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.

Review and Recommendation: The Big Vision Workbook

Last month, I decided to try an organizational tool made and marketed by someone who I respect, Michelle Nickolaisen of Let’s Radiate. The Big Vision Workbook is intended to help users set and focus on their primary goals from “big picture,” monthly, weekly, and daily perspectives. It’s one of those rare organizational tools that works for ADDers (with minor adaptations) even though it’s not specifically intended for us.

I’ve found the Workbook incredibly helpful in the past three weeks I’ve been using it. Michelle’s honest-yet-positive approach to personal inventory makes it easy for me to quickly identify my problem areas while simultaneously honoring and honing in on my strengths. Most impressively, the process is cumulative; the more consistent I am in using these tools (which I’ve combined with pre-existing routines to create über-productivity), the deeper my discoveries at the end of each week and the more effectively I adjust my practices.

Here’s what I’ve learned about myself so far:

  • Week 1:
    • Under pressure, I sacrifice “me stuff” (i.e., appointments with myself, blog work, down time) and self-care first.
  • Week 2:
    • I do best with maintaining routines when they/their reminders are automated.
    • I forget to schedule days off (overachiever/workaholic tendencies).
    • I procrastinate when I am intimidated by a task (i.e., serial blog post).
    • I judge myself too harshly (though I actually did quite well this week).
  • Week 3:
    • Out of sight = out of mind.
    • Work that directly advances my goals helps me to focus on doing other work toward them.
    • The more actively I follow a system, the more automated and intuitive it becomes over time.

This toolbox has been instrumental in helping me to create the momentum and success that has been manifesting in my life over the past couple of weeks. Since I started using it, I’ve accomplished several things for which I’d been “wishing” for quite a while, but which seemed too abstract to attain:

  • I’ve met and begun work with my first client for the the business side of this blog.
  • I’ve made my first $100 as a personal organization/life-management coach.
  • I’ve started writing the e-book that’s been marinating in my brain for months: a quick-start guide to the Executive Dysfunctions system.
  • I’ve begun to develop a cohesive business plan that aligns with my personal values – a service-oriented rather than profit-driven model.

The above items have developed progressively, one coming out of another in a beautifully organic way. This is what happens when I turn my trust and will over to systems that just might work, both in and out of my own creation and control. Michelle’s Big Vision Workbook has given me the opportunity to tie together all of the work, energy, and exercises in faith that I’ve been putting out in the Universe for months and even years – like gathering the strings of so many balloons so I can finally let them lift me up and away.

I highly recommend this toolbox to anyone who feels like they know what they want but can’t seem to figure out how to get it. For pointers on how to adapt Michelle’s approach to the ADD brain, please feel free to email me or leave a comment!

How I Stop Spinning My Wheels

When I try to control things over which I have no power, I clog up the works of my life like an 18-wheeler spinning its wheels in a muddy ditch.  This is a weakness that goes beyond the scope of ADD and other executive dysfunctions — but it is that much more lethal for those of us who have them because we have such difficulty seeing how this one fruitless action is affecting the bigger picture (a.k.a. synthesizing information).  Let me break it down for you:

Let’s say, for example, that you have emailed your resume to a potential employer for the job of your dreams.  They have confirmed receipt of your information and said that their interviewer will be in touch for an interview “soon.”  This prospect is exciting, what with it being your dream job, and relieving, because you are unemployed and rapidly running out of money.  After a couple of days of waiting, you start to get impatient and nervous.  Did they forget about you?  What if the interviewer never got your resume?  What if they sent an email but it didn’t go through?  What if they called and your voicemail didn’t pick up?  What’s taking so long?  Were they lying when they said they’d be in touch?

Amidst all these mental and emotional acrobatics, you’re not applying for any other jobs because you want this one so badly that anything else pales in comparison.  You just know that once the interview happens, the employer will see that you are clearly their ideal candidate, they will hire you, you’ll have the setup of your wildest imaginings, and life will be fine and dandy.  Besides, you don’t want to jinx it.  You’ll just wait a few more days, then email them again.  Maybe you’ll wait another week after that.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to you (because you’re not looking for them), other jobs just like this one or better are being posted, applied for, interviewed for, and taken.  Knownst to you, your bills are piling up, your savings are shrinking by the day, your partner is getting frustrated and anxious about your inability to keep up your end of the finances, and you’re still obsessing over this unresponsive interviewer.

