How To Get Things Done When You Think You Have ADHD

How To Get Things Done When You Think You Have ADHD

I have long wondered if I have ADHD.

It seems to be all the rage these days, and I hear more and more people talk about having it. As they describe their symptoms and challenges, I nod in agreement. “Inability to focus? I can relate to that. Feeling scattered or disorganized? Yep, that’s me.  Lack of follow-through on completing tasks? Oh man, I struggle with that too.” My close friend with ADHD said that his hyperactivity was so severe as a kid in elementary school that he had to wear earmuffs in class to muffle noise distractions and get anything done.
I go through the mental checklist, certain that there’s some underlying diagnosis that explains my wandering attention and lack of productivity each day. Other common symptoms of ADHD include:
  • being easily distracted
  • difficulty sustaining attention
  • trouble with organization
  • squirming/fidgeting
  • trouble staying seated
  • forgetfulness
  • avoiding tasks requiring sustained mental effort
Now the funny thing is, I’m willing to bet that you also identify with many of these symptoms as you read along.
Looks like I’m not the only one who needs the doctor to write me a script for some Adderall or Ritalin.

Or is it possible that we’re jumping the gun in reaching for prescription meds to fix the problem? Maybe those are just a means of treating the symptoms, and not addressing the underlying cause.

The more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more evidence I’ve seen indicating that our chemistry is not to blame for our inattention, restlessness and hyperactivity, but our environment. Life itself moves faster than it ever has, we have more roles and responsibilities than before, we are expected to produce results in ever-shorter timelines, and there are a thousand daily distractions vying for our attention.

Consider even the nature of digital entertainment. If you watch a movie, TV show or commercial, you’ll notice that the average shot rarely lasts more than 3-5 seconds before changing scene or camera angle. When scrolling a social media newsfeed, our attention rests on a post only long enough to read the couple sentence caption. If someone writes a long story or rant, we tune out and seek the next easy to digest post with a picture that sums it up. Studies show that even if videos are engaging, the ideal length on something like Instagram or Facebook is one minute or less. We will rarely sit still to watch a 15-minute TED talk that our friend sends us, but we’ll sit on the toilet and watch seven two-minute videos of cats or fails or stupid human tricks back to back. We change the Spotify station while changing lanes and eating a breakfast burrito in between checking texts and driving directions on Google Maps, and then have phone calls discussing important business while keeping our eyes on the road about 70% of the time. No wonder that I go to cook breakfast, unload the dishes while eggs cook, find myself throwing dirty dishrags in with the laundry downstairs, and end up vacuuming for our next airbnb guest until I smell something burning upstairs.

I submit that most of us don’t have a chemical deficiency requiring medication. We have chaotic environments and structures that reward our short attention spans, and we’ve forgotten how to actually sit still long enough to finish reading a whole chapter at a time. We’d like to think that we’ve become more masterful at multitasking, when in fact most of us are actually just briefly engaging with more tasks and distractions throughout the day without ever being fully present and focused on one.

So if the problem is not genetic, but environmental, what can we do about it?

– Set up structures to have us win.

Some of these might feel grounding and others more akin to working with blinders on, but nevertheless, I’ve found them helpful in actually getting things done. Here are some tools and recommendations in no particular order:

1) De-clutter your workspace

Simply put, get any visual distractions out of the way. It’s hard to stay focused on one task when a simple glance away from your screen has you notice a full day planner, stacks of correspondence on the desk, 50 motivational quotes on the walls, and boxes on the floor waiting to be put away. Clean the space so your eyes don’t wander too often, and devote your mental bandwidth to what is directly in front of you. Sometimes we clean in order to procrastinate or avoid doing work, but in this instance, it is time well invested that will pay dividends in future productivity.

2) Silence your phone

 

Good – turn your ringer off.
Better – put your phone in ‘do not disturb’ mode, so you don’t hear the buzz of interrupting calls.
Best – leave your phone in the other room until the task at hand is complete

3) Select music that doesn’t distract

Sometimes having ambient music can provide a soothing background and help filter out noise distraction, and even put our brainwaves into a deeper state of focus. Each person has a genre they prefer, but my recommendations are to avoid super fast or aggressive music (unless you’re working in the garage or doing a Jackson Pollock splatter painting) as well as lyrical songs, as the brain will unconsciously devote some energy and attention to processing the language, further draining your cognitive bandwidth. The ‘Focus’ genre on Spotify has lots of great playlists that can help you tune in.

4) Set a timer and work in blocks

Rather than sit still for long periods of time during which you try to tackle a wide variety of tasks, break your time up into chunks of 15-55 minutes (no more than an hour) and focus that block on only one thing. It may be responding to emails, working on your resume, studying for an exam, making customer calls, or whatever needs to get accomplished. Don’t do anything other than the designated task during that time block, and don’t let yourself get up to address any interruptions.
You may set a timer on your phone or computer. I use the analog 8-inch Time Timer because it is a constant visual reminder of how many minutes I have left to tackle that specific task.

