Sunday, November 20, 2011

Part I: I'm One Juggling Clown You Don't Want at Your Kid's Birthday Party

I remember one afternoon when my family and I were all cluttered in the kitchen, the boys playing at the table, and my husband and I were standing near the sink, chatting.  While we chatted, I was washing dishes, making lunch, putting away groceries, and balancing the checkbook.  As I moved from counter to fridge to sink to other counter to stove to fridge to pantry and back to sink, my husband stared at me with a perplexed look on his face.

"Why don't you finish making lunch before trying to wash the dishes?" he asked me.  "And you're getting the checkbook all wet."  I grinned at him and responded coyly, "I'm multi-tasking!"  "Well, don't do that," Hubby retorted, "You suck at it."

I dismissed him with a chuckle.  I suck at it?  How can you even say that?.  I'm the queen of the multi-task, I thought.  Watch me buzz around, getting stuff done!  Not just some stuff, but ALL the stuff!  All at the same time!  I'm the model of efficiency!  I'm the future of human evolution!  Jealous much??

But as I glanced around the kitchen, I realized that all my bravado was one for my fat "Who You Tryin' to Fool" file.  In reality, I was standing in the middle of a disaster.  I wasn't buzzing around the room so much as I was bumbling.  There were dishes spread out all over the counter, interspersed with cans and boxes - I had no idea which plates were clean and which were dirty.  The checkbook was indeed wet and smeary.  And I noticed the baby sneaking past me, back and forth from the pantry to the table, carrying boxes of crackers, handfuls of chips, cookies, and Sour Patch Kids.  It was taking me so long to fix a simple lunch that the little one had clearly given up all hope of ever being fed, so he smartly took matters into his own hands.  Meanwhile, the older boy sat at the laptop computer whining something about "Mom doesn't even care that we are starving to death!"

In those days, I thought of myself as an expert multi-tasker at the office as well.  One of my specialties was reading and responding to e-mail while I was listening to and writing down my voice mail messages.  I especially dislike both of these tasks, so doing them at the same time--doubling my productivity while cutting my misery in half--made the most logical sense to me.

Only here's the problem with my brilliant logic surrounding this issue:  With my unmedicated ADHD, attending to one conversation often requires Herculean effort on my part.  For me to actually comprehend a person speaking to me through voice mail while I am simultaneously writing e-mail to an entirely different person on an entirely different topic is actually not possible.  It may not be possible for anyone regardless of the state of their executive functioning.  But I, in particular, should have been forbidden by law to even attempt it.  And yet, that's how I handled my messages and morning e-mail for a long time.  This, I now realize, was not actually multi-tasking.  It was buffoonery.

So why did I approach my work this way--both at home and at the office?  Well, I'm busy, for one.  I've got a lot of stuff to do, and not enough time to do it all.  And then there's the ADHD.  One of the primary ways my ADHD manifests is with serious difficulty sticking with one task or activity too long; and by "too long" I could mean two minutes, depending on how much I dislike the task.  I've always felt the urge to rush through things I had to do.  I defined "accomplishment" as getting it over with.   And so my brand of "multi-tasking" seemed to serve the purposes of getting lots of things over with without having to spend much time on anything.  The moment I got antsy or bored, I moved on to something else, and then something else, and then something else. . .

Of course, the downfalls of this approach are obvious: 

  • Working this way, I actually got very little done.  I didn't finish things; I quit them. 
  • What I did complete, I often completed poorly. 
  • It was inefficient.  It actually took much longer to complete tasks than it would have had I just been able to focus on them in the moment. 
  • It was horribly stressful. 
  • It negatively affected other people.  It caused my kitchen to be a disaster area in which my husband couldn't find a spot to set down his soda can, and in which my son slowly starved to death. . .that is until he and his brother found the Slim Jims. 
(Hyperactive Talker Alert!  This post is gigantic. . .please read on in Part II. . .if you're still awake.)

Part II: I'm One Juggling Clown You Don't Want at Your Kid's Birthday Party

So where was I. . .Right. . .Medication has helped me with this.  My focus and attention-span are improved, while my impulse to bounce around like a pinball is better controlled.  As a result, these days I can stick with a task longer than before.  However, I am not "cured," and I still prefer to switch tasks relatively often.

But it's different now, for one very significant reason:  I am able to attend to a task and slow myself down long enough to assess the situation and plan for it.  I now make a point of examining the job ahead of me and establish an action plan.  It's not necessarily a plan for a whole week-long or even day-long project.  It might be a plan for the next hour, or even the next ten minutes.  However long a time period we're talking about, the point is for me to be intentional about what I'm doing.

A critical aspect of being intentional is planning my activity around logical starting and stopping points in a task.  In other words, I may not complete an entire task from beginning to end; but rather than simply drifting off to something else at the first moment I become antsy or bored, I make a concerted effort to carry the task through to a meaningful stopping point.

