With Summative Assessment season upon us, it’s important to remember to keep things balanced and to take regular breaks.
It may sound counter-intuitive when you have submission dates piling up and exams to study for, but studies show that when we work / study for hours on end on the same task, with no breaks, our brain slowly starts to switch off and no longer registers what we are doing. Taking regular breaks from studying, or working on an assignment, allows your mind to refocus and improves attention. The trick however, lies in selecting the correct type of activity for your study / work break so that you return to your task focused and refreshed.
How Long Should You Be Studying / Working For?
The general consensus appears to be:
- Study / work for 50 – 90 minutes with a 10 minute break in between sessions.
- And to take a slightly longer break after every 2 to 3 sessions.
“Good” Study / Work Breaks
Different activities work for different people. The point is to decide on an activity that will help refresh you and that makes the transition back to work / studying easy. Also, a “good” break is one that isn’t able to morph into a procrastination tactic.
The simplest way to manage your breaks (and even your study / work sessions) is by setting a timer – when the timer goes, the break is over.
Good, reinvigorating breaks include:
- Moving away from the screen / book / desk – sitting in the same position for hours on end is no good for you, especially if you are hunched up with tension and anxious about what you are working on. Get up and stretch, move around, get your blood flowing and your eyes moving and focusing on different things. Even better, go for a 10 minute walk outside – the fresh air will help clear your mind and re-energize you for your next session.
- Chitter-chatter – you’ve been “in the zone” for the past 50 – 90 minutes, phone a friend or find someone to have a quick (emphasis on “quick“) chat with. It will help you change your focus and feel connected again.
- Dance, draw, doodle – do something creative and fun for 10 minutes. Dancing can boost your energy and lift your mood. Colouring in (yes, with crayons or pencils) is a wonderfully relaxing way to clear your mind and get your focus back.
- Eat – whether it’s a quick snack (during your 10 minute break) or a light lunch (during your 30 minute break), the low efficiency activity of putting together a light and healthy snack or meal not only allows your mind to focus on something else, but refuels your body and improves your mindset.
What Not to Do
Just like the right type of break can energize you, the wrong type of break can result in unplanned detours and distractions that make it hard to get back to work and full focus.
Things to avoid include:
- TV / Computer Games / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Snapchat / WhatsApp / E-mail – Rule of thumb: if it has a screen, avoid it. None of these activities boost productivity or focus; what they do is leave you feeling more tired, wound up and distracted than before. Unless you are done studying or working for the day, or self-discipline is your secret super power, don’t use any of these as your downtime break activity.
- Catch some Zzzzz’s – Taking a nap can actually be counter-productive to your work / study schedule; more often than not it leaves you feeling more tired and less inclined to want to get back to work. Instead, aim for a solid 8 – 9 hours uninterrupted sleep a night and if you absolutely have to take a nap during the day, ensure that it is not longer than 20 minutes.
- Quick fix – A take-away pizza (junk food) and super sized energy drink (caffeine) may make for a quick meal break and energy boost, but that is exactly what they are…quick. Neither offer sustained energy or benefit, instead resulting in your blood sugar spiking and then crashing, leaving you feeling flat and tired.
How to Take a Study Break. (2015). Retrieved from: https://www.brainscape.com/blog/2011/06/study-break/ [Accessed on: 14 October 2016].
Hoyt, E. (2016). Energizing Study Break Ideas & What to Avoid. Retrieved from: http://www.fastweb.com/student-life/articles/energizing-study-break-ideas-what-to-avoid [Accessed on: 14 October 2016].
Nauert, R. (2011). Taking Breaks Found to Improve Attention. Retrieved from: https://psychcentral.com/news/2011/02/09/taking-breaks-found-to-improve-attention/23329.html [Accessed on: 14 October 2016].
You’ve Been Taking Breaks All Wrong. Here’s How To Do It Right. (2013). Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/19/youve-been-taking-breaks-_n_4453448.html [Accessed on: 14 October 2016].
We’ve all experienced difficulty concentrating at some point or another, but when it becomes a daily struggle, it’s time to start looking at things a little closer.
