Distinguishing Distractibility

What are they anyway?

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from The Challenges Series

A distraction is an involuntary diversion of attention in response to a stimulus — beyond our control.

Distractions have a negative impact on our ability to focus on an intended object and sustain that focus – in other words, a distraction is an intrusion into our attempt to concentrate on the task at hand.

Distractions can be external (nagging at any one of our five senses), or internal (“interruptions” from our own brain wiring or emotional states).

They can be subtle or overt, compelling or mildy irritating, important or trivial, but they ALL pull us off task, despite our best intentions.

ADD or not, ALL distractions reduce our ability to place our full attention where WE choose to concentrate.

• Can you fully concentrate on calculating your tax liability with repeated visits from your young daughter pleading with you to come outside to watch her ride her brand new bicycle?

• Are you able to take complicated directions over the phone while your spouse attempts to impart, in your other ear, something s/he deems important for you to hear RIGHT NOW?

• Are you able to drive through a blinding rain while your young children squabble in the back seat and your young teen blares the latest “Listen, this is so cool!” rap song?

Not really, right? ALL distractions have a negative impact on our ability to focus on the intended stimulus, and sustain the focus, the first two of the three Dynamics of Attending.

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External distractions

External distractions are events which take away our concentration that occur outside our physical bodies. Even though the perception is internal (how we categorize a particular sound, for example), the source of the distraction is outside of ourselves.

You probably already have lots of personal experience with external distractions and their impact on your ability to focus your attention where YOU want it to be.

Interruptions are one of the most common distractions, often causing us to lose our train of thought completely, but external distractions can rear their disruptive heads from our awareness of sensory feedback — from any of our five senses.

Input from our Senses as External Distractions

  • Hearing: Background noise is an example of an audial distraction, whether it is unrelenting or intermittent, pleasant or grating, booming, or just loud enough to be aware of but not quite loud enough to make out.
  • Sight: Visual distractions can be some of the most annoying for many people.  Some examples of visual distractions include marketing that blinks or moves, TV commercials and pop-ups on websites.

In “real life”, a fellow audience member removing a coat a couple of rows in front of you once the movie has begun can make you miss a crucial plot element. The pantomime of somebody trying to exchange information “quietly” when you are attempting to focus on a telephone conversation, for example  makes almost everybody crazy, right?

Even the flickering of florescent lights as they are dying can distract “visual super-sensitives,” even when it is below the level that most people notice.

  • Touch: Tactile distractions can include scratchy tags inside clothing, insect bites, hangnails and splinters, or a child seated in the row behind you repeatedly kicking the bottom of your seat when you are trying to get some work done before your plane begins it descent and you have to stow your laptop.
  • Taste: Unless you brush your teeth immediately after eating anything, your taste buds continue to receive input. For most of us, it occurs below the threshold of our conscious awareness, but “backgrounding” the information uses precious brain reserves none-the-less.

Those of you who are highly reactive to sensory stimulation in any of the other arenas might not ever connect those times when your distractibility threshold seems lower than usual to sensation from your taste buds, or realize how important it is to brush and rinse your mouths after eating anything to your cognitive focus.

  • Smell: “The battle of competing perfumes” in an elevator in the summer, road resurfacing with asphalt, even dinner in the oven can completely derail focus for a highly sensitive individual.

Even if you are not someone who is “sensory defensive,” chances are good that at least one of those examples is something you have experienced and can relate to personally.

Related Post: Sound Sensitivity & Sensory Integration

But external distractions aren’t the only kind of distractions in our lives!

There are also internal distractions: thoughts and interior body signals that make it hard to concentrate — distractions coming from some below-the-radar perceptual awareness, rather than outside our physical bodies, yet out of our control none-the-less.

That concept is a little trickier, but all of us have experienced internal distractions as well, most dramatically in situations involving physical or mental pain.

Internal distractions

If we look, all of us have personal examples of internal distractions that have negatively impacted our ability to sustain focus on the intended object.

