Survival Tactics: ADD/ADHD Edition

DeeDee newMental illness sucks.

But life goes on, and on, and on, regardless of how I’m feeling from one day to the next. Some days are pretty darn good, others, not so much. Over the last 30 years, however, I’ve come up with some strategies that help me get by. I call them “survival tactics” and I’m pretty sure we all have our own collection of adaptive mechanisms that help us make it through the hard times.

I have both bipolar disorder and ADD, and they screw me up in different ways. Sometimes they overlap (racing thoughts, distractedness) but they are mostly distinct. Here are a few of the survival tactics that help me maintain the illusion of being high functioning. Today I’m going to focus (ha ha ha ha ha!) on ADD; the second edition will discuss my strategies for managing bipolar disorder.

Please feel free to chime in with your own ways to work around/with/through the challenges that mental illness presents!

Adapting to ADD

ADD is a challenge for me every single day, not just during episodes or cycles. Every day. Accordingly, I have a lot more little tricks that I use to manage my inattentiveness and distractedness.

Some of these date back to age 6 – that’s when I was first conscious of setting up systems to keep myself together. Sometimes I marvel at that; I’ve been knowingly working out coping mechanisms for 28 years. Seriously?!?

  1. Problem: Keys. I lock myself out of the house routinely. It’s so embarrassing!
    Solution
    : Many copies, one in every purse/backpack. The keys must be on “leashes” that are long enough to allow me to pull them out and use them without detaching them from the bag – that way I cannot accidentally lose them or misplace them. Keep a key hanging in the garage, which has a numeric code door opener. I rarely forget number strings (math training) so this works extremely well for me. Some day I’ll just get a numeric keypad for the house…
  2. Problem: Losing things. All the time.
    Solutions
    : Consistency! Keep the same things in the same pockets. Hang car keys on the same hook by the back door every single time you exit and enter. It’s easier to train to a routine than it is to go hunting for stuff every day. Have a small number of designated places for random things to pile up (no more than one per room, preferably within a container of some kind), and clean them up every so often.
  3. Problem: Forgetfulness and distractability impacting productivity.
    Solutions
    : To-do lists. Sticky notes or index cards always at hand. Productivity management software (I heart OmniFocus!) Checklists for travel packing. Grocery lists. Lists of lists. Routinely cleaning up and consolidating the lists. Brain-dumping as often as possible, because I can’t keep lists in my head.
  4. Problem: Getting myself out of the house in one piece, with everything I need. It takes forever. It frustrates Mr. Chickadee and me to no end. I never get any better at this.
    Solution: Allot 15 minutes for preparing to leave the house (20-25 minutes in the winter, to allow for bundling up). DO NOT allow other tasks to infringe on prep time; if necessary, make a note of whatever else I thought needed to be done, but don’t do it until later. At the start of those 15 minutes, put on shoes and put wallet and phone in pockets. Check the weather forecast so I pick the right outerwear. Then arrange everything else needed to depart. Start piling the little things up earlier in the day (even days in advance sometimes, e.g. especially for paperwork) so I can just pick up the pile, inventory, add whatever is missing, and get on my merry way. Put the things I’m going to need in the direct path to leaving the house – yes, in the middle of the floor, because I’ll forget if it’s on the counter – so I will trip over them if I forget. Have multiples of important objects to keep in different bags, e.g. I have a dedicated toothbrush in every piece of luggage that I use. These tactics don’t always work all that well, but it’s the best I’ve got.
  5. Problem: Everything takes longer than I thought it would. Everything takes longer than it really should.
    Solution: Set a timer. Ask Mr. Chickadee to intervene when the promised hour has arrived. No excuses after said intervention, because he’s gotten worn out on my crappy follow-through and gets pissy with me and then I feel like a total jerk for being such a flake. And it really is my fault, and he really has been patient as a saint with this. Limit reached, must not be breached!
  6. Problem: Psychomotor agitation, i.e., can’t sit still.
    Solution: Get up and use the bathroom or get a refill on beverage. If not needed, do some other trivial 2-second task, and get back to work.
  7. Problem: Speaking out of turn, fidgeting in class, daydreaming during group meetings (psychomotor agitation in public.)
    Solutions: Work off excess energy and inattentiveness by keeping hands busy. Knit – the hands-down best solution I’ve found. Doodle. Take notes: copious, extensive, verbatim notes by hand (this also strongly supports learning through reinforcement by repetition and kinesthetic translation of audio/visual content.)
  8. Problem: Inability to adequately focus to read directions or large blocks of badly formatted text (e.g., drug information inserts…)
    Solution: If it’s digital, print it. Use another sheet of paper to block off the lines I haven’t read yet. Move the paper down as I read each line. Make summary notes of critical steps of directions in order that they must be completed. Circle, underline, or highlight important details on the directions themselves. Make a checkbox next to summary steps to double-check that they were completed before turning in the work.
  9. Problem: Electronic distractions.
    Solution: Quit email program when trying to work. Quit Twitter client when trying to work. Shutting the windows is not enough; I have to quit the applications. Save email and blogging activity for lunch breaks and late in the afternoon when ADD meds have worn off. Never interrupt an in-person interaction for a phone call. Refuse to feel guilty for not immediately replying to things. Being productive and/or present in the moment is more important.
  10. Problem: Prioritizing work.
    Solutions: First Things First. Get someone to help me prioritize. Specifically ask which task is more important when two competing tasks are assigned. Ask how important the details are, when each thing is due, and organize tasks accordingly. Break stuff into smaller chunks, and organize them logically in order of importance or interdependency. When due dates conflict with something that is important, say no, agree to do only the part of the tasks that don’t conflict with the deadline, or ask for a different deadline. Ask for extensions only when truly necessary (don’t want this to become a habit).
  11. Problem: Too many ideas all at at once that melt away almost immediately.
    Solution: Keep a notepad and pencil in the car, in every bag, next to my seat at the table, next to my seat on the couch, 6″ from my keyboard… I’ve tried voice memos on my phone but they don’t work well for me because I forget that I made them. When the thoughts start flying, get out the writing materials immediately. I particularly like the Pilot G-2 07 mini mechanical pencils: no pencil sharpener, will not dry up or freeze like a ballpoint, and are small enough to carry one in every jacket pocket, every purse, every everywhere (these are all very important characteristics for making this strategy effective, which is why I mention them and my satisfaction with this product.) I can often find scrap paper but a writing utensil is not always at hand unless I systematically ensure it.
  12. Problem: Forgetfulness and distractability in general.
    Solution: Routines. They make it easier for me to manage everything. I take my meds during breakfast every morning, and leave them right next to my place at the table so I won’t forget. I always brush and floss before bed. These are simple, straightforward, easy, obvious things to do – if you don’t have ADD. Doing it every single day, and sticking to it no matter what, keeps things working smoothly. Things fall apart when I don’t.

