation radio. Their definition of distracted driving was taking my eyes off the road for more than two seconds. If the system sensed I was distracted, it would bring my attention back to the road through the use of a bright flashing orange light mounted on the dashboard.
Randomly during the three hour drive, my researcher would ask me to perform a task on the navigation radio. Some of the tasks were simple, requiring only a couple touches of the screen, while others involved turning the selection knob endlessly to scroll through a very long playlist. A few tasks could be completed with one glance away from the road but most required looking back and forth between the road and the radio several times. All told, there were over 100 such tasks I had to perform during the test. It was almost like work! Throughout the computer logged my every motion.
I thought it was a very interesting study – at least in theory. There was a problem with glare from the sun causing the sensors to give false alarms. This happened so often that I couldn’t really tell if the flashing light on the dashboard was due to my distraction or, more likely, the abundant sunshine. As a result, I didn’t have the opportunity to truly experience what it would be like to have my distraction measured in an objective and meaningful way.
Although the test didn’t work as I had hoped it would, I still found myself noticing what caused and prevented distraction on the road. Some of the ADHD lessons were pretty obvious. I found that I was more likely to be distracted on the highway while basically driving on autopilot. The winding rural roads were much more stimulating, so I only glanced away from the road for brief moments at a time there. I’m sure my focus was also affected by the researcher sitting in the passenger seat watching everything I did. We’ve long known that having a "body double” present to witness your work will do wonders to keep you on task; it is a classic strategy among ADHD coaches and organizers.
It’s always helpful to minimize potential distractions in your work area. Since I was limited to executing fairly simple tasks, my mind wasn’t taken away from driving even when my eyes were. If I were allowed to do more complicated tasks with the system, I’m sure that would have been a greater temptation and resulted in more of a distraction. In the end, I realized the much simpler radio I have in my own car was a better fit for me (and everyone else on the road!)
There are many strategies people with ADHD can use to avoid distraction and pay better attention. Carpooling is great in theory, but for an ADHDer, the added distraction of new companions for the driver to converse with is something to consider. Perhaps passing off your turn driving might be something to consider.
Some ADHDers find driving with a manual transmission offers enough stimulation to keep their mind from wandering. Music may also help keep the driver from zoning out but extra care must be taken to prevent it becoming a distraction. I know at least one ADHDer who tends to drive in time to the music; the faster the song, the faster he drives. He now carefully selects his music to save on speeding tickets! And of course, actions that are distracting for anyone, such as changing CDs or station-surfing, are worse with ADHD added to the mix. Cell phone use and texting is another obvious danger to avoid at all costs.
Afterwards, I wondered what would happen if we could take this or similar devices even further. What if there were areas in our daily lives where we could objectively measure our distractibility in a similar way? Would we be able to devise some mechanism to help us refocus our attention before it drifted too far? I know that once I have been distracted, it takes time and an inordinate amount of effort (transitions are always a struggle!) to get my focus back where I want it to be. While an external device that flashes a warning light when we get distracted might be distracting itself (imagine two ADHDers with these devices trying to carry on a conversation!), there are things we can do.
Always create an environment with as few distractions as possible and think prevention rather than correction. We can often nip distractions in the bud or avoid them entirely with a little planning. Central to this approach is to develop the habit of a brief pause, just for a moment, and witness yourself beginning to pay attention to something other than that which you intended to. This mindfulness takes time and effort to cultivate, but that brief instant of insight can make all the difference between choosing intentionally and going (being dragged) off on a tangent. Practicing meditation is one way to develop this ability.
Once the pause becomes a habit, potential distractions can be recognized and avoided before any substantial damage is done – achieving the same result as the flashing light on the dash in the test car. But until that the habit is ingrained, you can trigger the pause to observe yourself externally. You can’t catch the distraction as quickly, but you can still minimize the damage. Some people use timers or reminders from other people. Rituals can be built into transitions between tasks or physical locations to act as prompts. The objective, by whatever means, is to become aware of the distraction as soon as possible, when it is easiest to resist going further off track. While it is not a matter of life and death – as is distracted driving – it’s still an issue that takes a toll as these never-ending, small distractions eventually add up to a great deal of wasted time and energy.
Douglas Harris is an ADHD Coach in Saline, Michigan. He works with intellectually gifted people struggling with ADHD. With coaching, clients discover how to tap into the full potential of their extraordinary minds and put in place the ADHD-friendly strategies to make those dreams a reality. Reach him at email@example.com.