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Tag: Russell Barkley

For a better to-do list, just add context.

I hate knowing I have tons to do, yet blanking when I try to think of specific tasks. This feeling defined my mid-20s, just before I started learning about and treating my ADHD.

I existed in a constant state of stress and anxiety, but I couldn’t articulate — even to myself — what exactly I needed to do.

Medication helped settle my thoughts. Next, I needed a system to organize them.

My salvation came in the form of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. If you haven’t tried GTD or if you find the whole system too rigid, allow me to share one of the most important concepts:

Context is everything.

Why traditional lists and planners failed me

To-do lists never worked for me until I sorted them by context — that is, the location or resources they require. This was a major paradigm shift. I spent years struggling with calendar-based personal planners and daily to-do lists, recopying incomplete tasks from one day to the next.

Of course, some tasks need to happen on a specific day, like paying rent or turning in kids’ summer camp registrations. I still write those on my calendar. Others just require the right environment: a phone, a quiet room, a computer, or a specific person. For those, I keep context-based to-do lists in an app called Toodledo. Toodledo’s web and mobile apps keep my lists at my fingertips everywhere I go. Here are my contexts:

I also generate contexts as needed for my mom, husband, grandmother, and anyone else I converse with regularly.

If you dislike apps, try a sheet of loose leaf paper or a page in a notebook for each context. Anything that keeps your lists separate will do just fine.

Still wondering how this beats one neat, centralized list?

Allen claims, and I agree, that a single list would make it “too difficult to see what you need to see; each time you got any window of time to do something, you’d have to do unproductive re-sorting.”

Consider this alongside ADHD’s inherent working memory weaknesses. As Russell Barkley explains in Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, we use working memory to organize and prioritize tasks, hold multiple things in mind, and figure out what to do next.

For someone with unreliable working memory, a poorly-organized to-do list isn’t just “unproductive,” it’s paralyzing.

to-do list context graphic“It’s not that you’re incapable of logical analysis or you lack intelligence…” Barkley writes, “it’s just that you need to make the process tangible and external…so your emotions don’t erupt with the frustration of trying to do it all in your head.”

Externalizing tasks into contextual ‘buckets’ takes a huge load off your working memory. This makes it easier to get into your productivity groove (sometimes known as hyperfocus).

Hyperfocus for good

Hyperfocus has a bad reputation in our household. It makes it hard for ADHD’ers to change gears and switch tasks. However, with context-based to-do lists, we can use hyperfocus to our advantage.

I may put phone calls off as long as possible, but by the time I force myself to do it (usually a deadline is looming), I settle in and finish them all at once. My husband calls this “task inertia.”

Here’s the thing: I’d freak out if I tried to comb through my to-do list (usually 60+ items long) for the three phone calls I need to make. A separate, ready-to-roll, phone-calls-only list enables me to make more than one of the dreaded calls. It removes obstacles to task inertia.

Reclaiming lost time

In Getting Things Done, Allen stresses the importance of capturing “weird little windows” of time. Most of us use 10 minutes in a waiting room to cruise our smart phone. What if you check two small items off your to-do list instead? My “any computer” (a definition that includes my phone) list contains tasks like “make dinner reservations” (easy with the OpenTable app), “look at calendar for game night dates,” and “use quilt tutorial to make a list for the fabric store.”

These are the baby steps that move me from Point A to Point B, from “we should get together soon” to “see you on Friday night for dinner and board games.” They’re also the details that can slip through my fingers and make me feel like a major flake. ADHD doesn’t change society’s expectations, but it sure makes it tough to keep up.

Experience has taught me, when I receive one of those “weird little windows,” I need to be ready. I need to know what one tiny thing I can get done with the resources at hand. Organizing my to-do list by context has been the key to making that happen — and to tricking people into thinking I have it together.

How do you organize your to-do list? Does it work for you? Please share in the comments!

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I have ADHD, but I try to be a good friend anyway

Sometimes I ask myself: am I a good friend?

I don’t really know the answer, and that can be both frustrating and exhausting.

Social struggles are common for ADHD’ers. According to Dr. Russell Barkley in his book Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, we consistently report having fewer close friends than our peers.

I worry about this because I have nice friends. I like them, and I want them to continue liking me, but I fear no one really sees my best.

I’m getting better, though. Like anything in ADHDland, being a good friend takes learning, practice, and intentional strategies.

