When I was in college, someone said I walked as if I had no destination. Later in life I often walked as if nothing was more important than my destination. I wanted no one in my way, for example, when I was on a mission with a checklist. Today, I have both gears. I prefer a third gear in the middle. Time used efficiently is better than speeding…fewer mistakes and less chance for running off the road.
Last week, I received a message that two of my poems would be published. Entering the poetry world late in life, I have felt compelled to accelerate my pace. If I’m going to move along down the road, I’d rather be on my road bike than a stationary bike. But I can’t sustain 20mph through hills. Pacing is key to sustaining effort.
Negative self-talk is a time-waster. I remember some inspirational graffiti in a restroom at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California 45 years ago: DYSLEXICS OF THE WORLD, UNTIE! I want to shout to ADHDers of the world: UNTIE YOURSELF from negative self-talk and denial of potential.
Since ADHD is a complex disorder, simplifying is an antidote. Committing to a chosen path, for example, is simpler than spinning in self-doubt. Occasional episodes of negative self-talk are normal. Obsessing about them is just another time-waster. Someone in my support group once suggested naming negative thoughts to tame them. You might call them waves: There’s that wave again. You can’t stop waves, but you can watch them rise and subside. My friend Dave uses his own name as a label for the self-talk: There’s that Dave showing up again.
Most Adults with ADHD have trouble activating. A simple solution is diving. Diving into an activity lets you see how quickly activating overrides procrastinating. The inherent reward is what gets done. Substituting action for thought also silences obstructive self-talk. Washing dishes is far more pleasant than thinking about washing them. I may not know where to begin when writing a poem, but I can dive in and return later to re-write the first line. (“Wash One Dish” is chapter 2 in Living Well with ADHD.)
Negative mental habits are your own construction. Trying to extinguish them is a waste of time. They won’t hurt you if you’re willing to see them and nod to them, as if you’re standing on a diving board, waving to a familiar friend before diving into the water. The water changes everything.
I welcome your comments.
We’ve all heard phrases like, “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good,” or “Good and done is better than perfect and none.” But sometimes, working to a state of excellence does require deep focus and attention to detail. ADHD can interfere with discerning what levels of energy and effort are worth expending in pursuit of a goal (contributed by Sara Skillen, certified ADHD coach).
When writing Living Well with ADHD, I would get so deeply focused I was often unaware I had missed at least one meal. Sometimes I was surprised that the room had gotten dark. When I began overlooking other priorities, I knew I had to find a way to step back from deep concentration. I had to broaden my awareness to maintain balance and respect my family. That’s what we call open awareness. Adults with ADHD don’t make that shift of attention easily.
You probably have an extraordinary capacity for singleminded focus, but that mental strength can contribute to losing awareness of the bigger picture. What time is it? What other tasks are important today? What family priorities might I be overlooking? That’s why it’s important to practice some form of mindfulness of your attention states. You cannot be aware of your unawareness when stuck in a focused state, but you can (1) exercise the part of the brain that directs your awareness in and out of selective attention, (2) use alerts on your phone or computer to facilitate that shift of attention, and (3) keep a handwritten task list nearby (if it’s only in a digital file, out of sight can be out of mind).
Once you improve awareness of your attention state, you still need to prioritize. For many items on your task list, good enough will be good enough. Being perfectionistic wastes time. Save perfection for what you aspire to do exceptionally well, for actualizing your dream. The labor of writers offers a good example. If you want to activate, write a first draft without editing while drafting. Maintain an open state. Editing while drafting inhibits writing, and the final product ends up seeming disjointed and difficult to read.
My publisher told me, after I made many revisions to my manuscript and the proofs, that no matter how much I revised, I would find at least one mistake in the final printing. Sure enough, I misquoted Yogi Berra despite being a huge fan and having seen him play live. See if you can find the error. I’m over being embarrassed by it!
