When I was finally diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder in my late 30’s, my life changed — dramatically and for the better. I won’t talk about the fact that many women don’t get diagnosed because of gendered symptomatology. Or that hyperactivity isn’t automatically a part of the brain’s malfunctioning chemistry.
What I will talk about are…lists.
All my life, I’ve been a list-maker. Sometimes, my lists have had to be granular to the point of ‘brush teeth’ and ‘take meds’ and ‘walk dog.’ Sometimes, I’ve tried to limit what goes on my lists (hello, five and one-of-five, rocks and sand, and eat-the-frogs-first techniques…I see you!). But, mostly, I end up with multiple lists that I have to write out multiple times before I get to a point where I think I have prioritized correctly for the day/week/month.
Some people can operate without lists (grocery lists aside). My husband is one of them. I look at him as Moses must have gazed upon the burning bush. Scary and miraculous.
I need lists. I need to write things down so I don’t forget (or go in anxiety-ridden circles worrying about forgetting). But, what I have learned is that while my ADD is part of why I need lists, it is also part of what blocks me from understanding prioritization.
Uh…what was Job One again?
Give me a complex event to plan out, a cross-country move to manage, a publication process to oversee, and I can break that out into segments and steps in my sleep. Ironic, non? But, it’s actually a remnant of my early years working in public relations in the dot com boom era.
Every week, we had to set up a new client from scratch, plan the strategy, design the press kit, book the press tour, and set up the speaking gigs – all from start to finish in about six weeks.
I can break down a project’s elements no problem. It’s just…when it comes to deciding what part to do first, I hit a wall. Like, crash test dummy speed into brick wall.
Part of it is that I can make a convincing argument why each task could be the most important thing to start first. Maybe it’s sophistry, maybe it’s just a really unfortunate talent.
I have a real, fundamental problem understanding how to prioritize. How have I gotten this far in life, you ask? (And, rightly so.)
Basically, I panic and push and yell at myself to do everything, forcing myself into a kind of multi-tasking hell. Not just for big things, either. From cooking dinner to getting ready in the morning, this was what life was like before I learned about ADD and how to manage it. And, it still is like that sometimes, because there’s no such thing as perfection.
Iteration or idiotration?
A lot of times, when I tell people that I have to rewrite my to-do lists two-to-three times, I get this blank stare, with hints of ‘You are the unholy offspring of a Martha-Stewart-one-night-stand-with-a-Franklin-Covey-planner.’
But, here’s the thing. This isn’t something that I feel self-righteous about in any way. In fact, it’s kind of a handicap.
I can’t just sit down at the start of a day and whip out a to-do list in five minutes or less. Nor is the list–once I come up with it–just a quick jotting down of the key top-level tasks. Most demoralizing of all is the fact that I chronically underestimate the amount of time things take to accomplish, so my lists are always over-long and under-done.
Don’t get me wrong–I’ve pulled off some miracles in terms of getting an incredible amount of things done and running major MAJOR projects (both personal and professional) with military precision. But, I always get the feeling that it’s harder for me to wrangle the pieces into place about ‘who/what’ next because I get hung up on the ‘why.’
If the ‘why’ is somehow miraculously obvious to me for once, I can always trip myself up with my anxiety. What better way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory than by letting anxiety build up even the simplest of tasks into insurmountable obstacles. (Hello, making telephone calls.)
Basically, I set aside an hour every Sunday–yes, truly a full hour–to try and figure out what I need to do for the coming week, both in terms of work projects and home projects. I would love to start each week with a blank slate, having finished all my tasks from the week before. But, it’s never that easy.
Usually, half the things on my list from the previous week remain undone. This is due to a satanic trifecta of anxiety-driven procrastination, underestimating the amount of time things take, and the inability to easily accommodate surprise tasks into my day’s plan.
There are months where the same six or seven things appear every single week. Needless to say, those don’t feel like very good months to me. Occasionally, though, I feel like I get close to getting it right. Those are weeks when two-thirds to three-quarters of the things on my list get done. I don’t know what the magic formula is, though. Maybe I just picked the right tasks and the right amount of tasks out of sheer dumb luck. Maybe the universe decided to hold off on a dropping a ton of unexpected things in my lap.
Maybe I’m just hoping that practice will eventually make…normal.
Keys to the executive functioning washroom
The important thing to realize about ADD is that it doesn’t just get solved with medication (though that helps amazingly by turning down the volume on being distracted by the 6,000 ideas having a party in the meth lab in the downstairs apartment in my brain). To really get a handle on living better with ADD, you need counseling that focuses on cognitive behavioral therapy. Trust me. Meds without CBT is just putting a bunch of bandaids over something that really needs stitches.
I went through years of learning to recognize where my brain hits brick walls in executive functioning, which is what decision-making and prioritization fall under. Once I began to tell the difference between genuinely complex decisions that naturally everyone would take time to figure out and my own ADD-driven inability to understand and parse out priorities, I had to learn to recognize my coping mechanisms.
Obsessive list-making was a natural–and shockingly relatively healthy–coping mechanism I developed when I was still very young. Procrastinating using Tetris and Bejeweled to numb my panic was another–and unsurprisingly far less healthy–coping mechanism.
