The Value of Taking Five

When I feel overwhelmed in a situation, the worst thing I can do is keep pushing myself into it.  Instead, I need to break the hyperfocus and calm my mind. Five minutes of breathing and meditation does wonders for the anxiety that comes up when I’ve simply taken in more information than I can process.

My instinct when this happens is to hold all the information in my mind and attempt to sift through it immediately. This is my ADD brain’s fear that if I don’t do it now, I’ll forget something crucial. In truth, though, if I do it now, I’m likely to miss something amid the mental noise.

A better approach is to:

– Write down key points (just enough to jog my memory later – I don’t need to make a formal memo)
– Bookmark where I am, be it online, in a conversation, or in an actual book
– Take 5, close my eyes, breathe in and out, and focus on my inner chaos being lifted like clouds clearing from the sky.

After such a break, I come back to the situation refreshed and with newfound clarity – without having agonized over it a bit.

Contrary to its instinctive belief, my conscious mind doesn’t have to hold onto everything at once; if I give it a break and take the next right steps to capture “everything,” my subconscious begins to sort it all out.

I can trust my erratic brain more than I think.


The “Plenty of Time” Trap

The other morning I fell into a mental snare trap that used to get me into trouble on a daily basis. Fortunately, I’ve trained myself out of it in the past year or so; unfortunately, I still have ADD, so it can never be completely eradicated. It’s my brain’s default reaction to being ahead of schedule: “Oh, I have plenty of time!”

This thought almost inevitably leads to one place: being late. Oh, sweet irony…

If you have AD/HD or any number of other reasons for a skewed sense of time, this scenario probably sounds familiar. Even so, the path from “plenty of time” to “late” may be completely baffling to you – and no wonder! It’s quite paradoxical. The ADD brain makes its own faulty logic to get from point A to point B. This involves the (misfiring) executive functions for analyzing and synthesizing information, gauging time, and future planning.

Here’s what happens in my mind, using this morning as an example:

I know I need to leave the house a minimum of 30 minutes before my 3:00 appointment. It’s 1:35; I’ve just finished my yoga routine and eaten lunch. I need to shower, get dressed, & walk the dog before I leave – all of which generally takes me about 40-45 minutes. “Oh,” says my brain, “I have plenty of time! I’ll read some news on my phone!”

After a couple of stories, I put down the phone, get up from the table, and take my plate to the sink – which is full of the dishes I didn’t do last night. “Argh,” I think, “I said I would do these today and I won’t be home until late tonight.” So I spend 10 minutes doing dishes before getting to the aforementioned things I have to do before I leave – and now I have to rush because I’m short on time. Long story short, since I pre-emptively used my “extra” 10 minutes on a non-essential thing (reading the news), I didn’t have it available when an unforeseen task came up.  So I’ve now used 20 minutes where I only had 10.

The end result? I was ten minutes late for everything for the rest of the day. My 3:00 appointment with a client was scheduled to last 2 hours, so despite my efforts to compress our work, I left at 5:10. My next meeting was at 5:30, 20 minutes away; without the planned 10-minute cushion, a delayed metro meant I was again 10 minutes late.

Moral of the story? If I think I have plenty of time, I need to wait until I reach my destination before I take advantage of it. Then I can read the news while I wait at my client’s doorstep, and look like a professional because I’m early!

Tackling Those Next Steps I Just Keep Putting Off

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Michelle Nickolaisen at Let’s Radiate, wrote a post on To-Do lists — specifically, those you make for a single day.  In it, she observed that if you move a to-do (what I call a Next Step) from one day to the next more than once, you obviously don’t want to do it and should probably take it off the list and move on.  This is excellent advice, and probably a good gauge for most people.  However, for those of us with executive dysfunctions, there’s another element at play: We get distracted.  Often.

