“My ADD brain naturally searches for better ways of doing things. With the disorganization, procrastination, inability to focus and all the other bad things that come with ADD, there also come creativity and the ability to take risks.”
David Neeleman (Founder; JetBlue)
“I don’t think I want to know a six-year-old who isn’t a dreamer, or a sillyheart. …I know a good kid when I see one. Because they’re ALL good kids, until dried-out, brain-dead skags like you drag them down and convince them they’re no good.”
Buck Russell (John Candy in Uncle Buck)
“I saw a [drug] commercial the other day that said, ‘Do you go to bed at night and wake up in the morning?” Oh no! I got that! I’m sick, I need that pill!'”
Chris Rock (Comedian; Never Scared)
You can’t control your focus until you understand it.
“Have you ever considered being treated for attention deficit disorder?” This is what my freshman year Spanish teacher told me after class one day. I’d like to say it was the first time a teacher recommended me for heavy doses of methamphetamine, but it wasn’t. My 1st, 3rd, and 6th grade teachers also recommended it. I always had a problem sitting (or standing) still growing up and was often kicked out of my classes, even by teachers who liked me. I remember one of my favorite Science teachers calling me a space cadet and telling me to sit in the hall. Instead, I snuck into the teacher’s lounge and tried to get candy out of the vending machine. I think I had a problem with authority too.
A few years ago, the stress of getting out of graduate school started to affect my health and I developed kidney problems. Then I started having panic attacks (which I used to think only happened to teenage girls). Soon after I graduated, I went to New Zealand on a work trip, ate some weird food at a hotel in Auckland, went into anaphylactic shock, and was rushed to the emergency room. But — good news — New Zealand healthcare is free.
This trifecta of health issues put me into a mental tailspin. I stopped taking international flights and started monitoring my health like a mad man. Though I was never diagnosed, I’m pretty sure I was a full-blown hypochondriac. I remember going to the doctor 15 times in 6 months, mostly for routine physicals, skin checks, and blood tests, just to make sure nothing else was wrong. Once I stayed up all night researching symptoms for Parkinson’s Disease because I drank to much coffee the day before and my left eye was twitching. Then I read that coffee reduces the risk of Parkinson’s Disease and fell asleep.
Is Everyone In The World Distracted?
A recent study found that attention deficit disorder (ADD) diagnoses have increased 24% in the last 10 years in the U.S. And in the U.K., prescriptions for drugs used to treat ADD have increased by 50% in the last 5 years.
These outrageous numbers have led a lot of experts to question whether or not ADD is being overdiagnosed. This is bad news because ADD diagnosis is usually followed by the prescription of one of the most powerful drugs on earth — methylphenidate, or Ritalin, which has a similar chemical structure to amphetamine. This is what docs are giving some kiddos. Either that or they’re giving them Adderall, an actual amphetamine. Both of these drugs are so addictive that the government classifies them with cocaine and morphine. What symptoms are these drugs prescribed for?
Inattentiveness, over-activity and impulsiveness — 3 words used by The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to describe the symptoms of ADD. These are also 3 words that can be used to characterize every happy kid or successful entrepreneur I’ve ever known. In fact, studies show that people with ADD are six times more likely than average to end up running their own businesses.
Is Everyone In The World Sick?
According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News, and WebMD a, hypochondria is increasing rapidly. This is because we have 24-hour access to a million different websites listing the symptoms of every major illness known to man. It’s also because we are bombarded with TV, radio, and Internet advertisements about diseases and disorders we might or might not have. Remember those Zoloft commercials with the depressing music and sad little marshmallow man slowing floating along the ground. It turns out that one of the side effects of Zoloft is increased risk of suicide. No wonder I wanted to jump off a cliff after watching those commercials.
Some people have microchips that monitor glucose levels inserted into their bodies. Others wear Fitbit bracelets that monitor their every heartbeat and footstep. But this is just the beginning. Companies like Qualcomm recently announced that they are working on microchips that can be put in your bloodstream to look for things like high triglyceride levels and, if there’s a problem, can send a text message to your phone telling you to go to the doctor. As sensor technology continues to improve, hypochondria is guaranteed to increase. Why?
17 Hacks For People With Destructive Attention Spans
The root cause of conditions like ADD and hypochondria is uncontrolled focus. If people (like me) knew how to better protect and channel their focus, these conditions wouldn’t keep rising. Of course, hardcore meds might be necessary in some extreme cases, but not in most cases.
