I Forgot to Pay Attention!

Nine Common Symptoms of ADD

By Sunda Friedman TeBockhorst, PhD, ABPP

If you’ve ever found yourself in the middle of a conversation and realized that you don’t know what the person you’re talking to just said because you forgot to pay attention to him or her, you may relate to this title and wonder: is this Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)?  Or, is ADD affecting someone close to me?  Here are nine signs and symptoms common to those who may be affected by ADD. 

  1. People accuse you of not listening – even when you are. Wandering attention is a core symptom of ADD.  This often surfaces for people via interpersonal frustration and relational stress when people don’t realize you aren’t intentionally disregarding them or their concerns.
  2. You just lost your phone – again. Keeping track of personal possessions can be particularly tricky for those with ADD, who tend to spend more time than the average bear hunting down wayward possessions. Alternately, some have developed an intense focus on preventing this with certain rituals and routines, which must be adhered to inflexibly – which can be another sign of ADD.
  3. Doors have magical brain-erasing properties. Having to walk from one room into another – to tell somebody something, to retrieve an item, to do a task – can be a series of misadventures for the person with ADD, who may have to give this several tries before their short-term memory decides the jig is up and produces the nugget of knowledge about why the journey was started in the first place.
  4. No deadline = no work. Motivation and arousal seem to be fundamentally affected in ADD, and for many affected by ADD they find that it is quite difficult to find sufficient motivation to start a project until they are facing an imminent deadline. The procrastination this leads to is stressful – and that stress seems to be necessary for achieving sufficient motivation to get going.
  5. Ready, Fire, Aim! People with ADD tend to be more impulsive than others, especially when they are responding to a wave of emotion – excitement, frustration, anger, boredom – people with ADD are more reactive to all of them, and more prone to taking actions or saying things they wish they hadn’t. Some people with ADD have had enough experience with this that they over-correct, and clam up or over-control, isolating and not connecting when it might be better if they did (appropriately) express their frustration or interest.
  6. When you are in the zone, interruptions are a serious no-no. Your partner, your parents, or your friends may have learned the hard way – it’s hard for you to get started, but when you drop into the zone (“hyperfocus” is an ADD thing), you might bite the head off of anybody who interrupts the flow. ADD brain hates to change tasks, so when it does get started (hours or days or weeks after intending to, often, and after a great many mental gymnastics to justify the procrastination), it really hates to stop. Stopping means you have to start again later, and starting was really hard!
  7. It’s hard to choose from the 15 books you’ve started. Finishing things is also not your forte. It looked interesting! You started reading! Then something else looked interesting the next time you went to read! Books, of course, could be any type of project. People with ADD often have many going at once, and how many of them get finished is anybody’s guess.
  8. Punctual people are really just baffling. You try. You try really hard. But being on time is a mysterious talent that others seem to have but just doesn’t come naturally for you. Or possibly, you become extremely anxious and stressed in order to overcome this tendency, with rigid and inflexible routines to avoid being late, since you know that any deviation from the rigid routine will mean you are late. Which you hate. Every single time you do it.
  9. The clutter is crazy making. You don’t know how it happens. You have the best of intentions. You make plans, try to create systems. But every time, the clutter ends up taking over. Which is especially problematic due to your tendency to shut down when overwhelmed, and then the clutter continues to build. Until, in one dazzling and heroic feat, you have achieved perfect order with a blast of intense energy and without stopping once. And things will go well! Because you have a plan! Until… suddenly, the clutter has appeared again, and you’re not even sure how.

This list is, of course, partial. Most people with ADD will relate to many but not all of these tendencies. There are lots of other tendencies that people with ADD have, that can make life (school, work, relationships) harder. If you’re concerned that this might be you, we’d like to help.

If you think you recognize yourself, your partner, or your child here, and are wondering about diagnosis, the first step is typically an intake session where you can talk about this concern with a clinician. Your treating psychologist may soothe your worries, recommend specific interventions, or may recommend diagnostic testing.