5) Move

 

After the block of focused time and productivity, get up and circulate some energy for anywhere from 2-10 minutes. You could use the bathroom, drink water, stretch, eat a snack, play some guitar. Whatever you choose, just get up from your desk and give yourself a short reprieve from sitting and staring at a screen. As a fourth grade teacher, I’d have my students stand up between lessons and do some in-class yoga or brain gym activities. It was impressive to see how the investment in five minutes of play and movement translated into better focus, behavior and information retention when we returned to the next assignment.

6) Prioritize your to-do list

Sometimes, when faced with a mountain of tasks to complete in a day, we end up devoting the majority of our time to the minutia, or little things that are less important. We fold laundry, clean the house, read emails, get an oil change, etc… essentially – we spend a great deal of time doing chores rather than taking actions that will really move our business, our art, or our project forward. We then finish the day feeling like we did a lot, but didn’t invest in the actual IPAs, or income-producing activities to have us feel successful or closer to our goals.
Thus, it’s helpful to distinguish your laundry list from your business list and determine what’s most important to fulfill on that day. There are two tools I use to help me separate the two:
1) The Passion Planner – This is a handy day planner created on kickstarter by a college student named Angelia. In addition to the general calendar including monthly and weekly layouts, it also has a roadmap where you can create your 3 month, 1 year, 3 year and lifetime goals and thereby prioritize the actions you need to take each week to get you closer. Perhaps my favorite feature is that each week has two To-Do lists – one for personal and one for work. This keeps me focused on what’s paying the bills rather than feeling really good about all the weeds I spent hours pulling out of the backyard.
2) Asana – This is an online project management software that helps you manage multiple projects at once and break them down into the smaller tasks that must be completed in order to fulfill on them. Additionally, you can change views to only focus on one project, or view all tasks according to their completion due date and structure your day according to what’s most important right now. I use this to remind me of everything from recurring tasks like watering plants weekly or paying quarterly taxes to following up with business clients on specific days after our meetings. As an added bonus to the dopamine hit you get when checking the box next to each task, little unicorns and narwhals fly across the screen from time to time, incentivizing you to continue getting shit done.

7) Use Self Control

 

This may sound like a vague and patronizing way of saying to just remain on task and resist temptation, but I want to actually show you how.
It’s a free app on your computer, called Self Control! The principle is simple, and the result is highly effective. Download the app and then create a ‘blacklist’ of websites that are frequent temptations and distractions for you (e.g. email, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, TED, Reddit, or whatever you scroll for mindless entertainment). Then set the length of time you wish to focus, enter a password, and boom – you will be unable to access those specified websites for the designated period. The app is so smart that even if you try to quit, open a new web browser or even restart your computer, you will still be unable to log in to those sites until the timer is up.

I’m no doctor, and don’t play one on the internet. I do, however, advocate for natural remedies in lieu of prescription solutions as frequently as possible. In adopting one or a combination of these practices, I believe that you’ll find yourself better set up to tackle the seemingly insurmountable day of tasks without feeling exhausted from being mentally pulled in 100 directions at a time. Perhaps you won’t feel like you need a prescription to fix you.

Perhaps the only thing missing was earmuffs.

How I Finally Stopped Smoking

How I Finally Stopped Smoking

I have an addictive personality. When I discover something that brings me pleasure, I tend to go all in. Sports, studies, hobbies.

 

I also know that there are some things that bring me pleasure that aren’t good for me, or risk serious harm. Junk food, alcohol, drugs, BASE jumping.

Thus the constant dance of life is between following the reptilian brain impulses to pursue things that bring me immediate gratification and the awareness that I’m indulging in self-destructive behavior that is not conducive to my longterm wellbeing or survival. I wrestle with what feels good and what I know is good for me.

I smoked my first cigarette at about 12 years old, a Virginia Slim. We had stolen one from my grandma, who had packs and lighters laying on every table of her house, ready to light up wherever she sat. Her ranch house had thick blue shag carpet that absorbed the cloud hanging forever in her house and preserved the smell of ashtray for years. She wouldn’t notice one missing from her multiple cartons on hand. We snuck out into the bush, puffed and coughed clumsily, thinking ourselves quite cool and mature. We doused ourselves in too much cologne to cover up the evidence.

The rebellious habit continued and worsened over the years, and I became a pretty regular smoker by the age of 15. I ran with a crew of misfits and troublemakers, and smoking cigarettes and being too cool for school was one of our calling cards.

