How I Got My Groove Back
One man put the brakes on the ADHD roller coaster by implementing some key survival strategies. From clearing out clutter to getting enough sleep, these tips can help boost your mood and productivity.
I realized that my husband and I were “wired differently” early on in our 17-year relationship. For example, I would remind myself about a car-repair appointment by posting a sticky note on my placemat at the kitchen table. My husband, Jack, would place a pair of socks in the hallway. I didn’t understand his method, but I accepted that it worked for him.
One year into our marriage, we learned about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — specifically, that he has it. Now I understand Jack’s offbeat strategy for remembering to do something. Ten years into the diagnosis, he’s held onto a few of the strategies that got him through a tough doctoral program in science many years before. He’s also adopted new ones, including medication, amino-acid supplements, regular exercise, and confidence in his ability to drop bad habits and develop more productive ones. They’re keeping him healthier, happily employed, and more content with life.
As I’ve traveled the globe this past year, speaking about adult ADHD, I’ve found that audiences like hearing our pre- and early-diagnosis war stories (both comic and tragic), but they are especially interested in practical tips that might help them slow down their own personal ADHD roller coaster. So, one Saturday afternoon, I sat down with Jack and asked him to share his best strategies with me. Here they are.
1. No More Bad Eggs in the Closet
“When I was four, my mother gave me a hard-boiled egg for lunch. I found it repugnant, but I didn’t know what to do with it. So I stuffed it in the back of my closet in a winter boot. It was summer. When my mother finally discovered the stinking egg, she was not pleased.
“My wife finds this story hilarious — especially because my modus operandi had changed very little by the time we married. I’ve since learned that stuffing things in a closet when I don’t know what to do with them is a bad idea.
“But it took years of living with the consequences — not being able to find things, forgetting about things, knowing I hid a mess in a closet or in a drawer because I didn’t want to deal with it, much less have anyone know about it — before I changed my ways. Knowing it wasn’t ‘responsible’ or ‘adult’ behavior only exacerbated my psychological burden. I know that I’m better off keeping things in order.
“Having structure — a specific place to put things — is key. So I have organizers everywhere, with their contents plainly visible. Otherwise, they’ll just blend into the background. In my office closet, I use stackable, plastic, see-through boxes of various sizes. Each is labeled — ‘cables,’ ‘batteries,’ ‘cords.’ The rule is, Don’t mix items.
“On the bedroom dresser, I have a wooden valet that holds my wallet and the chargers for the cell phone, PDA, and Bluetooth. It also has a drawer for watches. This keeps all of my gadgets charged — and I don’t have to mess with a bunch of cords and look for things. It also, of course, minimizes clutter.
“Routinely, I take a hard look at every item that comes into my hands, gauging its usefulness. Am I really going to need this thing ever again? If not, I usually get rid of it. That’s better than being overwhelmed by clutter. If I decide to keep it, it goes to its rightful place.
“If I still end up with clutter in my office or at home, it’s because I was too lazy to put something in its designated spot. I’m not perfect. But through the years, I have learned to hate accumulation. I scan my desk and closet on a regular basis, to make sure that clutter doesn’t creep in.”
2. Clear the Decks — and the Desk
“I strive to have more available space than filled space on my desktop — at my office and at home. The more accumulation, the more oppressive it feels to my ADHD brain, and the more defeated I feel.
“That means banishing organizers to a credenza or to shelves. Now, everything on my desk has a reason for being there, and I put each item — stapler, highlighter, pen, calculator — back when I’m done using it. This is a fairly easy goal to achieve because I don’t have many things on my desktop to begin with. Bottom line: I put crap back where it belongs — systematically.”
3. Use the ‘Odd’ Reminder Strategy
“The idea is simple: Place an object where it has no business being, as a way to prompt the question, ‘What is this doing there?’ This reminds me that I have something out of the ordinary to do that day. My recall has always been good, whenever I could slow down my body and brain enough to access it.
“My wife used to find this strange: How would a sock remind me of an oil change? It’s not about correlation; it’s about surprising me into stopping and remembering. For me, this method was always better than writing a note, because I wouldn’t have taken the time to look for a note or read it. It wouldn’t catch my attention. Or I would lose it or forget to look at it.
“I use plenty of notes and plans for work projects. I reserve the ‘strange object’ method more for the irregular chore or the odd personal appointment — say, a doctor’s appointment on a weekday morning. So I might leave a can of chili in the middle of the kitchen floor before I go to bed at night. That will make me stop and think the next morning, ‘What am I supposed to do today?'”
4. Plan Your Work — Work Your Plan
“Sounds trite, I know. But I finally accepted the wisdom of this ageless axiom. When tackling a project, I used to jump in without a solid plan. My overconfidence and impatience convinced me that I had it all figured out in my head — or that I’d figure it out as I went.
“When programming software code — I am a scientist who writes software — I would just start ‘hacking,’ jumping into the work without thinking it through. And that led to forgetting critical steps. The code wouldn’t work, and errors were harder to fix than if I’d thought it through first. I’d get frustrated, and that would spill over into my professional and personal relationships.