Thus, I have an amendment to Michelle’s rule for the ADD brain: if I have to move it more than twice (to account for Shiny Object Syndrome), I need to figure out why I’m not doing it before I throw it out.  Chances are still good that I don’t want to; the question, again is why?  Usually, it’s because either:

(a) it’s not that important,

(b) I’m procrastinating on it, and/or 

(c) I haven’t broken it down to its Fundamental First Step and actually can’t execute it yet.

Once I identify what’s holding me back from the task, I can choose a Next Step for moving forward on it.  Not important?  Put it back on the Next Steps list, or even the Maybe Later list.  Procrastinating?  I either don’t know what to do, feel overwhelmed, or just don’t want to do it.  If the task is unclear or overwhelming, chances are I’ve not broken it down far enough — in which case, I do a brainstorming exercise (as demonstrated in this post) to clarify.

If I don’t want to do it, I ask what about it I find so unpleasant.  Is it tedious?  Find a way to make it less so — put on some energetic music, make a game out of it (Beat the Clock is a good one for tedium), or set timer to take breaks from it (quick ones, though — a 5-minute walk or stretch break should be plenty unless it’s particularly intensive).  Is it stressful?  All of the above ideas can be translated to alleviate that, too (though calming music might be better in this case).

Thanks again to Michelle for getting my wheels turning on this!  If you like what you see on Let’s Radiate, I highly recommend that you check out her Big Vision Workbook.  I’ve been using it for over a week now, and am already seeing major improvements in my clarity and thus my productivity.  It’s only $15, so unless you’re in particularly dire financial straits, there’s little reason not to give it a shot!

Admitting My Mistakes: How I’m Getting Over My Overcommitment

My goal of posting every day for the month of November was apparently too lofty; however, I am pleased to use my own failure as a teachable moment.  This is a lesson I have to re-learn fairly frequently: do not overcommit!  Given everything I had on my plate for the first half of this month – getting out of my apartment, unloading the rest of my unneeded crap, sorting through the stuff I might want to store, saying my goodbyes to people in New Orleans, visiting my family in Tulsa, getting my dog’s paperwork ready for international travel – I had no business thinking that adding even such a modest commitment as this would be feasible.

You see, my ADD brain likes to trick me into thinking that the above rule applies only to Major Projects that take up large chunks of time, rather than those that take 15 minutes a day, such as my NaNoWriMo commitment.  Though I’ve gotten much better about overcommitting in the couple of years since I read ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life, the old beast still rears its head from time to time.

A Personal History of Overcommitment – and How I (Mostly) Overcame It

When I re-embarked on my quest to manage my ADD, I was in my second semester of a four-year undergrad program after a three-year hiatus.  I was also working full-time, volunteering as a youth group advisor, working to maintain/rescue a failing romantic relationship, training my newly-acquired dog, and beginning to teach a semester-long, once-a-week sexuality education course to adolescents.  I realized from the beginning of the semester that I was tightly booked, and did my best to mitigate that by warning everyone ahead of time that I was stretched pretty thin.  This led to…

Lesson #1 of Overcommitment: Telling people to whom you’ve already committed that you probably won’t do an optimal job does not make them any less frustrated when it turns out you’re right.

By the end of this semester, I was, in fact, more right than I could have imagined.  I had managed to fulfill most of my commitments, but none to an optimal outcome.  I’d gotten into a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation and falling behind, such that I frequently overslept for work and class, putting me in bad graces with my boss and professors.  I couldn’t keep up with emails and planning for youth group and the sex ed course, my dog wasn’t getting the intensive training time he needed, the end of my relationship was rather messy, and I was perpetually scrambling at the last minute to get everything done.

It was about this time that I decided to pick up a book that I’d ordered at the beginning of the semester, the aforementioned ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life, which, among other revelations, opened my eyes to the snowball effect of overcommitment and how to stop it.  There is only so much time in a day/week/month, and since those of us with executive dysfunctions have no innate sense of time (as a fellow ADD-er put it, “In my mind, everything takes 10 minutes, but I have no idea how long 10 minutes is.”), we have to implement external structures to keep from overextending ourselves.  This is…

Lesson #2 of Overcommitment: Set a cap on the number of major and minor commitments you can have at one time.  (The usual recommendation is 3-4 of each – major being time-consuming, regular occurrences like work, school, and significant others, minor being shorter, less formal things like walking the dog, social events, and “me-time.” 