Misconceptions About Concentration
There are two main misconceptions about concentration:
1. “Good” students can concentrate for hours at a time.
Not true. The average concentration span for a student reading a textbook is around 20 minutes. This means that as a student you should be aiming for a 20 – 30 minute study / work session before taking a 5 minute break in order to refresh and refocus.
There is the misconception that long hours of sustained concentration result in high productivity. Instead studies have shown that extended time at a desk or with a textbook reduces productivity, and regular short breaks are needed to re-energize and regain focus.
2. Some people naturally concentrate better than others.
Again, not true. Concentration is not an instinctive ability, but rather it is a skill that can be learned and with practice student can get better at it.
Attention vs. Distractions
Attention (or concentration) and distraction are opposite ends of the same continuum. Studies show that it can take between 15 to 20 minutes for a person to regain their full attention on a task after having been distracted.
Anthony Funnell, in his article on distraction in an “attention economy” (2016), writes that there are five ways for dealing with distractions:
- Getting distracted isn’t the issue. You can’t avoid distraction. Rather, what matters is how you respond to the distraction. Do you get caught up in it and neglect what you were originally focused on; or do you acknowledge the distraction with the intention of addressing it only once you are done with what you are currently doing?
- Avoid multi-tasking. By working on a variety of tasks simultaneously, you are in fact doing each poorly than if you were focused on one at a time. Even if you are focused on a single task but you stop to check your phone every few minutes, your concentration and focus are poor, making productivity low.
- Don’t think of paying attention as a battle or a negative task. A negative attitude about concentration will not help in improving it. As soon as something is viewed in a negative light, it is difficult to change one’s opinion of it. The same with distractions, by asking yourself “what is important at this moment?” and bringing your attention back to the primary focus, a different type of effort is engaged compared to pushing and fighting with one’s attention and distractions.
- Analyse your personal online behaviour. Be aware of the instinctive need for gratification. Cell phones and social media provide us with instant gratification and so easily distract us. The reward of reading a message, swiping left or right boarders on addictive and wins over other tasks almost every time.
How to Improve Concentration
How often have you found yourself reading and re-reading the same section of a textbook, simply because your mind keeps wandering off? Below you’ll find a variety of strategies to help improve your concentration and reduce distractions.
Nutrition & Exercise
- Drink water – It may sound odd but what many people don’t realize is dehydration causes you to feel tired, sluggish and irritable – all things that impact on your ability to concentrate. Staying hydrated is a simple way of improving your concentration.
- Move around – Sitting at a desk for hours on end is counter-productive especially for one’s concentration. Take regular, short breaks, getting up and moving around to help refresh your mind and focus. Why not go to the kitchen to get a glass of water?
- Eat – It’s difficult to concentrate when you’re hungry. Eating regular meals, with healthy snacks in between, can boost your ability to concentrate.
The environment in which you work or study plays a role in your ability to focus and concentrate. By creating a comfortable environment the more likely you are to remain in it and stay focused.
- Desk and chair – Your bed and couch are associated with relaxation and leisure, they are not conducive to a focused, work orientated state of mind. Find yourself a desk (or table) and comfortable chair in a quiet, low traffic area.
- Distractions – Shut out noise and distractions as much as possible. This may mean putting your phone on silent, switching off all apps, or even leaving it in another room. Listening to instrumental music may also be helpful – avoid listening to your favourite band and being distracted by singing along to the songs.
- Traffic – Try not to set up your study area in a high traffic environment – somewhere where people are always walking past, stopping to talk, or where others gather to socialize, like the lounge.
- Don’t multi-task – Focus on one task at a time. By changing your focus every few minutes to check your phone, send a message etc. you are lowering both your focus and productivity.
- Prioritize – Having too much to do results in distraction which in turn causes procrastination. If you find you have a number of tasks due but you aren’t sure where to start or what to focus on, take a few minutes to draw up a To-Do List and then prioritize the tasks on that list in order of importance. You can find more information on Time Management and To-Do Lists here.
- Switch between high and low attention tasks – After an extended period of concentration, such as working on a particularly intricate design, give your brain a break by doing something less intense for a good 10 – 15 minutes, such as filing your lecture notes, or revising your To-Do List. This allows you to recharge your energy and refresh your focus.
