The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Category: Task Management (page 1 of 3)

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?

Share

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.

Share

Applying the ADHD brakes during a huge project

Life at the ADHD Homestead is about to get crazy: we’re renovating our kitchen.

This is our biggest, baddest project since we did in vitro fertilization almost five years ago. Like IVF, the payoffs will be fantastic — we got a kid last time, and this time we’ll get a kitchen larger than a closet — but getting there might be rough.

A major renovation, like purchasing an expensive science baby, requires us to keep a lot of balls in the air. We need to pay attention to multiple angles at once, meet a bunch of deadlines (big and small), and play a massive game of Don’t Mess It Up.

To pull it off, I have to allow some moderate hyperfocus and forget most of my regular projects.

brake pedal image

An uneasy truce with hyperfocus.

I complain about hyperfocus a lot, both because I find it annoying and because my ADHD falls at the other end of the spectrum. However, now’s the time to channel my inner hyperfocuser and say no to everything else.

My ADHD makes it hard to prioritize. When it’s not driving someone crazy, this can be an asset. My many responsibilities to our home and family require comfort with a lot of irons in the fire. I’m the point person for planning an annual reunion of our college friends, I care for our lawn and garden, and I help my dad’s side of the family maintain a house at the beach. I pay our bills and clean our house and RSVP for our social events.

Now, it’s time to shut all that out. It’s going to be hard. The other night, I sat down and told myself, “there are two important things: finishing my novel by August, and renovating this kitchen.” That’s it. There will be no planning of friend reunions, no playgroup outings to the zoo, no impromptu dinner parties. No reconfiguration of our retirement accounts, weekends at the beach, or sewing myself a new dress. No progress on other projects. Just fiction and a kitchen, that’s all.

Saying goodbye to all the things.

Less than two hours after making this decision, it already felt uncomfortable. Every time I notice something that can be done, I want to do it. I want to make sure we’re not overpaying on our car insurance. I want to plan a writing retreat,  research stand up paddleboards, and have lunch with a friend. I want to do all the things.

Of course, if I do all the things, I’ll enter June feeling despondent about my lack of progress on my novel manuscript.

“It’s okay,” friends will tell me. “You were renovating your kitchen!”

Well, sure. A huge project always feels like a fair excuse for stalling on other things. But it’s not a fair excuse for failing to prioritize.

It doesn’t come naturally, but I’m going to try. I just have to remember: Writing and kitchen, writing and kitchen, writing and kitchen.

And when a new project or task crosses my path, I need to force my first reaction to be, “no.”

Has a big project ever redefined your priorities? How did you deal?

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

USPS strikes again, & why I over-prepare

Recently, someone asked why I wanted a passport for my three-year-old. My husband asked the question, too. We have no immediate plans to travel abroad. Why would I add to my already-full to-do list?

Here’s why: our household’s adults have ADHD. Bureaucratic processes take longer than I’d like to admit. Minor setbacks have a disproportionate effect on us. Sometimes, we answer the call to adventure with an impulsive, “yes!” Other times, we have time to plan in advance, but we don’t.

This isn’t my first time to the passport rodeo. I’ve been burned before. I’ve learned that adults with ADHD should err on the side of preparedness in these situations, not wait until we’re under the gun.

The passport that almost kept me home

My grade-school best friend spent a college semester in Ireland. Of course I went to visit him. After all, I had an opportunity to travel abroad for nothing but the cost of airfare.

Did I plan ahead on this, knowing he’d be studying abroad? Nope.

I had plenty of time to renew my expired passport, but I didn’t do it. I had misgivings about being able to afford my plane ticket. My ADHD brain settled into a rut and failed to consider possible solutions to this problem — like borrowing frequent flyer miles from a family member who flew a lot for work.

By the time my family learned of my plight and offered me the miles, I was in a bind. I barely had enough time to renew my passport with expedited processing. It was expensive and stressful. Even after paying extra, I bit my nails while I waited. I expected to receive it only days before my departure. Any hitch in the process could’ve cancelled my entire trip.

