Lots of us here on the internet are somewhere on the ADHD/ADD spectrum, most of us swinging back and forth from barely functional to super-functional over the course of a year or even a few hours. I haven’t written about my own ADHD for a while because things have been going so well. It occurs to me that this might be just the right time to talk about WHY it’s going so well and what has helped me get there. So for those of you out there struggling, I’ve been there! It’s going to be OK. If you’re in the middle of a disaster you can get yourself out of it. That project WILL get done, your house will be clean again, you will reconnect with friends you forget to email all the time, and even if you missed that meeting, you will think of creative ways to minimize the risk of missing it again, because that’s part of your ADD: wiggling around all the ideas in your head until something brilliant emerges.
So here is what has helped ME. If it doesn’t apply to you, you will find something that does. Peace!
1. Try conceptualizing your ADD as a personality type rather than a debilitating disorder. The problem lies not in a personal defect but in the incongruity between a schedules-and-deadlines world and your associative, go-where-the-wind-takes you mind. Remember that you are good at making connections other people can’t see or appreciate (which makes you really good at analyzing a poem, coming up with fundraising ideas, or taking your company to the next level), that you are attuned to other people’s mental and emotional states (making you highly empathetic and compassionate), that you have the awesome ability to hyper-focus on something for hours or days, that your enthusiasm for your profession or hobby is infectious, that you have a wicked sense of humor, and that your love for whatever your passion is at the moment is boundless.
2. Realize that you will have to make your environment work for you. You are not the kind of person who keeps schedules, appointments, budgetary figures, etc. in your head because your mind is too busy remembering how you felt and what you were looking at when you were in a meeting with your department head or when your professor said the most amazing thing that changed the direction of your life. Sooooo….
3. If you can afford it, invest in some technology. PDAs are wonderful–unlike paper planners, you can program recurring events into them, and best of all, you can set alarms. I stopped being late for classes I taught as a grad student when I started using the alarm on my PDA. I set it for 10 minutes before class time so if I truly did forget I would be jolted into awareness. Most days when I was late I hadn’t forgotten I had class but often talked myself into thinking I had more time than I did. The PDA is non-human so it won’t scold you or feel resentful that you rely on it too much. It just beeps and keeps your information.
4. Get rid of a lot of stuff. Your clutter can start to own you, especially if you are like me and get frustrated when you don’t know what to do with something but can’t see throwing it away. Have a dedicated Goodwill box (some place you can SEE it, NOT in a closet) and take it there when it gets full. If you are worried about how it looks to have junk out where you can see it, get an attractive Rubbermaid container and label it nicely.
5. Give yourself a routine…and change it up every six weeks. Or really, whenever your personal threshold is. One of the many, many paradoxes of being ADD is that you need structure but you hate structure (for me, it can be stifling and even painful). So make up a routine–not an exact schedule–adding in flexibility and variety, and the MINUTE it gets stale (preferably before), change it up. Let me give you an example from my life: when I used to drive to IC to do schoolwork, I would go to the library all day. That worked for awhile but I got bored, so I started going to a cafe I liked. I would be productive half the day but then I would get distracted because it was a fun place. So I started going to the library in the morning and the cafe in the afternoon, balancing my needs for structure and stimulation. After awhile I changed cafes and went in the morning instead of the afternoon. You get the idea. Your routines can be small (getting ready in the morning) or large (what housework to do on what day) as long as they work for you. It can be fun thinking them up, too.
6. Use that timer on your stove or microwave. Consider getting one to take with you (or use the alarm clock on your cell phone or PDA). One of your problems is probably that you have a hard time getting started on some tasks and an even harder time stopping other tasks, and the day on your mood will determine what tasks those are. Use the timer to regulate your attention span. It works both ways. If you are facing a task you just don’t feel like doing, tell yourself you will work on it for at least ten minutes, or however long is the maximum you think you can focus (even if it’s just three minutes!). If you get on a roll, don’t stop. If the roll doesn’t come, you will have at least done ten minutes more than if you had gotten broody and depressed and sat on the couch eating Ben and Jerry’s and watching the Golden Girls. Hey–I’ve been there. The timer works for hyper-focusing as well. If you know you have to be somewhere but you are sooooo into transcribing the Grateful Dead’s “Sugar Magnolia” into the key of F minor, set every alarm you have for five minutes before you think you have to start getting ready. The two variations on this technique can work nicely together, too: alternate doing the Hated Task and the Awesome Task to keep your energy up but keep you from plunging over the edge of your passion to the abandonment of all else.
7. Consider re-evaluating your sleep hygiene. I am really bad at staying up too late and being tired the next day, only to nap away some of my most precious productive hours. My sleep hygiene rules are: go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning (this will gradually help the racing mind at bedtime); NO CAFFEINE, ever, because even caffeine in the morning can keep you up at night (this is a TRUE FACT that I learned while participating in a sleep study); and come up with a nightly ritual that will signal to your mind and body that it’s time to shut down.
8. Re-vamp your diet. I have a hard time regulating my own energy (which makes me seek it and unload it from/on others), especially when I’m riding sugar highs and lows. Adopting a no-sugar, all-whole grains diet has helped enormously. I am guessing it is responsible for at least half of my current success. I am not exaggerating. It is hard at first to detox (and I’ve done it many, many times) but the results are worth it. Having even moods helps your mind stay calm and focused. Not using caffeine is helpful for the same reason. Have lots of fruit (and sweet corn…YUM) on hand for the transition. Your food issues may be different, so experiment with what helps you.
9. Put everything where you can see it. If you can’t see it it doesn’t exist. Save backs of closets for out-of-season clothing and Christmas decorations. Go to Tuesday Morning and get attractive baskets and whatnot that you can label tastefully.
10. Come up with a system for your money that works for you*. Tie your daily record-keeping to something that you already do without thinking–brushing your teeth, eating lunch, starting the dishwasher at night–because this is one you can’t mess with.
11. If you hit a snag and everything comes undone, don’t panic! Go into triage for your routine: make a new one post-haste to fit your new situation. It will be OK.
12. LOVE ON YOURSELF. ADD is an opportunity to make the world a better place through creativity, hyper-focusing (hello, Proust scholars!), and wackiness. Reign it in just a little–not so much that you lose yourself–and you can make it work for you. ADD is HARD. It is so, so hard, and I have been in bad places. But it can be really good, too. Hang in there. You are doing better than you think!
*This is what I came up for me: I have a binder with a pocket folder for each month with notebook paper in between. As each bill comes I put it in the front of that month’s folder. When I pay it I move the stub to the back pocket. At the end of the year all of the stubs go into a file. I keep monthly/weekly budgets on the notebook paper. I have a harder time with daily finances and it frequently gets me into trouble. Right now I am keeping a regular checkbook register. We’ll see if I can keep it up! I did try Quicken and it was great…until I hit technical difficulties. And then all of the sudden I was out of money because I was so frustrated that Quicken wasn’t working I didn’t deal with it, so I’m back to paper and it is working well for me so far.
P.S. I just re-read this post and MY GOD is it class-biased. In my limited experience working in professions that weren’t conducive to ADD (all my temp jobs), I didn’t do so well managing my personality type. If there’s anyone in a manufacturing/call center/ meat processing/construction/truck driving-type profession with tips on how to deal with ADD at your job, PLEASE leave them below!