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!

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Have You Hit Your Neglected Areas Today?

Over the past few weeks since I moved to Paris, I’ve taken advantage of the rare opportunity to build my life and schedule from scratch.  I’ve noticed that even with this liberty, I am neglecting some minor things with major impacts — calling friends back home, keeping up my yoga practice, etc.  In the interest of making my experience beneficial to others, I want to share what I’ve come up with to counter this problem.
Most people, with or without executive dysfunctionality, have a few seemingly small (but actually important) areas of their lives that they often neglect.  For many (myself included), these tend to be related to some aspect of self-care.  Mine, for example, are keeping up with social ties, exercise, home maintenance, spiritual practices (i.e., meditation) and reading for pleasure, all of which, in one way or several, affect my health, well-being, and overall stability in life.

According to one of my favorite ADD-management books, time-management experts have identified four areas of “high-priority activities” that are most neglected: socializing, doing paperwork, reading, and exercise.  These ring true with that “self-care” idea: socializing takes care of our crucial human need for social interaction and gives us an outlet for our joys and frustrations; doing paperwork on a regular basis, like it or not, keeps our administrative duties from snowballing into major stressors; reading (and other brain-stimulating recreational activities) gives us a break from daily stress, calms and nourishes our minds, and/or helps us process what’s going on in our lives; and exercise has too many benefits to our physical, emotional, and mental well-being that I can’t begin to list them in a paragraph.

In recognition of this all-too-human tendency to shoot oneself in the foot, I have added a new touchstone in my Daily Reviews (a practice I have yet to detail here, but to which I referred in my overview of the System).  In the morning as I look at the day ahead, I am naming one thing I can do in at least one of neglected areas.  At night, when I am checking out with my daily planner, I ask myself, “Have I hit my neglected areas today?  How?”  This is a new experiment, but I hypothesize that these additions to my daily routine will help me pay appropriate attention to these oft-overlooked, important but not urgent areas.

  • What are four areas of your life to which you want to give more attention?  
  • Do these things support your overall well-being and life balance?  How?
  • Name one thing you can do today to support these areas.

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!

Namaste,

Steven


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.


Next Steps: The Foundation of Making Things Happen

In the realm of time management and productivity, I draw inspiration from several outside sources.  In terms of developing a consistent system, I have adapted some of my recommendations from David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, an organization book geared toward business professionals that can be (mostly) translated to any and all areas of life.  Although it is definitely written from the perspective of a highly privileged, upper-class, able-bodied, educated, heterosexual, white American male, this book is an anomaly among mainstream organizing approaches in that many of its tools can be used by people with ADD and other executive function disorders.  


A keystone of David’s system – and my own, which incorporates tactics from other sources as well as my own special brain – is what he calls a Next Actions list and what I have dubbed a Next Steps list.  This is not the same as a to-do list, which for most people includes everything from two-minute actions like “Call for a hair appointment” to gargantuan undertakings like “Achieve world peace.”  A Next Steps list provides an easy reference for specific, actionable tasks – those which you can do, which will move you forward.  David’s explanation of this concept provided me a lightbulb moment as far as what wasn’t working in my attempts at time management – especially why it seemed that I could rarely accomplish much of what was on my to-do list.  In this aspect, people with and without AD/HD have a common problem: differentiating between “projects” and “actions.”

For example, one cannot, in one fell swoop, “Find a better job.”  If that’s on your to-do list, chances are it’s been there for a while and frustrates you every time you see it.  You cannot “do” that item because it is a multistep process.  It is therefore pointless to put it on your list of actionable items.  In this example, “Find a better job” is a project, not an action.  In order to execute a project, you first have to break it down to its Fundamental First Step.  The process of doing so is often, itself, the Fundamental First Step — breaking things down is an action.  Its key question is “What has to happen first?”  and it looks something like this:

Big Picture: Find a Better Job

What has to happen first?

  • Interview for Jobs
  • Update my resume
  • Search for Available Jobs

What has to happen before any of these can be done?

→ Determine what kind of new job I want

    • A. Stay in current field
    • B. Do something else

From here, my next action will vary, depending on whether I choose A or B:

  • (If A) Update my resume

OR

  • (If B) Brainstorm what “something else” entails (which breaks down into several other steps, but we will stop here for the purposes of this illustration)

And so forth.  For me, drawing this out mind-mapping style is more effective than typing it out; I encourage you to experiment and find your own method.  Please note:The point of this exercise is not to outline, in minute detail, every step in the process of reaching your goal (though it does provide a convenient overview of the stages you’ll go through).  The point is to find the Next Step you need to take to move toward your goal.  

So, key terms:

  1. Project or Goal:  Any task that has more than one step (i.e., “Find a better job”)
  2. Action or Step:  Any single-step, “do-able” task; always begins with a verb (i.e., “Call Bob for a reference,” “Review my resume”)
  3. Fundamental First Step:  The action you must take toward a goal/project before any further actions can be taken.  (i.e., in order to “Find a better job,” you must first determine what kind of job you want; once you’ve determined that, you can do things like update your resume, browse Craigslist for available positions, etc.).
  4. Next Step or Next Action:  Literally, the immediate, next step toward your goal; what must be done before anything else can occur.

**The most important thing to understand about Next Steps – and everything we will talk about from here on out – is that they are self-perpetuating; in taking one, the step that comes after it will be revealed.**

For example, when you call Bob for a reference, he may tell you that he heard of an opening at this great new web organization, or say something that brings to mind a key point for your resume. Even if nothing more than the intended reference comes out of the phone call, you have already broken down your goal enough to easily extract a Next Action from your brainstorming; this becomes more intuitive as time goes on (and, as we translate this concept into a system, you’ll have a master list to refer to when you feel “stuck”).

This means that almost as soon as you reframe your approach to the traditional “to-do” list, all the hours you used to spend painstakingly outlining your step-by-step plan of action will be completely unnecessary – a thought both scary and liberating.   Scary because you have to give up the (erroneous) idea that you can know and control exactly what will happen on the way to your goal; liberating because you will quickly find that you have a lot more time to devote to doing your goals rather than planning them.

Disclaimer: This does not mean that you will not be thinking ahead or that you will be acting with reckless abandon – quite the opposite, in fact.  Planning and reviewing are key parts of the process of time management and goal-accomplishment – but ones that will take up very little of your time once your system is in place.

What is the Next Step you can take toward your current goal?

(Next post: An overview of the system.)