The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

Category: Organizing (page 1 of 4)

“We’re all a little ADHD sometimes” happens to people with ADHD, too

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!

Most of us with ADHD have heard the refrain, “but this happens to everyone. You just have to power through it.” Nobody loves paying bills or doing housework. Everybody feels scattered sometimes.  Why should some people get to use ADHD as an excuse, while the rest of the world just has to suck it up?

It can be hard to answer this question. There’s a grain of truth in it. Under enough stress, even the most put-together person can develop ADHD-like symptoms. ADHD traits are, at the end of the day, magnified human traits.

The key difference between “it happens to everyone” and “it’s ADHD” is context. For someone without ADHD, the struggle is caused by something external, like a big deadline or a family crisis. True ADHD emerges in childhood, usually by early elementary school. It also impairs us in multiple roles (e.g., both at home and at work/school). It sticks around, no matter how we change our environment or our diet.

This isn’t an excuse. People with ADHD can bring our symptoms under control with medication, adequate self-care, and other coping strategies. And we should, if we want to lead fulfilling lives and maintain healthy relationships.

Doesn’t medication fix ADHD?

Some people believe stimulant medication does the hard work for us, or even gives us a leg up. Sorry, but no. There’s a difference between making something easy and making it possible. Medication gives us a choice we previously lacked. It allows us to begin the hard work in the first place.

And sometimes we find ourselves in a catch-22, because our environment can make ADHD symptoms worse. If a neurotypical person appears to have ADHD during a time of stress or upheaval, imagine how a person with ADHD will react  — even on medication.

People are usually surprised to learn that every one of my elementary school report cards had a bad grade in the “behavior” column. When my husband and I finally took the plunge and gut-remodeled our kitchen, I saw myself become that kid again.

Chaos without = chaos within

“Major life disruption” barely scratches the surface. Our kitchen, dining room, and part of the living room were out of commission for six weeks. Contractors knocked down two full walls, took down a plaster ceiling, and built a new kitchen from scratch.

Construction noise invaded through the floor of my office for 8+ hours per day. I fielded frequent interruptions when the workers had questions. I cooked all our meals on a camp stove on the front porch and washed dishes in the bathtub. Clutter and dust invaded everywhere. Our cabinets were delivered before the room was ready, and the boxes turned our entire downstairs into a rat maze. Meanwhile, I tried to stay on top of my pieces of the puzzle: picking up backsplash tile, choosing appliances, writing checks, keeping drinks in a cooler for the workers.

In other words, this was one of those times when a neurotypical person would’ve developed ADHD symptoms. I felt like a crappy friend, a lackluster writer, an impatient mom, and an unproductive human. One afternoon, I was outside and saw a kid I did not know being mildly irresponsible with a stick. Instead of asking him nicely to stop what he was doing, I grabbed the stick and broke it into little pieces in front of him. I was stunned by my lack of impulse control. Living in my house was like living without ADHD meds.

The ADHD management catch-22

Meds allow me to function like a reasonably normal person — under the right conditions. That’s where it gets fuzzy. While meds make those conditions possible, they don’t let me sail through life. That is to say, if I keep my house/office organized, exercise regularly, maintain a daily yoga practice, prioritize and guard my time, and eat a healthy diet, meds fill in the missing piece of the puzzle. They prevent me from destroying all of the above.

It’s a delicate balance. Managing my ADHD symptoms has allowed me to build an organized life. At the same time, that organized life is a critical part of my symptom management. Give me a chaotic environment, and meds won’t help. Without them, I’m powerless to tame the chaos.

Maybe it happens to you, but it’s not your normal

So, yes, this stuff does happen to everyone sometimes. And for the six weeks I spent in the thick of that renovation, I did just have to suck it up and power through it. What I don’t expect myself to do: suck it up and power through every day of my life as though it’s an extenuating circumstance.

If you find yourself turning ADHD into a character judgement, imagine one of your toughest times. A time when you felt like you were barely keeping your head above water. Every move you made was to put out a fire. The whole world felt like it was working against you, and you felt sure you’d never get caught up and settled down.