While most of these techniques are things I use to help me get by with ADD, a lot of them could work for mood episodes that affect your ability to concentrate or complete tasks. Everyone has different talents and shortcomings, so shoring up your weak points with the things you’re good at is generally a strong approach.

Hearing about the way that others approach these problems is also incredibly valuable – learning by example is sometimes so much easier. Had I never seen anyone else using productivity management software, I would never have known it existed and would surely have drowned in sticky notes and lists of lists years ago!

© DeeDee and A Canvas Of The Minds 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to DeeDee and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. This work is protected under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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9 thoughts on “Survival Tactics: ADD/ADHD Edition

  1. “Never interrupt an in-person interaction for a phone call. Refuse to feel guilty for not immediately replying to things. Being productive and/or present in the moment is more important.”

    I think that this in particular is something that everyone, everyone in this world should learn.

    And I think the whole post is wonderful. You’re right, many of these strategies can be helpful for those without ADD. 😉

    • Thanks, Ruby!

      Our current culture of busy-ness just isn’t healthy. We know it. We can undo it. Part of that is refusing to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs every time the email inbox dings or the phone buzzes. I ignore incoming email when I’m working on writing because the writing is more important (boy, did it take a long time to figure that one out.) I ignored a call back from my therapist this afternoon because I was filling out paperwork for a group therapy intake interview, and the sign in the waiting room said “no cell phone use.” If it’s important, they will leave voicemail. If not, then it’s not important!

      • I agree with you so completely. Though in my case it was less salivating like the proverbial dog and more cringing like a torture victim upon hearing the approach of her captor’s feet.

        Perhaps that’s why it contributed more profoundly to my madness. . . and why it took such a relatively short amount of time for me to understand and overthrow it!

  2. Great post, lots of good ideas. I keep a thin binder with tabs in my brief case and my briefcase goes with me everywhere I go so my hand feels empty if the briefcase is missing. Ideas for blog posts or projects get written down behind the correct tab the minute I think of them. To many possible great ideas for posts were missing from my memory by the time I sat down to write until I started putting them under the blog tab in my binder. Thanks for the ideas. Keep up the great work.

    • If I come up with ideas for blog posts when I’m sitting at my computer, I’ll start a draft right then. Usually just a post title and two or three phrases to remind me of the current thinking, and then it’s out of my brain and I can think about it later when I have time set aside for those things or am running low on other ideas.

    • Both – but generally more hindrance than asset because it’s so disruptive to so many aspects of life. Being a “divergent thinker” has its advantages, but when you’re struggling to function at an appropriate level, that’s not always very much comfort.

      • I was diagnosed with ADD a year ago. I’ve always had problems in my life; many to name and a lot of them too personal/too embarrassing/too sad to share here. But what I will say is that I’ve come to see it as an asset rather than a hinderance or “both”.

        I feel that so many people see it as a hinderance – a bad thing. For me, I’ve taken upon myself to see it as a good thing, an asset to my future success professionally.

        Your ideas are great; some of which I use on a daily basis. For example for #11, I have so many ideas for blog posts that I just miss them. But in the event that I can’t put them all down, I just let the thoughts pass – I’ve found that sometimes I just have to let go of the thought. If it’s something important I have the confidence that it’ll come back sooner or later.

        Just my two cents; thanks for answering my question.

  3. Hey DeeDee,
    Big thanks for the post, some great tips. I’ll save it on Evernote! Which brings me to my question. I am just starting to dive in…or rather dip my toe into Omni Focus and it scares the hell out of me for some reason. What if it is too complicated or time consuming or doesn’t work? Or what if it does work and I actually get my shit (pardon) together? Also scary :). I feel like it could be a great tool but I could use some words of encouragement, tips for starting and sticking, and whatever else you’d like to share about your experience with it if you wouldn’t mind. Thanks again!

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