From that day on, I vowed never to let a passport expire again, even if I didn’t think I’d need it for a while. Impulsive, last-minute adventures have always been kind of my thing. This didn’t need to be one of those times, but it ended up being so because I didn’t plan ahead.

Government paperwork & ADHD

Fast-forward to 2016, when I renewed my husband’s and my passports. While I was at it, I applied for one for our son. First-time passports for minors require parents to fill out the application, take a picture of the kid, and show up together at the Post Office to take an oath. Easy, right?

Not if you have ADHD. Then, every step of the process feels like a roadblock: printing out the forms. Sitting down and filling them out correctly. Remembering to take a photo. Remembering to pick the photo up from Target. Picking up the phone to make the appointment at the Post Office. Finally, getting our entire family to the Post Office, together, at the correct time, during a work day.

It took us at least six months to execute all these steps.

A snag, but not a disaster

Once we successfully presented ourselves at the Post Office, guess what? The woman at the desk told me we a.) weren’t on the schedule, b.) had never been on the schedule, and c.) had called the incorrect number to make our appointment.

Only a.) ended up being correct, but can you imagine? Six months of fighting my ADHD, and someone tries to send me out the door at the last moment? I had a fresh dose of Concerta in my system, but I still fought mightily not to make a huge scene. I didn’t want to be rude to the woman, but I felt like she was trying to ruin my life.

It turned out someone else had called to cancel their appointment and ended up cancelling ours by accident. Who could’ve guessed? We ended up completing our application after all, and I didn’t have to apologize for too much bad behavior.

Low stakes? In ADHD-land?

Reflecting on the Post Office incident, I could only feel thankful that I didn’t have a vacation on my calendar. Unlike my trip to Ireland, I had nothing hanging in the balance. I could afford a SNAFU. Knowing our ADHD family, if we were applying for passports to prepare for actual travel, we’d be doing it last-minute. The stakes would be higher, and our little misunderstanding at the Post Office could’ve led to an epic meltdown. I may not have felt comfortable going to that Post Office ever again.

In other words, I was grateful I didn’t actually need the passport I was applying for. I almost pitched a fit, but I fought it off because I had no reason to panic. Being an adult with ADHD is hard. It’s not often I get to take my slow, ADHD time with no repercussions. If I have an opportunity to struggle through red tape when the stakes are low, why not take it?

What chores and processes tend to mesh poorly with your ADHD? How do you keep them from causing unnecessary stress? Feel free to share your own stories in the comments!

Share

How I take productive breaks with #AdultADHD

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the value of breaks. On one hand, I’ve had to train myself to pay attention for long enough to make a dent in one task. Mindfulness meditation and stimulant medications have helped me do that. Then there’s the other side of ADHD: learning to pull away at the right time. Here are some of my favorite strategies.

Pomodoro(ish)

If you’re not familiar with the Pomodoro Technique, here’s the gist: you set a kitchen timer for 25 minutes and dedicate those minutes to only one task. This unit of time is referred to as one Pomodoro.

I’m not strict about using the Pomodoro Technique all the time. I do find it especially helpful for my weekly review, when I get sidetracked easily. I use a timer to rotate between emptying my inboxes and completing other review steps every 10-25 minutes. The timer, which sits right beneath my computer monitor, provides some healthy anxiety. The prospect of a forced break keeps my eye on the prize and I’m more conscious of interruptions and tangents.

Boundaries

I’m useless in front of a screen after 9:00 p.m. I’d love to say I “moonlight” as a fiction writer, but I don’t work well that way. I never have. If I’m looking at a computer screen after nine, I’m wasting more time and getting less done than I would at 2:00 in the afternoon.

While it’d be great if I could change this, I don’t think that’s possible without a brain transplant. I now try to avoid screen time at night. Sometimes, this means leaving a project before I’ve reached a good stopping point. This can feel impossible for some people with ADHD. It takes a lot of practice, and it will always feel uncomfortable, but it’s a rote learning process.

Self-observation

If work is going poorly, it can be best to step away. Remember my physics teacher and his beanbags? Sacrificing a time block I intended for writing, bookkeeping, or email can pay huge returns later in the day.