Now, imagine that’s your normal. It’s all you’ve ever known. Imagine asking yourself to power through that feeling every day, for the rest of your life. That — daily, hard-wired impairment — isn’t something that happens to everyone, and it’s not something you can expect to get through on willpower alone.

Share

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?

Share

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

Share

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.

Share

Does having ADHD mean I can’t succeed?

People often ask me about getting organized with ADHD. I like chatting about organizing at home, too. Recently, my husband said something interesting.

He told me, “But these [strategies] don’t work for me — that’s what ADHD is.”

But is it?

There are scores of apps and organizational systems out there. Does having ADHD mean we’re doomed to fail with all of them?

I’m doomed, but not hopeless

My answer: yes and no. Yes, we’re doomed to fail. No, ADHD doesn’t consign us to a hopeless and chaotic existence. Everyone fails sometimes, perhaps people with ADHD more than the average. Whether that makes us feel “doomed” is a matter of resilience, as long as our symptoms are under control.

For all my praise of David Allen’s Getting Things Done — my ultimate organizing go-to — I’ve failed with GTD many times. But that’s the key: many times. I’ve had to train myself to start over, and over, and over. In order to succeed, I’ve had to make peace with failure.

Of course, sometimes I do feel like having ADHD means I can’t succeed, or I’ll never be as successful as someone without ADHD. I think anyone with any disability feels this way sometimes. It can feel like I work twice as hard because I need to keep my ADHD under control. That’s it’s own project, and it only gets me to the starting line.

Symptom management: always the first step

However, there are ways to make life with ADHD easier.

First and foremost is symptom management. As I’ve said before, I know GTD works for me. It feels right. My project/task management app, Toodledo, feels right. Neither feel easy, but they feel right. And when both became impossible — that is, I truly felt doomed to fail, and became increasingly ineffective — I knew something else was broken.

As it turned out, the medication that worked well for me before I had a kid was no longer effective (this isn’t uncommon — changing estrogen levels can have massive impacts on women’s ADHD symptoms). I went through a brief trial and error process to find a new medication that worked for me. Maintaining my organizational systems became possible again.

I think of this like eyeglasses for my brain. For most of my life, I lived with severe nearsightedness — the “I need my glasses to find my glasses” variety. While I still had limitations with my glasses, I could see well enough to function in the regular world. ADHD meds don’t magically turn me into a “normal” person, but they approximate it well enough, just like strong eyeglasses.

Even if a system like GTD or Bullet Journal or an app like Toodledo is perfect for me, I can’t maintain it with out-of-control ADHD symptoms. In this way, my husband was right: effective symptom management is the first step to implementing an organizational system. Skipping it is like trying to read a tiny-print textbook without glasses.

The right tools for my brain (and no one else’s)

As highly as I value symptom management, I don’t believe meds make me a superstar at every organizational system. I still need to work with my brain, and I can’t impose my favorite tools on the rest of my household. While having ADHD doesn’t stop me from using a system like GTD or Bullet Journal, I’ve had to learn what works for me and what doesn’t. Even if a friend swears by a specific app, cleaning schedule, visual filing system, etc. — I have to know that if it doesn’t feel right, I’m not going to use it well.

And that may be the most critical point: many people can get by with a half-system. Many people can force themselves to get organized with a system they don’t love, or that doesn’t mesh with their thinking style. People with ADHD cannot.

We’ve had to think about this a lot in our home. I bristle at clutter and gravitate toward closed storage. My husband, a visual thinker, dislikes putting anything away if that means he can’t see it. To contain the amoebas of junk that push me over the edge, we use a lot of baskets.

Likewise, you might think Gmail’s Priority inbox, starred messages, auto sorting features, or new Inbox app would help people with ADHD. Maybe they do, but they don’t help me. They make me freak out because they don’t mesh with the way I need to manage my email. Rather than listen to the rest of the world tell me how great they are, I’ve disabled all of it, and I plan to keep it that way.

When you find what works, don’t let it go

That’s how I have to be if I want to succeed as an adult with ADHD. I have to defend and stick to what works. Having ADHD means my field of of stuff that will work is pretty narrow. It means what works for some people might not work for me, and what works for me might seem silly or weird to others.

