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A few ways to override the overactive ADHD brain
I’ve been struggling to get back to writing this newsletter for a variety of reasons. But the most compelling one has been feeling overwhelmed.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my first novel which I started about five years ago. As I write this, its pages are spitting out of my printer one page at a time. I hate killing so many trees but it is the best way to give it to someone else to read. I am printing it double-sided if that’s any solace. But that’s not why I’m writing this missive today.
As many of you know, I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and if you neurotypicals think you get overwhelmed, well then you haven’t lived in my brain. That’s not to say I’m better or worse than you — it’s just that my speeding brain is sometimes unable to stop and make decisions when I feel like this.
According to myriad sources including Psychology Today, adults can be faced with making thousands, if not tens of thousands (35,000?), of decisions daily. One decision I made over the last few days was to try and track down the source of this 35,000-daily-decision assertion. I spent several hours trying to track it down, to no avail — time I could have spent writing about ADHD and overwhelm instead. So, I’m giving up. If anyone has any insight into this question, I’d love to hear from you.
But it’s clear we do have thousands of thoughts and make many choices in a single day, let alone a week or a month or a year — what to eat, what project to work on next, which emails to answer and which can be ignored, or whether to even get out of bed and face the overwhelm that is adult life with a neurodiverse brain.
So how can we overcome the overwhelm?
One of my favorite sources of tips on handling my ADHD is ADDitude magazine. There are some suggestions from Judith Kolberg (who, by the way, predates Marie Kondo in the field of professional organizing). These tips might be geared toward those with ADHD, but they might help anyone feeling overwhelmed — I mean we all get that way sometimes.
To-do lists are great but there are parameters that one may need to incorporate to really make them effective. Keep your list somewhere that you won’t lose it — ADHDers are notorious for misplacing things — especially little scraps of paper. Write them down in a journal or enter them into a task list on a calendar app. Kolberg says assigning a task to a specific day increases the chances you will complete it by about 70%.
She doesn’t provide a citation but I believe her. I started keeping a bullet journal a few years ago and since then, I’ve finished the first draft of a novel, written a couple of children’s picture books (and workshopped them), written a nonfiction book proposal and reported and photographed several articles — that’s in addition to writing this newsletter and the money-making “day job” that has nothing to do with anything creative but it pays the bills.
I keep a weekly task/appointment list in a journal. I review that list every evening before going to bed and transfer the tasks I think I can and want to accomplish the following day into a daily list. I put little check boxes next to each one because it is so gratifying to enter the little tick marks when I’m finished with something. It soothes my brain and gives it the signal that I can move on to the next thing — albeit another decision to make, ha, ha.
Kolberg suggests that changing one’s environment can optimize attention. If your home office has too many distractions, maybe try going to a coffee shop or, weather permitting, sit outside or go to a park.
The call of distractions, at least for me, is stronger if I need to accomplish something my brain doesn’t relish doing. This is true for a lot of folks with ADHD. I have a secret spot in a public park underneath some shady trees that I love to frequent when the weather is warm. Bonus — there’s no internet connection there. I also enjoy sitting on my back deck or under the buckeye tree in our backyard with an expansive view of the mountains (although I try not to enjoy the view too much or I wouldn’t get any work done).
Enlisting a support team is the last thing Kolberg mentions in her article. Having someone keep you accountable be it a critique group if you are a creative or a deadline (self-imposed or otherwise) or recruiting what she calls a “body double” — someone who is physically present while you do a task but isn’t doing it with you.
With that in mind, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the hundreds of body doubles who are with me regularly on Zoom as I write daily. Writers’ Hours are free Zoom calls during which people from around the globe log in and write together in silence for an hour four times daily five days a week. They were instituted during COVID lockdown by the remarkable duo of Matt Trinetti and Parul Bavishi (aka Ma and Pa) founders of the London Writers’ Salon. I had never been able to establish a regular writing habit until I started attending these sessions. It’s really quite a magical community.
All that being said, know that if you are someone with ADHD, it is important to realize that though it’s worth attempting to use some of these suggestions, they may not work for you. Try one and if it doesn’t work, try something else. Eventually, you will find your bliss, it may take a little time so be patient with and kind to yourself. And if you have tricks that work for you, please share them in the comments. After all, we’re in this together.