The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

How to make a smartphone work for you when you have ADHD

This post is adapted from an excerpt of my upcoming book, Order from ChaosPreorders will open on Amazon soon. Stay up to date by joining my mailing list!

Back in July, I wrote about ditching my smartphone for a week.  Even though I depend on my phone, I don’t love it. I can spend a lot of time tapping around without remembering why I picked it up in the first place.

Since my smartphone-free week, I’ve worked on several concrete strategies to get the most out of my phone. Loosening the smartphone’s grip on our attention can spark discomfort at first. However, the less time I spend with a smart phone within arm’s reach, the less interested I am in using it, the less it distracts me, and the better I feel.

What’s your smart phone actually for?

We throw a lot of money and attention at our phones, yet most of us never ask why.

My smartphone helps me stay organized and keep in touch with people I love. It’s like a digital Swiss Army Knife, and it’s a lifesaver for someone with ADHD.

Of course, there are many models of Swiss Army Knife, to suit a variety of needs. It wouldn’t do to carry a knife with every available tool attached.  Nor should we install every app we enjoy or think we might use. There’s not room, in my day or in my brain, for everything.

For each app, I ask myself: is this something I truly need or want to do on my phone? If an activity can be done better on a computer or other device, I avoid the app. Even though I enjoy games, I limit myself to tabletop gaming and dedicated game consoles, like the PlayStation or Xbox. I have a Facebook account, but I don’t keep the app on my phone. I use my phone only for what it does best — for me.

Notifications and home screens: your first line of defense with the phone in your hand

Notifications — those little banners at the top of your screen, the red number in the corner of an app icon, or a color-coded blinking LED — are supposed to make you look at your phone. Pick it up, and you can find yourself down quite the rabbit hole.

Almost every app provides options for customizing or disabling its notifications. Rather than find a reason to turn off an app’s notifications, I ask myself to justify keeping each notification turned on. Any notifications I do have will cause the phone to vibrate, not make noise. I wouldn’t want a person sitting next to me and interrupting me every time a new thought crossed their mind. I don’t accept that behavior from my phone, either.

In an emergency, people can reach me the same way people have communicated for over a century now: they can call. I always have my ringer turned on.

When I do pick up my phone, I want minimal distractions and maximum utility. Check out my Android home screen, pictured below. When I’m checking a notification or sending a quick text, this is all I see — no social media, no news. Subsequent home screens offer more tools, curated based on frequency of use.

Even if you can’t create a 100% customized experience, all smartphones allow the user to rearrange apps on the home screen(s). The red numbers in the corner of an app’s home screen icon can be disabled, and social media apps can be moved away from the primary home screen.

Literal phone containment

I’ve discussed this in a previous post, so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say, a dedicated home for cell phones sets expectations for phone use and family interactions. Our cell phone basket lives next to an outlet with two USB charging ports. It also houses our portable chargers. Not only has this reduced the amount of time I spend searching for lost phones, I rarely fidget with my phone. The act of getting up and going to the cell phone basket serves as its own barrier: I won’t bother unless I have something specific to do.

Turning the smartphone into…a phone

Despite the benefits of disconnecting, a complete break — even for a few hours — isn’t possible for everyone. I don’t have a landline, but I need a phone in my home office.

Many established landline telephone manufacturers, such as Panasonic and Vtech, now offer systems with Bluetooth technology. Mine cost me less than $100 and includes a corded desk phone and two cordless phones. The corded base station sits on my desk on the second floor of my house, and I keep a cordless unit on the first floor and in the basement. The base station connects to my smart phone via Bluetooth. A call to my cell phone causes everything to ring in unison, just like the old days of landline phones. I can make or pick up a call from anywhere in my house, regardless of my cell phone’s actual location. In other words, my smartphone — with all its apps and distractions — can live out of sight and out of mind for the work day, without severing my connections with the outside world.