My system isn’t perfect, and sometimes it fails despite my best efforts. But having ADHD doesn’t mean I have to label myself a failure. It just requires me to be ever-vigilant, making sure I’m using the right tools to control both my symptoms and my inboxes.

How about you? Have you found a system that works for you yet? How do you manage ADHD burnout, and the fear that you’ll never get it right?

Share

Organizing & ADHD: what’s in my library?

A reader recently asked: do you have any resources for decluttering or journaling with ADHD?

What a wonderful question to be asked! I write often about organizing because I find cluttered, messy spaces stressful and overstimulating. A chaotic environment begets a chaotic mind, and vice versa. I suspect I’m in good company among people with ADHD.

Along the way, I’ve written about everything from note-taking on my bathroom mirror to reducing my junk mail, from participating in an online decluttering challenge to getting my visual-thinker husband to put his stuff away.

Of course, I’m a writer, and I’ve kept a notebook since the seventh grade. I’ve shared a peek inside my Bullet Journal once, and I’ll probably do it again.

What I’m reading now & what I’ve read along the way

My journey has been populated with life-changing writing from other people — that’s the reason I have so much to write about! I’ve read a few books about organizing and ADHD, and a few books about organizing in general. I also check in with some favorite minimalism-focused blogs when I need to re-center.

ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life was my first ADHD-specific organizing book. I read it years ago, and I recall it being especially useful for visual thinkers. I’m not a highly visual thinker, but I’m married to one, and I’ve had to learn a whole new world of organizing strategies to combat “out of sight, out of mind” anxiety. Many people with ADHD share this problem. There’s also a book called Organizing Solutions for People With Attention Deficit Disorder, which I know I got from the library several years ago but can’t remember much about. Rather than breaking strategies out by category, it has a section for each room in the house. It’s written by a professional organizer who works with ADHD clients, while ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life is co-written by a professional organizer and a renowned ADHD expert. If you can only get one, I’d recommend ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.

As for general organizing books, I got a lot out of Unclutter Your Life in One Week. I received the author’s follow-up, Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter, for Christmas, and I’m psyched to read it. If you can’t snag the book, the accompanying Unclutterer website has lots of tips, too.

Speaking of blogs, I keep a few in my list to catch up on from time to time. My favorites are Becoming Minimalist and Be More With Less.

If you struggle with emotional attachments to things, or if typical organizing literature feels cold and unapproachable, I recommend Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up . Some of Kondo’s advice feels like a stretch, especially for adults with ADHD, but it’s definitely worth a read. It helped me navigate my own feelings of guilt and attachment around stuff I don’t use or enjoy anymore.

And now, for what I consider the bookends of my ADHD journey. Many years ago, I read a book called It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys. It changed my life. It doesn’t focus on ADHD, though the author does mention it. The writing exercises spoke to me through my love of journaling and writing things down. As I progressed through the book, the text guided me through an inventory of everything my disorganization was costing me — emotionally, physically, and financially. It was a sobering moment, and the beginning of my realization that I needed help. Later, when I sought diagnosis and medication for my ADHD, this quantification of how it affected my life proved invaluable. It’s Hard to Make a Difference also taught me, then a recent BFA graduate, that extreme disorganization wasn’t an indicator of creativity. I could be a creative person without living in chaos, and I could be happier and more productive.

Finally, I owe the biggest debt to David Allen’s Getting Things Done. If It’s Hard to Make a Difference turned on the lights, Getting Things Done showed me the way out.

Enough from my library. What are your top life-changing reads about getting organized with ADHD?

Share

Personal organizing case study: Bullet Journal

Organizing my daily life: it feels like both the starting point and the impossible dream with adult ADHD. It’s also a basic expectation of adulthood.

Most ADHD’ers know we need an organizational system, but feel like nothing works. We struggle to find answers to the all-important question, “but how?”

A naturally organized person with a manageable schedule might answer, “you just do it.” Adults with ADHD rarely “just do” anything.

Today, I’ll share a simple, low-tech, flexible way to stay organized. It’s called Bullet Journal. First I’ll provide a look inside my notebook, then I’d love to answer questions in the comments. Personal organizing has been a pet project of mine for many years. If you want to talk about the nitty gritty, I’m your girl.

bullet journal ADHD

What is Bullet Journal?