  • Those of you who have had a child who needed to be rushed to the hospital know exactly how difficult it is to concentrate on anything else through the constant concern for your child, especially if responsibilities at home made it impossible for you to remain at your child’s hospital. Worry keeps you distracted, without a single external prompt what-so-ever. You probably were startled every time the phone rang, and forgot what you were doing totally as you raced to answer it for possible information about your child’s condition.
  • Those of you who have experienced a back injury know just how constant the internal distraction of back pain can be! The moment you move to do anything at all the pain in your back rivets your attention, setting off a cascade of thoughts, whether you want it to or not.
  • Those of you who have broken a leg have probably forgotten how much attention you had to put on the process of walking when you first got your crutches, but I’ll bet that concentrating on an important conversation during that process was difficult at best.
  • And those of you who have had dental surgery of any kind probably found yourselves distracted from the enjoyment of your first few meals by the need to avoid chewing on one side of your mouth, even if you never forgot and produced a moment of pain to remind you.
  • Finally, ask any woman who has gone through labor (or any man who has coached the process) if it was possible for the mother to concentrate on anything else from the moment of warning of an impending contraction until a few moments after it was over.

But if you want to know what might have distracted her if breathing through the pain weren’t so all consuming, pay attention to her comments immediately AFTER a contraction!

NOT really unusual

Because situations like the ones described above are isolated incidents, out of everyday reality for most of us, you might be tempted to dismiss them as irrelevant examples because of the extreme nature of those particular distractions. It may be difficult for you to equate that kind of internal distraction with those random thoughts of an ADD loved one that seem to carry them off to a world of their own with no warning signs.

The point I am making is that when one is distracted for any reason, it is not a process that involves the volition of the person experiencing the distraction.

The mind is suddenly jerked away to a different focus, and the importance of the task at hand has very little to do with the effect of the distraction. At best, importance only serves as a strong reminder to pull your mind back to the task quickly, but it rarely makes a person immune to distractions.

It also makes NO difference in the experience of the distracted individual whether the distraction can be seen and felt by another (external) or whether it is coming from an internal source — their concentration is impaired and their focus is taken away from the task at hand, even if the task at hand is vital!

If all of us, ADDer and non, are ever to be able to treat each other with mutual respect and appropriate behavior, managing distractions is the single most important thing for many ADDers to learn to do, and for the people around them to understand and support.

Managing distractions

Most people have brains that screen out unimportant stimuli below the level of consciousness — part of the mechanism that has evolved to ensure survival of the species. In order to be able to quickly notice something that could be life threatening, the brain automatically decides that some of the ongoing stimuli is merely “background,” in other words, not important enough to notice consciously.

In the next post of this series, before offering some hints about how to work with distractibility,  I will use our sense of smell to further illustrate what I mean by “filters,” “backgrounding,” and “automatic screening” — and tell you a bit about what science has learned about distractions, focus, and delayed gratification.

Because smells are processed directly by the limbic area of the brain instead of having to go through a more complicated process like the other senses, most with ADD/EFD Challenges and those without have the same experience of the way it works.  Stay tuned — much more to come!!

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

15 Responses to Distinguishing Distractibility

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  12. andy wolmer says:

    you distract me by changing my life


  13. WOW! Comments like this are [almost] as good as a cash windfall or a Godiva gift! MIND CANDY!

    I’m rushing to finish a proposal so I can get it in before tonight’s midnight deadline, but I REALLY want to follow up on the points you brought up in your comment.

    Keep me in the loop as you find out more on the link between GABA, alcohol & ADD (and best of luck removing the your neck and back distraction!!)


  14. That is a useful distinction.
    The link to this reference though is truly intriguing.
    http://www.citeulike.org/user/andreisorin/article/7347768- as I am currently dealing with a muscle spasm problem (causing neck and back pain) which my chiropractor suspects might be due to a metabolic problem inhibiting GABA production.

    What is also deeply interesting is the increase in GABA produced by alcohol, and the fact that so many ADDers end up with alcohol abuse problems.


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