This does not mean that if I’m already at 4 of each and a one-time event comes up, I have to turn it down.  It does mean that I have to find room in my schedule for it – which usually involves sacrificing some other commitment.  If you hate to back out on things (as I do), it’s a good idea to schedule in “flex time” – unscheduled chunks of time that are set aside for things like doctor’s appointments, coffee with friends, cleaning the house, taking a nap, etc.  Even with flex time factored in, however, when new major commitments present themselves, something else has to go before I accept them.  This brings us to…

Lesson #3 of Overcommitment: If you take on a new commitment, you have to step back from an existing one.

Lesson #4 of Overcommitment: Learn to say “no” so that your yeses are more effective. 

I railed against #3 at first because I was convinced that I had the ability to bend the laws of time and space, and could thus fit as many commitments as I wanted into my life as long as I scheduled them “smartly.”  Unfortunately, due to that executive dysfunction with the sense of time, this was a futile endeavor.  I now know how to schedule smartly, but if I don’t keep up with it, I end up right back where I was: sleep-deprived, frazzled, and always one step behind.

My old attempts at scheduling looked something like this:

168 hours in a week

  • – 30 hours/week for work
  • – 56 hours/week for optimal sleep (8 hours/night)
  • – 15 hours/week for classes
  • – 15 hours/week for homework
  • – 5 hours/week for youth group
  • – 2 hours/week for sex ed class
  • – 2 hours/week planning for sex ed class
  • – 7 hours/week for dog walking
  • – 4 hours/week for date night
  • – 14 hours/week other time with my partner
  • – 14 hours/week for meals
  • – 7 hours/week for hygiene

= -3 hours/week left over.  Well shoot. Let’s see where we can cut…

  • 48 hours/week for sleep (7 hours)

= 5 hours/week left over.

Ha! I’m in the green! I win.

Not.  If you’ve ever tried to do this before, you may have noticed that two main things get left of the equation:

  1. Transit time
  2. The Unexpected

These two used to get me every time.  Sometimes they still do – but now it happens about once a week instead of once an hour (or more).

This segues into a whole new topic of scheduling, which will be addressed in a forthcoming post.  The bottom line of this post is as follows:

If you’re already insanely busy, don’t take anything else on.  The disappointment others feel when you tell them “no” pales in comparison to what they experience when you tell them “yes” and don’t deliver.

With that, I’m off to catch some Zs before I get to gayParis!

An Update on My Recent Inactivity, Plus News You Can Use on ADHD and Sleep

A brief post tonight to let you know that I am still here and this blog is still active.  It just so happens that other areas of my life have been quite active since ending my digital sabbatical on October 9 – so while I resumed Internet use, my habits have been different than before.

Remember that post on Urgency vs. Importance I made recently?  It’s quite relevant to my lack of posting.  My move date for gay Paris, while not yet set in stone, is less than 3 weeks away, and my move-out date from my apartment is October 31.  Thus, my top priorities – both urgent and important – have been sorting, selling, and otherwise paring down my stuff to that bare minimum that will be crossing the Atlantic with me in early November.  This blog – which is important, but not urgent – has therefore gone on the back burner until the immediate projects are finished.

In November, you will begin to see new series of posts detailing the components of the system I have already outlined, the process by which I have gone about simplifying my life (which, among other benefits, tranquilizes my executive dysfunctions), and in-depth looks at the science of AD/HD and how it applies to the lives of those who have it (and those who have to live with us).

For now, I recommend taking a look at this article on the impact of ADHD on sleep, which I received in my inbox from CHADD this evening.  As someone who’s struggled with sleep regulation my entire life, I found it eye-opening, relieving, and full of useful information.  Hopefully you will too.  More on regulating daily life cycles in a future post!

Hope you’re all having a great weekend!



