Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Dr. Katelyn Baker Psy.D
'Why Can't I Focus?' 10 Ways ADHD May Show Up
Published May 18th, 2021 & updated on Jan 19th, 2022
Living with ADHD — Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder — means facing a LOT of everyday challenges that most (neurotypical) people won’t understand. It can make someone with ADHD feel incredibly misunderstood. If you’re always wondering “why can’t I focus?” then you might just have ADHD.
The truth is, ADHD is more than the stereotypical scatter-brained, hyper little boy. There are a lot of other signs and symptoms of ADHD, and they can affect your mental wellbeing in different ways. So, we’re diving thru some of the common signs of ADHD to help you try to determine if this is a condition affecting you (so you can get some answers and some help).
Your brain’s executive function deals with the what, when, why and who. This affects your working memory (planning and goals), timing (time management), emotions (choice) and self-awareness. It’s not uncommon for all, or some, of these functions to be impaired in a person with ADHD.
Our Managing Editor suffers from Executive Dysfunction Disorder and she often says:
“My brain doesn’t go from A to B. It goes from A to G to Z, and then to B. I eventually get there but it takes a while, and the whole time I feel like my brain is on fire (or I’m walking a tightrope).”
Sound exhausting? It REALLY is! And while not everyone with ADHD also deals with Executive Dysfunction Disorder, a lot of the executive functioning in the brain can be similarly affected.
So, keep this in mind while we dive into the 10 ways ADHD might show up for you (so you can find some comfort and relief!).
1. You Have A Hard Time Paying Attention
We all get distracted, let’s be real. When our phone lights up with a notification, from a friend sending yet another hilarious TikTok, we just CAN’T resist okay? We gotta stop whatever we’re doing to watch! But then we snap out of it and get back to work, ‘cause there’s a deadline to meet. No more scrolling.
With ADHD though, distractions are a lil’ bit harder to ignore. Working in a shared office space with so much talking around you — or studying in a busy coffee shop with music and espresso machines whirring — can make it almost impossible to concentrate on what you’re doing. You might even cry or disassociate when the external stimuli become too much (because most noise-cancelling headphones are just NOT cancelling enough noise). It’s totally normal to wonder in exasperation: “Why can’t I focus?!”
Other times, it’s like your thoughts are going a million miles a minute and everything else around you is in slow motion. What should I make for dinner? Perogies sound good. NO, TACOS! Yaaaa, tacos sound good. Do I have all of the ingredients??? Nope, I need tomatoes. I’ll grab them on the way home from work. Okay, now remember to get tomatoes. Tomatoes. Tomatoes. Tomatoes… It’s sooooo easy to drift away for what feels like only a second, and before you know it a good chunk of time has passed.
2. But Other Times, You’re Hyperfocused
Alternative to losing focus, hyperfocus makes you concentrate intensely on the task at hand (usually when it’s something you actually LIKE to do…go figure). Whether it’s planting a garden, playing a video game or washing your car from the inside out ‘till it looks brand new, you’re in the fuckin’ zone. It’s like you become so deeply focused on this activity that everything else fades awayyy. You lose all sense of time ‘cause you’re just so absorbed in what you’re doing. But, at least you’re being productive, right?!
The thing is, this can sorta become a problem if you have responsibilities or plans that you’re putting off at the same time. All of a sudden, you realize you’re running late and have to send the classic, On my way, be there in 10 minutes! text when you’re actually JUST starting to get ready…whoops.
3. Time Management Is Hard
Being on time can be a real challenge when you have ADHD. These days, we all have our phones on us at all times. So, saying “I lost track of time” might come off as a shitty excuse. But with ADHD, it’s TRUE. Maybe you go over your deadlines at work. Or maybe you show up late to appointments (or plans with friends). It can be frustrating for other people — especially when it happens pretty often — but it’s not something you do on purpose, you swear!
Time management doesn’t come naturally to people with ADHD. And it’s not due to a lack of care. In fact, it’s kinda the opposite. A lot of people with ADHD are what we’ll call “time-optimists.” They are super optimistic about their abilities so they tend to underestimate how much time something will take (and that’s WITHOUT all the distractions).