Are you getting frustrated with the hypothetical You in this situation?  Because I sure am.  But how many times have you or I done exactly this in any number of other scenarios (or maybe even the same one)?  How many times have we fixated on the outcome we want so narrowly that we miss out on the ones that we need?

Even though the proverbial You is not actively trying to control this situation, the mental and emotional insistence that this is the only acceptable outcome is hardly any different than actually phone-stalking the interviewer, saying, “Hire me or else!”  It certainly makes no more practical sense.

Am I saying you shouldn’t wait it out?  Of course not!  Patience is a virtue (in which most ADDers are lacking).  Am I telling you not to be proactive and follow up with the company?  Heck no!  By all means, show some initiative.  Just do all of this in a reasonable manner.  Pay attention to how your approach is affecting the rest of your life.  Ask yourself if you’ve done everything you can to affect the outcome you want — and if you have, let it go and focus your energy on another project.

When I say, “Let it go,” I mean that it’s already out of your hands because you’ve taken all the action you can — so you just have to wait for those to play out, either in the hands of others or the will of God/karma/the Universe/[insert personal conception of higher power here].

At these moments, I find the Serenity Prayer (popular among people of many and no faiths, therapists, and of course 12-Step programs) makes for a quick andquite helpful.  Whether you believe in a higher power or not, it’s a simple and effective reminder for when I need to push the “reset” button on my priorities.  The short version, if you’re not familiar, is:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
So, what are you trying to change that you can’t?  What can you do today to redirect your energy in a more productive manner?

Need a hint?  If it’s your own actions or reactions, you can change it; if it’s anything else, you can’t (unless you have the superpower of omnipotence or mind control).

With that, I’m pushing publish on this post that I wouldn’t have written if I’d kept fixating on my upcoming series on calendars and scheduling.  Stay tuned (or subscribe) for it!

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!

Taking Inventory and Prioritizing: How I Get Stuff Done When Life Gets Crazy

My momentum on this blog abruptly dropped off since I fulfilled my 5-day commitment to post daily.  I’ve been contemplating why this happened and how I could best remedy it.  My answers are fairly simple: this happened because last week, other commitments took higher priority; I can remedy it by evaluating my priorities such that I post more regularly and maintain that forward energy.

This is a perfect example of how life can “get in the way” of the best-laid plans – and how I adjust when that happens.  Thus, I’m making it into what we education dorks call a “teachable moment.”

Takeaway #1: Life can’t get in the way of itself – but I can get in my own way.   

Much like a winding river, life can change course, swell and ebb, or go from tranquility to rapids in nothing flat.  Really, the only predictable thing about life is its unpredictability.  Thus, I have come to expect the unexpected, as the saying goes, rather than resist it when it happens.  When I try to change things that I  can’t control, I am wasting time and energy that I could be devoting to what I actually can change.  This is by no means a trait exclusive to those of us with executive dysfunctions.  However, it is exacerbated for us because of…

Takeaway #2: Prioritization is counterintuitive to my ADD brain – but I can create structures that make it make more sense. 

Prioritization is a baffling concept when your brain can’t naturally analyze and synthesize information (a.k.a., break big things down into smaller components and incorporate small things into the big picture).  Of all the typical ADD issues I’ve dealt with, learning to prioritize has been one of the most difficult.  However, in recent months I’ve stumbled upon a few tools that help me tame that beast.  I now have a few simple questions I ask myself in moments of overwhelmed paralysis that tame the discombobulated beast:

  1. Do any of the 50 things in my head need to be done right now – i.e., I won’t be able to do them another time, or they are time-specific? If so, I do them. If not, I move on to question 2.
  2. Which of these things can wait til another day? An hour from now? Five minutes from now? I write these down and put them away for now.
  3. What’s the least common denominator – the one task or event, big or small, that will get everything else moving once it’s done?  (This can be likened to the first domino that, when tapped, pushes all the others forward.) Whether it’s calling to reschedule my dentist’s appointment to accommodate a schedule change, or posting an ad to sell my truck so I can get money to make my Big Move, the least common denominator is the key to getting un-stuck and is often synonymous with the Next Step.

