You Need Help: Your AD(H)D is F*cking Up Your Focus

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.


Q:

Hi Heather, I know this is really personal, but you’ve written a lot over the years about your struggle with ADD and depression, and I’m wondering if you have any tips for helping me get my life together and focus. I was diagnosed with depression several years ago and as soon as I got that under control, I was diagnosed with ADD. It’s kind of ruining my life. I cannot stay focused. I just can’t. I need to get more work done in my life and I need to do a better job of it. Can you please share some of your strategies with me? You must be able to concentrate if you can sit down and write 10,000 words about a TV show! 


A:

Oh, kitten! “How do you manage your AD(H)D” is the thing people ask me the most, so firstly let me say you’re not alone in this struggle you’re having to stay focused. These days it’s harder than ever to keep your mind in one place because the internet moves at the speed of Twitter, and we are forced to consume media everywhere we go, every hour of the day. Right now you probably have a browser tab open with Autostraddle in it (correct), a tab open with Facebook, one with Twitter, one with Instagram, there’s Pinterest, Tumblr, you’ve got your Gmail going, the New York Times, Feedly’s over there on the far right, a couple of Buzzfeed quizzes, and three tabs for recipes you’ll never make because figuring out how to get all those ingredients home from the grocery store and into a pot is laugh-out-loudable, right? And you’ve got your phone doing stuff and your tablet doing stuff and the TV is blathering on and who even knows what else.

Here’s what you do first: Close all those browser tabs besides this one, set aside all your other devices, and watch as I lay out these simple techniques to help you learn to rule the world (in easy-to-digest list form).

To Medicate or Not to Medicate

There will always be a debate about whether or not meds are the best way to treat Attention Deficit Disorders. This very week I was talking to a friend of mine about how badly she wants to come off of her ADD meds because she’s worried it’s messing up her health and her chance to have kids one day. I know that I will always be on at least some small dosage of medicine because I am hopeless without it. The simple truth is: Figuring out if meds are right for you is a process. Some meds will make your heart beat right out of your chest. Some will make your brain move faster than a goldfish in a shark tank. Some will keep you awake for 100 hours and some will cause you to crash and burn. And once you find a medicine that works for you, you’ve got to play around with the dosage and the timing.

If meds are a route you want to take, you’ve got to be a real advocate for your own mental health with your doctor. Don’t just accept any old prescription. Talk about your options. Talk about your options within your options. Talk about when you can come back and process the effects the meds are having on you. Keep a journal about your brain/body/heart feelings when you’re trying new medicines. Finding the right AD(H)D prescription is like finding the love of your life. You can’t just give up after one failed night at the Cubbyhole.

For me, if I don’t take meds, I will have three million amazing ideas in a single day, but I will not accomplish a single one of them. If I do take meds, I will have one dozen good ideas in a single day and accomplish nine of them, over time. It’s a very good trade-off.

Make Your Workspace Work For You

This is what my work area looks like:

IMG_2182

Every morning, the first thing I do is clean off all the clutter and start with my desk looking just like this. Over the course of the day, junk accumulates. Reference books, sandwich plates, crumpled papers, a baseball cap, a watch, ponytail holders. I try to keep it as tidy as possible but stuff inevitably gets out of place. So every morning, I start brand new again. If my workspace is cluttered, I can’t relax, and if I can’t relax, I can’t concentrate, and if I can’t concentrate, I won’t get a single thing done.

I don’t like a bare workspace. You’ll see Taylor Swift’s album there on the left, both because I was listening to it while I was cleaning and also because I like to meditate lately on What Would Taylor Swift Do. And there’s a framed Lego patent on the right because my girlfriend bought me the print and I haven’t had a chance to hang it up yet. Everything else, though: Tidy!

You’ll have to find your balance here. My sister can’t work if things aren’t messy; straight lines and blank spaces [ed note: excellent Taylor Swift callback, good job] create a sterile energy that stifles her creativity. Experiment with what works best for you, and once you find what you need, be vigilant about protecting it.

Minimize Your Noise

One of the weirdest things about AD(H)D is that it really messes with the way your process sounds. Background noise and foreground noise switch places in your mind willy-nilly so that when you’re in, say, a restaurant, you’ll be hearing everything your girlfriend says one minute and everything the person three tables down says the next minute. It’s disorienting and frustrating. It’s also bizarre because most people with AD(H)D cannot stand complete silence. Aggressive quiet feels like an assault to the ears.