4. Completing Tasks Can Be A Struggle
Getting shit done? Oof, it can be a struggle. Like, a REAL struggle. You might find it hard to prioritize tasks (or you do prioritize, but it’s not in a very realistic order). Just starting tasks can be a BIG issue too. And juggling multiple deadlines at once can feel suuuper overwhelming.
And you might also deal with chronic procrastination. Everyone puts off tasks they don’t really wanna do, but there’s a bigger demon to slay here when you have ADHD. It’s common to tell yourself that the crunch that this causes can be your best motivator…but you might be surprised (and relieved) to know that it’s actually not in your control at all. If you’re dealing with executive function issues then it’s really your brain circuits that are failing you.
5. Organization Takes Extra Effort
With ADHD, you might have to put extra effort in to become organized. Keeping a tidy workspace can look different for you. You might leave things in plain sight so you don’t forget them, which might look messy to other people. Look, you just like having your things where you can see them! We get it, no judging here.
When you’re juggling multiple things at once, you might find it helpful to use checklists, phone reminders, or a planner with colour-coded tasks to keep you on track. Basically, you gotta go the extra mile with your planning! ‘Cause otherwise, you get overwhelmed by all of the things and all hell breaks loose.
6. Sometimes You’re Impulsive
Acting impulsively and having a “fuck it, let’s just do this” mentality is super common when you have ADHD. Sometimes you don’t wanna stop and think (because it just fucking hurts!), you just want to DO. This means that you might blurt out whatever you’re thinking about or say things at inappropriate times. And, sometimes you interrupt someone because you need to get your thoughts out before you lose them (which can come off as a teensy bit rude when you don’t mean to be!).
7. You Deal With Restlessness
Relaxation? Nope, not on your watch! ADHD makes it almost impossible to chill TF out. You constantly need to be doing SOMETHING, ‘cause your mind just won’t switch OFF.
Restlessness can also look like moving constantly. Sitting for a long time might make you feel antsy, so you squirm in your seat or get up to walk around. You might need to constantly be fidgeting or doing something to stay focused, even if you’re aware that you’re doing it! You might tap your fingers or feet, bounce your leg, hum to yourself or play with objects around you (like a stress ball) while you work or study. It might seem bizarre to a neurotypical person, but having that repetitive action helps you focus on one very tactile thing (which grounds you, dulling down all of the other stimulants around you).
8. You Can Be Forgetful
Everyone forgets shit sometimes. Like, c’mon…if it wasn’t for social media, how many of us would forget to wish our relatives a happy birthday? Exactlyyy.
For someone with ADHD though, forgetfulness can happen more frequently. You might forget where you left your car keys, forget about your hair appointment…or even forget to eat in a day! Things just slip your mind (and the guilt that follows is the. worst. feeling. ever!) because there’s only so much room in one brain and ADHD always has it running at MAX capacity!
9. You Deal With Fatigue
Another not-so-fun side effect of ADHD? It commonly coincides with sleep disorders like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and insomnia which keep you from getting a good night’s sleep. Your brain just won’t allow you to relax enough to catch those ZZZ’s, so instead, you toss and turn alllll night long, making you totally exhausted. And that lack of sleep can then enhance other symptoms of ADHD like difficulty focusing, feeling unmotivated and forgetfulness.
Having ADHD means you’re also prone to overworking yourself which then leads to serious burnout. When you’re on a roll with a project, you might neglect self-care, even forgetting to take a break, drink some water or have lunch when you need it. All of which will of course suck the energy right outta you. GAH, it’s such a vicious cycle!
10. Emotions Can Be Challenging
When you have ADHD, your emotional reactions can be more intense compared to others. You might get irritated or frustrated more easily when something is hard, and then lash out or fall into a bad mood. Having ADHD can also make you incredibly critical of yourself when you can’t focus or complete tasks. It can cause you to carry a lot of guilt, shame or embarrassment. And you might get really down on yourself and deal with imposter syndrome (even though we both know you’ve earned everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve!).
And finally, it’s also common to deal with anxiety or depression when you have ADHD. You might constantly worry about your performance at work or school (or in your relationships) because of how ADHD affects these areas of your life. It can drag you down and make you feel hopeless about your situation. But please know that things CAN get better for you!
An important note: ADHD is a condition that can only be diagnosed by a doctor or mental health professional. If you feel like you can relate to the signs in this article, it’s probably a good idea to get tested for ADHD. You don’t have to deal with your symptoms alone!