The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

Personal Organizing Case Study: Bullet Journal Daily Log (video post)

Today, I’m pleased to introduce two firsts: my first Personal Organizing Case Study and my first video post.

I hadn’t initially planned to combine the two, but I struggled with how to create graphics and text to give you a proper tour of my most critical organizing tools. Despite my unwavering belief that I’m a much better writer than talker, video seemed like a natural solution.

Here, I talk about Bullet Journaling, and how I combine this system with concepts from David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Stephen Guise’s Mini Habits. I give you a tour of my Daily Log, and explain how and why I organize it the way I do.

As a first effort, this video might feel a little low-budget. I want to hear your feedback so I can direct my future efforts toward what would be most helpful. Please share your questions, comments, and requests in the comments below.

Links to books and resources mentioned in this video:
Bullet Journal
David Allen’s Getting Things Done
Stephen Guise’s Mini Habits
My Moleskine journal
A cheaper alternative to the big Moleskine

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You have ADHD. You Need a Budget. (YNAB review)

Many adults with ADHD struggle with money. It makes sense. We’re impulsive, we’re forgetful, we hate delaying gratification, and we have a lot of trouble making plans and thinking things through. Growing up, I was fortunate to learn fiscal responsibility from my parents. Not everyone gets that education. Without it, people with ADHD can face lifelong financial insecurity and stress.

Despite thinking I knew everything there was to know about money, I decided to try You Need a Budget (YNAB), the money management app everyone’s been talking about. I’ve been using it for almost three months now. Turns out, I didn’t know everything, and YNAB is great for people with ADHD. It’s simple, easy, and automated, which saves time and energy most ADHD’ers aren’t going to put into their budget anyway. If you’ve failed in the past, YNAB may put effective budgeting within reach.

Setup and maintenance is easy peasy

YNAB took me around 25 minutes to set up. I connected my relevant bank accounts and credit cards, added a line or two to the pre-fabbed budget, and was off and running. Post-setup, I check the app regularly because it has a clean, attractive, and simple user interface.

When I log in, helpful tips pop up just often enough to keep me moving. When I overspend a category, YNAB asks me to move money from somewhere else. The mobile app places new transactions at the top to prompt me to approve and categorize them. In other words, the app doesn’t let me slack off, nor does it get in its own way.

For the phone fidgeters among us, YNAB offers a full-featured mobile app. This is great for people who struggle to sit down at a desk, but often look for ways to kill time with a smartphone. It’s easy to see when new transactions come in, and it only takes a minute to categorize and approve them.

YNAB can do a lot of work for you

Reluctant budgeters will love YNAB’s automated features. Transactions import automatically, which helps if you frequently lose or forget to ask for receipts. The app also puts money into your budget for credit card payments as credit transactions import. That means no surprises when the bill comes, even if you did lose all your receipts.

After you have a month or two under your belt, YNAB learns your spending habits. It can suggest a “quick budget” for each category based on previous spending, or you can easily view last month’s spending or average spending, right from the main screen. My budget used to be based on guesses or wishful thinking. YNAB has helped me get more realistic.

Of all the convenience features, YNAB won me over with goals. I’m notorious for living below my means and assuming I’ll have enough money for anything that comes along. This works fine, until I hit a month with multiple big expenses I haven’t prepared for.

With goals, you can set a category’s target balance, in general or by a certain date, or establish a target monthly contribution. I’ve exclusively used the balance-by-date goals so far. They make our short-term financial picture crystal clear. I took five minutes to go through my list of budget categories, and I came up with several I usually forget until the last minute: a car insurance payment, R.’s week-long ski camp in January, and preschool tuition due in super-distant August 2018. And while August seems far away, YNAB pointed out that I need to set aside almost $650 every month if I want to write that check with zero stress. It sounded like a lot, but not as much as if I started thinking about it next June.

YNAB makes your budget simple, real-time, and easy to understand

When I think of a budget, I think of a big spreadsheet you make at the beginning of the year. YNAB makes budgeting constant, real-time, and interactive. Every time I open the app, I see my budget categories and goals. If I haven’t put enough aside for a goal, that category’s balance turns orange. Happy categories show up in green. Overspent categories become angry red, and the app prompts me to allocate funds to cover the deficit.