Digital Sabbatical Begins in 4…3…2…

Tomorrow begins a long-awaited digital sabbatical for me, as my good friend Sam and I head off on a trail at Big Bend National Park for the Great Hiking Bonanza of 2011.  We’ll be communing with nature for 4 days and some change, then spending a 5th day on the road back to civilization.  Thus, I’ll be off the interwebs between now and then.

I was working on a post on calendars and the proper use thereof for ADDers, and had planned to get it out before my departure into the wilderness, but alas, ran out of time.  This actually becomes a teachable moment, because I had the option of finishing – but it would have made me late for our departure.  Hyperfocus is a tricky thing that way; when I (and many of us) get “in the zone” on a project, we can lose track of time/space/reality.  When a time frame is unlimited, this is not a problem, and even ends up being one of the strengths of the ADD brain.  I know I’ve finished some of my best work on hours-long stretches of being “on a roll.” 

This goes back to the topic of my previous post on differentiating between urgency and importance.  Leaving the house on time was both urgent and important; finishing the post was important, but not urgent, and ultimately took lower priority.  

Moral of the story: When hyperfocus strikes, take a step back and ask: Is this urgent, important, both or neither?

Have a great week!  See you next Monday.

Urgency vs. Importance – How I Sort Out Competing Priorities

Urgency and Importance have long been synonymous terms for me; it’s only been in the past several months that I’ve begun to realize that they are actually two distinct concepts.  To this confusion, I attribute much of my difficulty in prioritizing (and, as it turns out, many ADDers have the same issue – this is related to the executive dysfunction in the realm of activation).

The difference, to a degree, lies in nuance; urgency and importance do overlap.  The following true statements illustrate the complexity and interrelation of these two enigmatic concepts:

  • Urgent things can be important.
  • Important things can be urgent.
  • Urgent things aren’t necessarily important.
  • Important things are often not urgent.

My lightbulb moment – the one in which I began to see what prioritization really meant – came with this realization: Urgent items jump into the forefront of the mind, and insist that they be done right now; important items quietly persist, waiting for attention – and, all too often, expire while the mind is preoccupied with urgency.  If I neglect important items in favor of urgent-but-not-important ones, I foster an illusion of productivity that collapses when the important items come due and become urgent.  This is a stressful cycle – and an unnecessary one, at that.

Important tasks are proactive – they are purposeful and rationally executed, have lasting repercussions, are gateways to larger goals, and prevent roadblocks to success.

Urgent tasks are reactive – they often push emotional buttons, demand to be done immediately, and give the illusion of importance, but they often can wait.  Sometimes they can’t, and must be done at once; when this happens, I must be mindful that I do not get sucked into a domino effect of urgent reactive actions.

For me, the “trick” (or lesson) is to distinguish, when an urgent item pops up, if it is more important than what I am or should be doing at that moment.  If it is, I mark my place in the important-but-not-urgent task, attend to the urgent-important one, and return to the previous.  If not, I mark the urgent-but-not-important task for later and resume the important one.  For example, yesterday I got an urgent phone call that interrupted an important in-person conversation; to prioritize, I excused myself from the present conversation, answered the call, set up a time to call the person back, hung up and returned to the previous important discussion.

To recap:

  • Urgent and Important: do it now.
  • Urgent but Not Important: note it and sideline it.
  • Important but Not Urgent: focus on it and make it your top priority. 
  • Not Urgent and Not Important: probably doesn’t need to be done at all.

The above italicized categories are drawn from Stephen R. Covey’s priority matrix, which is featured in his book First Things First.  In this work, Covey also discusses the Urgency Addiction.  He effectively explains the difference between urgency and importance, and describes how Western culture, particularly in the US, encourages placing urgent tasks over important non-urgent ones.  I recommend taking the quiz in this Google Books preview of the chapter – I found it eye-opening.

With that noted, I’m going to wrap up this Important task that Urgently popped into my mind and move onto another Important but Less Urgent agenda!

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Trivia? Leave a comment! 

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