The thing is, trying to go cold-turkey and be all absolutist about not wasting time and procrastinating only made me more anxious. And less productive. Which made me more anxious.
One of the first steps I had to learn in developing new habits was that trying to be 100% of anything 100% of the time is an impossible equation that only feeds the circuit more anxiety juice with each failure to live up to impossible standards.
The next step was to recognize that it’s really a game of ratios. Somedays will naturally be more anxious than others. Some will be more productive. The goal isn’t to achieve perfection and unheard-of levels of productivity. What I need to aim for is slowly moving the needle in the right direction, cumulatively and over time, through the development of habit and routine.
Accepting and incorporating my anxiety and my procrastination into my planning does help when it comes to learning how to be more realistic about the amount of time things take and what can actually be done in a day.
And, to be perfectly honest, I’m still working on learning how to prioritize. Everyone has an opinion on what should be the most important thing–and it’s hard to tell them to sit down and shut up when they are all in my head.
Why can’t I have habits, too?
All around me, people have habits. They have lives that settle naturally into schedules and routines. Part of it probably has to do with jobs, school, and other outside scheduling forces. But…part of it is that my brain refuses to play by the rules.
Even when I was working in a 9-5 job, I never really had two mornings that were the same. Sure, my alarm would go off at the same time every day, but maybe I got up. Maybe I hit the snooze. Maybe I hit the snooze twice. Did I feel like walking the dog first or showering first? Should I make coffee for myself before I walked the dog or save it for a treat after I got back? Should I drink my coffee in the shower (and yes, I did try that once…I’m not sure why I thought it would work).
I couldn’t seem to leave the house at the same time everyday. If I had laid out my outfit the night before, I decided I wanted to wear something completely different. Coming home was the same thing, just in reverse. I never seemed to leave work at the same time. I did manage to walk the dog right when I got home, but that was mostly because of guilt. But cooking dinner, doing the dishes, working out…everything was up for grabs.
Yes, I know this all sounds kind of ridiculous and funny. But, there’s a real price to not having the ability to stick with a routine and develop habits. I sank so much time and energy worrying and debating every step of what to do. This is time I will never get back. A routine that I could do on auto-pilot would have allowed me to be more present, more engaged with the people around me, less anxious about every little thing.
I still struggle with this. It’s part of why I’ve tried to incorporate habit-building into my to-do lists. On a hopeful note, I have noticed that lately there might be a few little habits starting to germinate. Now, I just have to be patient with them and myself and let them grow naturally instead of rushing to set them in stone (like I usually do), which inevitably leads back to the whole absolutist-anxiety-failure cycle.
First World problems can still be real
I know that a lot of this probably has more than a hint of self-indulgent analytical navel-gazing about it. I am usually far more dismissive and pragmatic (and cynical) about what feel like extra-special high-falutin’ problems.
I’m also reeeeaaaallly not a fan of shifting blame for genuine lapses in character onto emotional disturbances or touchy-feely hang-ups. Over the years, I have learned it’s actually far more freeing to just admit, “Yeah, I was lazy/avoiding/uninterested/didn’t feel like it.”
There are a lot of things in my life that have gone wrong or fallen short of my goals, and I can definitely say I often allowed myself to make bad choices that played a major part in the outcomes. But, once I admit my culpability, I no longer have to sort through the overwhelming clutter of excuses in order to identify the real problems.
For example, I have a really hard time disciplining myself to do things I don’t want to do. That’s a character issue for me. Building up anxiety, procrastinating, and abandoning one task in the middle because I’m distracted by another? Those are complications caused by my ADD. It just doubles the height of the obstacles I have to learn to overcome.
Sometimes, I make mistakes and miss details because I just don’t feel like going back over my work. That’s a character issue. But, forgetting steps, jumping ahead, getting confused, and being unable to catch errors even when double-checking? That’s my ADD.
And yes, I know that part of what I need to do is just slow down and force myself to go step-by-step, but…it’s not as easy as it sounds. Because if it were, I wouldn’t have any problems. But, I can read instructions and forget the next instant what I read, or misremember it because I got distracted by a phone ring or email beep. My mind goes in a hundred different directions even while I’m trying to concentrate. Sure, I’m supposed to be proofreading my work, but I’m also thinking about what I need to do with it when it’s done, how long the next step will take versus the deadline, the timeline and progress of the bigger picture or project, I need to run to CVS and pick up my refills, I wonder what really is behind the Bermuda Triangle, I will be so pissed if so-and-so used the last of the morning blend coffee pods in the break room, oh crap where was I?
While I have lost jobs and relationships largely due to my own problems, my ADD, First World problem though it is, has played an Oscar-worthy supporting role in exacerbating existing issues.
So, to circle this all back to the obsessive writing of lists, I do this because I don’t want to lose friendships or cost myself any more opportunities because I forgot something or didn’t finish something. I’ve lived with enough of that to know I don’t want to anymore.
How about you? Are you a list-maker, or does it all live in your head? I’d love to hear any ideas or suggestions you have!