- Distracting thoughts and worry – You may find that your concentration is disrupted by constant worrying or distracting thoughts – an approaching submission date, for example. One way of dealing with this is to keep a pen and notepad handy, write down what it is that is worrying or distracting you and then schedule in time to address it. This way you are no longer holding the thought in your mind, instead it is sitting on the notepad waiting to be attended to when you are ready.
- Reward yourself – If you’ve been working steadily for 50 minutes on a single task, reward yourself with a 5 minute break, a cup of coffee, something that motivates you but won’t distract you.
- Take short breaks – You need to refocus and re-energise at least every hour. Try dividing your work / study sessions up into hour long periods, with a 5 – 10 minute break between tasks. You should take a longer break, 20 – 30 minutes, every 2 – 3 hours.
Funnell, A. (2016). How to Deal with Distraction in an “Attention Economy”. Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/how-to-deal-with-distraction-in-an-attention-economy/7497196. [Accessed on: 14 March 2017].
Improve Your Concentration. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_78.htm. [Accessed on: 14 March 2017].
Murray, B. (2016). Distractions: Are They an Addiction? Retrieved from: https://www.mindtools.com/blog/distractions-addiction/. [Accessed on: 14 March 2017].
Lysander, R. (2014, October 17). Benefits of Reading Infographic [Web log post]. Retrieved from: https://metamorphosisj.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/benefits-of-reading-infographic/
Adult ADD/ADHD comes with a myriad of challenging symptoms, ranging from extreme procrastination to impulsive behaviour, all of which can have a devastating impact on the person’s life and relationships.
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom – there are skills a person can learn which can go a long way to helping curb the symptoms and negative impact of ADD/ADHD.
Myths about Self-Help for Adult ADD/ADHD
Myth: Medication is the only way to solve ADD/ADHD
Fact: Medication can help some people manage the symptoms of ADD/ADHD, it is not a cure, nor the only solution. If used at all, medication should be taken in combination with other treatments or self-help strategies.
Myth: Having ADD/ADHD means you are lazy or unintelligent, so you won’t be able to help yourself
Fact: The effects of ADD/ADHD may result in you and others labelling you as “lazy” or “unintelligent”, but this is not at all true. Essentially what you have is a chemical problem which effects the management systems of your brain, thus making it difficult for you to function normally.
Myth: A doctor can solve all my ADD/ADHD problems
Fact: Doctors can help you manage the symptoms of your ADD/ADHD but there is no “cure” and there is only so much a doctor and medication can do. Because you are the one living with the problems brought on by the condition, it is largely up to you to work at and find ways of overcoming them.
Segal, R. & Smith, M. (2014). Help for Adult ADD/ADHD – Tips for Managing Symptoms and Getting Focused. Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/add-adhd/adult-adhd-attention-deficit-disorder-self-help.htm [Accessed on: 25 February 2015].
Self-Help Tips for Adults with ADD/ADHD
Getting Organised & Controlling Clutter
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced by adults with ADD/ADHD is getting their inattention and distractibility under control. The mere thought of getting organised, be it at home, college or work, can be overwhelming.
However, by learning to break tasks down into small, manageable steps and following a systematic approach, organisation can be achieved.
1. Develop & maintain structure & neat habits
- Create space – ask yourself what you need on a daily basis, and then pack away all the things you don’t need either in a cupboard or storage area. Designate specific areas for specific things e.g. a hook next to the front door for your keys, a specific drawer just for bills etc.
- Use a daily planner or calendar app – the proper and diligent use of a daily planner, desk calendar or calendar app on your smart phone / tablet can be a great help with remembering appointments, lecture times, assessment due dates etc.
- “To Do” lists – drawing up “to do” lists is a useful way of keeping track of things including regular tasks, appointments, deadlines etc. for a particular day or week. If you are already making use of a daily planner either add a “to do” list column to each day or keep your “to do” list in the planner. There are also a variety of free “to do” apps available for both Android and Apple devices.