Bullet Journal isn’t an app or a product. It’s an idea, best explained in this short, engaging little video:


I use apps to stay organized, but I appreciate a tactile element. Screens can feel too abstract. I’ve carried a notebook everywhere since the seventh grade. I’ve dallied with day planners, but fallen away from them since the advent of smart phones. Nowadays, I use my notebook for everything: Grocery lists. jotting down ideas, drafts, or outlines for writing projects. Taking notes at meetings. On-the-fly to-do lists. Goal-setting exercises. Everything imaginable.

Bullet Journal helps me organize those elements and keep me from losing track of what I write down. Because I have ADHD and a very poor memory, I write nearly everything down.

Adults with ADHD are individuals — Bullet Journal is flexible.

I love Bullet Journaling’s infinite flexibility. I chose the size, feel, and contents of my notebook to make it something that works for me. This is especially important for adults with ADHD. If a system or tool isn’t easy, comfortable, and even fun to use, it won’t last long.

I keep my Bullet Journal in Moleskine’s extra-large ruled notebook. In the spirit of Marie Kondo’s KonMari methodI use postcards — mostly collected from art shows — to make the notebooks special and joyful to use.

2016summernik_4807

I always add an entry to the index or add a page number to an existing entry before adding the content. Otherwise, I can get distracted and forget to update the index.

2016summernik_4813

Bullet Journal’s flexibility extends inside the notebook, too, allowing me to integrate new concepts while ditching what doesn’t work. For example, I never look at my Future Log. I’d love to examine my six-month view more often, but I’ve come to accept — with compassion and objectivity, of course — that it’s not going to happen with this life and this brain. My next Bullet Journal won’t have a Future Log. Instead, I may beef up the Monthly Log, which I include in my weekly review.

I also added pages to the front of my Bullet Journal to remind me of my many responsibilities and spheres of influence. Stephen Covey calls these “roles and goals” in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In Getting Things DoneDavid Allen refers to them as “areas of focus and accountabilities.” Either way, I maintain a space in my notebook to reflect on my roles in the world and my goals for each. I skim over these pages at my weekly review.

2016summernik_4800

Using my Daily Log with Google Calendar

I use Google Calendar to track all events, meetings, and time-sensitive tasks. I copy entries from my Google Calendar to the Daily Log as part of my weekly review. I never add directly to the Daily Log, always Google Calendar. It’s critical for me to respect my primary resource/repository for a specific kind of information.

2016summernik_4810

You might be wondering why I recopy rather than print my calendar and paste it into the notebook (or look at the widget on my phone’s home screen). The tactile experience of writing helps me encode/process information. I also never take notes on a laptop or tablet, only with pen and paper, because I remember conversations more clearly that way.

Taking time to write down my schedule, deadlines, and obligations for the week helps me think it through. I wouldn’t get this from skimming my Google Calendar.

Notice the lack of to-do items under each day? My to-do list is long, and nowhere near my Daily Log. I use David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, which discourages “daily to-do lists.” I only tie a task to a day if it really must happen then: in other words, it becomes irrelevant or incurs a late fee.

Let’s chat in the comments.

When I say I use my notebook for everything, I mean everything, from grocery lists to a race bib from a recent 5k run. The Daily Log and Monthly Log pages keep everything in a rough chronological order, and the index lets me return and add to previous entries.

2016summernik_4814

Have you tried something like this before? How did it go? Are you hesitant to try it because you think it won’t work? Please share your questions and experiences in the comments. I’d love to chat!

Share

Canaries in the coal mine

Sometimes, I don’t know if I’m managing my ADHD effectively. After all, the right type and dose of stimulant medication should feel pretty unobtrusive. It doesn’t make ADHD’ers feel drugged, hyped up, or otherwise not ourselves. Once the novelty wears off, we don’t sit around and say, “wow, things seem awfully normal around here!”

Those of us with supportive, ADHD-literate spouses can benefit from their outside perspective. Sometimes only they can tell us when our ADHD is out of control.

