Maintaining Focus with Bipolar Disorder

Last Updated: 6 Aug 2018

One of the challenges of living with bipolar disorder is the inability to remain focused. However, there are techniques to help stay on task.

Photo: Georgijevic/Getty Images/iStock


By Karl Shallowhorn


One common symptom of bipolar disorder is distractibility. This sense of being unable to focus is something that can be very annoying, if not downright frustrating. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’m at my job and I’m working on one thing, whether it be answering an email or handling a specific task, and then I have a thought that comes totally out of left field.  I immediately gravitate to this new thing to do. As a result, I end up bouncing back and forth. I can usually complete my projects, but it takes a considerable amount of focus to do so.

I work out of two different offices, with different workspaces in each. The first is the Mental Health Association of Erie County. Here I share an office with one of my colleagues. We (fortunately) get along very well. Sometimes, however, I have to work hard to stay on task. And this isn’t anything against my office mate. We work on several projects together and being in close proximity helps with this. The times I find challenging are when I’m trying to work on complex tasks. And this is where my character defects come out. It’s almost like I get into a zone and try to block out everything around me. This can make communication difficult, especially when others are asking questions or even trying to simply touch base. It is during these times that those around me can sense that I don’t want to be distracted.

My solution to this is listening to music. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always played music while working. It actually helps me to focus better. It also makes onerous chores easier for me. When I have music, life simply seems to go along much better.

I recall at one fundraising event for the agency I work for, Compeer of Greater Buffalo, I was in charge of setting up a computer-based slide show. I was having trouble getting it started and when one of my co-workers approached me, I was very cold and dismissive with my response to his query if I needed any help. It is during these times, when I’m trying to figure something out (especially technology), it’s as if I have to have absolute focus to get anything done. In other words, LEAVE ME ALONE!

But seriously, living with bipolar disorder, at least for me, simply amplifies the inability to stay on task. I’ve never been tested for Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder  (ADHD), however, it is known that one of the symptoms of bipolar disorder is this idea of being easily distracted. For instance, when I have to listen to a lecture, or any type of lengthy discussion, my mind will wander. I do recognize it when it’s happening and it is then when I pull myself back and focus on what is being said. You can ask my wife about when she talks to me, however I don’t know if that is a symptom of bipolar disorder or just being a guy (haha).

The same thing happens when I try to meditate. I know this is also the case for many people, especially those living with bipolar or anxiety. In the past, when I’d try to sit and still my mind, I’d be all over the place. I’ve learned about the concept of mindfulness and how to focus on breathing as well as focusing on the present moment, while not getting fixated on what has happened in the past, nor what could happen in the future. Despite this knowledge, meditation was still challenging for me, until I discovered a nifty app called “Insight Timer.” This free tool (and yes, even no ads) is amazing. It has over 7,200 guided meditations, an awesome meditation timer, and even a social media-type platform where you can join groups and make online friends, people who share a mutual interest in meditation.

The thing I like about Insight Timer is the guided meditation feature. There are any number of different types of mediations: spiritual, sleep, relaxation, music, ambient, and of course, mindfulness-based offerings. These meditations are led by teachers, all of whom are vetted by the site administrators.

So, despite having lived with bipolar for going on 37 years, I still struggle with the act of focusing. But this hasn’t deterred me from finding ways to manage this challenging feature of my illness. As I continue to refine my active ways of dealing with being easily distracted, I’m open to learning whatever I can to stay present and in the moment. And if I’m able to do that, then maybe I’m getting somewhere.

About the author
Karl Shallowhorn is the Education Program Coordinator for the Community Health Center of Buffalo. Karl has been living with bipolar disorder since 1981. He is a New York State Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor and has worked in both the addictions and mental health fields for over 17 years. Karl is the author of Working on Wellness: A Practical Guide to Mental Health. He is a certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor and also works as a mental health consultant for organizations across New York State. Karl has provided a variety of mental health-related seminars and workshops for conferences, schools and businesses on the local, state and national levels. Karl serves on the Board of Directors for the Mental Health Association in New York State, the Mental Health Association of Erie County, the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network, as well as the Erie County Mental Hygiene Community Services Boardand the WNED/WBFO Mental Health Advisory Council. Karl has received numerous awards for his advocacy efforts in his professional career.
  1. I do understand, I’m bipolar. Im 50 the bipolar procrastination persist worse since I have gotten worse. Its such a struggle to remember all of my task. Its hard to get out of the bed in the mornings, because of the fatigue low energy all the time. I’M Frustrated due to the fact because of the memory loss and fatigue. The ptsd and bipolar has taking away all of my desires and I don’t know how to get them back and has stollen my drive to succeed.

  2. Dear Carl
    Thank you so much mate, at 44 yrs of age….I’m going through a mid life crisis living with bipolar since the age of 16….as an acedemic and intellect it pains me not to stay focused, for my brain box is all over the place and nobody seems to understand….thank you for the help

  3. How would you recommend approaching a co worker like yourself in a productive and respectful way. I have a co-worker who also lives with bipolar disorder and I see the same challenges for him in the work place.

    1. Hi Sophia – You said the key words, “productive” and “respectful.”

      One way to approach it would be in the context of a project or assignment s/he may be working on. For instance, you may ask how the project is going and if they need any help. It also helps to stick to the facts and state what you observe and not make it personal.

      It also depends on the relationship and how well you know the person. Basically, I would say, use your words wisely.

  4. I have always said I’m my own worst distraction! The fact that it’s part if BPD as you point out Karl is helpful to know.

    Lately I switch focus and find the more immediate tasks bypass their deadlines even though I know in my head what I’ve switched to isn’t immediate.

    Another distraction is that I find myself daydreaming and are forever having to pull myself back to the real moment and what I need or want to do.

    Your final words ring true. I will continue to work to stay present in the moment!

  5. Thanks for being so honest, Karl. Truth be told, it took me a while to read this article due to distractions!

    My bipolar 2 makes it hard for me to focus during conversations and to enjoy reading. I end up rereading the same paragraph 3 times because something steals my attention in the midst of reading it. I gave up my book club because it was just taking me too much time to get through novels. As you might imagine, staying focused on projects at work is a challenge as well. I’m looking forward to trying the meditation app.

Load More Comments

Leave a Reply

Please do not use your full name, as it will be displayed. Your email address will not be published.