- Do it now – one way of avoiding forgetfulness, clutter, and procrastination is by doing things right away rather than leaving them for “later”. If a task can be done in two minutes or less (making a phone call, answering an e-mail, putting a load of washing in, packing away stuff) then do it now, instead of putting it off.
2. Get your paperwork under control
- Set up filing system – use colour coded dividers or separate files for different document i.e. your lecture notes. By labelling and using a colour coding system you will be able to find what you are looking for easily.
- Get filing – set aside a few minutes each day (or if that is asking too much, half an hour once a week) and sort out your filing.
Managing your Time & Staying on Schedule
Poor time management is a common symptom of adult ADD/ADHD. This includes losing track of time, missing due dates and deadlines, procrastinating, underestimating the amount of time needed for a task, or doing things in the wrong order. Another common problem for many ADD/ADHD sufferes is spending too much time on a single task (hyper-focusing) to the extent that nothing else gets done.
Below are some tips to help with managing your time and prioritising what needs to get done first.
1. Time Management Tips
- Become a clock watcher – use a wrist watch, cell phone clock, desk clock or any highly visible clock to help you keep track of time. When starting task, make a note of the time by writing it down somewhere you can see it.
- Use timers – allocate yourself a limited amount of time for each task you need to attend to and use a timer or alarm to alert you when your time is up. For longer tasks, set an alarm that goes off at regular intervals so as to help keep you productive and aware of how much time you have left.
- Give yourself more time than you need – adults with ADD/ADHD often have difficulty with estimating how much time they will need to complete a task. For every thirty minutes you think it will take to get somewhere or to complete a task, add an additional ten minutes.
- Plan to be early – write down appointments for 15 minutes earlier than they are i.e. if you have an appointment for 09h30, put it in your diary for 09h15. Set alarms / reminders to ensure that you leave on time and prepare everything you need to take with you ahead of time (books, keys, notes etc.) so that you don’t waste time getting your stuff together when you should already be on your way.
2. Prioritising Tips
Adults with ADD/ADHD often struggle with impulse control (impulsivity) and are prone to jumping from one task or idea to another, without completing what they were originally working on. Completing tasks, especially large projects, can be challenging.
- Decide on what needs to be done first – ask yourself: “what is the most important task that needs to be completed?” (note: the question is: “What is important” not “What is the easiest / more fun to do“). Rank your tasks in order of importance and then set up a schedule whereby you address them in order, from most down to least important.
- Do things one step at a time – big tasks can be overwhelming, break them down into smaller, manageable steps.
- Don’t get sidetracked – stick to your schedule and use your timers to keep you focused and on task.
3. Learn to say “No”
Because adults with ADD/ADHD tend to be impulsive, they often end up agreeing to too many things resulting in their schedule overflowing with work and social commitments. This in turn leads to them feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with everything that is being asked of them.
Turning things down and saying “no” will help you to improve your ability to complete tasks on time, keep your social life alive, and live a healthier (and hopefully less stressed) lifestyle. Before responding to an invitation or committing to a new project, check your schedule first.
Staying Focused & Productive
1. Get rid of distractions
- Where you study / work matters – if you don’t have your own room, consider making use of an empty lecture room or the library to get your work done during the day, while you are on campus. When attending lectures, sit close to the lecturer and away from people / friends who chat and distract you.
- Minimize external distractions – face your desk against a wall and keep it free of clutter or anything that may distract you. If necessary, keep your door closed and place a “do not disturb” sign on it. You may also want to consider putting your phone on silent so that you cannot be disturbed by incoming calls / SMS’s / Whatsapp etc. If you like to listen to music while you work opt for music with no singing or words – it will help keep you focused on what you are doing, rather than singing along to your favourite song.
2. Stretch your attention span
- Take notes – during lectures, this will help you focus on what the lecturer is saying.
- Repeat directions – if you are given verbal instructions or directions, repeat them out aloud to make sure you got them right.
- Move – to deal with restlessness and fidgeting, move around – obviously don’t do this unless the timing and place is appropriate and you are not disturbing those around you e.g. between lectures, if the lecturer gives you 5 minute comfort break during a 2 hour session etc.