This creates excellent habits, and encourages me to change course mid-month. When I overspend my budget in one category, I have to fix it as soon as YNAB imports the transaction. The act of taking away from one thing, like a new cell phone, to pay for another — maybe that beer that cost $40 for a 4-pack — brings the future into the Right Now. Because ADHD’ers live primarily in the Right Now, we need to view our spending choices this way if we want to meet our goals.

It’s not all about correcting mistakes, either. I gave my husband’s office cafeteria its own line in our budget because I wanted to keep an eye on it, but I also helped him start taking his own lunch. When he impulsively purchased supplies for his electronics hobby, I moved money from his cafeteria budget,  which had a surplus thanks to the bagged lunches. Instead of getting mad, I felt okay. I could see it right there. I didn’t worry that I was losing track and justifying three $50 expenses with one $50 savings somewhere else. I can’t stress enough the value of seeing it all in front of you for someone with ADHD. We don’t hold much in our heads at once, so we need a system like YNAB to lay it out for us.

If you’re struggling despite all this, have no fear. YNAB sends regular emails with tips and reminders to check out their online knowledge base.

Potential pitfalls

YNAB won’t 100% protect us from ourselves, nor will it work miracles the very next day. In fact, I recommend viewing your whole first month with YNAB as a throw-away. The app is collecting data, you’re taking a wild guess at your budget, and you’re not used to observing your spending this closely. I didn’t start loving YNAB until the 30-day mark, when I had a complete picture of my monthly cash flow. Until then, you’ll need to stick with it even if you feel confused or skeptical. Fortunately, YNAB offers all users their first month for free.

I also felt the lack of one of my lifelong budget standbys: the emergency buffer. Even as a teenager, I had a minimum balance in my head, and I didn’t let my savings account dip below it. YNAB expects you to budget to zero, meaning you’ve assigned a task to every dollar you have. Now, for sure, you can set a target balance for home and auto maintenance, or medical costs, and that can serve as an emergency buffer. That’s not how I operate. I had to add a line for “emergency buffer” to my budget, and set a target balance.

It’s a good thing, too. I use the emergency buffer to round everything out at the beginning of the month, before payday rolls around. People who get paid every week or two probably don’t get the same sense of scarcity when creating their monthly budget in YNAB. Freelancers and folks who get paid less often will need to build this into their use of the app, which I think is fine. We shouldn’t budget money we don’t have yet, after all.

Lastly, I wish the mobile app offered push notifications. For people inclined to forget about the app, notifications would offer a helpful nudge.

YNAB: the ADHDer’s path to budgeting happiness?

YNAB has transformed budgeting into an active process for our household in a way I never thought possible. A budget had always felt too restrictive for some folks in our family, and I stopped making one because I knew it wouldn’t be followed. With YNAB, I can course-correct on a daily basis, managing our money and making sure we have enough to cover our future expenses. Rather than guessing at whether we can afford a big-ticket purchase, I can throw it into the budget and see for sure.

Not only is the system itself usable, the app has a clean, simple interface that will appeal to almost everybody. It sounds nit-picky, but user experience is a big deal for people with ADHD. If the process is already intimidating, and making a budget usually is, we won’t force ourselves to do it with an app that’s hard to use.

Overall, I highly recommend YNAB. If you’re struggling to get a grip on your finances, give it a try! Use this link and you and I will both get a bonus free month.

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Women, ADHD, and expectations of kin-keeping

Several months ago, I caught part of an NPR interview about kin-keeping. Kin-keeping describes those little things that keep family and friends connected: sending birthday cards, planning vacations, setting up regular Skype dates, purchasing Christmas gifts. It takes time and energy, and it’s a burden usually shouldered by women.

I immediately thought, wow, what about women with ADHD? If this makes the average woman feel overstretched, burned-out, and inadequate, what about me?

Kin-keeping requires exceptional organization, memory, and executive functioning. The emotional cost of failure is high. And yet, I look at my own family and see, yes, I am the one doing this for us. My grandmother sometimes phones to thank me for it, actually. She tells me she doesn’t know how I do it, or where everyone would be without me.

I don’t know, either, but this simple thank you means a lot. It’s not easy. And the fact that it’s not easy? That’s not easy, either.

 

People, not projects?

