ADHD Insight: Impact of Distractions on Executive Functioning

By Jeff Copper, MBA, PCC, PCAC, CPCC, ACG – Published June 5, 2023

What is it like for someone with ADHD when their executive functioning brain is being taxed and becomes a distraction? It’s like starting the task all over again. If you have ADHD, it’s just like rebooting your laptop; you have to reboot your brain. That’s why I’m using a computer as a metaphor to understand what happens when you get distracted while engaged in an activity that requires your executive functioning brain.

With ADHD, you can easily get distracted when you’re trying to get into a project. You’ve got others walking about, phones ringing, doors opening and closing, just a lot of activity around you… even things you see outside the window or hear a plane overhead. Those are distractions. It’s almost like unplugging your computer.

When that happens, the screen goes blank. From there, you have to wait awhile to reboot. Then you have to find the file you were working on and try to call up in your working memory where you were when it went down. It’s difficult because you can’t remember really what your thought process was as you were down a thought path, but when you got distracted, it’s like your memory got completely erased.

But there are a number of things you can do to minimize distractions. For instance, schedule a time for a project when there would be fewer people around, when there’s likely to be less activity and less noise. Set some boundaries for special places to work or study. Also, be sure to decide how much time you need to finish the project and then block off that amount of time to complete what you need to do.

If you have ADHD, I think the idea of rebooting your brain is a good way for you to identify what’s happening and to articulate to others what it’s like when you are distracted. And for those who don’t have ADHD, it should help them to understand the struggle you have in dealing with ADHD.

If you want to learn more, please watch my video, “ADHD Insight: Impact of Distractions on Executive Functioning.” Here’s the link:


Jeff Copper:

Welcome everybody to this edition of Attention Talk Video. I’m your host, ADHD and attention Coach, Jeff Copper. Today, I’m here to talk about the impact of the distractions on those with ADHD when they’re doing something that requires a level of executive functioning. As you can see, my computer right here. I came into the office, I booted it up. I opened a Word document and I started a new one and I started typing.

For those with ADHD, a distraction when they’re trying to get in and began to write something, in this situation a letter to a friend, if they were to get distracted, it’s almost like their computer got unplugged, just the cord was pulled out. And if you’ve had a computer, you know what’ll happen, is it actually goes blank. And then from there you have to actually plug the computer… You have to boot the computer back up, which takes a couple minutes. You have to go open up the Word document. You have to go find the one document that you were working for. Then you’ve got to sit down, and all too often you’ve got to reread what you wrote, because you can’t remember really what your thought process was because you might have been kind of going down a path, but since you got distracted, it’s like your memory just got completely erased.

Imagine that you have a task that’s going to take like 15 or 20 minutes to do, but you get interrupted three or four times while you’re trying to accomplish that task. Again, it’s like your computer just got turned off and you had to come back in and boot it all up. Ever think about how frustrating that could be? I mean, just imagine you’re trying to do a document or write a letter, in my particular case, and it’s something simple, but you keep almost having to start over every time you do it.

I find when this happens a few things that we can learn is, number one is if it happens a lot, you don’t know how long it’s going to take you to finish it, then you don’t get started with it. Two is it’s a lot of work to keep coming back and almost starting over. And, quite frankly, it’s kind of boring to see your laptop boot back up. All too often, while that’s happening, you can be distracted by something else that catches your eye more exciting or something that you want to accomplish, or if the phone rings or something like that. Again, I think this is a good metaphor for those with ADHD to identify and be able to language what’s going on, and for those without ADHD to kind of simulate and imagine what it’s like for somebody with ADD struggle with.

So the question is really what do you do? Well, this is where boundaries kind of come into play and special study places and scheduling times to sit down uninterrupted, so you can sit down and focus on these particular tasks. Now, I know that sounds easy, I mean, it’s easy to say, but kind of difficult to do. Imagine you’re a stay-at-home mother and you’ve got a bunch of kids running around, you’ve got that going on. Or you’re in a business environment, it’s very dynamic, a manager, and people are knocking on your door, coming through all the time. I’m not trying to minimize it, but the point really is if you’re going to move forward on these things, it’s sometimes best to actually find the time to schedule where you know that you’re going to sit down and this, and you block off a period of time so you can get your head in to begin it from the beginning and to the end to accomplish what you’re doing.

Again, I hope this simulation makes sense to you. I hope it maybe helps you articulate to other people what it’s like to be distracted, and I hope it kind of gives you food for thought in terms of tips and structures that might help you. We hope you enjoy this edition of Attention Talk Video. Take care.

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