I have seen this approach to work sometimes referred to as "mini-tasking."  Instead of doing (or trying to do) several things at once, "mini-tasking" involves performing discrete actions, with actual start and end points, through to completion.  Typically, the "mini-task" is actually a defined chunk of a larger task.

For example, in the office, I now apply the practice of "mini-tasking" to answering my voice mails and responding to e-mail.  I used to look at "Listening to My Voice Mails" as one long continuous awful task.  I treated it as an all-or-nothing job.  But now, I'll plan ahead, decide whether to do it all at once, or break up the messages - a couple per hour, for example.  Taking care of the messages a little at a time is much easier for me.  But the key is that I actually have to take care of each one, from start to finish.

Finding the logical end to a mini-task isn't necessarily as obvious as one might think.  At least not to me, and many others who can relate to my story.  For the truly efficient and skilled multi-tasker, what I'm saying here might be a no brainer.  But for a lot of us with attention-deficit issues, being intentional in moving through our work is often one of the greatest challenges we face.  Hyperactivity and impulsivity influence our priorities.  They also influence our perception of time, which directly impacts how long it takes us to do things and how long we can focus on things.  Innattention affects how thoroughly we can manage a task, and even if we can manage it at all.

On the other hand, ADD/ADHDers are individuals just like everyone else.  We vary in our work styles and preferences.  Like all people, I'm very good at some things, and not so good at others.  I enjoy some tasks, while I dread others.  Our preferences influence our work styles.

So, despite my best efforts, I haven't hit upon any single prescription for becoming efficient and productive.  Sorry to have made you read so many words before breaking that bad news.  We all have to figure out--often by trial and error--what works best for us.  Ultimately, I believe it comes down to really thinking about the jobs we have to do.  The good news here for most of us ADD/ADHDers is that we won't have a problem with that.  In fact, a lot of us mistake thinking about work for the actual work itself!  We're often known as people who like to think things to death.   So I suggest we should embrace that gift, and use it to our advantage by following some general steps that I have been trying (not always successfully!) to employ myself:

  • Whether at home or at work, I try to abandon the notion that I can get it "all" done.  No matter what, whether we are students, or working moms, or stay-at-home moms, or volunteers, or hobbyists, there aren't enough hours in the day to do it all.  When I accept that, I am more likely to set realistic expectations for myself, which in turn allows me to be more relaxed about what lies ahead. 
  • I try to make prioritizing a priority.  Rather than just diving in aimlessly to whatever job is right in front of me (as there are always so many to choose from), I'm making more of an effort to slow down and consider what's most important in the moment.   "Most important" might be based on deadlines, time sensitivity, or urgency. 
  • I've recognized that state of mind is an important consideration in the analysis.  Sometimes ADHD interferes with my ability to assess what my personal needs are.  Am I tired? Hungry? Restless? Bored? Motivated? Annoyed?  All of the above? It is important to pause and figure that out because my state of mind at a given time may be quite counterproductive for a particular kind of work.  On the flip side, I might be in the perfect mood to do something now that I might have avoided at a different time.  Being in tune with ourselves helps us to make choices that enhance our productivity. 
  • Once I've decided upon the task or tasks to undertake, again, rather than diving in headfirst, I find it good to have a plan.  Even if the task has only three short steps that should require only a total of ten minutes, consciously reminding myself of those steps at the outset improves my efficiency and accuracy.  
  • Planning allows me to define the logical stopping points in a job in the event that I choose to "mini-task" it, or if I'm interrupted. 
  • A tool that is extremely helpful for defining the logical break points in a task is the checklist.  I've recently started relying on detailed checklists at work and home.  Creating and following checklists requires its own level of attention.  But when I can do this effectively, the checklist is a godsend. 
  • If I am interrupted mid task, I make a concerted effort to not drop what I'm doing without thought.  Obviously, if the house is on fire, I would abandon in mid sentence the e-mail I'm drafting.  But unless I have to run for my life. . .or catch a plane, whatever the interruption, it can wait until I can at least finish my thought and take note of where I left off. 
  • I'm learning to calmly and coolly say the words, "Hold on a moment, I'll be right with you," and "Let me finish what I'm doing, and I'll give you a call in an hour."  These, I'm discovering, are magic words when the trick is task management. 
  • Lastly, I like to keep a list of what I've accomplished in a day.  As someone working hard to emerge from the synaptic storm of ADHD, nothing feels quite as good as being able to check completed items off of a to-do list.  Each time I can do it, it gives me strength and confidence that I can keep going.  That I will keep going.

And that is what I must do now.  I'll consider this a logical stopping point and move on to other pressing matters of the day.  If you're an ADD/ADHDer who has also struggled with time and task management, and you'd like to share some tips that have worked well for you, please leave a comment - I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Now, where the heck did I put that reminder?? A book review. . .