Nowadays, when I feel myself floundering, wasting time, and failing to settle down, I get up. I do a quick office yoga podcast. I set a timer and work for 20 minutes on a physical task like sewing, washing dishes, or organizing my basement. Even when I worked in a more traditional office, I had opportunities to get up: I could check stock for my office supply order, or go to someone’s workstation to address an IT trouble ticket.

Obviously, there’s a risk of ADHD-fueled avoidance and procrastination. The key is timing these breaks and pushing myself back to my desk when they’re over. Not only that, I know there are some tasks I’ll never want to start. In those cases, another break won’t help at all.

Podcasts

When a break won’t help, I try to make an otherwise unpleasant chore seem like a treat or a break. Podcasts can work wonders to reduce dread and reluctance. If I’m dragging my feet on chores, I turn on a funny podcast, like Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids. For longer projects, I use the podcast as a makeshift Pomodoro timekeeper. I tell myself I only need to work for the length of the podcast, then I can take a break.

In a similar vein, I generally only watch television when I fold laundry. This limits my unscheduled television “breaks” and gives me a more positive attitude about laundry. Laundry day means I can sit down and treat myself to my favorite shows!

What about you? What strategies have you discovered to disengage for a healthy break?

Share

ADHD brain: Accepting my need for breaks

Well-timed breaks can work magic. I first experienced this in high school. We had block scheduling, with four 90-minute class periods per day. My physics teacher, Mr. Plate, got it: how long 90 minutes can feel when you’re sitting at your desk and using your brain.

When Mr. Plate noticed our class wilting, he’d stop in the middle of his lesson — sometimes his sentence — and say, “go to the back of the room. We need beanbags.”

Then we’d stand in a circle and play beanbags. The game began with one bag. The first person tossed it across the circle to the second, who tossed it back across to a third, and so on, until everyone had gotten the beanbag and it came back to the start. We continued the tossing pattern, adding more and more beanbags, until we broke down in laughter. Beanbags collided in midair, one person would suddenly find themselves with an armful, etc.

It took less than five minutes to fill the classroom with life. We returned to our seats energized and ready to learn.

Mr. Plate understood his choice: lose us for five minutes while we threw beanbags, or lose us for 45 minutes while he plowed ahead with the presentation he’d planned.

time-for-a-break

Breaks earn back their costs

Bottom line: smart breaks give back more time than they take. Now that my work happens at home and I structure my own days, I need to recognize my own need for beanbags — or just a break from my computer screen.

I often resist breaks when I’m on a roll, especially with something like sewing, which offers endless small doses of instant gratification. I’ve tried to train my brain to disengage. When I’m writing, I now know I should break after 45 minutes, even if I don’t want to. I’m now more vigilant for that first small dip in productivity — a signal that my brain needs to switch gears. If I ignore it, I unknowingly slip into time-wasting activities.

Breaks can shake off hyperfocus

Breaks also forcibly disengage our hyperfocus. When I push my writing muscles too hard, I slow down, make mistakes, and end up meandering the internet. This doesn’t happen when I’m sewing, but I may regret spending a whole afternoon in the basement when I had more pressing things to do. Hyperfocus clouds our view of what constitutes a good stopping point. We’re often blind to one-more-thing-itis until it’s too late.

If we break away from time to time, it gives us a chance to reevaluate. I’ve had a terrible time prying my husband away from a task, where no amount of “we’re going to be late” or “you promised you’d help me with X today” will budge him. Yet if I can trick him into walking away for five minutes under the pretense that he can come right back to it, it’s like he’s waking up from a trance. He might even say out loud, “I don’t need to work on that right now.”  A break frees us to ask ourselves, “is this how I want to spend the next X minutes/hours of my time?”

Breaks don’t always feel good

The adults in our household also struggle with a common ADHD fear: “if I don’t finish this now, when will I ever get back to it?” Also: “I wasted some time today, but I still want to feel proud of my progress.” My husband has told me he’s more likely to stay at work all night if he feels he’s used time unwisely, or if he spends too long helping coworkers with their issues. For my part, I have a bad habit of viewing projects in a strict binary: Done or Not Done. If I’ve spent hours, days, or weeks on a project and it’s still Not Done, then I feel discouraged, like it will never be Done. Sometimes this frustration leads to a backbreaking marathon because I can’t bear to keep looking at Not Done.