My prioritization abilities were significantly helped by Stephen Covey’s priority matrix (see 2×2 grid by intro) because my biggest hangup in prioritizing is discerning between urgent and important.  More on this in a later post.

Takeaway #3: Priorities are not static. 

This lesson was one of the hardest to get through my head.  Once I got it, though, I had a much easier time prioritizing.  My priorities necessarily fluctuate as old projects end and new ones begin, as commitments ebb and flow, as I come into contact with people and information, and as circumstances change.  Thus, in order to be effective in my life, I must constantly examine and evaluate my commitments, tasks, obligations and needs and rearrange them as needed.  This practice is called taking inventory.  I do it on many scales, from in-the-moment, to daily review, to weekly review, to monthly review.  I’ll go into greater detail on the review process in an upcoming post.

To illustrate the process of re-prioritizing, I will use the example of my past two weeks.

At the beginning of this period, my major priorities were as follows: (1) prepping for my move across the pond, (2) developing this blog and my online presence, (3) work and other standing obligations, and (4) everything else.

Starting around the time of my last post, money (or a lack thereof) became a pressing issue when I got my first paycheck since my 25% reduction in hours at my office job (I work for a nonprofit that I love, but is financially struggling). With that came an onslaught of other (related) issues, many in the form of fears: how am I going to pay for groceries? Will I have enough for my phone bill next week?  What about next month’s rent?  Within seconds, I had gone from looking at a piece of paper with a low number on it to worrying that I wouldn’t be able to afford to move to Paris and all of my hopes and dreams would come crashing down in chaotic despair. In other words, I was spiralling.  

So how did I stop the spiral?

I took a deep breath. I gave myself permission to take a 5 to 10-minute break at work. I took another deep breath and exhaled slowly.  I asked myself (aloud, because I talk to myself frequently) the three questions from Takeaway #2, and determined that the Least Common Denominator and Next Step was to write out my budget for the rest of the month – projected income, known expenses – and see how much I was going to be short and at what point.  This gave me a clear view of the big picture in which I needed to collect and organize my small things. 

In the process of figuring out my new budget (which, I should emphasize, was not for every month or even for the next few months – only for the rest of the current month leading up to the big expenditure of rent. Narrowing my window to the immediate future was a way of breaking down the mammoth of stressors and what-ifs – and helped me to focus on the Next Right Thing rather than 5 things after that), my next steps emerged. I needed to find an alternate stream of income, and quick.  After some contemplation, meditation, and a little prayer to the Universe for guidance, I did the following:
  • That night, posted several items on Craigslist that I’ve been meaning to sell
  • The next day, went into my old restaurant job to propose a mutually beneficial arrangement where I worked some shorthanded breakfast shifts while they found a more permanent employee
  • Sent out resumes to temp/catering companies on Craigslist
  • Re-posted the ad for my truck on Craigslist and the local paper’s site
My priorities, in this case, emerged as (1) take action to find some immediate streams of income, (2) continue work with my regular job and other standing appointments, and (3) prep for my visa appointment.

A couple of days later, through a series of serendipitous events that began while I was out with my dog and chatting with a neighbor, I landed a two-week gig installing internet boxes for the neighbor’s boyfriend’s IT company – which will net me enough to finance October’s rent, miscellaneous expenses (i.e., groceries) and the epic hiking trip my good friend and I have been planning for the first week of October (which will constitute a digital sabbatical for me).

In order to make room for this new obligation of 40 hours a week for 2 weeks, in addition to my 15 hours at my existing job, I had to rearrange my priorities again: (1) IT work, (2) regular job and other standing commitments, (3) sleeping, eating, dog-walking and other daily maintenance, (4) everything else.

Notice that #3 in that list does not appear in previous lists even though it consists of things I do every day.  The reason for this: when I know I’m going to be unusually busy, I have to consciously make time for those maintenance activities, because they end up being the first sacrificed even though their upkeep is essential to my success in those things that are making me so busy.

So, how do you take inventory? What are your major priorities and how do you order and re-order them? What is your biggest challenge in prioritization?