Background noise is my biggest trigger. I absolutely cannot deal with it. I can’t even write an email if the television is on, or respond to a text message while someone is talking near me, or have a conversation if the radio is on. Background noise makes it so I can’t focus at all, and not being able to focus at all makes my blood pressure and anxiety skyrocket, and when those things skyrocket I get hyper-emotional and sometimes even really angry. No amount of medicine helps this and so I have to deal with it on my own. Here’s how:

1) Always always always have white noise and noise-canceling headphones handy. For free white noise, try simplynoise, simplyrain, or this free nature sounds mixer. You should probably also put some white noise on your iPod for times when streaming is not an option.

Right now, this is happening outside my window:

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Just a few years ago, it would have made my head explode right off my shoulders. But now:

Photo on 1-14-15 at 3.18 PM

I am writing a post on how to concentrate without losing concentration!

2) Communicate with the people in your life about what you need, noise-wise. My girlfriend really wanted a TV for our bedroom, and I want to make my girlfriend happy, so I said, “Sure, okay!” But she knows my deal with background noise and I was really honest with her about my concerns, so she bought a set of bluetooth headphones that work with the TV, so I don’t have to hear it if I’m not engaging directly with it, or if I want to read, or if I’m working. And she only watches at certain times of the day (because noise in the mornings, period, makes me want to die).

(I’m not a monster. We have a giant TV in the living room also.)

3) Use a fan. I have a fan on all day and all night. If there’s no crazy construction going on outside my window or no horrible loud people out on the street, it’s just the thing to keep my ears at ease.

1. Lists
2. Lists
3. Lists

Lists are your lifeblood. There are ten billion different techniques of list-making that work for ten billion types of people. One gazillion apps to help you organize your every thought. Try out as many systems as you want — ONE AT A TIME! — and find one that works for you. I have to handwrite all my stuff if I want it to stick in my brain, and I have three lists going on my desk at all times.

+ To Accomplish sticky pad, with six individual post-it-style lists. This is where I scribble down all the task-y things that pop into my head during the day. Things I need to buy, things I need to ask other people to help me do, things I need to remember (so-and-so’s birthday, whoziwhat’s movie night). When I accomplish the tasks, I scratch them off, and when all the things are scratched off, I peel off the post-it and recycle it.

+ A Daily To Do list. It’s my list of things, from most least important, that I must accomplish today. I don’t pile it high with 1,000 hopes and dreams. I make a concrete list of musts every morning and work my way through it. I use a large, softcover, ruled Moleskine for this (and for the thing below), but you should choose what feels good to you.

+ An Ideas List. This is where I scribble down the nonsense that smashes against my brain all day. Once a week, I flip through to see if anything’s worth pursuing. Only a few of the things ever are, but it always helps to get ideas out of my brain and onto a safe piece of paper, or else they won’t stop assaulting me. Here are some failed ideas that were in my ideas notebook last week: Glee blind rage trajectory chart, Good Cry vs. Bad Cry vector, Projected Best Kisser 2015, What do people even mean when they say “What is life?”, three doodles of dragons labeled as different characters from Jane the Virgin, and a snippet of Doctor Who fan fiction.

Time Your Success

Timers are everything. Everything. What I like to do is circle things on my Daily To Do List, then set a timer, then get that shit done. Be realistic. Don’t circle six hours of work and hope to accomplish it in 45 minutes. If it’s a six-hour task, divide it up into 90-minute work periods, with breaks for stretching and drinking water and checking social media or whatever in between (time those too). But if it’s six five-minute tasks, put 30 minutes and your timer and get it, girl. Nothing feels better than hacking and slashing at a list of things you’ve accomplished. Setting a timer is about controlling your mentality. It’s like Rachel said recently, you can do anything for an hour. Tell yourself that. Tell yourself you can do anything for an hour, then set your timer for an hour, and do it. Accomplishing things will make you want to accomplish more things. Don’t DO ALL THE THINGS, because that will burn you out. Do what you need to do, and make sure you build in time to exercise, socialize, and relax.