I’ve folded kin-keeping into my obsessive organizing habit. “Remember my sister’s birthday” can become a project in my GTD system. When I want to check in with a friend going through a tough time, I sometimes put a sticky note on my phone before bed to remind me to text them in the morning. Most days, this makes me look like a good friend.

I don’t feel like a good friend, though. I wish I could remember important events in the lives of people I love — on my own. No matter how much I love you, without my calendar and to-do list, you’d get the impression I never thought of you at all.

Maybe no one cares how I get there, because the end result — someone feeling loved and remembered — matters most. But women still suffer under societal expectations. We’re supposed to look put-together. We’re supposed to send birthday and Christmas cards on time. We’re supposed to let a friend know we’re thinking of her on the anniversary of her brother’s death. And it’s supposed to look natural. The machinery isn’t supposed to show.

In other words, I don’t give myself credit for remembering these things at the right time. My calendar and GTD systems do it for me. When people say “you’re so organized,” I don’t feel it as a compliment. If I’m organized, it’s only because I need to be. Shouldn’t I just remember, without a whole system of sticky notes and project folders and calendar reminders?

I’m sure everyone needs reminders, just like everyone has experienced ADHD-like symptoms at some point in their lives. But to be effective kin-keepers, women with ADHD need more — more than it feels like we should.

To meet the baseline expectations of “good friend” or “reliable family member,” I need to do more. I need to set up more task management systems. I need to rely more heavily on my calendar. My memory is shorter, and my proclivity for distraction and overwhelm stronger. Managing life in general takes more effort for people with ADHD. Managing kin-keeping, and making it look natural and genuine, feels like walking a tightrope while being circled by vultures.

My family needs me

And yet, without me playing the role of kin-keeper, where would my family be? Because I need to stay so much more organized to meet the basic requirements of being an adult, I’ve made myself a perfect fit for this role. Everything gets dumped into my organizational system, from the electric bill to my sister’s 18th birthday. While that may sound cold in its egalitarianism, I never forget the electric bill, do I? My GTD system will poke me every week to make sure I have a plan for my sister’s birthday, just like it reminds me to look for the electric bill in my email. Ironically, because I can forget so much, I end up forgetting relatively little. I maintain a more airtight system than most people I know.

Maybe, then, this effort of remembering isn’t hollow. Maybe I should honor all of it — my bullet journal, my GTD system, my Google Calendar, my sticky notes — for what it is: the glue that holds our family’s social bonds together. So what if it’s not all in my head? It’s better for all of us this way.

I talk a lot about this and more in my organizing book, Order from Chaoswhich is available for preorder on Kickstarter right now. If you appreciate my posts here on The ADHD Homestead, please support this project and help bring it to life.

 

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Ask me anything! Join me for a live Q&A on Kickstarter

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this blog, and what I love about it.

As it turns out, my favorite part is you.

Yes, you. The readers who stop by, stay a while, leave a comment, or send something anonymously through my feedback form. You remind me that I’m helping people, every day.

I’ve never told my story for its own sake, or written posts to go viral or earn tons of money from affiliate programs. I write because my story makes others feel less alone. I write to give people like me a helpful nudge, or a little bit of hope.

That’s why I’m excited about a few new things I’m trying this fall. First and foremost, I’m using my Kickstarter to host a live video Q&A this Thursday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time. I don’t usually offer video content,  so this is a rare opportunity to have some fun and participate in a live event. (Pssst: if I make it to 75% of my funding goal, I’ll share a fun announcement on the live chat, too.)

Subscribers to my email newsletter will enjoy Ask Me Anything on a monthly basis. Each newsletter will include an Ask Me Anything feature, complete with a handy button to submit questions for future Ask Me Anythings.

It’s an exciting season here at The ADHD Homestead. Here’s how you can stay in the loop:

  • Subscribe for notifications so you don’t miss Thursday’s Kickstarter live stream Q&A. If you can’t make it, Kickstarter allows you to submit questions ahead of time.
  • Sign up for my email newsletter to be included in future Ask Me Anythings:

    Don't miss out! Get exclusive content in one convenient monthly email. I'll never share your info and I'll always respect your inbox.

  • Follow The ADHD Homestead on Facebook:
  • Support the Order from Chaos Kickstarter!

However we connect, I can’t wait to hear from you soon.

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Order, chaos, ADHD, and why I’m writing a book

I had a great post all ready for you today, but like sometimes happens, a change of plans came to me in the shower.

