Fidgeting helps ADHD people stay focused


Ever tried to do two or more things at once?  Like doing homework and listening to your music?  Or listening to a talk and doodling your notes?  Did it work for you?

Those secondary “mindless” tasks (the doodling and the listening to the music) are what the Edge Foundation’s Executive Director, Sarah Wright, calls fidgeting.

A bored ADHD brain is a sluggish brain

“Everyone thinks of fidgeting as those restless movements we do when we’re bored, but really it’s more than that,” she explains.  “One of the things we know about an ADHD brain is that when it gets bored, it gets sluggish.  Literally.  In brain scans of people with ADHD doing boring repetitive tasks, we can see that pretty quickly the pre frontal cortex slows down.  One of the reasons stimulant medications are thought to work for ADHD is that they correct for this.  When compared to the general population, it is pretty clear people with ADHD just require a higher base level of stimulation to stay comfortably alert and focused.”

Fidgeting helps people with ADHD stay focused

Fidget to Focus is the book Sarah co-authored with Dr. Roland Rotz.  They make the case that instead of being a distraction, certain mindless tasks-like listening to music or doodling on paper or chewing gum or standing up at your desk-are really ways to help self-regulate and stay focused. Fidget to Focus was just featured in ADDitude magazine online.

She explains, “All adults self-regulate with sensory-motor activities.  When we get tired of sitting at our desks, we get up for a cup of coffee.  We switch on the radio in the car to keep us interested while driving.  We maybe splash some cold water on our faces to perk up.  Even as adults we need the right balance of sensory-motor stimulation to keep us in our comfort zone.

“Kids need more.  They need more frequent, more intense, and more variety of sensory-motor stimulation than adults does to stay in their comfort zone.  If you try to take those stimulating things away, they’ll just find something else.  And this is true for all kids, not just those with ADHD.  But because of the way the ADHD brain works, people with ADHD will essentially always need more stimulation than those without ADHD. It’s just a matter of degree.”

Three tips for self-regulating with fidgeting:

Sarah and her co-author emphasize three important points in Fidgeting to Focus that you can start using today.

1. The great thing about fidgeting is that it’s perfectly natural.  Everyone does it.  The trick is to do it intentionally.  If you do it right, you can manage your ADHD symptoms in a way that’s totally unnoticeable to everyone else.

2. It’s important to fidget respectfully: doing it in a way that works for you but that doesn’t bother the people around you.  For example, clicking your pen repeatedly during a meeting might not be so cool, but fiddling with a paperclip under the table would be soundless and invisible.

3. It’s important to realize that a good fidget shouldn’t compete with the primary tasks.  For instance, if you need your eyes for reading, listening to music will be a better fidget than watching the TV.  If you need to listen, doodling or pacing will be a better fidget than being plugged into your iPod.

And ADHD coach can help you figure out which fidget help you focus, and which ones are getting in  your way.  We’d love to hear from you.  What fidget works for you?

Editor’s Note:

University of Central Florida study confirms fidgeting helps kids with ADHD concentrate as reported in the Orlando Sentinal, May 25, 2009.

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5 Responses

  1. Amanda

    Bouncing my leg and my hand on the table helps me concentrate.

  2. Alyssa

    I get strange looks when I pull out my 12 pk of brightly colored markers & stationary during graduate level seminars. Taking notes on bright paper & doodling around my notebook is the fidget that works for me. Otherwise I’d be snoozing in statistics!

  3. Bridget

    Clapping my hands one back to one front helps me a lot(its silent and i apologize if you don’t understand that but I cant describe it any other way. ) i also doodle. A lot. That helps me and I always have people asking me why I draw all during class but that’s one of the only things that helps me focus. THE OTHER THINg i use is to play with pens and pencils that’s a great one but I tend to smack desks with them and people get really annoyed … :/

    • Peggy Dolane

      Glad you’ve found things that work for you!!!!

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