ADHD is a medical condition that stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is a big fancy term for a condition where people are more easily distracted.
You may be one of those people. One of, if not the, biggest downside of ADHD is it can be challenging to focus on one task.
Fortunately, ADHD has been extensively researched, and we’ve developed effective medications to treat the symptoms. However, most people with ADHD don’t take medication daily for a host of reasons, and there are non-pharmaceutical interventions that can fill the gap and improve focus.
Even if you don’t have ADHD, though, you may find that you have a hard time focusing. Or maybe you want to take your focus to the next level. After all, people without ADHD, like college students, will take ADHD drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to help them focus and study.
So if you’re one of those college students, then you should listen up here too.
The Dopamine Hypothesis of ADHD
To understand the main hypothesis for biochemical mechanisms underlying ADHD, let’s look at the neurotransmitter dopamine.
We know that dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter commonly thought of as the happiness chemical, improves our motivation, narrows our attention, and as a result, improves what we think of as “focus.” A motivated, attentive person is a great recipe for focus.
The proven, pharmaceutical interventions for ADHD, like Adderall and Ritalin, increase dopamine. This leads us to the dopamine hypothesis of ADHD. This hypothesis says that these drugs work becuase they bring the baseline dopamine levels of those with ADHD up to a level where they tap into the motivation and attention benefits of dopamine.
This is also what much more dangerous (but chemically similar) drugs like cocaine and meth do: they’re dopaminergic. They increase dopamine. Those with ADHD often do not report the same insane energy spikes when taking cocaine or meth as those without ADHD. Rather, they often report feeling focused and alert. Yes, this is kind of nuts.
The theory goes, then, that by increasing dopamine levels, those with ADHD can improve their focus. One study in Nature even found “that some patients with ADHD have abnormalities in genes responsible for dopamine regulation.” This means that genes responsible for low dopamine may be more prevalent in those with ADHD, further supporting the hypothesis.
Luckily, these pharmaceutical drugs are definitely not the only substances that boost dopamine. A few of the non-pharmaceutical interventions on our list may be effective because of this mechanism.
Keep in mind, though, that this is still a hypothesis. There are other ideas for mechanistic causes and solutions to ADHD. Studies on substances that increase the neurotransmitter acetylcholine also seem to show some promise for ADHD. But the dopamine hypothesis is a great place to start.
Finally, these are NOT a substitute for medication. You should definitely NOT stop taking your ADHD medication without talking to your doctor. However, some of these interventions can be a part of a repertoire to improve your focus, while possibly decreasing the frequency and dose of medication, or just improving focus on the days and times when you don’t take ADHD medication.
Some of these interventions may even help synergistically with medication. Others involve generally helpful productivity advice. We’re all about pushing the boundaries of research and finding areas to improve our health and performance ahead of scientific consensus.
In this case, even where research on ADHD populations lacks, we tried to give tips that will be helpful regardless. Even if it won’t improve your focus, they’re still good habits to work into your routine.
Take Supplements That Increase Dopamine
There are many low-cost, non-toxic, and generally safe ingredients that increase dopamine. Caffeine and L-tyrosine are two of the most promising. Both of these ingredients lose their dopaminergic, stimulating effects if you take them all the time though.
Caffeine, for example, if you’re “caffeine adapted” you’re not going to get the same boost. So if you want to use caffeine specifically to increase focus and improve ADHD symptoms, then you’ll probably want to do some form of caffeine cycling, where you pick your battles.
The same seems to be true with l-tyrosine.
We wrote entire articles on caffeine and ADHD and l-tyrosine and ADHD, with more detailed, specific strategies and plans.
You can even get into other supplements that increase dopamine, although we don’t explicitly recommend them. After all, cocaine increases dopamine, but that doesn’t mean you should take it to help you study.
Omega 3 Fats (Fish Oil)
Damn. Is there anything omega-3 fatty acids don’t help with? Probably not, honestly. If you’re not taking fish oil or another omega-3 supplement, you should start.
With regards specifically to ADHD, one recent study on 79 boys (40 with ADHD) aged 8-15 who took 650 mg of EPA and DHA (the two omega-3 fatty acids), improved their scores on attention problems. The increases were in those specifically with ADHD. So fish oil might not improve your focus if you don’t have ADHD. But almost everybody should be taking more omega-3 fats anyway.
Because it’s such a simple intervention, and something we should almost all be taking anyway, do yourself a favor and pick up a quality omega-3 supplement.
This is exactly the type of low-risk, high-reward solution we look for.
Let Yourself Move Around
Remember the horribly distracting trend that was fidget spinners? What. A. Time. A glorious time, it turns out, for those with ADHD. A 2015 study found that children with ADHD who moved while working on tasks that required attention did better than those who had to sit still.
This should be unsurprising. Oh, you mean the adults yelling at kids to sit still didn’t foster creativity and focus?
Extrapolating this out, though, you may wonder if this applies to you. Movement has been shown to increase productivity and focus across a range of populations. Anecdotally, we’ve all heard the stories of famous figures throughout history coming up with their best ideas on walks.
Whether you have ADHD or not, you should allow yourself to freely move, and set up your working environment to encourage this. Maybe the fidget spinner will make a comeback for you. Or maybe you’ll work at a standing desk some of the time, or set timers for movement breaks.
In general, we should all move more anyway for a host of health benefits, so just like fish oil, this is something we can all benefit from.
Line Up Your Productivity with Your Circadian Rhythm
This is a similar tip that we talked about in this article on 4 ways your light environment can improve your productivity.
Our dopamine naturally peaks in the morning, as has been shown in studies measuring dopamine levels throughout the day. Based on what we know about sleep and our circadian rhythm, this makes perfect sense. Our cortisol, another sympathetic hormone, peaks in the morning. This is when the sun is out and shining, and when, evolutionarily, our ancestors did their tasks that required keen attention, motivation, and focus, like hunting.
Knowing this, plan to do your 1-2 most attention-intensive tasks in the morning. Because your dopamine will naturally be at its highest, without anything else this is when you’ll have an easier time focusing.
Manage Your Phone Usage
We could dive into all the controversies and ideas about how the prevalence of ADHD is increasing because of our short attention-span environment. But we won’t. What we know, though, is that our phones are insanely distracting.
If you don’t have systems to manage phone usage, your focus and attention will likely suffer because of it. Even if you don’t have ADHD, your focus and productivity may suffer like someone who does.
Again, this is a huge topic. But here are a few ideas to manage smartphone usage during work sessions.
- Put it on airplane mode while you’re working
- Keep your phone further than an arm’s length away, so you’d have to actually get up to use it.
- If you have a consistent work schedule, you can set timers on apps so you can’t open certain ones during these hours. No IG between 9am and 5pm Mon-Fri, for example.
- Set a timer on your phone while working, like 15-30 minutes, and reward yourself with short phone breaks after the timer ends.
- Put your phone on grayscale mode. Bright blue colors trigger addiction responses.
- Aim for overall less phone usage per day. There are studies on children that show their attention diminished with more than an hour of phone use. We don’t have a magic number to shoot for, but if you decrease a few minutes every week until you’re in the 1-2 hours range, you’ll be in good shape.
This deserves its own article, or article series, so we’ll leave it at that for now.
For more on focus and productivity, you can check out our articles on “nootropic” ingredients, like modafinil and l-theanine.
And if you have ADHD, this is just part one in a series, so you can check out our articles with deeper dives on certain ingredients, including caffeine and l-tyrosine.