Even today, 20 years after my childhood diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I am still keenly aware of how my attention wavers, lapses, or holds differently from that of most people.
I’m prone to experiencing “blank” patches in conversation, when I suddenly realize I have no recollection of the past 30 or so seconds of what’s been said, as if someone has skipped forward through the video feed of my life (occasionally, I resort to “masking,” or feigning comprehension—which is embarrassing). When watching television, I struggle not to move, often rising to pace and fidget, and I dread being the “owner” of complicated documents and spreadsheets, as I’m very likely to miss some crucial detail.
This year, I twice missed a doctor’s appointment because the surgeon’s office would send reminders only by paper mail. My reliance on to-do lists and prompts is unceasing, vigilant—else even the most essential tasks might be entirely forgotten. Occasionally I “hyperfocus”: the incessant flicker and hum of everyday life recedes as I lose track of time, pouring myself steadily into one topic, reading hundreds of pages or writing thousands of words.
I used to see all this primarily as a deficit, but, having built a career that helped me better understand what I struggled with and which put those selfsame “deficits” to good purpose, I no longer view things that way. Instead, these days I see my own distracted nature as a source of keen awareness for the fragility of all attention.
I work in instructional design, which is the practice of developing engaging and effective educational products and experiences to help others learn. In creating interactive classes and workshops, my aim is to cultivate the learners’ attention and focus, but one of the first things I learned was that this is incredibly difficult, for everyone—neurotypical or otherwise.
In fact, there are common rules of thumb that reflect how universally short attention spans really are: one is that even 10 minutes of lecturing is too long for some people to follow (think of the number of times that you’ve caught yourself, or someone near you, wilting during a long meeting, presentation, or conference paper). The trick is to intersperse lectures with exercises and discussions. Moreover, research increasingly suggests that people are more likely to take in new ideas and information when it relates to something they already care about.
All of this is magnified for people diagnosed with ADHD, who lack focus, unless there’s a strong and clear connection to their immediate concerns, but who can nonetheless focus profoundly when this element of deep interest is present.
Working in instructional design has convinced me that our education system is poorly suited to nearly everyone, not just those diagnosed with ADHD. Most curricula lack a preliminary phase of collectively exploring students’ existing interests, before introducing them to material in a way that will be relevant to what they already care about.
Most classes, especially in secondary school and higher education, still rely on lectures of (far) more than five minutes straight. In contrast, notice how social media, video games, and so many other aspects of our lives accommodate and exploit our fleeting attention spans, customizing their design and content to fit our interests and grab hold of our attention. Many parents of children with ADHD despair over their children’s greater interest in video games than mathematics, but perhaps they should be concerned with why the math problems and classes cannot more commonly be made just as engaging as the games.
Continue on to Fast Company to read the complete article.