Let me know in the comments!

How Simplifying My Life Tranquilizes My Executive Dysfunctions

When I began the minimalist quest that eventually initiated my blogging experiments in mid-2010 (and ultimately led to this blog), my goal was to pare down my physical belongings to eliminate the clutter in my environment.  I felt overwhelmed and frustrated by the loosely ordered chaos of my living space, and had found measurable but limited success from the suggestions of the ADD self-help books I’d read over the previous year (see links page).  I had no idea, when I Googled “minimalism tips,” that what I found in the results of that search would profoundly alter my world view and change the way I did things in every aspect of my life.

As I have gradually pared down my stuff over the past year and three months, I have noticed some pleasantly unexpected side effects that have mitigated the frustrating aspects of my ADD and made it easier to implement the suggestions of the aforementioned books.  Because many people, such as Top 25 Blogger Leo Babauta, have already articulated the basic tenets and benefits of minimalism for the general population, I will not regurgitate this information; the same Google search I made will yield a plethora of results for anyone who wants to know more.  I will, however, explain how implementing the philosophy has tranquilized my executive dysfunctions.

The foundational lesson of my personal revolution was this: Clutter is not just physical/environmental.  Clutter exists in my mind, in my schedule, on my computer, in cyberspace, in my interpersonal relationships, and in my emotional life.  When I de-clutter my life — my entire life — clarity and focus are the ultimate results.

Some other benefits are:

1. Less Clutter = Less to Keep Track Of.  This automatically reduces the potential for overwhelm, a lethal problem for the ADD brain (Nadeau and Kolberg devote an entire chapter to this phenomenon in ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.).  When I have less to keep track of, my life immediately feels more manageable and navigable, and the threat of overwhelm is reduced from lion-sized to kitten-sized.  Also, it is much easier to find a misplaced phone or keychain when its possible hiding places aren’t obscured by piles of 50 other random items.

2. Cutting Out the Non-Essential Makes Prioritization Possible.  In my mind, it is extraordinarily difficult to prioritize because everything seems important; thus, when I look at a list of 50 (or even 5) things to do, I lack the natural intuition to determine which should come first.  When I reduce my commitments to what truly is important, it relieves much of my anxiety that I will choose the wrong thing to do.  Additionally, in the editing process, I begin to learn how to prioritize.

3. Getting Down to Basics Keeps Me Focused.  Without the extra clutter in mental, physical, and digital space, I have fewer distractions when trying to accomplish any task, be it paying a bill, writing a blog post, or taking crucial steps toward my impending move across the world.  Of course, I still have to watch out for distractions and implement strategies (one of Nadeau and Kolberg’s “Three S’s”) to avert them, but minimizing their potential is a cornerstone of that strategy.

4. Editing Teaches Me How to Do Maintenance Tasks.  In the words of Baubuta, the last of 5 minimalist principles is “Edit, edit, edit.”  This means that the process is ongoing, because more “stuff” will always come into my life and I will always have to sort it out.  The concrete nature of this in the case of physical and digital “stuff” helps me to implement a purposeful structure (another of the “Three S’s”) in place of the executive function that regulates ongoing procedures (a.k.a. maintenance tasks).  Thus, as I continually edit out my clutter, I also learn how to do other maintenance, like keeping my house clean or scheduling medical checkups.

These are but a few of many results I have experienced from the (ongoing) process of simplifying my life.  I will elaborate on some in upcoming posts.

For a thorough explanation of the minimalist philosophy, check out Leo Babauta’s e-book Simple Guide to A Minimalist Life.  It comes in PDF form so you don’t need an e-reader to view it, and offers thorough, digestible, actionable advice on simplifying your life.  Plus, it’s only $9.95 (half of which, if you purchase through this link, will go to yours truly as an affiliate – so you can support my work as well as Leo’s).  For the financially challenged, his other blog offers bite-sized pieces of personal experience and advice for streamlining your stuff.  Adam Baker‘s blog Man vs. Debt is another excellent resource, as is his Sell Your Crap system for turning your clutter into income (for which I get no perks; I promote products I believe in, period).

How do you think simplifying your life would help you?  What results would you like to see?  Please answer in the comments!