Here are the most valuable things I’ve learned:

  1. I contribute what I can, where I can.
    To make up for the times when I do weird stuff, don’t know the right thing to say, or just go off the radar for a while, I capitalize on the good things I have to offer: a loaf of homemade bread just because. A magazine clipping in the mail. A ride across town in the middle of a work day. I go for the little things and hope they add up.
  2. I’m honest about my foibles.
    In his book Just Listen, Dr. Mark Goulston calls this the “stipulation gambit.” I’m forthright about character flaws that might create misunderstandings. For example, I’m terrible with the phone. If it rings unexpectedly, I’m unlikely to answer it,  and I’m not shy about sharing this anxiety. I’d rather people think I’m neurotic than unconcerned. Likewise with forgetfulness, interrupting, speaking with too much intensity, and monologuing.
  3. I spend less time on Facebook than I used to.
    Scrolling through my news feed fools my brain into thinking I’m connected when I’m really not. It also sucks time away from more meaningful, one-on-one connections: writing emails and texts, arranging visits, or just having dinner together.
  4. I’ve stopped waiting until I feel less overwhelmed.
    It won’t happen. I have ADHD. It’s hard to do, but I try not to let myself use overwhelm and “being too busy” as a reason to defer social plans.
  5. I accept that my friends are a project.
    It feels like cheating to use my calendaring and task management apps to manage friendships. I hope my friends don’t figure out we’re only hanging out because I made our dinner its own project in Toodledo. Including time to think about friends and family during my weekly review feels cold. Then again, I use these systems for everything else I think is important. Why not afford friends and family the same consideration?
  6. I write down gift ideas year-round and squirrel them away in Google Documents.
    I don’t know about you, but I’m far more likely to think of the Best Gift Idea Ever in July than the week before Christmas. My brain isn’t good at generating lots of new ideas under pressure. If I give a home run gift, it’s probably something I wrote down several months earlier. Maybe I even wrote it on the bathroom mirror as I stepped out of the shower.
  7. I’ve read several books on communication and brain science.
    I read to learn about my brain, others’ brains, and how to show my best self to the world. There’s no shame in acknowledging I’m not good at something and working to get better. In Your Brain at Work, David Rock suggests learning to recognize your brain’s inherent weaknesses so you can say, “that’s just my brain” instead of going into freakout mode. It helps. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to those big ADHD emotions that shut down your rational brain.
  8. I try to be a good friend to myself, too.
    Being kind to myself has — I begrudgingly admit — made me more attractive to others and allowed me to fill my life with good people who care about me. Mistakes happen, though, and it’s easy to become consumed by negative self-talk. In Women with Attention Deficit Disorder: Embrace Your Differences and Transform Your Life, Sari Solden advises against “over apologizing or putting yourself down.” I’ve tried to take that to heart and keep apologies simple, heartfelt, and proportionate to what happened.

How about you? How do you keep ADHD from getting the best of your personal relationships?

Book review: Taking Charge of Adult ADHD

Taking Charge of Adult ADHD book review

Dr. Russell Barkley’s Taking Charge of Adult ADHD provides a rundown of adult ADHD basics that’s comprehensive, yet easy to read.

That said, I took it at a sluggish pace. It’s informative, conversational, and approachable, but the language often feels overwordy. I’m okay with this because the book’s true value isn’t in a one-time, sequential reading, but in the many times I’ll pull it off the shelf for reference. Taking Charge offers a wealth of facts as well as a handy reference section in the back.

Though Taking Charge is a critical volume in my ADHD library, it’s not the only one. Parents and married couples, especially, may want to investigate books that go deeper into those subjects.

I’ve heard Taking Charge described as an ADHD instruction manual. I agree. An instruction manual tells you how something works and provides basic troubleshooting tips, but you need a qualified professional for complex issues.

This holds true for your brain. Taking Charge won’t give you a step-by-step guide for repairing everything that’s broken in your life, but it will tell you where to start.

My biggest disappointment was the cursory mention — or, in some cases, omission — of alternative treatments and supports. Dr. Barkley is pro-medication, in that he believes medication enables us to create and maintain long-term coping strategies.

My own reading and personal experience back this up 100%.

However, exercise and diet are mentioned only in passing, and I didn’t see mindfulness meditation mentioned at all. It would’ve been nice to see a little more on the brain science behind why these things are so important. Where I felt like Daniel Amen’s Healing ADD went too far, Taking Charge may not go far enough.

Criticisms aside, Taking Charge is a necessary addition to your ADHD library. Dr. Barkley is one of the most respected experts out there, and he’s distilled his vast knowledge into language everyone can understand.

When you’re not yourself

During an emotional meltdown, part of us really does disappear. My two-year-old gave me a powerful reminder of this while we were staying with friends for the weekend.

R — exhausted from days of fun and social interaction — totally lost it getting ready for nap. We were in full meltdown mode. I just sat in the middle of the room and tried to remain calm as he sobbed, crawled in circles, and screamed incoherent sentences.

The crying eventually subsided. R opened his eyes, looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time, smiled, and said…

“Hi.”

Hi. As though he had just returned from Somewhere Else. In a way, he had.

When your rational brain checks out

It happens to grownups, too. I especially like how Dr. Mark Goulston describes this phenomenon in his book Just Listen.  He refers to our “three-part brain” as:

  • The lower reptilian brain (fight-or-flight),
  • The middle mammal brain (emotions), and
  • The higher primate brain (logic and rational thought)

These parts were added on sequentially as we evolved. For a real-life illustration, spend some time with babies and toddlers. In his classic Happiest Toddler on the BlockDr. Harvey Karp compares toddlers to “primitive little cavemen” living a “superfast rerun of ancient human development.”