Sustaining your effort requires open awareness, which means awareness of time, your environment, and your state of attention. If not for awareness of your attention status, how would you know when it is off the tracks? A brain that’s locked up in a deeply focused state is like a head in the sand. You see only sand, nothing else.
There’s a method to practicing pausing and stepping back. It’s never enough just to learn about attention training. It’s like learning about physical conditioning, if you never exercise, you will never experience the conditioning effect. The same is true for exercising your brain and developing new habits. Focusing on ridding yourself of bad habits is seldom productive and less depressing than cultivating new habits through practice.
My optometrist tells me we see with our brains and that our eyes are only part of a larger picture. I’ve learned that lesson firsthand in eye therapy. My complex vision problems are mild, but for optimal vision, I need more than eyeglasses.
I Practice exercises that I’ve taped to doors in my house. I have others in a folder. I’ve strengthened my ability to shift my visual attention. My speed at shifting from close-up to distance and distance to close-up, from focus on one object to another and back, tracking moving objects, touching an object using location memory, have all improved with exercise.
Mental exercise is like visual training and physical training. There’s no gain without effort. But what does the effort in mental exercise look like? I will be addressing this topic in a July workshop on mindfulness practice for adults with ADHD and/or anxiety. Revisit my website for details coming soon (and read my September, 2022 blog). This is an in-person workshop.
Exercising attention and mental flexibility is good for your physical and mental health and good for your relationships.
When I approach people who seem withdrawn, they almost always express gratitude for my interest and respect. I suspect their presumptions are as distorted as mine. In truth, all presumptions are distortions. We just don’t know until we know…we’re all naive until we’re not.
I often find the most solitary people at social events to be the most interesting. Like poets and other artists, they quietly observe. Why wouldn’t they appreciate a curious observer of them?
The next time you feel uncomfortable or separate from others in a social situation, try connecting with someone who seems equally uncomfortable or distant. You might create a mutually rewarding experience, or even discover a likeminded friend.
I remember a wedding reception in Indianapolis where the majority packed the dance floor, moving their bodies without inhibition. I felt a little envy. They were rocking and I wasn’t. I was afraid to risk looking awkward in front of others, especially those who sat and watched from their tables, just observing like me. Then it occurred to me that they might be remaining seated for the same reasons.
I decided to experiment, to carry my self-conscious (self-absorbed) mind to the dance floor and try my best to imitate other dancers. The worst thing that could happen is I would look like a nerd and open a path for others to join me. Lonely onlookers might get up and dance and prove that nerds can rock like no one else!
If all avoiders were judging the majority—envying or berating them—and believing we didn’t belong, then we were all having the same experience. We were one with our tribe…so why not dance? Who’s looking at whom, and how much does it matter? I had a blast that night and met many people not too different from me!
I welcome your comments.
We seldom used our full names in recent years. I was TM and he was JR. We first met when we were eleven. He died suddenly a year ago at 72.
JR needed heart valve surgery. He’d get around to scheduling it when it was time. Scheduling and planning were not his strengths. He also planned to lose weight, start exercising, be more active. Doctors said he died from a heart attack. But there’s a bigger picture, an undiagnosed attention disorder.
He never planned to be evaluated for ADHD, though we knew. He planned to read about it and intended to buy a book. I gave him a book that he intended to read, one he’d been asking about. He had good intentions.
Long-term studies have shown that individuals with ADHD are far more likely to die prematurely than those who don’t have the disorder. Accidental injuries and unhealthy lifestyles contribute to a shortened expectancy. Untreated ADHD is a serious health risk.
JR seldom ate at home. There was too much clutter there, and he didn’t cook. He preferred meeting friends at Brown’s Diner or Chile Burrito and taking home undated leftovers. He liked cheeseburgers, fries, tacos, nachos, and shakes. He didn’t think of himself as obese until he nearly drowned in 2021 when his house flooded. He had become sedentary. He could sit for hours watching televised baseball games.