You see, I was thinking about something a dear friend wrote on Facebook. He shared the Order from Chaos Kickstarter with a personal endorsement that made me smile: “Jaclyn is the woman who, as a seventh grader, organized my binder for me cos I was such a mess it couldn’t zip right. So, she knows of what she speaks.”

Lost and found

I knew right away what he meant. I remember sitting next to each other in Mr. Vandegrift’s social studies class with our Five Star zipper binders. My friend’s binder overflowed with notes, flyers, I don’t even remember what else. Whenever it reached the point where it wouldn’t zip, he’d pass the whole mess to me. I figured out what needed to go, and what belonged in the three-ring binder. I flattened crumpled papers and helped him decipher his own chickenscratch handwriting. From all that chaos, I found order.

I kept this up. Over the years, I learned what calmed me down and soothed my overwhelm. I made lists. I made my bed. On school days, I laid my clothes out the night before, with my deodorant on top so I wouldn’t forget. When life felt like too much, I put it into order. I even organized my larger-than-life emotions, by writing them in a journal, making them visible and concrete.

I lost this in my mid-20s, as I stumbled through my first years as a young professional, homeowner, and wife. I let my life slide into disarray. My office swam in stacks of paper, my desk disappeared under layers of sticky notes. I lost checks from my employer, forgot to pay bills, didn’t clean my house or wash my dishes. I made a mess of a room in my house, and rather than fix it, I spent months pretending it didn’t exist. After I finally cleaned it up, I let the whole cycle happen again. I eventually felt so adrift, so hopeless, I contacted my employer’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program) for a crisis intervention.

The long climb out

Order and structure don’t always come easily to people with ADHD. We’re adults; we know we need to stay organized. We know it’s important. We don’t want to pay our bills late, or leave our dining room half-painted for a year and a half, or forget we promised to meet you for coffee yesterday morning.

We get stuck on the “how,” though. And we struggle to connect the everyday tedium of sorting through incoming mail with the distant reward of avoiding late fees on the credit card.

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve struggled, but I also discovered the transformative power of putting one’s things in order early in life. Even as a sulky teenager, I knew: I felt better after I cleaned my room. I stopped freaking out if I made a list. Among adults with ADHD, I’m special. I know firsthand how hard it can be to manage the nuts and bolts of adult life. But I’ve also spent my life figuring out how to do it anyway.

Why I’m writing a book

20 years later, my friend keeps his own things in order. I know he hasn’t forgotten those days when his binder would refuse to close, and he’d turn to me for help. Sometimes he’ll text me a picture of a list he’s made to quell his anxiety, and I’ll smile. I understand what he’s feeling.

I want everyone to feel it: not just the smallness of standing at the bottom of a mountain, but the smile deep in your heart when you find yourself at the top. I know I’ve been incredibly fortunate. Maybe it’s my nature: that odd something that drove me to organize my friend’s school binder all those years ago. Maybe it’s my thirst for reading books about ADHD and getting organized. Maybe it’s my connection with so many great people in the ADHD community. Regardless, it’s something I want to share with you beyond the pages of this blog.

That’s why I’m writing this book, and why I’m asking you to take this journey with me.

From now until October 26, you can preorder your copy of Order from Chaos via the Kickstarter campaign. You can support the project by sharing it with your friends. And you can ask me anything you want! Use the comments here, on Facebook, on Kickstarter, wherever, for questions about the project.

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RC Cola! (Or, Read Carefully)

My sixth grade math teacher didn’t like me very much. Most of my memories from his class are of surly interactions and (in my assessment) unfair grades. And one other thing I still reference to this day: all over the room, he’d suspended empty 2-liter RC Cola bottles from the ceiling.

RC Cola was his mnemonic for “read carefully.”

Corny jokes aside, few life skills rank higher than the ability to read carefully. It starts with word problems in math class, and continues for the rest of our lives. People with ADHD often don’t read carefully, and when we try, it can feel downright painful. I should know. I filled out my jury duty questionnaire today, and accidentally clicked “yes” when it asked if I was a member of my state’s organized militia.

I’m usually pretty good, though, and it’s not thanks to my long attention span. Here are a few ways I read carefully.