As adults, Goulston says, these three parts of our brain can work as a team. However, add a little stress and our old reptile brain takes over.

“If you’re talking to [someone] whose lower brain or midbrain is in control,” explains Goulston, “you’re talking to a cornered snake or, at best, a hysterical rabbit.”

The biggest mistake we make in our ADHD household? Assuming someone is thinking rationally — with our primate brain — when we’re not.

not yourself pull quote

Your reptile brain deserves some space

When I’m feeling like that cornered snake or hysterical rabbit — not sure which is worse — the critical next step is telling myself, you’re not yourself right now. Or, more accurately, I’m the last person I want handling an important decision or conversation.

I’ve learned it’s best to honor where I am at the moment and give myself space to cool down. Naming feelings helps a lot. Try it next time you’re in emotional or fight-or-flight mode: say — aloud or to yourself — I’m feeling really out of control. That comment was really hurtful. Wow, I’m so angry. Listening to my child cry is sending my stress hormones through the roof.

It’s a hard skill to learn, and it requires practice. My brain loves to trick me into justifying extreme emotions or, even worse, sticking it out in an argument despite feeling hysterical.

This is almost always a terrible idea, especially given ADHD’s effects on emotional regulation. Emotional control is often lacking in ADHD adults. “Without well-developed verbal and nonverbal working memory,” explains Dr. Russell Barkley in Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, “you have less capacity for the visual imagery and self-speech that can help you calm your emotions.”

If you’re in a relationship with an ADHD adult, this emotional reactivity may be all too familiar. In Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD?Gina Pera describes “a tendency to become easily frustrated and growl or blow up, but react 10 minutes later with over-the-top excitement to something else.”

This describes me to a T. My rational brain can be a real diva. It’s ready to walk off the stage at any moment, leaving me to yell the exact wrong thing at my husband, boss, or kid. Once I’m entrenched in a conflict, I forget how I even got there.

It’s tough to counter this. The first step is noticing it’s happening. Intense emotions are, most of the time, an indication that I need to back off. It’s not the time to work through an important issue with my husband, make decisions, or provide my opinion on someone else’s behavior. A poor grasp of time makes it tough to defer these things. Right Now can be the only time that feels real.

But defer we must, if we want to maintain healthy relationships. It’s okay to be upset, and it never hurts to ask, “can we talk about this a little later?” It’s not okay to explode at someone, say a lot of really upsetting things to them, and later claim you have no memory of what happened. My life has been a lot of the former and not enough of the latter, but I’m working on it.

How about you? How do you minimize the damage when your rational brain shuts down?

Book Review: ADHD According to Zoë

ADHD Zoe book review
Zoë Kessler’s ADHD According to Zoë is a fun, accessible read for women with ADHD. While those in Zoë’s demographic — single women grappling with a midlife ADHD diagnosis — will appreciate this book the most, any post-college woman with ADHD will relate. For those with new diagnoses seeking additional information, Zoë offers plenty of references to outside sources.

Disclaimer: I don’t love or agree with every expert she quotes. However, a discerning reader will benefit from Zoë’s reading list. ADHD According to Zoë is a great first book about ADHD, but it’s certainly not the last one you’ll need.

The author’s background in stand-up comedy shines through on almost every page, making heavy subject matter feel light. This will help the reader who feels overwhelmed, down on herself, and at the end of her rope. Zoë is the kind of writer readers warm up to quickly. ADHD According to Zoë shouldn’t be taken as an in-depth strategy guide, but an inspiration for any woman who’s lost hope in ever getting her life together.

ADHD According to Zoe cover artZoë’s anecdotes will give readers plenty of opportunities to smile, nod, and say (sometimes ruefully), “me, too.” Her friendly writing style and unwillingness to give up on herself is contagious. Her words will breed self-acceptance in spite of our many flaws — something every ADHD woman needs, especially those regretting a late diagnosis.

That said, I would have enjoyed a little more memoir and a little less self-help. Zoë is at her best as a storyteller, and we learn what it’s like to be a woman with ADHD through her stories. Since her strategy suggestions are merely a jumping-off point, some of that word count may have been better spent elsewhere.

I don’t agree with every one of the author’s book/expert recommendations, but use your own best judgement. She seems to idolize Dr. Ned Hallowell as a leading ADHD expert, while I — recent indecent assault allegations aside — don’t buy into his marketing of ADHD as a potential “huge asset in one’s life.” Some may find this perspective therapeutic or helpful. I find it misguided at best, a barrier to effective treatment at worst.

However, Zoë also quotes extensively from Russell Barkley’s Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, which is an excellent resource. Like any reference material, the key is to pick and choose your sources, evaluating and comparing them carefully, until you develop a nuanced understanding of the subject.

The bottom line: if you’re a woman over 30 with ADHD, and especially if you’re single, this book is for you. Zoë’s voice and perspective are strong, and she’ll help  you down the path to self-acceptance, which includes letting go of those heavy regrets about your delayed diagnosis.

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