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