The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Tag: hyperfocus

Through the valley of the shadow of emotional hyperfocus

Let’s talk about feelings. ADHD feelings.

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

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

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

It works for feelings, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swimming to the bottom of the emotional eddy.

I found my way out, albeit by accident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestGoogle GmailInstapaperBufferRedditTumblrStumbleUponShare

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?

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.

Decluttering, ADHD, & the hidden cost of selling unwanted stuff

When I declutter, I’m always tempted to sell unwanted stuff. The prospect of a few bucks in my pocket clouds my judgement. Sometimes I forget my goal: to simplify my life. To lower my stress and anxiety.

Money is great, but be careful about selling too much. Sometimes it costs more than the stuff is worth. The trick is to know when to sell and when to give away — and when your ADHD might tip the scales.

selling stuff ADHD

Closing the sale: ADHD hyperfocus strikes again

Last month, I wrote about decluttering our video games, and how I hoped to make money in the process. Even though our Guitar Hero equipment was outdated, I thought I could get $60 for it. I listed it on several local websites, finally getting a few bites on Craigslist.

It had been sitting in our storage room for a few years. The buyer wanted to test everything before giving me cash. He asked if I might bring the equipment to him — an hour away.

I almost said yes. Then I stopped mid-text message and reminded myself: my time is valuable. I’ve already spent time texting with this guy and writing for-sale posts.

It’s easy to hyperfocus on pieces of the decluttering process, especially when we think we can make an extra buck. My brain zeroed in on one goal — selling this stuff and getting the task out of my stack — and blocked out everything else. I almost forgot to stop and look at the big picture.

The big picture, as in: I was considering spending two hours in the car to sell game controllers for $60. In many ways, my time is priceless. If I’m putting a number on writing alone, an hour is worth $70-$150. The math doesn’t add up.

When to sell & when to donate or give away?

Of course, how much you need the money will tip these scales. We all value a dollar (or 10) differently at various points in our lives. These guidelines keep me sane while I’m simplifying and paring down. Tweak them until they work for you.

  • First, ask yourself how much you can get for the item. A quick search on Craigslist should give you an idea. Keep this in mind always. Something you can sell for $500 is worth a lot more effort than a collection of $10-$20 items.
  • Then, set a deadline to sell it. Promise yourself you’ll donate the item or give it away if it hasn’t sold within a few weeks.
  • Create boundaries before you list something for sale. Examples from my life: I only communicate via text or email (no calls). I won’t drive more than 10 minutes to meet someone. If plans to meet fall through, I’ll consider rescheduling once — but not after that. Most of all, I use my intuition. If someone feels difficult to schedule or communicate with, I remind myself I don’t owe them anything and move on.

Never forget the value of an hour (or minute)

Our time and energy are valuable. People with ADHD struggle to budget these resources, and often shortchange our true priorities. All the more reason to think twice before selling tchotchkes on the internet or elsewhere.

The reality is, ADHD makes the extra step — selling rather than tossing into a donation box — more difficult. We should accept that fact without judgement, then make choices that work for us. Simplifying and decluttering extends to our energy and obligations, not just our homes and physical stuff.

Sometimes the wisest choice is boxing it all up and scheduling a charity pickup — even if it might be worth a little something.

Have you faced similar choices while paring down your clutter? How do you decide the fate of unwanted items that may have value?

How (and why) to tame your hyperfocus

People with ADHD can achieve almost superhuman levels of focus (referred to as hyperfocus) in some situations, yet none at all in others.  That’s because ADHD isn’t an attention deficit, but a broken attention regulation system.

bomb timer

Hyperfocus is our secret superpower. Often, it’s also our undoing. Capable of an amazing state of flow, we’re unstoppable, and it’s easy to get ‘sucked in.’ That’s why it’s so important to reign in our hyperfocus: unstoppable even to ourselves, we become a runaway train…and we all know how that ends.

Unchecked, hyperfocusing ADHD’ers neglect all other responsibilities. Work, school, family, or romantic relationships may suffer. Health may decline due to frequent all-nighters and missed meals (have you ever gotten in the zone and forgotten to eat?).

The good news is, you can learn to let your hyperfocus run wild in a controlled environment. It’s not easy, but here are some tips to get you started.

Know your triggers and risky behaviors

Keep a log of activities that run away with you. What time of day was it? What else was going on?

Eventually, you’ll see a pattern. For example: I don’t particularly like sewing, but it’s one of the few projects that gets me out of control, always wanting to eliminate one more rough edge. When I’m tired or frustrated, I’m more likely to waste time on Facebook because my brain can’t get in gear.

Know yourself. Know when you’re more likely to lose control, even if you don’t necessarily feel like it’s a bad thing (“sure I went to bed at 3:00 a.m., but I got so much done!”)

Limit time spent on high-risk activities

In her habits book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin tells us to “decide not to decide.”

In other words, set boundaries ahead of time and commit to sticking to them. For example:

  • Only one one-hour or two half-hour television shows per night
  • Never open Facebook after 9:30 p.m.
  • Don’t start a new computer programming task within one hour of bedtime

Don’t let your brain talk you out of it. It will tell you things like:

  • “If you just do this one little thing, you can get the program working”
  • “If you sew this side seam, you’ll just have the bottom hem to do tomorrow”
  • “It’s only 25 more minutes, and we need to watch the resolution of this cliffhanger.

There will always be one more thing, even after that one more thing.

Decide not to decide.

You also need breaks — ideally, before you think you need them. Read up on the Pomodoro Technique, which advocates a system of regularly spaced short and long breaks to keep your brain functioning at its peak.

Set a timer. Don’t trust yourself to watch the clock, or even to remember time exists.

If you share an office space, you may want to use a desktop app like Tomighty. At home, we love Suck UK’s adorable — and very loud — bomb timerThe Time Timer provides an excellent visual representation of time, and its ending bell is soft enough to use in a shared space.

Whatever you do, get up and stretch for a few minutes every half hour or so. It’ll break the spell and remind you of the real world — and the people in it who count on you.

Enlist help

Make agreements with family, colleagues, or helpful friends. Tell them to be persistent, even if you resist, make excuses, or tell them to go ahead to the meeting and you’ll be right behind them. Agree ahead of time that this is unacceptable behavior, and ask them to remind you whenever necessary.

Also, remember: you’ve asked this person for their help and support because you’re struggling with self-regulation. Try to listen, cooperate, and be gracious.

Use gentle reminders that involve the senses

If you’re trying to break the spell of someone else’s hyperfocus, avoid getting angry. The ADHD person isn’t fully present in this interaction. They may not remember a conversation that occurs during hyperfocus, and they may not even notice anything happening around them.

Because hyperfocus takes us so deep into the zone, we often need more than a simple, “time to leave for dinner — now.” Create a sensory event to bring consciousness back to the real world. Turn the lights off, provide a gentle touch on the arm or shoulder, or set a timer with a loud bell. If an electronic device is involved, turn it off — but only if you’ve agreed beforehand that this is okay!

You can do this for yourself, too, especially if you invest in something like a WeMo switch or, if you want to go simple, a lamp timer that will turn off the lights or computer at a predetermined time. Apps and browser extensions — like the Productivity Owl for Google Chrome — can help limit time on specific websites.

How about you? Do you struggle with hyperfocus? What tools and tricks have worked for you?

© 2017 The ADHD Homestead

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