He seemed amused by the notion of having ADHD. Sometimes I chuckled politely, as if equally amused. Sometimes I confronted some of his self-defeating habits. Perhaps not enough. He was okay with the notion of having ADHD, but friends were affected. He had no pause button, no comma or period when he spoke. It’s hard to exit unpunctuated speech. Consequently, calls to friends sometimes went unanswered. He experienced waves of loneliness and mild depression.
Although he could be a difficult friend at times, JR was a lovable mess. He was playful, witty, friendly, and spirited.
If you have ADHD, learn all you can about it. Knowledge can be liberating; denying it can be lethal. Be mindful of your body, the vehicle that carries you through life. Don’t think of your health as something separate from you. There are no independent parts; they are all interdependent.
We are all interdependent. We need each other. You can find others like you in support groups in every region of the country. There’s nothing quite like having support from people who understand and accept you. All you have to do is show up for meetings and experience acceptance and mutual support. ADDNashville meetings are online and available to any adult with an ADHD diagnosis.
I understood my old friend, and I regret not insisting on an ADHD evaluation. I regret not dragging him to a support group meeting where he would have been warmly welcomed and encouraged, perhaps even directed–with compassionate assertiveness–to schedule his surgery.
I welcome your comments.
October is ADHD Awareness Month. Good thing it’s an entire month; a day would just slip right by us. One of the best things you can do about your ADHD is wake up each morning and say, “Today I have ADHD.” I’m serious. We all tend to deny having what we’d rather not have. But denying having ADHD symptoms is a prescription for wasting time and creating unnecessary relationship problems.
I’ll bet your spouse or partner is aware of your ADHD. That could be a good thing if you share observations of its effects on both of you. Shared awareness is a useful antidote for criticism and defensiveness.
My wife accompanied me to the first ADDA conference in the mid-nineties. Afterward, she let go of her involuntary burden of assuming too much responsibility. She was less critical and more helpful immediately after that weekend. She was more aware of reactions that were unhelpful to either of us. Her increased awareness facilitated my own, as there was less reason for me to be defensive. She quit saying things like, if you cared, you would have remembered, try not to forget next time, where did you last see your reading glasses?
More mindful suggestions saved her from taking responsibility for me and saved me from feeling judged. Here are two examples: What to you think you need to do right now to be sure you’ll arrive on time at the accountant’s office today? (She didn’t tell me what to do), and how long have you been looking for your glasses? (the answer was usually less than five minutes). She once suggested: Look five more minutes and then let me know if you still haven’t found them. Then I’d look as if I expected to find my glasses rather than resign prematurely like a twelve-year-old…a good prescription for being treated like a twelve-year-old.
ADHD Awareness seems like an oxymoron, but being mindful of mindlessness is possible. It requires practicing pausing. Pausing helps us momentarily inhibit selective attention, being brain-locked, often in some activity that is not a priority. If you don’t pause, you will remain unaware that you’ve lost open awareness. You don’t know what time it is, you’ve forgotten your priorities, and you are temporarily unaware of others, most importantly your partner.
If you lose awareness of a partner, it is not fair to criticize that person for being unhelpful. Partners of adults with ADHD often say their biggest complaint is the loss of their mate’s attention. It not only hurts them, it hurts you and your partnership.
Happy ADHD Awareness Month! Awareness is a path to happiness. As always, I encourage your comments and thoughts from your own experiences.
I believe in the value of emphasizing strengths over deficits. I’m pleased that ADHD professionals and researchers are talking more about this. At the same time, being strong also means being willing to accept failures and weaknesses as normal. Denying having weaknesses, and being defeated by failure, are not qualities of successful people. Affirmative thinking calls for accepting your strengths and weaknesses alike, and learning from failed efforts. There’s no day without night. Everyone experiences both. And failed effort is effort, which is the opposite of giving up.
Attaching negative meaning to failures and weaknesses is the bigger problem. You are not the failure. You are not weak. Instead of judging your self, only judge your performance. Then you will find creative ways to work around failures and challenges. Many highly successful people have said they learned more from their failures than their successes.
