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!
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 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.
- 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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Before I get into the topic at hand, I feel that full disclosure is necessary, because I did something just before I started writing that is proof positive that my ADD is legit:
I sat down at 12:16 a.m. with the full intention of cranking out a quick blog post in keeping with a class I’m taking with Ev Bogue, in which my current assignment is to post every day for the next five days. I figured I’d knock it out in 30 minutes, since I’d already given myself a lead at the end of my last post (“an overview of the system,” you may recall).
As I stared at the blinking cursor in the title field brainstorming clever words with which to fill it, the phrase “the system is down” popped into my head — and like a bird after a shiny object, I abruptly rerouted to a 20-minute search for this, thinking I might embed it at the beginning of the post as a clever diversion (which it seems I have now done).
In the process of my search, I took a walk down memory lane from college (round two) in 2003-05. So naturally, I had to share what I’d unearthed from the recesses of the interwebs on Facebook, so that those I went to college with could partake in the reminiscing. This entire escapade (including a preface of several minutes of trying to get the Image widget to work on my WordPress sidebar after noticing I didn’t have my face on the main page) took 45 minutes — and none of it was in any way crucial to producing the post I set out to write.
I tell you all of this not to complain, make excuses or bore you — complaining is a waste of my time/energy and yours, I have no need to make excuses for something I didn’t have to tell you in the first place, and I like to think that my wordplay is engaging enough to keep your attention for 3 paragraphs of digression — but to be completely up front and honest with you about the reality of my lived experience. As an ADDer (to borrow a term from Dr. Ed Hallowell), I am not approaching this blog from the standpoint of someone who has found all the answers and wishes to impart them from on high, but as one who lives on the ground striving to follow the advice I dole out. A wise and amusing man once told me to “stay close to those who claim to be seeking the truth, and run like heck from those who say they’ve found it.”
On that note, I think it productive, at this early stage of Executive Dysfunctions, to tell you a bit about who I am, what I’m doing, and how I got here.
I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in 1993, the summer before fifth grade. I had shown textbook signs of it since early childhood: high intellectual aptitude, but underachievement in school; daydreaming in class; social awkwardness, especially among my age peers; painful difficulty concentrating on required tasks; unbreakable absorption in activities I liked. Getting me to do homework was like pulling teeth; once I did it, I’d often forget to turn it in. My room was a disaster area to the outside observer (my parents in particular), but I could actually find just about anything in it (except, of course, little things like my house key, math homework, basketball jersey…).
Upon my diagnosis, I began taking a low dose of Ritalin, which after some adjustment worked like magic for the next 4+ years. Almost overnight, homework time ceased to be a battle with my mom, my class participation improved dramatically, my grades went from hard-earned Bs (even unmedicated, I’d always pulled through at the last minute on sheer determination) to easy As, and I had more than one close friend for the first time in my life. It seemed that the wonder drug had solved all my problems.
If the story ended there with a “happily ever after,” I wouldn’t be writing this right now. At the time, the improvements were so marked and welcome that my family and I either overlooked the remaining issues or didn’t associate them with ADD; I’m willing to bet it was a bit of both. Back then, the available information and common knowledge about the disorder among medical and educational professionals was limited; the neuroscientific research that widened its scope wouldn’t come out for nearly another decade. Treatment was almost entirely pharmaceutical and focused primarily on improving concentration and academic performance. For children with a component of hyperactivity (ADHD), some behavioral treatments were available, but even in the privileged educational setting I was in, no one was addressing the social and life skill aspects of the disorder because they simply didn’t know that they were related.
In a nutshell, my high school career was an anticlimactic encore to a stellar performance in middle school. Not only did the Ritalin quit working just after I hit puberty, sparking a three-year round of medication roulette with a host of unsavory side effects, but the increased academic independence of high school was devastating for my limited study skills. When I was told what to do every moment of the school day, it was easy to adhere to the structure with the help of medication; once I was left to structure my own work, I floundered. No one — myself included — seemed to think that this might be in any way related to ADD or the fact that I was changing medications every few months because nothing was working like the Ritalin had. The assumption seemed to be that if I had problems with organization and time management, it was due to irresponsibility on my part, not a malfunction in my brain or a lack of support to counteract it.
To be clear: I do not blame or resent my schools or my parents for these shortcomings (though there was a time that I did). I understand that everyone — teachers, parents, doctors, and me — was doing the best they could with what they had. Research had yet to reveal that ADD stemmed from a hindrance of the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, or that this was responsible not just for an inability to concentrate and a tendency toward impulsivity, but also for the malfunction of other regulatory processes like planning, analyzing (breaking down) and synthesizing (integrating) information, and choosing the appropriate action in a given context, among others. (Dr. Thomas E. Brown gives a helpful overview and visual aid of these executive function impairments here.)
As an adult, I stopped taking medications altogether for about 6 years (ages 19-25). For the first half of that time, I was so resentful about my experience with ADD that I got on the bandwagon that it didn’t really exist; I latched onto a conspiracy theory that it had been invented by pharmaceutical companies to sell Ritalin, and subscribed to a (reasonably well-justified) school of thought that characterized ADD as the pathologization of right-brain dominant thinking.
As time wore on, though, I began to see that my life’s chaos was not simply a result of my poor decisions, but that there might actually be something different about my brain that made those decisions more probable. Ignoring it wasn’t going to solve anything; if I wanted to stop struggling through life, I was going to have to face my disorder and learn how to live with it. At first I saw this as a chore, a burden to be borne and resigned to. The more I’ve learned about ADD, however, the more fascinating I find it — and, through such wonderfully positive approaches as Delivered from Distraction, the more empowered I feel about it.
In the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about ADD, time management, goal achievement, simplifying one’s life, and the intersections of all of the above. I’ve tried several systems, followed advice from scores of articles, listened to webinars, studied medical journals, read and dog-eared a few books by, for, and about ADDers, and taken college courses that address the complexities of a spectrum of special needs in the context of learning. I have also become a devoted reader of a few bloggers in what was once called the minimalist genre and has since transcended that label. In the process, I’ve found things that work well for me and things that don’t work at all for me; I’ve also compared notes with others who have my disorder and similar challenges and learned where our experiences are similar.
So, what am I doing here?
I’m sharing the sum total and the continuing accumulation of my experience with you.
I’m taking what I’ve learned — not just through reading, but through trial and error, triumph and failure — and making it into a digestible, cohesive, replicable system that you can adapt to your needs. This will come in the form of blog posts like the two I’ve posted thus far and, in a few months, an e-book that brings it all together, complete with lessons, worksheets, and easy-to-follow instructions.
To make this happen, I need your input!
Please take a moment to tell me about your own experiences, challenges and concerns with AD/HD and other executive function differences by filling out this tantalizing form.
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The overview of the system has, obviously, been postponed until my next entry — which, fortunately for you, will come tomorrow! Stay tuned!