How Mindfulness Improves Attention Problems

How mindfulness improves attention problems
How mindfulness improves attention problems

ADHD and other attention problems are emotional. They are frustrating for loved ones, teachers and coworkers. And they cause guilt for those who suffer from them.

This is a personal issue for me. As a child I struggled with attention for schoolwork, and I was ashamed of it. I remember feeling like an alien watching my classmates quietly work on assignments. I just couldn’t find it within myself to focus and get something done without tons of distraction, avoidance, and procrastination.

I managed to improve my grades toward the end of elementary school, but the process of sitting down to do the work remained a constant battle. In high school I took procrastination to epic lengths. I’m fairly sure I would have easily met the criteria for ADHD, but that diagnosis wasn’t the thing that it is now. As a young adult I did explore medication as a possible answer. But after several weeks trying it, I decided the side effects just weren’t worth it.

I know this story is not unique. More and more of us have a difficult time “single-tasking” and we are suffering for it.  Until about 12 years ago, I had sort of accepted that distractibility and procrastination would just be a part of life. But I did begin to address what I had considered a separate problem (stress and work/life balance) with mindfulness practices. I began to create a more conscious relationship with myself and my inner life. This helped me be more self-compassionate, and I felt better in many ways. But attention and focus were the big surprises. I was finally able to sit down and complete a project in a sane timeframe.

How did mindfulness help? Creating a relationship with my inner life showed me that I’d been blind to a lot of anxious energy bouncing around in me. Mindfulness tools taught me to stay more connected to myself, so I could see and offload that stress, instead distracting myself as an attempt to cope with it.

So what does it look like to be mindful instead of procrastinating? To begin with, you must tolerate and develop compassion for emotions like sadness and frustration that naturally come up when you must do things that aren’t easy or fun. Leaning into those feelings helped me digest them instead of saving them up to fester into avoidance energy.

Here’s an example of the difference:

Procrastinating Me: “Gosh I’ve got to get that report done. It’s going to be so much work. I haven’t even started the research yet, and I need to do an outline, and flush it all out. That’s going to be hours of work. Before I buckle down, I better get those dishes done and watch that episode of (whatever TV show) now, because after that I have at least five hours of work ahead of me.”

Mindful Me: “Gosh I’ve got to get the report done….Man I really don’t want to….I’m SAD that it’s going to take a good chunk of time….Really sad….It’s hard concentrating and creating ideas …It’s not fun having big reports to write….I really HATE having to do them!….And I’m afraid it won’t be received well, or it will be even harder than I’m imagining…I’m really AFRAID of that…..But I also feel guilty when I think about putting it off again…I feel guilty that putting it off just hurts me in the end…Okay…I can break this into chunks. I’ll get the outline done and map out the research, and then I’ll let myself take a break.”

Notice any differences there? “Procrastinating Me” is focused on the story of the work that must be done and how difficult it will be. But I’m not taking time to acknowledge what I am feeling about that story. Just thinking through the difficulties without feeling what I feel about them, leaves the emotional charge of all that stress at full volume.

By slowing down to name and feel those core feelings, I was far more able to discharge their energy. When we don’t distract ourselves from stressful things or pretend they aren’t there, it’s amazing how effective our innate skill for self-soothing can be.

Before trying mindfulness and building that connection within myself, I didn’t truly notice the extent and depth of what I was feeling. I would just fixate on the problem and to do list. The anxious energy snowballed until avoidance seemed like the best option in many moments.

Mindfulness skills may not be the quickest answer. But they are the most organic, and in my mind, the best long-term answer to many attention or procrastination problems. Beginning can be as simple as this:

  1. Devote a few moments each day (ideally in the morning and evening) to search your mind and body for any feelings and needs. These can be practical feelings like fatigue with the need being rest, or feelings like frustration, gratitude, fear, or excitement.
  2. If you find frustration, sadness, or fear, take a moment to lean into that feeling and just be with it (without judgment) for about 5 seconds.
  3. Next imagine feeling warmth, kindness or compassion toward yourself. This takes practice, so just do your best, even if it feels a little vague or forced at first.
  4. Then imagine stepping into the role of a leader for yourself, and assess what you need to do on two fronts: Being accountable to your goals and commitments, and being kind and nurturing to your needs as they come up.

Feelings are just feelings. They are always valid, but they don’t have to run the show. With compassion we can manage them. With avoidance, they control our behavior. Attention to our feelings, whatever they are, is the beginning of self-love and self-control.

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