The problem was that I was also a very physically active teen, playing soccer and snowboarding, and smoking was obviously not conducive to excelling at either of these pursuits. I also smelled like shit, and others (especially my mother) would call me out on the filthy habit, adding to my sense of guilt around it. What had started as a seemingly cool way for a young kid to stand out from the crowd had in fact become an addiction that no one envied. I was increasingly less proud of the habit, didn’t enjoy repelling girls by stinking like an ashtray, and could feel the physical impact on the other cardio-demanding hobbies I enjoyed. More than anything, I didn’t like the feeling of being a fiend about it, always craving the next hit. I didn’t like bumming smokes off other kids, and was even more ashamed of finding half-smoked “refried” cigarettes in public ashtrays or sidewalk cracks to light up like a junkie with no other options.

Around my senior year of high school I began a long string of attempts to kick the habit.

It was comprehensive. I tried nicotine patches, Nicorette gum, chewing sunflower seeds, breathing essential oils, taking herbal supplements, chanting daily mantras, snapping my wrist with a rubber band every time I craved a smoke. Each attempt would last no more than a couple weeks, days, or sometimes hours before caving to buy another pack.

I felt really defeated, and more than anything, I was pissed that a substance had taken control of me, hijacked my thinking and diminished my sense of willpower. I was determined not to remain a slave forever.

Interestingly, it was during my freshman year of college that I found the solution. I had moved to Durango, Colorado, a scenic mountain town where the college campus rested on a mesa that overlooked hundreds of rugged peaks in the distance. I moved to not only get out of suburbia, but also to pursue the fruits of mountain living. I continued playing soccer on an intermural team, and began mountain biking, hiking, backcountry snowboarding and rock climbing. I was loving the outdoor pursuits, but hated feeling my lungs burn every time I’d try to climb a hill on my bike or hike for a backcountry snowboard jump. My dirty habit was now really interfering with the things that brought me the most joy.

 So, I began using reverse psychology.

Having exhausted all other options in my toolbox (most of which were just replacing one habit with a less harmful one), I decided that what I needed to do was get under the hood and go to work on my brain. By 19 years old, I had begun to learn a little bit about neuroplasticity and the ability to begin rewiring our brains through new intentional habits, triggers and anchors.

Thus, instead of trying to make short-lived pacts with myself, set a goal or find a replacement, I simply created a very strong negative association with the filthy habit of smoking, and reinforced it with demanding cardiovascular exercise. Staying very present to the damaging health impact of smoking, I would consciously force myself to think about lighting up during the times when it was least opportune or enticing. In the middle of a full field sprint playing soccer, I’d imagine stopping dead in my tracks to spark up a Marlboro Red 100, and be repulsed at the thought as my heart pounded and lungs burned. Climbing up an endless 3,000 vertical foot single track on my mountain bike while coughing and hacking phlegm every 200 feet, I’d visualize pulling over to chain smoke 3 filterless Camel Wides back to back to back. The thought made me want to puke. Plodding for hours up a 14,000 foot peak, I had plenty of time to ruminate on the insane prospect of pausing to burn through half a pouch of hand-rolled tobacco, sure to exacerbate the effects of gasping for already thin mountain air. When returning from a long ride or full day in the high country, I’d have no desire to take a puff. I continued this psychological torture experiment for weeks until I had so deeply anchored the experience of smoking with physical pain that I no longer felt the urge, even after a meal or when driving or at parties or all the other places and activities that I’d previously associated with smoking as a joyful habit.

 

Sometimes, the aversion to pain can be a much more powerful force for change than the pursuit of pleasure.

If you have a habit or addiction that has gripped you for a long time that you know isn’t serving who you really are, perhaps its time to reframe your perspective about it. Instead of just looking for healthier alternatives for a replacement fix, get really clear on the negative impact it is having on your life (health, relationships, money, energy, self-esteem, mood, quality of life, etc.), and stay present to it whenever you notice the damaging physical, social and financial effects. Instead of worrying about what it is going to cost you to change, ask yourself, “What is it costing me already by not making a change?” If you get honest with yourself, you may discover that there’s too much at stake to justify continuing something that simply does you no good. Its easier said than done, but I promise you, a more fulfilling life awaits you on the other side of that choice.

Best of luck.

 

Travel the World, Free Your Mind

Travel the World, Free Your Mind

Why you should leave the country every once in awhile

 

    Formal education, family, mentors and work experience can serve us up to a point. However, if you have spent your entire life without ever leaving the comfort of your hometown, routine or language, you are  missing out on a great opportunity to better understand both the world, and yourself. And I don’t simply mean taking a weekend road trip out of town, I mean get yourself a passport and really see something new. While the benefits of travel are extensive, here are four reasons I recommend you leave the country:

 

1) You open your eyes to new ways of seeing the world

 