Read out loud

Reading aloud isn’t just for children’s picture books. Some people read at the same speed they talk, while others read faster. I’m in the faster camp, and reading aloud helps me slow down and monopolize more of my brain for reading.

If I find myself struggling with something, I stop and read it aloud. It changes my perspective just enough to make it click. I suspect it’s a lot like explaining a problem to someone else to help me see where I’ve gone wrong. Plus, when I read aloud, I can’t skim — I need to read every word.

Don’t fear the printer

I believe in minimalism and frugality and conserving resources. When I read that “please consider the environment before printing this message” reminder in someone’s email footer, I get it.

Sometimes I have to print it out, anyway. Not always, but sometimes. It might be the class welcome letter from my son’s teacher, a grant application, or a short story I’m submitting for publication. For my favorite reading and editing techniques, I need a hard copy.

I know many people who don’t own printers. It sounds well and good to go green, and do everything electronically. The reality is, sometimes I need to engage my brain’s tactile centers. I can’t get this with an electronic device. Maybe some people can, but at this point, I need to own it: those people aren’t me.

I print double sided, or on scrap paper, but I do print, and I print more than most people I know.

Highlight & underline

Most of the time, I print so I can highlight and underline. Before you tell me about the coolest app that allows me to do this on my Kindle, computer, or tablet, let me cut you off and tell you: I’ve tried. It’s not the same.

Something about the paper in front of me, the feel of the highlighter…who knows what the secret is. A highlighter helps me slow down, mark things I need to remember (like deadlines or supply lists), and catch important details.

I’ve used this strategy to win thousands of dollars in grant funding, file my tax return, complete complex banking documents, and sign my kid up for summer camp.

Rewrite

When I got my kiddo’s welcome letter for school this summer, I recopied the key info into my notebook: what I’d need to bring on orientation day, and what I’d need to send with him in his bag every morning. This kind of redundancy can feel tedious, but it helps me feel more in control. Just like with the calendar in my bullet journal, the act of slowing down and reading carefully enough to take notes helps me process it more deeply in my brain.

Do what works

Of course, like with my jury duty questionnaire, I still make mistakes. Whenever someone in our house fails to read carefully — and we have ADHD, so it happens somewhat often — I say, “RC Cola!” and try to laugh about it.

But really, I’ve gotten to the point where I can laugh about it (sometimes) because I’ve worked hard on these RC Cola strategies. I’ve realized it’s not about being cool, or going green. It’s about my brain, and how I can get information to stick in there. And sometimes the way to do that sounds old-fashioned, not befitting a self-employed 30-something. I used to resist using highlighters and taking notes by hand because it made me feel like I was still in middle school, highlighting the thesis statement on my English paper. But for all the ways technology helps me every day, my reading comprehension strategies are a little old-fashioned.

And that’s okay. Because they work.

What about you? How do you make sure you’re catching the important stuff when you read?

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Managing GTD contexts as a stay-at-home mom with ADHD

I received this message from a reader struggling to set up David Allen’s Getting Things Done system:

I’ve tried to set [GTD] up so many times, but I get hung up on contexts. Since I’m a full-time homemaker, everything happens at home. I’ve tried dividing my list based on my priorities, and I’ve tried setting it up based on the different rooms of my house. I’m guessing my perfectionism is kicking in, because I can’t settle on anything. I get stuck on the contexts and can’t make it any further.

What can I do right now? That’s a context

I write about GTD a lot, including a book review and a previous post about contexts. Today, I want to talk specifically about contexts in my life as a full-time parent and homemaker.

I’m not just the primary caregiver for my four-year-old son, R. I also maintain our family’s home, finances, and social life. Where my obligations to my home and family end, my life as a blogger and fiction writer begins. It’s a lot.

Contexts sort my next actions list (aka to-do list) based on what I’m actually capable of accomplishing right here and now. This is critical for anyone, but even more so for me. My kiddo doesn’t run the show, but he does impact my ability to get things done at any given time.

Some contexts depend on others

My GTD contexts have evolved to suit my family’s needs. For example, our tools and sewing machines live in our semi-finished basement. Once my son was old enough to play down there, I added a Basement/Crafting context. I’d previously waited to do this stuff until nap or bedtime, and categorized these tasks as House (R. asleep).