Exercise, Socialize, and Relax

All three of those things are as important as Getting Shit Done and if you do them regularly, you will find that it’s actually much easier to Get Shit Done. Exercising helps you do something positive with all that energy, socializing helps keep depression at bay, and relaxing is important because if you don’t reward yourself, you will fail. And, speaking of which, try not to be so hard on yourself. A lot of amazing people have accomplished amazing things with AD(H)D. In addition to all the frustrating stuff, people with AD(H)D tend to be way more flexible, playful, resilient, multi-talented, able to solve complex conundrums, and open to new ideas and experiences than people without AD(H)D.

I know a lot of people find it really helpful to participate in AD(H)D support groups, either in person, or online. Sometimes just talking with people who struggle in the same ways as you can help motivate you to try new coping strategies. There are so many types of Attention Deficit Disorders, and so many ways that they manifest themselves. Some of the struggles seem to be universal, while some of them only affect a small percentage of people. Hanging out in a big group of people increases the likelihood that you will find someone who has your specific brand of AD(H)D.

I wish I could say I was 100 percent successful with the strategies, but I’m not. It’s taken two full months to adjust to my new worklife at Autostraddle. It’s my dream job and I’m getting better at it every day. There are still times when it’s a serious struggle to pull myself out of bed because I know there are a thousand things to be done and I can’t even imagine a straight line to accomplishing any of them. On those days, the main thing is, just get up!

Take a Shower

I’m serious. If you’re having trouble convincing yourself to start a new thing or you’re stuck on the same thing or you can’t get your thoughts together and you don’t know what to do next, take a shower. Your bathroom is a safe place. No one’s ever bursting in there demanding things, so that’ll help you relax because that’s where you’re conditioned to relax. Also, showers reset your body’s normal heart rhythms. And showering will give you an energy boost. (A cold one, especially.)

If you can’t take a shower, walk for five minutes and stretch for five minutes. That’ll help you reset yourself too.

Also, just one other thing, there are lots of side-effects of AD(H)D that aren’t inattention. Depression, for example, is a sometimes a side-effect, and my depression is actually much more manageable when I’m doing right by my ADHD. So keep that in mind as you’re working those things out together.

If you made it through this whole post, you can do anything!

I believe in you,
Heather


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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 655 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. Hey, really just wanted to say thank you. I’m in the UK and in the middle of being diagnosed for ADHD(I), and i’ve been really struggling to feel validated (hooray for low self-esteem and depression). Reading this was like a textual mirror of weird sh*t i do and i’m not sure why (make the noises stop!), and a great list of stuff that could probably help or stuff that i already do subconciously. (Take a shower, 100% golden advice). It’s great to have a reminder that there are successful people out there managing ADHD and that i have some hope! 😛 Thanks a lot 😀

  2. Thank you, this is so helpful!

    My ADD manifests in such weird ways that I tend not to even realize it’s affecting me and write off my problems as “laziness”… which doesn’t actually help me get anything done, as it turns out.

    I can tell all this advice will be super useful if I can just bite the bullet and start trying it out.

  3. Thank you for this article! I have one thing to add, which is habitRPG, habitRPG, habitRPG. I cannot recommend habitRPG enough. It has done such monumentally wonderful things for my productivity in the last few months. If you join, you can find me in the Short Term Goal Accountability guild under the same username, and I am happy to expound more specific virtues of it there or here by PM.

  4. I don’t have AD(H)D, but I’m still gonna thank you for this! I’ve got a lot going on right now (2 jobs + 4 classes, halp!) so I can use all the help I can get right now. A lot of these techniques sound extremely useful. I love the idea of setting a timer. With so much work to do for so many classes, it’s easy for me to just keep going nonstop until I burn out. If anything, I have a tendency to HYPER-focus, and that can make prioritizing really difficult. Again, thanks so much! I’m putting this article in my pocket for later use!

  5. I suppose there is some irony in me reading this post because I was procrastinating from writing my paper, oops.

    But this was actually really helpful! I don’t have ADHD, but I do have depression and it’s been really screwing with my ability to focus. Several things in this post are a very good alternative to “stare blankly at screen and hope some words magically appear”, heh.