Symptoms such as: lack of attention, being easily distracted and hyperactivity are often made worse by lack of sleep, unhealthy eating habits and inactivity (too little exercise). The following tips are aimed at helping you set up regular routines which will aid in keeping you calm, reduce anxiety and avoid mood swings.
Exercise is the healthiest and easiest way of addressing hyperactivity and inattentiveness. Exercise relieves stress, calms the mind and boosts your mood.
- exercise daily
- choose something vigorous and that interests you
- exercise outdoors whenever possible – this will feed your need for visual stimulation and thus help keep you focused on what you are doing
- consider relaxation exercises such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, which will teach you greater self-control and concentration
2. Get enough sleep
Sleep deprivation can aggravate ADD/ADHD symptoms, thus reducing your ability to focus and cope during the day.
- avoid caffeine after 3pm
- exercise regularly and vigorously but not one hour before going to bed
- create a predictable and calming bed time routine
- take a warm shower or bath before going to bed
- stick to a regular sleeping and waking schedule
3. Watch what you eat
- eat small, healthy meals throughout the day
- avoid sugar as much as possible
- eat fewer carbohydrates and increase your protein intake
*The information contained in this post is for informative purposes only and is not a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.
Segal, R. & Smith, M. (2014). Help for Adult ADD/ADHD – Tips for Management Symptoms and Getting Focused. Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/add-adhd/adult-adhd-attention-deficit-disorder-self-help.htm [Accessed on: 25 February 2015].
ADD/ADHD is not a problem confined to childhood. Many adults who were diagnosed with ADD/ADHD as children find that certain of the symptoms have followed them into adulthood. Whereas for some a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD is only made in adulthood.
The purpose of this month’s FOCUS ON topic is to provide you with information regarding adult ADD/ADHD: signs & symptoms in adults, the effects of adult ADD/ADHD and ways of helping yourself or someone you may know who has ADD/ADHD.
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) / Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD – is a developmental and behavioural disorder that is characterised by levels of inattention, distractibility, hyeractivity and impulsivity. Typically symptoms are inappropriate for a person’s age or developmental level and cause problems in everyday life.
ADD – is a label with the same meaning as ADHD. At one time, ADD referred to a disorder involving difficulty paying attention or focusing attention without hyperactivity.
Source: Bhandari, S. (2014). Glossary of ADHD Terms. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/guide/adhd-glossary
Myths about ADD/ADHD in Adults
Myth: ADD/ADHD is a simple problem of being hyperactive or not listening when someone is talking to you.
Fact: ADD/ADHD is a complex disorder that involves impairments in focus, organisation, motivation, emotional modulation, memory, and other functions of the brain’s management system.
Myth: ADD/ADHD is just a lack of willpower. Persons with ADD/ADHD focus well on things that interest them; they could focus on any task if they really wanted to.
Fact: ADD/ADHD looks very much like a willpower problem, but it isn’t. It’s essentially a chemical problem in the management system of the brain.
Myth: Brains of persons with ADD/ADHD are over-active and need medication to calm down.
Fact: Under activity of the brain’s management networks is typical of persons with ADD/ADHD. Effective medications increase alertness and improve communication in the brain’s management system.
Myth: Those who have ADD/ADHD as children usually outgrow it as they enter their teens.
Fact: Often ADD/ADHD impairments are not very noticeable until the teen years, when more self-management is required in school and elsewhere. Also, ADD/ADHD may be subtle, but more disabling during adolescence and adulthood than in childhood.
Myth: Unless you have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD as a child, you can’t have it as an adult.
Fact: Many adults have struggled all their lives with unrecognised ADD/ADHD impairments. They haven’t received help because they assumed that their chronic difficulties, like depression or anxiety, were caused by other impairments that did not respond to the usual treatments.
Myth: ADD/ADHD does not really cause much damage to a person’s life.
Fact: Untreated or inadequately treated ADD/ADHD often severely impairs learning, family life, education, work life, social interactions, and driving safely. Most of those with ADD/ADHD who receive adequate treatment, however, function quite well.