Let me illustrate. My memory is a weakness, just like my right eye. I rely on reading glasses for close-up vision. If I denied the unreliability of my working memory, I would handicap myself. Relying on my unreliable memory would be disabling. Relying on strategies and tools instead would be wise. If I thought of my self as a procrastinator, I would not find creative ways to activate. If I thought of my self as lazy, I would not sustain my effort. If I thought of my self as incapable, I would give up. Competence can be acquired. Any time I said to my mother that I couldn’t do something, she would say, “Can’t never did nothin.”
Is it possible to focus too much on strengths? I think so. After receiving early rejections of my book proposal, I didn’t lose confidence in the manuscript. I was certain those publishers and agents were all wrong, and I was going to show them. But my drive to prove my worth backfired. I was one chapter short of completing my book when I got derailed by writer’s block for a couple of weeks. I had nothing to say because my values had shifted. I had become attached to the idea of becoming a published author instead of staying with my original value of helping people through writing. Thanks to my meditation practice, and reading Phil Moffitt’s Emotional Chaos to Clarity, I saw the disabling effects of abandoning my values. When I returned to my original purpose, writing that next chapter was easy.
We are neither blessed with strengths to the exclusion of weaknesses, nor cursed with weaknesses, absent any strengths. Normal people aim high and sometimes fail. They also aim high and sometimes succeed. Success does not require being exceptional; it only requires exceptional effort. Normal life experiences, by definition, are not special. If you want to succeed, consider releasing any preconceived outcome so you can start and sustain your effort. Getting to the finish line follows many moments of effort. In fact, it comes out of effort. That’s why we call it outcome.
Dr. Jamie Ho is a low vision and neuro-rehabilitation optometrist in the Nashville area and one of the brightest people I know. She once instructed me to take breaks from writing, to step back from close-up work at the computer and relax my visual attention by gazing at objects far away. That wise prescription came at a time when my eyes had been blurring from many hours of daily writing. Looking at a screen inches away required more effort and coordination than gazing at a distance. Dr. Ho understands ADHD and has helped children with attention disorders through visual training. What she knows about visual attention applies to attention in general. We can practice directing our attention with intention.
Here’s one example. Getting started on dreaded tasks can seem difficult, and we avoid them. We would rather be in a focused state with stimulating activity than in an open state with a less preferred task. To start and sustain effort on dreaded tasks is easier than you think. Dreading may be the only problem.
Most dreaded tasks require little selective attention, meaning we can relax when we do them. Think of them as a break, allowing you to disengage from the close-up picture and relax into a bigger and softer picture. With softer attention, you will be more aware of other priorities, time, people, your pets, and your physical space. As a bonus, you will appear less selfish to your partner. You can engage in dreaded tasks with ease, listening to your favorite music or remaining silent to be aware of your negative thoughts. When you color your tasks black, they will be dark. They will be lighter when you lighten up.
What comprises a dreaded task anyway? Is it one that takes you away from a preferred activity? Don’t you just love to be intensely focused on your favorite things? Me too! I can deny, as easily as any adult with ADHD, that I need breaks from intense focus (In fact, I need one now, and I’m going to walk my dog in fifteen minutes).
Dreaded tasks may actually require less effort than stimulating tasks, but we continue believing they’re harder and take more time than they do. When we learn to see such notions as the mindless thoughts they are, it’s easier to redirect our attention. Then we can seamlessly tackle them and get them done more quickly. Dreading wastes time and consumes energy.
One way to break through your illusions is by training your brain through meditation. When you’re too close to your habitual thoughts (they’re right there in your brain), you don’t see them. Your head is under water where you see nothing but what’s near your face. When habitual thoughts take the lead, you mindlessly follow them. I’ve done that more often than I wish to admit. On the other hand, when you relax and step back from your thoughts, you can let them be. No effort is required in letting them be. Relaxing is easier than trying. You don’t have to try not to have…or try not to believe…your thoughts. Seeing them and lightening up is enough. As always, I welcome your comments.