    An addendum: the Cold Turkey app would probably be really helpful with browser distractions. You enter a list of sites and it blocks them for a set duration. I also second hibiscus’ rec of HabitRPG, especially if you’re at all into gamification and fantasy RPGs. I tried tons of ways to manage my to-dos but HabitRPG is the one that works best for me. I feel a bit silly about admitting that wanting to get all 90 pets (only 4 left!) or kicking that quest boss’s ass is a huuuuge motivator in getting some stuff done, but. Yes. Totally a thing. And the community’s pretty awesome, too.

  6. If I really really need to get shit done, I use an app called Freedom, which blocks all access to the internet for a period of time. I know, it’s insane that I need an app to do that for me. Also, I keep small pieces of paper all around my house so I can make lists everywhere all the time. Lists are great.

  7. This is really great advice! I don’t have ADD, but my girlfriend does. I’ve gotten used to her patterns, what she thinks, what she needs, and most of the things we do to manage it are just second nature now. For instance, she goes from topic to topic in the blink of an eye, while I can ponder one thing for hours and continuously bring it up. Her mother and I have become experts on holding topic threads and bringing her back to them when the distraction passes, and her ADD has actually helped me learn when to just drop something instead of rehashing it.

    I sometimes forget not everyone is used to her patterns. We went up to Atlanta recently to visit a friend, someone we’d Skyped with but never met in person. This person had a tendency to take long pauses between sentences while talking, and my gf would get distracted and cut off a thought or abruptly switch topics during the pauses. I noticed over the course of the day that our friend seemed hurt, and realized they thought she just didn’t care or wasn’t listening. I pulled them aside and explained that it was nothing personal, just a side effect of the ADD, and they just had to keep bringing her back around to the current conversation.

  8. Hmm, I don’t know if I fall onto the ADD spectrum, but I tend to struggle with chaos.
    There are days where I have trouble even getting up,because the day just looms with this giant conglomeration of unfinishable and manyfold tasks.
    It takes me weeks,months to get letters mailed, I avoid making two minute phonecalls..even lists upset me and stress me out.(I do have them,though, on my ipad)
    Grocery shopping? Don’t even start.
    At work, however, I manage people, I manage myself, I’m expected to keep an oversight and make things happen, and it totally works.
    Because I have an outside pattern on which I operate and people I interact with.
    During studying for my final exams in college, which took several months, I organized a Pride with lots and lots of work and meet ups and showed up at a friend’s house every day to study (and cook dinner,chat, hang out), because I knew that I needed some kind of outside structure that would string me along to make it through the long stretch and that would keep the other half of my mind busy.
    Libraries just drove me crazy.
    These days, I go to some place that serves coffee for the perfect amount of background noise, if I have something to work on or study,and I can’t get distracted by anything at home.
    What I’m saying is, try to find something that works for you.Partition stuff off into bits of 20 minutes, if an hour won’t work for you.
    Not every weakness is just a weakness either,by the way.
    Non-linear thinking can make you be wildly creative and terriffic at problem solving, the trick just lies in how to harness your potential superpowers.

  9. Bluetooth headphones! You just saved my sanity AND gave me a great idea for gf’s birthday present. Kind of a selfish birthday present… And not much of a surprise since she reads Autostraddle too…

  10. I maaaaaaay have ADD, I’ve never been formally tested for it, but I did use to see a specialist at my school who deals with learning disorders and when she talked about the ADD brain I was all ZOMG YES EXACTLY.

    What sometimes works for me to get stuff done is to go somewhere else. I got so much done at school, sometimes I still go there even though I’ve long graduated just because it’s not home. Or a coworking space or a cafe. Somewhere ELSE so I can just focus on what I have to do, not the fifty zillion other things in my house that need doing.

    Also I’ve had to cut myself some slack. I’ve been playing around with those meal kit things where they deliver a stack of food and recipes to your house and you follow the instructions for a meal. I get good food (if a little pricey) and I get some cooking in without worrying about wasting groceries. I’m also jobhunting, and for some jobs – where the stakes are relatively lower but writing and prepping a resume is a drag – I use Sumry, which I set up once and which then sends my resume out quickly.

  11. I don’t have ADHD (or, at least, have never been considered for it) but I have serious problems focusing, especially on things like coursework.

    When writing essays, my essay drafts are full of half written sentences where I’ve had to write down my thoughts or they bug me and then I can’t continue. Then I have to weld them together. It’s odd, I can do some things for a very long time, but I can’t often write for very long at all.