As medications, hormones, and life have evolved over the years, I’ve also improved my self-observation skills. It’s an advanced-level ability. Pre-diagnosis and treatment, I had zero self-awareness.

Now I’ve identified what I call my canaries in the coal mine: little indicators that reflect the overall success of my ADHD treatment.

canaries coal mine ADHD

Observe with detachment, not judgement.

Objectivity is key to spotting canaries: observing my own behavior with equanimity and pragmatism, and not getting carried away by emotion and judgement. This has required a lot of work. We late-diagnosis ADHD’ers reach adulthood without positive language to describe our struggles. It takes time, effort, and compassion to eliminate negative self-talk and start believing in ourselves. My default reaction to falling off the wagon used to be, “this was inevitable. I can’t sustain anything good. I’ll always fail eventually.”

Now, I try to approach my life like a scientist. I observe, I keep detailed notes (ADHD and motherhood have wrecked my memory), and I try to keep my own biases at bay. When a system begins to break down, that’s a clue. I’m becoming a detective in my own life — a problem-solver, not a basket case.

My canaries: more than a stressful week.

One of my canaries is my weekly review, an every-Monday ritual that keeps me on top of active projects and open loops. I once noticed myself skipping it for weeks in a row. I eventually ended up talking to my doctor about switching medications.

Likewise, when I haven’t even opened my to-do list for over a week, something isn’t right. When I keep looking at my list, but never find anything I feel like I can do, something isn’t right.

While some of life’s details can slide during a high-stress time, others indicate a bigger problem.

Staying organized is possible — if ADHD symptoms are under control.

Staying organized is possible with ADHD — when it’s well-managed. When something slips out of balance, my previously-airtight systems begin to collapse. ADHD makes it hard to notice it happening before it’s too late. I may not feel different right away, or I may wave off red flags with excuses about sleep or a busy week.

The key, for me, has been to disconnect my emotional reaction from the content of my observation. Put-downs and criticism, directed inward or outward, stop problem-solving before it begins. Rather than figuring out how to fix the problem, our brains fixate on the problem itself, and how big and awful it feels.

When a system malfunctions, I ask why, and figure out what adjustments will fix it. Sort of like a car: what’s going to keep it safe, running smoothly, and doing what I need it to do? I once had a car that sputtered out right after starting unless I gave it a very specific amount of gas. Once it settled into a good idle, it was fine. The next owner couldn’t figure this out and thought the car wouldn’t run at all. I probably could’ve gotten several more years out of it.

Now I apply this approach to my entire life. It’s how I knew my medication changed effectiveness after having a child, and I wasn’t just suffering from so-called “mommy brain.”

When I spot one of those canaries, the early warnings that tip me off before my entire life derails, I don’t make excuses. I recognize them as canaries, not black swans. The earlier I recognize a problem, the better my chance of minimizing the damage and getting back on track.

What are your canaries in the coal mine? Have you discovered any early warning signs of poorly-managed ADHD? What do you do when you spot one?

Share

Ditching video games: more than making time & space

Around the turn of the new year, something amazing happened in our house: we got rid of most of our video games. This means less clutter, and I’m excited about the benefits for our family’s energy and willpower.

Mind you, no one really played these games, but my husband wished he could play them. I call this psychic drag, and it’s one reason I love decluttering.

When we hold onto certain kinds of things we don’t use — books, musical instruments, craft supplies, even video games — we don’t just hold onto the thing itself. We hold onto the idea of the thing, and our expectations for how it should be used.

video games

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, organizing expert Marie Kondo illustrates how excess stuff hinders self-awareness: “We aren’t sure what would satisfy us or what we are looking for. As a result, we increase the number of unnecessary possessions, burying ourselves both physically and mentally in superfluous things.”

Video games usually harbor less emotional baggage than, say, once-cherished musical instruments or a box of old love letters. That makes them a great place to start. Letting go is a learned skill. As we practice (and start reaping the rewards), we get better. We gain confidence to say goodbye to more things, and figure out what we want to make space (and time and money) for.

As Kondo says, “the best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.”

Leaving our willpower in the bank.

Removing temptation from our home — be it video games or candy — also sets us up for success with other challenges.

