When Suzette popped open her laptop at a café to catch up on some work, she planned to be working happily with the sounds of laughter, steaming milk and pressed coffee in the background.
Unfortunately for her, the vibrant noise of a local coffee house completely disrupted her ability to focus and she spent most of her time people watching instead of working.
“I see all these images on social media of people shredding their to-do lists while sipping an espresso in a funky coffee house and I’m so envious,” she says. “I want so much to be motivated by the energy, but instead I’m scattered and anxious.”
Suzette was diagnosed with ADHD in her mid-thirties after struggling to get her projects done on time as an office manager for a real estate company. Since her work was remote, she thought it would break up her days to walk to a local café to update spreadsheets. Instead, she lost hours of valuable time and was at risk of losing her job.
She did some research and discovered that people with ADHD are acutely impacted by different sounds.
A raucous anthem from their favourite band can help with cleaning up the kitchen, but the same high energy music would feel like nails on a chalkboard while trying to answer an important email.
People with ADHD are known to have heightened sensitivity to the physical environment. Sounds may feel like they’re happening in an intense rush and it can be overwhelming.
That’s why It’s extra important to curate your working environment.
For Suzette, working at her local library while streaming music through her headphones has helped her get control of her tasks.
“There’s a library a few blocks from me so I just set up at a quiet table in the morning and get my work done on time. It’s not the most exciting place, but I feel much more in control of my productivity.”
When neurodivergent people are in hyperfocus, it can be breathtakingly productive. A flurry of emails are written, bills get paid, and household chores get finished in record time.
Sounds can play a major role in setting you up for success. Read on for suggestions on how to make sounds and music work in your favour.
Curate your tunes
Brown noise has been rising in popularity on social media. It’s a specific frequency that’s meant to focus a busy ADHD mind. Studies have shown that it could work due to something called optimal arousal theory, which has been indicated to help neurodiverse people reach a more interested state. This could come in handy when updating code on a website, or organizing your desktop.
More traditional forms of music such as classical and jazz can help with focus so adding Vivaldi, Miles Davis or Mozart to your playlist can help.
Binaural beats, which are best enjoyed with headphones, play sound at a certain frequency with one ear and a sound at a different but similar frequency with your other ear. This coaxes your brain to produce a sound with the frequency of the difference between the two tones and it has been known to increase dopamine levels.
Many people report music with lyrics to be too distracting, so choosing an ambient playlist to keep you on track is a great idea. If your using a streaming service, commercials can be very disruptive so choose a service that gives you constant streaming without interruptions.
Seek out quiet spaces
Popular culture is filled with images of people typing away in busy environments, but the reality of ADHD’ers who may also be grappling with sensory processing challenges, it can be the worst place to complete work that requires linear thought.
If silence is too much, some people find running a fan or other appliance can help.
In a pinch, noise cancelling headphones can help blot out disruptive noise if you find yourself having to get work done in an open office or busy airport.
Remember, there is no one size fits all when it comes to managing noise distractions and what may have worked in the past may need rethinking depending on your work, school, and family priorities.
For more information on how ADHD impacts day-to-day life, read our blog about sensory overwhelm.
Robbie McDonald was diagnosed with ADHD in mid-life and writes about mental health from her home in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.