ADHD vs. Being Scatterbrained: What’s the Real Difference?

Everyone’s distracted these days, but these clues point to ADHD.

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It’s the age of multitasking. A recent study found that while watching TV, 42 percent of Americans poke around online, 29 percent chat on the phone, and 26 percent text their friends. We know this isn’t great for our mental health or effectiveness, and studies back this up. Focusing on more than one thing at a time decreases your productivity by nearly half, according to Harvard Business Review. That means the majority of Americans are just drowning ourselves in distractions.

So it’s perfectly normal to feel scatterbrained and distracted sometimes, particularly when you feel more stressed than usual. Of course it’s hard to focus on work when you have the fascinating depths of the internet just a couple clicks away. (Exhibit A: Alllllll those stress-busting cat videos.) With all that chaos, where’s the line between feeling unfocused and scatterbrained and actually having ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder?

It’s true that “ADHD symptoms can appear in almost anyone,” says Khadijah Watkins, MD, a psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine. “It really is about the level of impairment and how persistent the symptoms are.” If you stayed up late too night, have a crazy deadline coming up, or are feeling under the weather, you might be a bit more spaced out or jittery than usual. “[But for] someone who has ADHD, it’s a kind of pervasive pattern of inattention, hyperactivity, or both.”  

Key ADHD Symptoms to Look For

Someone with ADHD may show some combination of the following symptoms, according to Susan Samuels, MD, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine.

  • Hyperactivity: unable to sit still and is always multitasking

  • Impulsivity: engaging in risky or irresponsible behavior

  • Inattention: difficulty focusing and spacing out

If you notice symptoms disrupting your life consistently for several months—or years—you may be dealing with ADHD. Here are more signs of ADHD in adults to look for.

What Causes Symptoms of ADHD?

ADHD is a neurological condition, which means it’s caused by changes in the brain. Specifically, ADHD impairs the brain’s executive function.

“Executive function describes the ability to plan ahead [and] know what the next steps are going to be,” says Dr. Samuels. “People with ADHD have a really hard time thinking about anything other than that next second or that next minute. Then things don’t get done as efficiently because steps are missed.”

While you might not have been diagnosed with ADHD as a kid, it is a condition you grow up with. There is no such thing as “adult-onset ADHD,” according to Dr. Samuels. Sometimes, impulsivity or inattentiveness can go masked during childhood and become more glaring in adulthood, when you are expected to be more responsible and independent. Learn more about this myth about adult ADHD. When adults are diagnosed with ADHD for the first time, they can often look back on ways they struggled in elementary, middle, or high school (academically or socially) and feel a little bit of that “aha!” moment from recognizing the condition has been there all along.

“It might actually be helpful to somebody to know that this is something that they’ve been dealing with for a long time, and this is the pattern,” says Dr. Samuels, “and it’s not necessarily their fault, [and] there are ways to treat it.”

Treating ADHD may include taking medication as well as learning coping mechanisms to strengthen your organization and focus at work and home. Here are time management hacks to manage ADHD.