Print   |   Back
September 26, 2014
Pebbles, Potholes, and Perspective
Increasing Your Ability to Stay on Task
by Sarah Hancock

Okay. Admit it. You don’t have to live with a mental illness to have problems staying on task.

We all have those days where our mind acts like the equivalent of those beloved dogs on Disney’s movie, UP.

If you aren’t familiar with the movie (and I recommend it), the dogs set out on their expeditions determined and focused. All focus flies out the window every time there is a noise in the background. Suddenly one dog cries out, “Squirrel!” and together they forget the focus and take off in a frantic chase after that ever-elusive squirrel.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has that problem. I also imagine that whether or not you have a diagnosis, you can probably identify with the issue — especially after a night of little sleep, under a heavy deadline at work, everyday stresses that become slightly heavier, a cold or a migraine. I know I don’t have to spell it out, because I’m sure we’ve all had off days.

Now imagine for a moment that your “off days” last for weeks, months or even years. Imagine that your inability to concentrate or focus interferes with your ability to complete simple tasks like finishing a sentence, working through a multi-step process at work or school or remembering why you walked into a room — every single time you walked into a room.

Imagine having a brain that bounces off multiple topics like a racquetball after it’s been slammed by someone with an arm like the Incredible Hulk. Chances are, if you or someone you know has Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder or experienced the mania of Bipolar Disorder, that person lives with the Incredible Hulk in his head on a regular basis.


Concentration problems also come into play for the exact opposite reason when the brain’s wimpy racquetball player has no ball and finds himself staring confused at the string-less racquet in his hand.

This is quite evident in people experiencing symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymia, Bipolar Depression and many other disorders. Would you also believe it is a common side effect of many medications?

However, there is good news. I’ve lived through both types of racquetball games and learned a few effective strategies to ignore those stupid squirrels and cope. Here are five helpful coping skills.

Get enough sleep and eat healthfully. To think clearly, your brain needs to reset itself while you are asleep. If you are on psych meds, your brain needs additional sleep to effectively reset itself.

Cutting out sugary items and maintaining a stable blood sugar will improve your focus (This is true for everyone, not just diabetics). Eliminating caffeine will also strengthen your concentration. Omega-3s and a good multi-vitamin increase your brain’s health as well. Drinking lots of water will help flush out the bad stuff, allowing the brain to continue functioning properly.

Exercise. Good, rigorous exercise does more than get your heart healthy. It helps clear away stress and allows you time to think.

Minimize distractions. Obviously turning off or putting away cell phones and turning off notifications minimizes distractions. But If you are trying to focus on work while someone is watching TV, listening to the radio, talking, laughing about the neighborhood gossip, or fighting, get some ear plugs!

Wearing earplugs also cuts out things other people ignore without thinking about it — things like ticking clocks, keyboards, fans, high-pitched charging devices, airplanes, passing cars, hallway excitement at school, and so on.

If the person is still distracted, have him move to a different room without a blinking television, flashing computer screen and extraneous people. This is why many schools provide separate rooms for testing. It’s also why university libraries almost always have desks with side and front “blinders” to help students focus on school work instead of watching for squirrels.

Timers. If you have problems staying on task like I do, set a timer for 5, 10, 15, 20 or 30 minutes. As you work on your project and realize your mind is starting to wander, glance at how much time remains on the timer. Then you can say something to yourself like, I can take care of ______ in 3 more minutes (or whatever the timer says).

When the timer goes off, give yourself a pat on the back, take care of whatever it was you had to do (bathroom break, drink of water), reset the timer, and get back to work.

If you're starting to get bored with the task you have to do, you can just look at the timer and tell yourself something like, “I only have to concentrate on this for eight more minutes (or whatever the timer says) then I can do something else” — effectively postponing the search for squirrels.

If you want to stop what you're doing to do something else less important (check social media, comb your hair, take a selfie, whatever), when you've finished the timer for what you were supposed to be doing something, set the timer for 5-10 minutes and do your social media thing. When the timer goes off, reset the timer and get back to work. 

When I started using a timer, I could concentrate for less than five minutes at a time. With practice, I gradually increased the time to the point that when I'm not symptomatic, I can work for several hours at a time. If I am symptomatic and having a hard time concentrating, I just dial back the timer and keep up the process. 

Meds. If after implementing all the above techniques, you still have difficulties concentrating? It’s possible that these strategies are not enough to compensate for the biological misfiring in your brain. This means that it’s not simply a case of willing yourself to focus better. If that were the case, these strategies would have solved the problem, since they didn’t you know there is a biological imbalance.

You aren’t the only person with this problem. Isn’t it nice to know that there are treatments to correct these imbalances? Whether it’s starting a medication, altering the dose or changing medications, you’d be amazed the difference a balanced brain can have on your ability to concentrate.

Regardless of which coping strategy you choose, it's important to search for something that works for you. Remember to give yourself kudos for the time you successfully stay focused, no matter how short or long. Remember not to compare yourself to others. Instead, choose to compare yourself to who you were yesterday, or this morning.

Hope that helps you tame the squirrels.

P.S. I’m always looking for other coping strategies. Tell me about yours on Nauvoo Times’ FaceBook page.

Copyright © 2024 by Sarah Hancock Printed from