Give it time

Perhaps this all sounds well and good to you, but you’re thinking, “this could never fit into my life.” I assure you, most of us can survive with a bit more distance from our smart phones. At first, you may feel disconnected, uncomfortable, and afraid of missing out. Give it a month. Think of it like one of those sugar detoxes, where you work through your cravings before you start to feel healthy again. Chances are, you aren’t the exception here, and you will acclimate to the reduced stimulation and distraction.

And I don’t spend my days cut off from the world, either. I have a telephone number through Google’s Voice service, which allows me to send and receive SMS (text) messages via Google Hangouts on my computer. My desk telephone lets me make and receive calls whenever I like. I’m still available, but I’m far less distracted.

What about you? How do you manage distractions from your smartphone? Have you ever tried to give it up entirely?

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Trouble tickets: not just for the IT helpdesk

This post is adapted from an excerpt of my upcoming book, Order from ChaosPreorders will open on Amazon in January. Stay up to date by joining my mailing list!

I’ve written before about writable surfaces in the ADHD home, and about my love for sticky notes, but sometimes it pays to create a more formal, organized system. I first encountered this idea in college, where I worked at our university’s IT helpdesk. We had a standard template we filled out for every computer dropped off at the desk. I loved having a place to collect my thoughts and track my progress. I appreciated having a form in front of me to remind me what information I needed to collect from the user. Most important, I always felt secure in knowing I hadn’t lost track of anything.

Few people love filling out forms. However, I’ve learned to love having them in my life, and their usefulness extends far beyond the IT helpdesk.

Just because it looks like red tape…

When I provided IT support to a small office, my colleagues gave me flak for my red tape. Why fill out a form, they wondered, when they could just stop by for a chat? Well, I wasn’t doing busy work just for fun. I have ADHD, after all. I was trying to make sure I helped people when they needed me.

People often caught me by the coffeemaker to chat about their latest computer woes. This system worked great when I could solve a problem by giving advice while refilling my mug. It fell apart for anything that required follow-up. Our breakroom was well-stocked with coffee, creamer, and a variety of hand-me-down ceramic mugs. It lacked any physical containers for my thoughts. By the time I took the 20 steps back to my office, I’d forgotten all about the computer conversation. Of course, the person asking for help would not forget. He might even complain at a meeting with my boss.

To solve this problem, I created an IT help request form. The form collected the person’s name, a description of the problem, and some indication of the level of urgency for them. People chafed against this all the time, but I insisted: this isn’t bureaucracy for its own sake. I literally will not remember to help you otherwise.

If your job requires you to accept many of the same type of request — e.g. account creation, tech support, website update, etc. — and you don’t already have a template to guide these requests, consider creating one with your favorite word processing program. It might feel stuffy and bureaucratic at first, but give it a chance. When you standardize a request process on paper, you take the pressure off your brain and ensure you have all the information you need, right out of the gate.

Trouble tickets at home

At home, trouble tickets and help requests can be as formal or informal as you like. Amazon has several varieties of pre-printed suggestion cards, or you could simply write “suggestions” on a jar and leave a stack of index cards beside it. If you have a tool/workshop area in your home, you could include such a jar on your workbench and use it only for home maintenance requests.

My husband has set up an electronic trouble ticket system for our house. He writes software for a living, so this is the system he knows. We enter all maintenance issues, home improvement ideas, renovation projects, and the like into this database. We can also indicate whether one projects depends upon, or blocks, another. For example, we couldn’t install our new kitchen shelving until the kitchen renovation had come to a close. We use a piece of software called JIRA for this, but there are several other project management and issue tracking apps on the market, including Trello and Asana.

Feel free to have fun with request forms, especially at home. Allow your family to formally request special outings, favorite meals, or changes to routines that aren’t quite working. Too often, important requests go in one ear and out the other while we’re distracted by something else. Explain to your household that having it written down in a predictable format will help you make these things happen for them. They may even thank you. A template can be very helpful for people who struggle to articulate thoughts in writing.

How about you? What systems have you implemented in your life to make sure you act on others’ requests for support?

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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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