Among my personal mental files, perhaps the fattest folder in the bunch is the "Tell Me Something I Don't Know" file.  I file it under "D" for "Duh!"  In this file is decades worth of advice from well-meaning individuals--friends and family, as well as authors whom I know only through the pages of their self-help books--who have tried to help me manage my life over the years.  It's filled with gems including, but not limited to:

  • Keep a calendar
  • Make a list
  • Wear a watch
  • Write it down
  • Just remember
  • Don't forget
  • Get organized
  • Put it back in its proper place
  • Concentrate
  • Just do X, Y, or Z. . .it's easy!
Hmmm. . .yeah, okay.  Without your expert counsel and mentoring, I 'never' would have thought of any of those things.

Yep, Kind Reader, I feel your head nodding knowingly.  If you have ADD/ADHD, you have a file like this too, chock full of recommendations to help you with your day-to-day struggles. 

Only, the trouble is that you were diagnosed with ADD/ADHD - you were not diagnosed with being clinically stupid or uninformed. 

Chances are pretty good that you've heard about the fancy new high-tech device known as "The Shopping List."  You appreciate that it's an extremely helpful tool. . .when you remember to take it with you to the store.  You would love, Love, LOVE, to put things back where they belong.  You just don't know where they belong.  Do they belong in this pile on the counter or that one on top of the washing machine?  You probably have at least seven calandars and day planners in your home. You'd never be late for an appointment in your life. . .if only you could remember to write the appointment down in the day planner. . .which you would do. . .if you could find it.  Perhaps it's on top of the washing machine. 

After I was first diagnosed with ADHD, I was chatting with my therapist, Dr. R., about what I might be looking for in the way of a therapeutic treatment plan going forward.  He suggested a class in organizational skills.  I laughed.  "I could teach a class on organizational skills.  I know all about the priniciples of organization and time management.  I just can't do it."  Dr. R. responsed with a sympathetic chuckle--he's heard this before, no doubt. 

If I had to guess, I'd say that a huge percentage of the royalties that any organizational guru earns from how-to books is generated by sales to folks with ADD/ADHD.  After all, it's our intense frustration with our inability to implement these seemingly simple skills that sends us into the doctor's office in search of a diagnosis, in the first place.

In the first few days after starting medication, I was more determined than ever to organize the chaos of my life.  And now that I was medicated, I had a newfound confidence that I could do it.  So, guess what I did!  I went to the library and checked out about 15 books on how to organize.  They had titles like (now, I'm making these up, but you'll get the idea): The ABCs of Alphabetizing Your Life, Clean Your Disgusting House!, 1,562.3 Simple Organizing Techniques for Simpletons, and Smart Organization for Messy Morons.

At home, I sat down with my books, and leafed through them for all of about six minutes.  Tiny font, yuck.  One of the books had so many numbers and charts and graphs on its 600 pages that I could have mistaken it for my college calculus textbook.  These aren't going to help me, I quickly assessed.  I took them all back to the library.  Three days overdue, of course.

But I hadn't given up my quest just yet.  One day I sat at my laptop and thought wistfully, I wonder if there's a book out there for me - an ADHD-friendly book on how to organize my life.  So I Googled it.  Just then, the sky parted--in that proverbial way that the sky parts whenever something awesome happens--and the angels burst into a rousing and funky chorus of "Celebration," as Google returned the search result for the Holy Grail of organizational books for the ADHDer:  ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life, by Judith Kolberg and Kathleen Nadeau. 

The title pretty much says it all.  It's a book on organization written especially for people with ADD/ADHD.  What makes this book unique is that it doesn't focus on techniques.  It focuses on the particular challenges that people with ADD/ADHD face that make it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to implement or sustain traditional organizational and time-management strategies.  This book is not a detailed "cookbook" that requires the reader to follow prescribed steps or systems.  Rather, Kolberg and Nadeau concentrate on the trouble spots common to people with ADD/ADHD that interfere with our abilities to implement rigid systems.  They offer explanations for our struggles, and offer wonderful suggestions for organizing that involve working with instead of fighting against our tendencies.  They provide examples of strategies that have worked for people they've helped.  They encourage us to devise strategies that feed our craving for fun and stimulation in our work.  And they outline the various ways we can garner support for our efforts from ourselves, friends and family, and if needed, professionals.

Even the format of the book is, as they say, ADD-friendly.  Its exceptionally organized content is displayed in a readable font, with logical bold section headings.  Each chapter is clearly summarized with memorable bullet points.  There's plenty of white space on the pages to encourage even the dreamiest of daydreamers to stick with it through just one more chapter. 

What I enjoy most about this book is that it gives me ideas for developing my own stragegies, which I'm working on little by little, slowly but surely. 

My doctor, Dr. K., told me that, in her extensive experience, she's noticed that after beginning treatment, her clients with ADD/ADHD tend to spend a year or so developing an infrastructure for their lives, where they had chaos before.  That's where I am right now - at the very front end of it.  Chaos continues to breathe menacingly down my neck, but I see organized calm on the journey ahead of me.  I plan to use ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life as one map to help guide me there.