The problem is that most people do not respect the power of their focus. These people think that everyone’s focus is the same. They think that a person’s focus is some abstract feeling that just comes and goes on it’s own. This is not the case. Your focus is special to you. It’s distinct and specific, just like your own personality. It’s also strong and easily spread, like a fire. And like fire, it can become wild and destructive if left unchecked. But, if channeled correctly, it can bring you warmth, happiness, and success for a lifetime. The key is learning how to understand and direct your focus. And the best way to do this is to hack it. Here’s how:
1. Reduce internal stimulus.
Guard what you’re putting in your body. Studies show that ingesting too much caffeine can not only increase anxiety, but also induce extreme bouts of paranoia. Alcohol can do the same (while also making you depressed). But the biggest culprit is carbohydrates. Research shows that eating too many carbohydrates can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, leading to anxiety, mood swings, and panic attacks.
This is especially true of simple sugars and syrups, like high fructose corn syrup, which have been shown to cause everything from ADD to bipolar disease to straight up psychosis. If you’re having trouble staying focused, try eating a diet of mostly meat and fat with a few vegetables and lots of water. You will be amazed by the difference.
2. Reduce external stimulus.
Once you have your internal environment locked down, start controlling your external environment. This means spending some quiet time alone to recalibrate your brain. Try wearing some earplugs or noise canceling headphones when you work and while you sleep. Pay attention to how much blue light you’re taking in each day from things like computer and phone screens and combat high levels with blue light-blocking glasses like Gunnar glasses and Apps like F.lux.
Most importantly, find time to meditate. Studies have shown that those who meditate weekly maintain significantly higher levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), which stabilizes the central nervous system and prevents anxiety and other unfocused behaviors.
3. Practice repetitive tasks.
If too much silence is distracting for you, try listening to repetitive music, TV shows, podcasts, or binaural beats. Repetition, in general, can have a calming affect on the mind. Familiar stimuli can actually destimulate you overall. This is why white noise helps a lot of people to sleep. Being stimulated by something familiar can dampen unfamiliar stimuli, which is much more distracting.
Olympic athletes rely heavily on repetition to help them stay focused. Michael Phelps, the year he won 8 gold medals, did the exact same thing for the first several hours of every morning and the exact same warmup every day before entering the pool. It worked out pretty well for him. Repetitive actions like saying a few positive incantations (or recitations), journaling, or performing a morning ritual are all powerful ways to focus the mind. Over time, the repeated actions will become habits, which act to conserve decision-making energy.
4. Work weekends and holidays.
I do my best creative work on weekends and holidays. This is because I know that people aren’t blasting me with emails. Just knowing that my inbox is filling up and other people are working can be distracting. Research shows that any kind of incentive, even the incentive to please others (or get back to them in a timely manner) steals focus and hampers creativity.
5. Get up earlier.
Studies show that most successful CEOs wake up between the hours of 5AM and 6AM. Starting your day before most other people do gives you a chance to focus on the really important tasks before you have to start putting out other people’s fires.
And, similar to working on holidays and weekends, it gives you time to work without sacrificing any of your attention to pleasing others (because their lazy asses are still in bed).
6. Work in open spaces.
Closed spaces, like cubicles or home offices the size of a closet, have been shown to decrease productivity, creativity, learning, and camaraderie. Even the designer of the cubicle himself admits that cubicles are bad for focus and productivity.
Your brain is packed with mirror neurons. These neurons encourage you to mimic every aspect of your environment, including the space you’re working in. A tight space will weigh heavily on your mind and restrict your focus. It’s better to work in an open space. Your brain will mimic an open space by opening your mind and allowing your focus to flow in a single direction.
7. Ask the right questions.
The fastest way to change your focus is by asking yourself different questions. The human mind is an answering machine. It automatically considers every question it is asked. Unfocused people are normal people who ask themselves really bad questions. They ask questions like, “Why am I not good enough?” Or, “What feels bad today?” And, “What else could I be doing right now?”
If you find yourself chronically stressed and unfocused, start asking yourself some new questions. Ask, “What am I grateful for right now?” Ask, “How can I add value here?” Ask, “What feels great right now?”
8. Don’t fight distractions.
Your focus is tied strongly to your emotions and emotions can’t be stopped; they can only be counterbalanced and channeled. If you’re nervous or afraid, don’t fight your fear, channel it into excitement or into productive action. If you’re worried about something, stop thinking about it AND stop trying not to think about it. Write it down. When you write down things that are on your mind, your brain will relax and stop holding it in your short-term memory (see #16). I like to keep a long running list next to me on a yellow legal when I work. That way, when crazy ideas or “oh crap!” worries pop in my head I can quickly right them down and get back to what I was doing without losing my focus.
When I started having panic attacks in grad school, I was able to overcome them by forcing myself to panic (instead of trying to stop it). I would do this by actively hyperventilating and doing push ups. Inducing a panic attack is a cognitive behavioral therapy technique that works by taking control of your focus and forcing a sympathetic release. You can apply the above technique to anything that is causing you stress and stealing your focus. For example, if you have a big event on your mind, don’t carry it around with you for weeks. Run towards it. Own it. Take care of it right now and be done with it.