These are all legitimate feelings, but pushing ourselves too hard won’t solve the underlying problem. We’d do better to build confidence in our ability to come back to an incomplete project and finish it later. We’d do better to learn to manage our productivity during the day so we feel okay about leaving work before bedtime. We’d do better to learn to see the products of our hard work, even if a project isn’t finished yet.

All of this is hard. ADHD is hard. What I really want, more than anything, is a break from ADHD. Failing that, I’m trying to prioritize giving my brain the breaks it needs to keep going. I’m trying to accept breaks when I need them — to recognize when I need them — and not feel resentful, fearful, or guilty about it. It’s a work in progress. Next week, I’ll share some of my break-taking techniques.

Do you struggle to take breaks when you need them? How do you know when it’s time to change gears?

Share

I’ve accomplished nothing…or maybe I’ve just forgotten.

I end a lot of days feeling like I got nothing done. Like my efforts were not enough.

Moms with (or without, let’s be honest) ADHD: I bet some of you can relate.

I push back against this feeling all the time. It’s important to me to feel like I’m enough, but my sense of industriousness and my mood are so closely intertwined. This is why I rarely relax: it doesn’t feel good unless it comes at the end of a long, productive day.

The other day, a thought flashed through my mind as I pulled up to a stop sign: What if it’s not me, but my memory?

I can’t celebrate what I can’t remember.

Of course, sometimes a day is justifiably disappointing. My allergies have been driving me crazy and messing up my sleep. I’ll admit to spending more time on Facebook and snacks as a result. I know what overtired brains do, and mine’s doing it. But why, on a day when I put in a solid effort and cross several things off my list, do I still sit down to dinner feeling disappointed with myself?

During my AmeriCorps service, I submitted weekly reports tracking my progress and my daily activities. I filled them with meticulous detail, and they were never late. I never made time to fill them out at the end of the week, either. I wrote them every hour of every day. Others found this tedious, but the process had tremendous benefits for me. By the afternoon, I don’t remember what I did that morning. By dinnertime, I can’t tell you what I did with my day at all.

Many adults with ADHD struggle with memory. Not only that, I bounce from task to task, even if I intend to spend all day on one project. I do a lot on any given day, but it rarely makes it into long-term memory. If I can’t remember what I do, how must that affect my sense of accomplishment and worth?

memory-and-adult-adhd

As with everything: write it down.

In my current life, no one’s collecting weekly progress reports. I don’t have a performance review or a regular check-in. It’s easy to lose track of how I spend my time. For a few days, I decided to write down what I accomplished.

The results were surprising. I didn’t include base-level responsibilities like child care, cooking meals, or washing dishes, even though these things take a great deal of attention. Even so, I amassed quite a list on Monday: I changed the sheets on the beds, went for a run, did my weekly review, emptied all my inboxes, made sandwich bread, cleaned the downstairs (that includes tidying, dusting, polishing furniture, and vacuuming), folded a load of laundry, made our weekly menu and grocery list, and began to draw a sewing pattern.

It’s a relatively modest list, with no glory, nothing worthy of celebration — unless you have ADHD and remember your previous life, when your ADHD was out of control and none of those things felt possible. For anyone, anywhere, it’s quite enough to fill a day. With my poor memory, I now understand how I can end a day feeling like I’ve accomplished nothing. I work in small bites, and this means I’m often surrounded by works-in-progress. I now (occasionally) finish them at some point, but very few days contain anything to brag about.

Forgetting is no excuse for self-criticism.

Glory or no, it’s important to give ourselves credit where it’s due. Failing to remember what we’ve done for ourselves, our families, and the world is no excuse. My lesson for this week: if I get down on myself for slow progress, I need to start writing notes. I need to pretend I’ll be asked for a report at the end of the week. I need to find some way to remember, because I have plenty to show for myself. I just can’t remember what it is.

Do you feel you have a clear picture of your productivity? Your accomplishments? Do you struggle with feelings of ineffectiveness? How much of this do you think is rooted in reality vs. perspective?