In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The mind, once stretched by new experiences, can never return to it’s old dimensions.” Simply put, there are millions of ways to experience life on this planet, and getting outside the country is a great way to discover what you’ve been missing. In French, to travel abroad or ‘a l’etranger’ translates loosely to traveling to a strange place. Travel allows you to experience vastly different views, foods, music, climates, languages, cultures, religions, art, historical relics, architecture, fashion, sports and pastimes. You discover that what occurs as a novelty to you is actually a way of life for others, and slowly begin to understand how such rituals and routines make sense given the places these people live. While staying with families in a remote village in the Amazon, we spent our days harvesting plantains and catching river fish to then eat at night, followed by community gatherings and dance performances. I also learned the importance of tucking the mosquito net firmly under the edges of my mattress at night after awakening to golf ball-sized insects clinging to every square foot of fabric. This was quite the shift from teaching skiing by day, eating a microwave pizza for dinner and sleeping with the window open at home in Colorado. You may even begin to find new things that you appreciate and even choose to incorporate into your own life upon returning home. Among my favorite take home souvenirs I had never formerly appreciated are hot wine, salsa dancing, acupuncture and quinoa.

 

2) You discover your resourcefulness.

 

The simple fact of leaving the familiar is that you have to draw upon all of your life skills to survive in a foreign environment. This means navigation, communication, time management, problem-solving and critical thinking, just to name a few. Additionally, you will at some point invariably have to utilize others such as patience, stress-management and courage, whether dealing with transportation breakdowns, lost or stolen belongings, or even questionable cuisine. When leading a group of college students on a semester abroad through South America, I learned of a fast approaching transportation strike in which trains in Bolivia were scheduled to shut down and buses were already meeting roadblocks of protesters, boulders and flaming furniture. It took some quick thinking and communication to get the group packed and rolling to our next destination on short notice so we didn’t get holed up in a tiny town for an extra week. When navigating foreign worlds, you are plucked from the comfortable convenience of your life in which you know your way across town, communicate with ease, enjoy your favorite foods in the fridge or at the local grocery store, find free WiFi at every corner, and consult your smart phone for any questions about the universe. Stripped from all of these common comforts, you will likely discover just how resourceful you are.

 

3) You cultivate empathy for other humans

 

    It follows #2, then, that as you begin to better understand the ways in which other people live in environments and cultures that are vastly different to our own, you also start to appreciate how they’ve come to be that way and why they hold those values dear. You may even become more open to reworking some of your own beliefs. In the words of Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” You may have strong and seemingly justified opinions about how humans should live their lives until you actually spend time living in their world and getting what it’s like on the other side of the fence. Perhaps they don’t have access to the same resources. Perhaps their government or religious leaders don’t permit the same freedoms or forms of self-expression. Maybe the cultural wounds of war or poverty are so deep that survival is prioritized over professional ambitions or Youtube stardom. Spending time not just in foreign places, but sharing a meal with the locals and hearing their stories will help you understand that their truths about how life should be lived may be just as valid as yours. Over dinner with our host in Dubrovnik, Croatia, he pointed to bullet holes in the outer wall and explained what ten years of war was like during the dismantling of former Yugoslavia. He drove us across the border into Bosnia the next day, past the remnants of many mortar-shelled homes and landmine-ridden pastures on which we were told not to walk. It slowly became more clear to my American friend and I the ways in which the fractured history of the region had not only reshaped the landscape, but also people’s views of their neighbors.
The empathy we develop doesn’t just reside in memory after returning from a foreign land, but continues to manifest in the ways we interact with the others new to our country, whether immigrants, visitors or non-native English speakers. We have a little better sense of the hardships of being out of our element, and are actually more inclined to lend a helping hand to those who look, speak and live differently than us. After spending time as guests in others’ countries, we actually become better ambassadors to our own nation.

4) You develop a new appreciation for your hometown

 

    Absence makes the heart grow fonder. After so many years of routine and familiarity with our home lives, it is easy to take basic creature comforts for granted. Thus, while traveling or upon returning home, we’re often reminded of the many simple pleasures and blessings in our lives. It could be the sense of belonging and connection as we greet friendly and familiar faces in our community, being close to family, reliable electricity and potable tap water, a healthy economy with ample employment opportunities, local cuisine, or easy access to your favorite forms of recreation and entertainment. After spending a month in China’s most bustling metropolises where millions of people shuffled shoulder to shoulder like cattle, and high pollution days produced a haze so thick as to obscure buildings a block away, returning home to the open space and fresh air of Colorado never felt so good. It could be as simple as getting a good night’s sleep in your own bed, or enjoying the smells of local flora in bloom. The point is, we often never realize how good we had it until being gone. Mom’s homemade brownies never tasted so sweet around the holidays.
Traveling to far-flung destinations is an opportunity to zoom out from your own life and experience the gift of reexamining it in a whole new way relative to the other 8 billion people who also call this planet home. You will likely find a greater appreciation for your own life and home, the lives of other humans, and a desire to take better care of both. Bon voyage.