Contexts that can refer to others’ status include:

  • House (anytime), House (R. asleep), and House (R. awake), for tasks that require my kid to be awake or asleep (or can be done anytime)
  • Outdoors, which I pull out while I’m watching R. ride his bike
  • Weekend, for when I need a lot of uninterrupted time, and/or I can’t include R. in the project
  • Basement/Crafting

Within reason, I can respond to what R. wants to do. If he’s asleep, awake, wants to go outside for the afternoon, or wants to play in the basement, I have a list of next actions for that.

Some contexts are all about me

As a stay-at-home/work-at-home parent, I make my own day. This is both beautiful and challenging, especially with ADHD. I’ve learned to observe my level of energy and focus and adjust accordingly. Sometimes I’m good to sit at my desk and organize our finances. Sometimes I need to burn off steam by mowing the lawn. Once I force myself to make a dreaded phone call, I find it easier to knock out all the calls on my list.

With that in mind, several contexts describe where I am, either physically or mentally:

  • Computer (any), Computer (desktop PC), and Computer (MacBook), because I have different software on each device
  • Phone (talking) and Phone (texting)
  • Desk
  • Errands

Who am I talking to?

The stay-at-home spouse usually shoulders the bulk of what some call “kin-keeping” duties. I schedule our vacations, plan holidays with family, and keep tabs on what’s happening with our friends and relatives.

Adults with ADHD need to manage this outside our heads. Otherwise, we’ll lose track of something, and someone will feel angry or slighted. I have contexts for each of my parents, my husband, and my grandmother. When I think, “oh, I need to remember to ask Mom about planning a visit,” I enter it as a next action in the Mom context. I reference this list during our weekly Skype call. (Side note: I will forget to check the list unless I make a note on my calendar in capital letters.)

Above all, be responsive

For some people, “home” is its own, complete GTD context. For me, “home” is an environment that changes hourly. Sometimes I’m too tired to sit in my office and work, so I take my tablet to the couch (the Computer (any) context). I can do Phone (texting) while my four-year-old plays with his Legos, but it’s better to wait until he’s at school for Phone (talking) if I can. Sometimes, when I entice R. to the basement because I need to mend a few pieces of clothing, he gets in the zone with his toys down there. Then, I consult my Basement/Crafting list.

I do have a catch-all Anywhere context, but I use it sparingly, and only for tasks I could truly do anywhere. Example: sketching design ideas for ADHD Homestead stickers (keep an eye out for a Kickstarter campaign featuring those this fall). I always have my notebook, so I can do this in a train station, coffee shop, or even on the beach.

Bottom line: I need to take advantage of whatever kind of productive time I have right now. Contexts ensure I have something to do, regardless of my home’s mood and status. That’s a big deal, and it’s a reason to get my contexts right.

Are you at home full-time? Have you tried GTD? How do you make the most of your day?

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For my terrible memory, a song

My memory is legendary.

By that I mean, I can shock and amaze just about anyone with my ability to forget. No matter if it’s information I use daily, weekly, or just once. When I was a kid, I asked my parents this question every time we had pie: “can pie tins go in the recycling?” Through store-bought pies of all kinds, for all seasons, year after year, I asked if each and every tin was recyclable. Every time, they told me. I still don’t know whether they told me yes or no.

I do, however, possess a secret weapon. If they’d wanted to shut me up, they only needed to sing to me.

The singing officemate

For several years, I shared an office with a dear friend of mine. He still, to this day, understands music’s power over my brain better than almost anyone. At work, he used that to both of our advantage.

Our desk phones required a passcode to dial long distance. I remember everyone having the code written on a note somewhere near their phones. I must’ve lost mine, and asked him for it, a la the pie tins, every time I needed to make a long-distance call.

One day, he began singing the following to me, in a lilting little tune: “0097310, that’s how you dial long distance.”

I didn’t ask him for the code again. It’s been over four years since I quit that job, and more than that since the organization got a new phone system that did away with long distance codes. He sang me a similar song about the username and password to the company laptop.

Mixtape life story

I can also tell you what albums I was listening to at major turnings point in my life. Eighth grade: Weezer’s blue album. The summer I was 16 and pining for my not-yet-boyfriend: U2’s Rattle and Hum. Two years later, the summer before I left for college and we broke up, I’d moved on to Achtung Baby. Freshman year of college, second semester: The Who’s Who’s Next. Sophomore year: Dashboard Confessionals’ Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. Thursday’s War All the Time. Senior year: a Something Corporate mix CD from my roommate. My first year out of college: Arcade Fire’s Funeral. The summer after my son was born: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl and Phish’s Farmhouse. It’s almost like I’ve stored the emotions and memories of these times inside the music. Without it, I’d lose my personal history.