9. Start a conversation.
I used to get really stressed on airplanes during takeoff. I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything other than the number of bumps on the plane, and the size of the bumps, the type of bumps, how each bump made me feel, on and on. Finally, I was able to overcome my fear of flying by forcing myself to engage in a conversation with the stranger next to me or by forcing myself to read a book, even if I had to read the same line over and over again.
10. Read people’s lips.
Sometimes you will be so stressed about something that you won’t even be able to make yourself read or have a conversation (see #9). During these times, hitting the reset button on your mind and getting present will seem almost impossible.
The solution is to start super small. First, do some breathing exercises. Count to four as you inhale and count to six as you exhale (see #11). Second, talk with someone and repeat what they’re saying back to yourself in your head as they’re saying it. It sounds strange but this technique will force you to use your working memory on something other than worrying (see #16).
11. Exhale more than you inhale.
Breathing exercises are a powerful way to refocus your mind. But, not all breathing exercises are created equal. The key is to exhale more than you inhale. When your exhale is even a few counts longer than your inhale, the vagus nerve (running from the neck down through the diaphragm) sends a signal to your brain to turn up your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system) and turn down your sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system).
12. Use external motivation.
13. Focus on solutions over symptoms.
The first thing that I did to overcome my hyphochondria was to start asking myself better questions. Instead of asking, “What could be wrong?”, I started asking, “What feels right?” The second thing I did was force myself to focus on solutions over symptoms. Instead of getting online and reading peer-reviewed journals discussing the mortality and morbidity of a disease, I would look up a list of foods or actions that have been shown to help prevent it. This simple shift helped me regain control over my mind in these unfocused moments.
14. Measure and manage.
The third thing I did to combat my hypochondria was (see #13) to measure and manage my fears. For example, if I got a bug bite on my arm and I started getting worried that it was a deadly staphylococcus infection, I would mark the borders of the red mark with a blue pen and wait a few days to see if it actually grew (instead of going to the doctor right away).
Similar to writing down the things that you’re stressed about (see #8), routinely measuring things that weigh heavily on your mind will free up your focus.
15. Replace just-in-case information with just-in-time information.
In high school, I overstudied for everything. As a result, I got good grades and had no social life. The problem was that I was spending too much time stuffing my brain with just-in-case information, or information that I was never going to use or be tested on. In college, I learned the value of just-in-time information, or information that I learned right before I needed it.
I discovered that I can write a 5-page paper on any topic in 2 hours and get the same grade I would’ve gotten if I had spent 10 days on it. I took this lesson to the extreme in graduate school when I wrote my entire 149-page thesis in less than 2 weeks. And it worked. The senior professor on my committee said it was one of the best theses he’d ever seen. How is that possible?
Very few tasks take more than a few hours to do. Even most gigantic tasks can be accomplished in a couple of weeks if you apply your focus completely to them. The reason that most projects stretch out for months or years is because people try to focus on too many projects at once or because the people involved are never completely focused on it at the same time.
16. Go on an information fast.
Unless it is actively attended to or rehearsed, information in working memory has a short duration of around 10-15 seconds. Think about how much useless information you take in, chew on for 10 seconds, and then spit out every week. All of this chewing takes energy and focus, with no return on your investment. What a waste.
Can you go one week without reading any new books or websites and without watching any TV? Try consolidating all of the information you have before taking in more. Then, try spending some of your time creating something new instead of just consuming other people’s creations.
17. Create non-negotiables.
Most people allow external events and individuals to determine their attitude and focus, causing them to enter a state of mental disorder. When you allow your environment to scatter your focus and negatively affect your attitude, psychic entropy occurs in your mind. In Flow: The Psychology Of The Optimal Experience, author Dr. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi writes that emotions are actually internal states of consciousness. Negative emotions like fear, anxiety, or boredom produce psychic entropy, a state in which you cannot use your attention effectively to deal with external tasks.
On the other hand, positive emotions like happiness and alertness produce psychic negentropy, a state where psychic energy can flow freely into whatever task or thought you choose to invest in.
The simple version is this: your focus affects your emotions affects your focus. If you let other people steal your focus and suck up your emotional energy, you’ll live a miserable and forgettable life. The best way to prevent his from happening is by creating a list of non-negotiables, or a series of small things (relevant to your biggest goals) that you can control completely and will not sacrifice to anyone — not ever, never, not a chance, go to hell.
For example, if your goal is to write a book, then your non-negotiable would be to write one page a day no matter what. If your goal was to get a new job, then your non-negotiable would be to connect with 5 new people every day no matter what. No matter what means that you will give up everything, even time with friends and family to do it.
Have you ever been told that you have ADD? What tricks do you use to stay focused when you’re stressed?
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And don’t forget to check out the progress of my book, due in stores this spring: www.isaiahhankel.com/book