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

Taking a u-turn away from the Big Adventure

Something amazing happened the other day. I turned my car around.

Not as in a three-point turn, which I’ve known how to do since I was 16. I turned around after I’d gone out for a Big Adventure. Unlike a three-point turn, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.

U-TURNSwept away by Big Adventures

A little background: this week contained four writing deadlines, three of which I’d underprepared for. My husband was home and had taken our son for the day. I had a few hours of unencumbered productive time.

As I write this, I now see the obvious ‘and’: “and I didn’t think twice about using that time to write!” If you have ADHD, or if you live with someone does, you already know the story isn’t going there.

I seized the moment and thought, “now is my chance to buy dirt for the garden!” I filled my water bottle, threw some snacks in my bag, and prepared for a Big Adventure. Of course I’d decided there was only one place I could buy dirt. It was a solid 45-minute drive from home (hence why a kid-free day seemed perfect for the errand). I was pleased that I had all the time in the world and could finally stop at the gas station. My fuel light had been on for a day or two. I looked forward to a full gas tank and a dirt-filled car, and I hoped I wouldn’t be home too late for lunch.

As I started the car and scrolled through my Pandora stations, seeking the perfect soundtrack for my Big Adventure, I started to feel uneasy. I used to love the sparkly excitement that preceded Big Adventures. They broke up the drudgery and made the whole world seem like a brighter place. For an afternoon, I could leave my messes behind, roll down my car window, turn up the music, and get something done. Maybe it’d even be useful, like when I framed those pretty lithographs to hang over the couch. But then I got older. As I got older, I started getting tired.

Need to do vs. need to do now

Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s these new meds, maybe it’s my daily yoga practice. Something’s different. I’ve stopped falling in love with life on Big Adventures and I’ve started getting tired. Tired of throwing caution to the wind and returning to tighter deadlines or a messy house. Tired of starting yet another project I’ll have trouble finishing. Tired of being swept away on a wave of excitement.

I pulled away from the curb, keenly aware of an unfamiliar feeling in my gut: something was saying, “no.” Thanks to age, meds, yoga, or all three, I did something crazy. I listened, even though it meant aborting a mission in progress. It meant breaking the ADHD Code and unlatching my hyperfocus.

Yet once I thought it, I couldn’t unthink it: yes, the garden needed more dirt, but today? Now? At the cost of 90-plus minutes in the car? When I could be working on my four(!) writing deadlines? Surely, I could purchase dirt somewhere else if I needed to. Maybe over the weekend, once I’d completed my work. I decided to put gas in the car and return home to write.

In our household, we sometimes use the fact that something “needed to be done” as an excuse. An excuse for doing it the long way, at the wrong time, and/or instead of being there for one another. That’s because ADHD impairs our ability to direct our attention. There’s no deficit of attention in our home, we just have trouble taming it. We fail to differentiate between what needs to be done Right Now and what simply needs to be done. There is a difference.

Sometimes the u-turn is the biggest victory

My u-turn was almost sabotaged by the gas station around the corner, which displayed a huge sign reading “pumps out of order” when I arrived. Again, if you have ADHD, or if you live with someone who does, you may know what comes next.

I was out to get gas, right? A vision flashed through my mind: I was driving toward the next-nearest gas station when I thought, what if another station has cheaper gas? Maybe I’ll go to the one with a car wash. No, I don’t like that car wash, maybe I’ll head over to Remington and hit the Wash Works. I wonder what gas stations are over there?

I turned around and drove home. With my fuel light still on. Five minutes after pulling away from the curb, I walked back into my house. I made myself an iced coffee and walked upstairs to my office. Then I sat down to write.

These were uncharted waters. I’d never said no after reaching out and touching the Big Adventure. And yet, I felt a deeper, more satisfying thrill this time. It was the thrill of the u-turn.

It’s taken me nearly three decades to get here. Maybe the u-turn is a skill that comes with practice. Maybe I’ll be more choosy about my Big Adventures in the future. Who knows. Only one thing is certain: that u-turn felt like a huge victory, and I hope it’s not the last.

Share
Older posts

© 2017 The ADHD Homestead

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

Share