    Especially academic writing – the end result is usually very good (and if it’s not, it’s very bad because I don’t seem to have a mid point). For whatever reason, I really can’t focus for a whole hour. I’m lucky if I can manage 15 minute slots and even then I can’t get much out in that time. It’s a real problem and I’m not too sure what to do.

    Exercise has definitely helped my wellbeing though. I used to use white noise to destress/prevent meltdowns so I might give that another go. I’ve got a hearing loss, so probably won’t be needing the noise cancelling headphones!

  12. Holy crap Heather, everything you wrote is so, SO true. I was diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago and decided to try out medication and it took until the middle of last year for me to find something that really fit for me. My first round of meds made me manic and anxious and I lost a ridiculous amount of weight to the point that I couldn’t stay on the meds any more. But I’ve found something that works for me and it has totally made me into a new person. If I forget to take my meds I’m lethargic, can’t get out of bed, I’m bitchy and snap at people really quickly. But when I’m on them, I can focus, get shit done, actually interact with people without wanting to murder them… It’s great

    And a hundred times yes to what you said about lists.
    Lists are my life, and they help me keep everything in order. I have a schedule where I basically write everything I’m doing for the next few weeks. Classes, bus schedule, homework, hanging out with friends, everything. If not, I’d likely forget everything and seeing everything you need to get done in some semblance of order seems to reduce my stress levels drastically.

    And finally, I totally feel you on the noise thing. I’m super specific about what kind of noise I can deal with while also doing something like homework or studying. I need total silence or totally instrumental music, lyrics distract me to the point that I’ll space out for 45 minutes listening to the lyrics without even realizing it.

    It’s so nice to know that someone understands the AD(H)D struggle, thanks for writing this Heather!!

  13. OMG The background/foreground noise switching thing!

    It also happens whenever I’m reading a book in a place where conversations are happening. I’m like ten words of the book, ten words of whatever the lady sitting next to me is talking about, ten words of the book, I think she’s talking about her cat, ten words of the book, oh she had to take it to the vet, I hope it’s ok! . . .

  14. I don’t have AD(H)D, but my brother has dealt with it to a serious extent, so I’ve seen (I won’t say “I know”) how this gets into every single area of your life. I did want to say that is really good advice for a non-minor/person who has a say about deciding whether or not to medicate. People really need to hear that they have a choice about what’s right for them (and to know that, when they are adults, they have a choice about whether or not to keep taking meds).

    Also: there’s just some really great general advice here for anyone who feels pulled in multiple directions. The starting the day with a clean desk tip– that’s really excellent. Starting a day of work with a desk that looks like something detonated on it feels like starting your day at 5 PM.

    • Photo essay of what not to do:

      Grad school, circa 2003 (but could really be any time 2002-05; just rotate the library books):

      My desk at work, early last year? Unfortunately, this picture was supposed to be proof that I had cleaned:

      Grad school, undated, different degree, clearly nothing has changed, and I have no idea what that’s supposed to be a picture of:

      If that doesn’t scare you . . .

  15. How do you work daily/weekly tasks into everything? I find that to be so overwhelming sometimes. Like I really WANT to meditate every day – I enjoy it and know it helps – but I am usually either procrastinating or focusing on one-time tasks. Same with vacuuming.

  16. I realized today that I’ve spent my entire summer with 20 tabs open every day, starting things, not finishing them, reminding myself to start them tomorrow, and not doing that. And then I remembered this article existed, and so I googled “autostraddle adhd” and I’m so happy I read this again (honestly, the first time I really think I just read the first paragraph and sped read through the rest because I had 20 other tabs open that I urgently needed to get back to).

    I’m still a lot stressed, because I did not manage my time well this summer and I have a million things due in like 3.5 weeks, but I do feel like I can get it done. So, thanks Heather!

  17. I found this super, super helpful. I think I’ve been in denial about my ADHD for a long while now, and it’s probable that I have it–I’m definitely showing all the symptoms. I’ve also had about a dozen long-term creative projects (5 graphic novels, 2 doorstopper fantasy novels, a blog, not to mention lots of little side-projects) on my plate for about the last five years (yeesh!!) and have made fits and starts of progress. It’s a constant battle to maintain focus. But this gives me hope. And also helps me approach it with some dearly-needed humor. 🙂

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