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Children and adults who are easily distracted often receive an informal label of "just a little ADHD," referring attention deficit hyperactivity syndrome. Easy distraction, however, is not the same as ADHD.

Distraction is divided attention, reducing the focus and mental energy placed on an object, a task, or a conversation. "Easy" distraction is usually defined by the observer in terms of the goals of the observer, rather than the goals of the person who appears to be distracted.

And that is the primary reason that easy distraction does not mean ADHD. But let's take a closer look at what distraction is, and what ADHD is, for clues about the kinds of situations in which easy distractibility might require intervention.

What Is Distraction?

Distraction is the movement of attention from the object of attention to the source of distraction. This interruption of concentration may present greater novelty, rewards, or interest than the stated object of attention. Only when the distracted person cannot focus on the object or event on which he or she chooses to place attention, however, is easy distractibility a treatable problem.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is more than a tendency to be distracted. It is a pervasive pattern of distraction that causes serious disruption to life activities. In Europe and the UK, ADHD is defined more strictly than it is in the US, and relatively few children and adults (only about 1/2 of 1%) get the diagnosis.

In the US, ADHD is defined more broadly and is diagnosed in about 10% of the population.

Under the American definition, the "easily distracted" form of ADHD requires six or more of the following symptoms observed or six or more months:

  • Often easily distracted.
  • Forgetful in daily activities.
  • Often loses things needed for daily tasks (books, notes, briefcases, purses, backpacks, tools).
  • Avoids tasks that require extended periods of focused attention, such as repair of mechanical devices  at home, difficult academic subjects, athletic and artistic participation and performance.
  • Difficulty organizing daily activities.
  • Fails to follow instructions and/or complete tasks at school or at work.
  • Often seems not to pay attention when spoken to.
  • Difficulty paying attention to work or play activities.

ADHD is more than mere distraction. It is a chronic disruption in daily life. Easy distraction may be annoying to people around the easily distracted individual, but it is not necessarily ADHD. Treating thiese kinds of distraction as if they were attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is not just counterproductive, it's potentially damaging to personal relationships and personal growth. Let's consider 10 examples of easy distraction that are not actually ADHD.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Berggren N, Hutton SB, Derakshan N. The effects of self-report cognitive failures and cognitive load on antisaccade performance.Front Psychol. 2011. 2:280. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00280. Epub 2011 Oct 25. PMID: 22046166 [PubMed]
  • de Fockert JW, Caparos S, Linnell KJ, Davidoff J. Reduced distractibility in a remote culture. PLoS One. 2011.6(10):e26337. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026337. Epub 2011 Oct 19.
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