Brown, T.E. (2005). 10 Myths and Facts about Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD/ADHD). Retrieved from: http://www.drthomasebrown.com/pdfs/myths_and_facts.pdf [Accessed on: 25 February 2015]
Common Signs & Symptoms of Adult ADD/ADHD
ADD/ADHD in adults presents quite differently than it does in children. Furthermore, because each person is unique different people will experience different symptoms and symptom clusters. The following categories are some of the most common signs & symptoms of adult ADD/ADHD:
Inattention & Concentration Difficulties
Adults with ADD/ADHD often have difficulty with staying focused and following through with mundane, daily tasks. Symptoms in this category are sometimes overlooked because they are not as outwardly disruptive as other symptoms such as hyperactivity and impulsivity.
Symptoms of inattention & concentration difficulties include:
- “zoning out” without realising it.
- extreme distractibility – inability to stay on track due to wandering attention
- difficulty paying attention or focusing – for example when reading or listening to others
- struggling to complete tasks – even simple ones
- tendency to overlook details, resulting in errors or incomplete work
- poor listening skills – includes difficulty in remembering conversations and following instructions
It is common knowledge that people with ADD/ADHD find it difficult to maintain their focus on tasks which they find uninteresting. However, what many don’t know is that people with ADD/ADHD also have a tendency to become over-absorbed in tasks that they find stimulating and interesting i.e. they become hyper-focused.
Hyper-focus is a type of coping mechanism for people with ADD/ADHD, it’s a way of tuning out distractions. On the positive side hyper-focus is useful when channelled into productive activities; however, on the negative side a hyper-focussed person tends to become so engrossed with what they are doing that they can lose track of time and neglect other things that they are meant to be seeing to, which could lead to problems at work and with relationships.
Disorganisation & Forgetfulness
Adults with ADD/ADHD often struggle with maintaining order in both their work and personal lives; this includes prioritising what needs to be done, time management and keeping track of tasks and responsibilities.
Symptoms of disorganisation and forgetfulness include:
- poor organisation skills
- tendency to procrastinate
- trouble with starting and finishing projects
- chronic lateness
- frequently forgetting appointments, deadlines and commitments
- constantly misplacing or losing things
- underestimating the amount of time required to complete a project or task
If you have impulse problems you may find that you struggle with: being patient; controlling your behaviour, comments and responses; acting or reacting without thinking the consequences through first; rushing to complete tasks without reading the instructions; interrupting others.
Symptoms of poor impulse control include:
- frequently interrupting others or talking over them
- poor self-control
- blurting out thoughts that are rude or inappropriate without thinking
- addictive tendencies
- act recklessly or spontaneously, without regard for the consequences
- having trouble with behaving in socially appropriate ways e.g. sitting still through a lecture period
Many adults with ADD/ADHD find it difficult to control their emotions, particularly those around anger and frustration.
Emotional symptoms include:
- sense of underachievement
- inability to deal with frustration and frustrating situations
- easily flustered and stressed out
- irritability and mood swings
- trouble staying motivated
- hypersensitivity to criticism
- short, at times explosive, temper
- low self-esteem
Hyperactivity & Restlessness
Hyperactivity is probably the best known symptom of ADD/ADHD but is only experienced by a small percentage of adult ADD/ADHD sufferers. The symptoms of hyperactivity often become more subtle and internal as the ADD/ADHD child matures into adulthood.
Symptoms of adult hyperactivity include:
- feelings of restlessness and agitation
- tendency to take risks
- getting bored easily
- racing thoughts
- constant fidgeting, trouble sitting still
- craving excitement
- multi-tasking without getting anything done
In Part 2 of Focus On: ADD/ADHD we will be looking at the Positive & Negative Effects of Adult ADD/ADHD
*The information contained in this post is for informative purposes only and is not a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.
Segal, R. & Smith, M. (2014). Adult ADD/ADHD: Signs, Symptoms, Effects and Treatment. Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/add-adhd/adult-adhd-attention-deficit-disorder.htm [Accessed on: 25 February 2015].
Mark and Angel Hack Life. (2012). 10 Success Principles to Remember. Retrieved from: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/10-success-principles-you-need-remember.html [Accessed on: 13 November 2014].