Coaches’ Corner: ADHD, Mind-Wandering, and Meta-Awareness: What the Research Says
“My son’s teachers tell me he spends too much of the time daydreaming in class.”
“I try to do the reading for my college classes, but so often my mind just wanders.”
“I am having some trouble at work because my mind keeps wandering during meetings and I can’t participate effectively.”
If you have ADHD, you probably recognize these types of concerns. Daydreaming or mind-wandering are frequent experiences with ADHD. These symptoms can interfere with your day-to-day functioning and activities and can lead to frustration and even embarrassment at times.
Previous research has demonstrated a link between mind-wandering and symptoms of ADHD. A recent article by Franklin and colleagues in Journal of Attention Disorders examined the relationship of ADHD symptoms to mind-wandering in detail. In this study, the researchers also looked at what they termed “detrimental” mind-wandering (being stuck dwelling on a problem, for example) as well as being aware of one’s own mind-wandering. Awareness of one’s thinking is called “meta-awareness.”
You can read below about this study and its findings, or just skip down to the “tips” section if you prefer.
Originally published on June 24th, 2015, this article was updated and republished on September 17th, 2022.
The research study
The study by Franklin and colleagues included 105 adults, 77 of whom were female, with an average age of 23 years. Study subjects were recruited from fliers posted on the campus of the University of British Columbia. There were some financial incentives for participation.
Study participants were not formally diagnosed with ADHD. Instead, ADHD symptoms in the participants were assessed using two ADHD scales. It’s important to note that we don’t know if any of the participants were actually diagnosed with ADHD.
Mind-wandering was observed in a lab setting, while participants completed tasks such as reading, as well as during participant’s daily life activities.
Key study findings
It will probably not surprise you to learn that study participants with higher scores on the ADHD symptom scales demonstrated more mind wandering, more “detrimental” mind-wandering, and less strategic or future planning-oriented mind-wandering.
Higher ADHD symptom scores were also related to lower scores on meta-awareness measures. That is, participants with higher ADHD scores were less likely to be aware of mind-wandering when it occurred. This lack of awareness led to more detrimental effects.
The Franklin study suggests that an individual struggling with a wandering mind can build self-awareness – or mindfulness – skills to help his or her brain stay on track.
Finally, this study suggests a positive finding about ADHD: there may be a relationship between ADHD symptoms and creative mind-wandering, and possibly a more rich internal life as well. Mind-wandering has its benefits!
Tips for managing mind-wandering
This study suggests that strategies improving meta-awareness – or mindful awareness – of mind-wandering may have a beneficial impact. Here are some strategies that might help:
- Use of interrupting alarms
Set a phone alarm, smart watch, or kitchen timer, to ring at 5-15 minute intervals. When the alarm rings, ask yourself if you are on task. If yes, celebrate and continue! If no, you can choose to get back on task. Either way, re-set the alarm.
Mindfulness simply means having full awareness of your thoughts, feelings and actions in the present moment. Becoming more mindful can assist awareness of and attention to what you are thinking or doing at any point in time. Mindfulness can be developed through practice of certain meditations and exercises (see Resources below) that help train awareness and attention. The more one practices mindfulness meditation and exercises—even brief practice sessions, such as 5-10 minutes of meditation several days a week—the easier it can become to notice your thoughts and to bring yourself back from a distracting thought to the task at hand.
One specific mindfulness practice, called STOP, focuses on pulling your attention into the present moment. Here’s how it works:
S – Stop what you are doing/thinking
T- Take a deep breath
O – Observe what you were doing, thinking, feeling
P – Proceed with choice, either return to what you had intended to be doing or decide to consciously shift to another task.
Developing self-talk about sticking to a task can help curb mind-wandering. For example, when starting a task, tell yourself “I am going to be doing (name of task) now.” You might even include how long you intend to be doing it: “I am going to spend the next 20 minutes doing (name of task).” Then, periodically check in to see if your action is matching your intention: ”Am I doing (name of task)?” If you are, pat yourself on the back and stick with it! If you are not, you can choose to get back to it: “OK, I am going to get back to (name of task) for 10 more minutes.” This self-talk can help keep you on-track.
Bonus: Combining the use of alarms, mindfulness practices and self-talk can be especially powerful in addressing distraction and mind-wandering.
Finally, let’s not forget to celebrate the benefits of mind-wandering for creative thinking and a rich internal life. You might even want to set aside some time in your schedule to let your mind wander on purpose. You may come up with some great ideas or interesting solutions to problems you’ve been facing!
After all, “Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
You can join virtual peer support groups, find ADHD coaches, access 200+ webinars, and more when you join ADDA+.
Resources for developing mindfulness include:
- Lidia Zylowska’s book The MindfulnessPrescription for Adult ADHD,
- A 9-session tele-class I teach on mindfulness and ADHD (see www.lizahmann.com/mindfulness)
- Other mindfulness classes available in your community or online.
Franklin, et al. (2014). Tracking Distraction: The Relationship Between Mind-Wandering, Meta-Awareness, and ADHD Symptomatology. Journal of Attention Disorders (online Aug 1, 2014). DOI: 10.1177/1087054714543494