Music: the key to my brain

I’m an auditory person. I’ve always had music in my blood, but I don’t even need a melody. I love certain words and phrases, their cadence and ring. I remember voices, even if the people they belong to exited my life half a lifetime ago.

Maybe my emotional attachment to music and sound helps me form better memories. Maybe the affinity keeps my brain engaged and allows me to encode information more effectively. Either way, music unlocks a secret door in my brain. Behind the door lies a rich world of emotion and memory. In a way, music lets me forget one thing, and one thing only: it lets me forget my brain is impaired at all.

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Taming distractions: my smartphone-free week

Smartphones are a double-edged sword for adults with ADHD. I have a love-hate relationship with mine.

On one hand, it’s a Swiss Army knife of a device. It reminds me to take my meds. It puts my calendar in front of my face every time I unlock its screen. It condenses many tools — day planner, phone, camera, grocery list, file folders, and more — into one GPS-enabled device. I once misplaced it, and it told me where it was with a little blue dot on a map.

It’s also a huge distraction. Last month, I decided to take a break. I bought a dumb phone on eBay, and I deactivated my smartphone. Then, I asked myself: is life better this way?

The pros

I gained a lot from my week off. I took more pictures with my SLR. I read magazines instead of checking notifications. I went to brunch with friends, and didn’t even consider checking my phone in the car or during a lull at the table. I listened to a CD instead of Pandora while driving.

Speaking of driving, when I first learned to drive, I knew how to get everywhere. I’m not a visual thinker, and I didn’t have a map in my head, but I knew which roads intersected where. Now, I snap my phone into its dashboard mount and turn to my navigation app instead of using my eyes and brain. Like memorizing phone numbers, driving without a smartphone has become a lost art. It felt good to stretch those mental muscles again. I watched for road signs and landmarks on familiar routes, and I looked at a map ahead of time for new destinations.

Perhaps best of all, my phone was just a phone. I could make a call without being derailed by apps and notifications. When I first opened my dumb phone, I felt liberated. In a way, I was.

The cons

However, I quickly realized how much a smartphone can help someone like me.

For people with ADHD, convenience means more than comfort. Sure, it’s convenient to sync my Google Contacts across all my devices. It also protects me against lost business cards, or even a lost phone. It’s convenient to check my calendar while I’m at the dentist. It can also make the difference between cleanings every six months vs. every three years. Threaded text messages, where I can scroll through an entire conversation on one screen, are convenient, but something I already struggle to manage. Without that feature, I felt totally out of touch with my social group.

My phone tells me more important stuff, too. It tells me when (and whether) I took my meds this morning. It reminds me of birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths among those close to me.

In other words, my phone helps me manage my productivity, personal health, and social relationships. These are all areas of tremendous struggle for adults with ADHD. Features that provide convenience for most people can make or break relationships (or dental health) for us.

Where to go from here

Because I still used my smartphone on wifi at home, I saw the biggest difference while running errands or spending time with friends. I’ve now reactivated it, and I intend to keep it. I also want it to spend more time in my bag, or in the cell phone bin at home. I’ve been considering a bluetooth cordless phone for my office/home, to imitate the experience of an old school landline. My smartphone-free week has convinced me this is a good idea.

Which reminds me: Once upon a time, no one expected us to respond immediately to everything around the clock. Growing up, people my age didn’t have cell phones at all. We had landlines and answering machines. We sat down at a computer and waited for our modem to dial into our internet service provider.

I remember going to college and experiencing an always-on internet connection for the first time. I marveled at how easy it was to sit down for 30 seconds to check my email on the way out the door. I left AOL Instant Messenger open all the time. The internet wove its way into the fabric of my consciousness, no longer relegated to a time slot on a shared landline. Smartphone culture had, in a way, already begun.