In my August 20 meditation workshop for adults with ADHD and anxiety, we will discuss and practice alternatives to your habitual thinking that limits your potential to live with wise effort and mindful intention.
Don’t even try…just do it. The only hard part is starting. Sustaining a routine is hard only if you continue believing your thought that it’s hard. It’s like physical exercise. You’re less motivated to exercise when you’re out of shape, but once you’re in shape, exercise is easy. Put meditation on your schedule and work other obligations around it.
You already know how to focus. You’re a hawk when engaged in stimulating or urgent activity, but where does the time go when you do that? Time doesn’t travel; it’s your open awareness that goes away. You’re probably focused too much of the time…and too often on activity that is not a priority. Your difficulty noticing your brain-lock, and then expanding your awareness, may be a bigger challenge than you realized.
Here’s another point about mindfulness. You may believe you can’t possibly sit and do nothing but breathe. Does the idea of it seem too boring to imagine? What if boredom is nothing more than intolerance of restless feelings? If you continued sitting with restless feelings, you would be tolerating them, right? The thought that you can’t tolerate sitting quietly is only a thought. It’s as empty of substance as the empty cup that held your coffee this morning.
To meditate, you have to be willing to protect time for practice and get close to your experience (feelings, thoughts, life situations), regardless of discomfort. Uncomfortable feelings and situations are often the most useful ones in a meditation practice. They help us realize that discomfort doesn’t harm us. If you’re a little anxious before speaking in front of an audience, welcome to reality. Most of us carry some anxiety into public speaking. It’s not abnormal. You don’t have to rid yourself of discomfort to speak. But when you worry about uncomfortable feelings, you create more of them. The most debilitating part of anxiety is anticipating it. Put simply, being anxious about becoming anxious does not reduce anxiety.
Mindfulness is not about stopping thoughts or changing feelings, but observing them without judgment. It’s not about focusing your attention, but re-directing it. You can learn to reset your attention and change how you relate to uncomfortable feelings through practice, just like you can strengthen your muscles by working out routinely.
I will be leading an in-person workshop for adults with ADHD and/or anxiety Saturday, August 20, 2022 at Nashville Friends House. For details, return to the home page of my website to view the flyer.
I was uncertain in my young adult years about what career path to take after college. My dad suggested I think long and hard about what I wanted to do. Be your own boss, he said; don’t work for anyone else. He would not have been successful as a career counselor, but he was a successful owner of a family business.
Young adults with ADHD believe they ought to know what to do to earn a living once they have completed their academic work. Those who do are fortunate, but I doubt they are in the majority.
If you are not figuring it out, you may think there is something wrong. You may feel overwhelmed, and you may be getting anxious and depressed, as your less ambivalent peers are moving seamlessly into their careers. I changed career paths so often in the early years that my resume signaled to employers, “Don’t hire me…I’ll be gone in a year.” You can avoid the problems I created. Here’s my suggestion.
Get out of your head rather than further into it. Don’t think long and hard. There are career aptitude programs, like The Highlands Ability Battery, “a journey of self-discovery” ( http://highlandsco.com). There are other assessment tools, career counselors, life coaches, and ADHD coaches. Spinning inside your head is less useful than getting out of your head. Invite other heads to join yours in support of your efforts. Getting professional help is easier and more effective than overwhelming yourself with such a big and important mission. Don’t hurt yourself. Help yourself to available support so you can live well with your ADHD
Artists are often told by well-meaning parents to have a back-up plan. Maybe that’s good advice. Ellis Marsallis is said to have told his three sons, all successful jazz musicians, NOT to have a back-up plan. He thought it would inhibit their efforts to succeed as artists. And Mr. Marsallis modeled for them what wise effort looks like.
It can be a good idea to follow your passion. If you are stimulated by the activity of your work, that stimulation may be as useful as stimulant medication. Perhaps more useful. I welcome your comments and suggestions for your ADHD peers.