“I’ve trained myself to think before I start a project. I write down the steps. I also let the plan mature for a while before beginning. Otherwise, I might overlook something critical.”
5. Think Like a General
“I’ve learned a lot about structure and organization from watching The Military Channel. Meaning, I do not waste time and distract myself by stopping to hunt down miscellaneous items I will need. Instead, I keep multiple caches of must-have items, such as glasses, batteries, medication, pocketknife, hand sanitizer, handkerchief, nail clippers, checkbook, and cash. One set stays in my backpack, another in my car, and another at my desk. At work, in the car, or at home, I always have access to must-have items.
“My backpack serves as my briefcase, and it goes to and from work with me every day. At all times, it contains the items mentioned above, plus whatever I might need on the commuter train or to give a presentation. I keep track of all the items, thanks to the backpack’s many pockets (made of netting), with each item assigned a place. The outer pocket is reserved for travel documents. Nothing else goes in that pocket.
“In the car, same story: over-the-seat organizers, with pockets of netting that display the must-haves, plus gloves, muffler, umbrella, a shaver, and emergency supplies. My gym bag is always in the trunk, so my exercise schedule doesn’t depend on my remembering to pack it that morning.”
6. Sleep Well — Your Brain Depends on It
“I used to go to sleep when I couldn’t stand up any more. This created a cycle of drinking too much coffee the next day and crashing in fatigue by mid-afternoon. Moreover, sleep deprivation only intensified my ADHD’s cognitive deficits.
“Now I’ve trained myself to go to bed at the same time each night and to aim for eight hours of sleep. Since I need to read in order to doze off, I tackle something interesting enough to take my mind off tasks — but not so interesting that it makes me keep reading.”
7. Cross-Examine Yourself
“When I got to college, and was faced with more demands on my time, I realized I would not succeed if I didn’t manage my time better.
“Electronic gizmos weren’t common back then, but I found a watch with a calendar display that would warn me several weeks in advance of a major commitment. It was a constant reminder to mind my time. This helped me train myself to ask throughout the day, ‘Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?’ If I was sidetracked by ‘something shiny,’ this question got me back on track.
“It wasn’t a perfect strategy. I still drank gallons of coffee, and my study habits were inefficient. In the end, fear of missed deadlines helped me stick with it. Prolonged anxiety takes its toll, though. With my ADHD diagnosis and medication, I’m able now to implement this strategy without ‘self-medicating’ with worry.”
8. Beware: PDAs Can Hide the Important Stuff
“Relying solely on a PDA to remind me where I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to be doing, has never worked for me. The gadget hides too much, and I have to remember to go looking for it — not the greatest starting point for people with ADHD. Around the time I was diagnosed with ADHD, I started using a FranklinCovey paper planner, and printed out pages from Outlook that fit into it. The paper planner was more visible than a PDA — it sat on a raised platform on my desk — so it was very helpful. It became my oracle.
“These days, I’m Outlook-driven, managed almost entirely from my desktop computer (a laptop, with docking stations at home and in my office). Outlook integrates my calendar, contact info, and tasks. It has notes, which I find useful for storing tidbits that I don’t know where else to put. And it syncs with my PDA, which serves as my portable Outlook, as well as my phone. This electronic network works well for me.”
9. Put the ‘Auto No’ on Manual
“What’s the Automatic No? I would routinely say no when my wife would propose an outing or a different way of doing things at home. I didn’t know why. I wasn’t opposed to most of her suggestions.
“Looking back, I suspect I didn’t want to think about and remember something else, possibly resulting in another failure. Most of you know what I mean by this: You grow so accustomed to falling flat when attempting new things that you avoid trying them. I found it easier to say no and go watch Star Trek instead!
“I’ve learned to listen with an open mind before rejecting an idea. Now we have this shtick, in which my wife will suggest something and I’ll say ‘no.’ She’ll repeat it, and I’ll say ‘no.’ She tries one more time, and I often say ‘OK.’ It helps to get the no’s out of my system, and it allows me to assess how I feel about the idea.”
10. Unplug, Defrag
“I used to think I was super-productive because I worked every day, including weekends. Now I know that my brain, in order to perform well consistently, needs at least one full day free of agitation and overstimulation. Getting a cognitive break is important for me. I work at an intense level during the week, and sometimes on Saturday (allowing time off for the gym and relaxing with my wife). If I don’t take time off for restorative activities, I work less efficiently and less creatively. I get stuck in a grind and have trouble solving problems.
“What’s more, being at the computer all the time is a bad pattern to get into. You start expecting the world to behave like a computer — to demand yes/no answers. The world is not like that. You get delays in real life. Your computer can also be a source of addiction, because it is constantly stimulating. For people with ADHD, that is a slippery slope. When I take a day off, I can calm down a bit, snooze, read, hike with my wife, do some chores in the yard. The next day, my battery is recharged. I’m eager to get back to work!”