In the end, my smartphone break wasn’t about the device, it was about mindfulness. Used intentionally, smartphones provide huge benefits. When minutes or hours pass by in front of the screen and we don’t even know what happened, we have a problem. We can counteract this by putting the phone in a designated place in the house, keeping it in our bag while we’re out, and/or disabling notifications. We can be judicious about which apps we install. My phone now rings audibly, but only vibrates for notifications. I’ll know if my kid’s school calls, but I can be more intentional about checking the other stuff.

Because my phone is only a tool if I use it wisely.

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Through the valley of the shadow of emotional hyperfocus

Let’s talk about feelings. ADHD feelings.

Most people don’t realize, ADHD is way more than forgetfulness and distractability and poor impulse control. ADHD can make our emotions big and scary and maybe even dangerous. Feelings that come and go quickly for others can suck us in, kind of like an emotional eddy.

Growing up alongside a big, gorgeous river, I learned about eddies. They kill a lot of people. They’re powerful and disorienting, and no human can overcome the force of that much water.

But you can get out. You do it by swimming straight down to the bottom, then downstream a ways, and then you try to reach the surface.

It works for feelings, too.

Sometimes, it’s not a big deal (to you).

My ADHD symptoms got worse during our kitchen renovation. All the mess and disruption did a number on my mental health. That I observed and identified this situation — you know, as one of those life circumstances that’ll give a neurotypical person ADHD-like symptoms — was perhaps my only saving grace.

One evening, just before bed, I annoyed my husband somehow. I forget how, and it doesn’t matter, because it wasn’t a big deal. It didn’t need to be a Whole Big Thing. It was a Normal Marriage Thing. A blip on the radar.

Here’s the problem for many adults with ADHD: we tend to latch onto things, and we have a lot of trouble letting go. Poorly managed ADHD blows Normal Marriage Things into Whole Big Things on the regular. It’s exhausting.

Fortunately, I recognized this. I decided — for once! — not to force my husband through a conversation about why he was or wasn’t annoyed with me, and how we could fix it. He wasn’t worried about it, and he wanted to go to sleep. Have you ever kept your spouse up for hours with a bizarre, melodramatic Whole Big Thing whose significance you couldn’t even explain the next day? I have. Let’s just say I wanted to jump on the opportunity to avoid it this time. I got out of bed and removed myself to another room to settle down.

“Forget it” and “drop it” don’t really work with ADHD.

That’s all great, except I don’t know how to let things go. This is why I insist on talking through everything immediately, and why I never, ever want to go to bed angry. I knew I had to drop it, and I knew bothering my husband with drama while he was trying to sleep would make things worse. That didn’t prevent me from suffering.

People with ADHD can get stuck on an emotion. The feeling magnifies itself until it’s overwhelming, even frightening. We can become a person we don’t know. Just like time disappears with task hyperfocus, the spectrum of our emotions disappears with emotional hyperfocus.

It’s easy to sink into a spiral of self-loathing, anger, hopelessness, worthlessness. Once you’re in the spiral, it’s like an eddy: it sucks you down. It won’t let you out the way you came. If you let it overwhelm you, you’ll drown.

There I was, on the couch, gasping for air as those toxic emotions pulled me under.

Swimming to the bottom of the emotional eddy.

I found my way out, albeit by accident.

Don’t ask me how I thought of this in my state of hysteria, but imagined my future self. I pictured myself standing in our yet-to-be-constructed new kitchen. I was at the island, preparing food, surrounded by friends and family. Happy.

I felt the negative emotions dissipate, like a fog lifting.

Turning off a light, touching someone on the arm, or forcing them to get up and get a drink of water can help break the spell of hyperfocus. I suppose I forced my brain to do this in a more figurative sense. I offered a distraction. I walked my brain over to a different corner, forced my mental eyes to refocus, and suddenly I could see the real world again.

Dropping it with my husband took me to the bottom of the emotional abyss. To my surprise, I resurfaced on my own this time.

When we’re out of it, we’re out of it.

I don’t intend this as a how-to, even though I’d love to imagine my words helping someone. Think of this as an ask, of those of you who love someone with ADHD. I want to help you understand how hard this is. How hysterical we get over stuff that’s not a big deal. How, in the moment, it is a big deal. We can lose all sense of self-worth. We attack. We may literally not be able to comprehend the fact that you still love us.

So don’t try to reason with us. Don’t even try to recognize us. Wait for us to come back first, or better yet, try to help find us.

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