That’s because willpower is a finite resource, just like money in the bank. As Stanford University professor Kelly McGonigal writes in The Willpower Instinct, “people who use their willpower tend to run out of it.” Dozens of studies have confirmed this. “Trying to control your temper, stick to a budget, or refuse seconds all tap the same source of strength,” explains McGonigal. “Because every act of willpower depletes willpower, using self-control can lead to losing control.”

Knowing this, I don’t bring cable television or candy into our house. Getting rid of the video games was another big step in the right direction.

Visible, easily-accessible temptations give us a choice. Choosing not to indulge spends a precious resource. I’d rather use that self-control elsewhere: not yelling at my kid, for example.

Everyone can benefit from learning about the science of willpower. I’m especially mindful because people with ADHD start with a lower balance in our willpower bank. We can thank the prefrontal cortex: the part of our brain responsible for “controlling what you pay attention to, what you think about, even how you feel.” In the end, it controls what you do.

This area of the brain — the home of our so-called executive functions — is also where ADHD wreaks its havoc.

The big takeaway for me: more than the average family, it’s critical for us to define our priorities, then systematically remove distractions. Remove the option of channel-surfing or using the television as background noise. Remove the option of playing video games instead of board games with friends. Make sugary snacks unavailable. Strive, as much as possible, for a minimalist lifestyle.

Remove temptation, but also clutter, noise, and distraction. Make choosing the right thing just a little easier.

Science, not edicts.

When it comes to managing our household — setting routines, creating the weekly menu, decorating, deciding which possessions may stay and which must go — I try to back up my decisions with brain science. It’s harder to argue with science than a declaration of “I don’t want you wasting time on video games.”

The video games felt like low-hanging fruit: removing temptations and clutter at the same time? That’s what I call making room for what matters. It’s a simple change with a nice payoff, not to mention extra cash in my pocket after I sell them.

How about you? What have you let go of lately? Is it time to say goodbye to something that siphons off your time, money, or willpower?

Share

What does ADHD cost you?

cost of ADHDWhen we think about New Year’s resolutions, we imagine ways we’d like to improve. Things we promise ourselves we’ll do better this year than last.

But why?

Really, why do we want to change? Specifically?

Because it’s a good idea? Because we know we’re not perfect? Because our spouse asked us to?

Not good enough.

In my experience, change doesn’t happen when motivation to do so is abstract.

One of the most powerful agents of change for me — and the beginning of my journey toward proper ADHD treatment — was an exercise from Marilyn Paul’s It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys. Paul (no relation to me) challenged readers to inventory the real costs of disorganization and personal ineffectiveness.

My list looked a little like this:

  • Money
    • Late fees on bills I forgot to pay (despite having enough money in the bank)
    • Lost interest on checks I forgot to deposit (or lost money entirely if the check was so old the bank wouldn’t take it)
  • Health (medical appointments I forgot to schedule)
  • Hobbies (never have/make time for them)
  • Piece of mind in relationships (anxiety, guilt, feeling others’ trust is misplaced)
  • Serenity (no calm, orderly place to retreat to in my home or office)
  • Social outlets (never have/make time for friends)
  • Personal and professional skill development
  • Long-distance friends and family (didn’t keep on top of correspondence)

When I took stock like this, my heart felt heavy. I feared I’d never reach my potential. Worse, others would see me as aloof, uncaring, disorganized, and irresponsible.

But it was kind of like the time I multiplied the cost of my daily latte habit over the course of a year: the process necessitated an “oh, s&$#” moment.

There’s a famous Maya Angelou quote, “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

It’s easy to brush off an overdraft fee here or lost check there. One failed friendship might have any number of explanations. But taken together, I couldn’t deny the pattern. My ADHD — though that’s not what I called it at the time — was costing me a fortune, in more ways than one.

And once I really knew better, I resolved to do better.

It’s been a long road, fraught with switchbacks and wrong turns, but I think I’m getting somewhere.

Have you ever tried to quantify the costs of ADHD? Has it helped keep you motivated, or just demoralized you? (I definitely experience both on a regular basis!)

Share
Older posts

© 2018 The ADHD Homestead

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

Share