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Whenever I go searching for ideas, techniques or methods to use to cope with my AD/HD, I always find these long-winded articles about various medical studies or longitudinal medicinal trials. While those types of experiments are very important, they’re not what I’m looking for right now.
What I look for are practical tips and tricks that I can use on a daily basis. Yeah, they’re only short-term solutions to a long-term problem, but as they say, every great journey begins with a single step.
Sometimes we all just need that quick little mental “trick” to help us get through whatever task we have at hand, whether that be work related, school related or even just focusing long enough to put the milk in the fridge when we get home from the grocery store.
So I took all this frustration that’s accumulated as a result of my fruitless Google searches and thought to myself – “well, I am getting through the day somehow – how am I doing that?”
I will readily admit that I take my prescribed AD/HD medication every single day and that without it, I’d be a chaotic puddle of thoughts, ideas and tears on the floor. I’ve also been working diligently with my cognitive therapist to “re-wire” all those confused synapses in my brain – but again, those are all long-term solutions. We all need those quick-fixes to just get us over whatever hump/brick-wall we will inevitably encounter throughout our day. So I put my best thinking cap on and thought about all the little things I do (some of them subconscious!) throughout the day to keep my swirling, churning thoughts somewhat in-line.
Now, as I’ve mentioned before, the methods that I write about are tactics that work for me. I know that I am a visual/kinetic learner, so a lot of the methods that I’ve developed are tailored to my learning style. Our brains process information in so many different ways that what may work for one person will not work for another. With all that said, if you choose to try one of the ideas I’ve listed below and it doesn’t work for you, please don’t be discouraged. Just think of it as one more check mark you can make on your to-do list.
Which brings me to my first strategy!
#1. To-do lists!
This trick may seem stupid and simple and of course, every other AD/HD blog has mentioned it, but there’s a reason for that – IT WORKS!
Leading AD/HD researcher Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., of Yale University, puts it quite simply. Imagine a classical orchestra. An orchestra must have a conductor leading the various musicians so that they can all play harmoniously. A “normal” brain has a conductor that leads the rest of the brain in proper cognitive function. An AD/HD brain does not. Well, that’s not entirely true – our brains DO have a conductor, except our conductor is inexperienced and most definitely lied on his job application.
This “cognitive conductor” in question is called the prefrontal cortex, or PFC for short. The PFC in *normal* brains “is responsible for thinking, thought analysis, and regulating behavior. This includes mediating conflicting thoughts, making choices between right and wrong, and predicting the probable outcomes of actions or events. This vital region of the brain regulates short-term and long-term decision-making. In addition, the PFC helps to focus thoughts, enabling people to pay attention, learn, and concentrate on goals.”
The PFC in brains afflicted with AD/HD is unregulated. Our orchestral conductor is signalling to the wrong instrument section at the wrong time which creates a cacophony of noise and inescapable chaos.
Now how does the simple tactic of making a To-Do List help us? Well, by writing down a to-do list, we’re essentially giving our already over-taxed brains one less thing to actively remember. People with AD/HD typically have very poor “working memory” which means that it’s extremely difficult for us to hold a single idea in our heads while simultaneously accessing other parts of our memory that are necessary to the completion of whatever task needs to be done. A prime example of this would be homework. How can we be expected to remember all that was said during the class lecture while also applying that information to new ideas…? We can’t. At least, not without help.
This is another method I use that I can guarantee you’ll find really silly at first, but again, trust me – it works!
If you’re like me, than your AD/HD also causes you to have anxiety which can get extreme at times. As I mentioned in my article “The Daydreamer“, as a child and even into adulthood, I was prone to panic attacks brought on by overwhelming anxiety. The anxiety was triggered because I couldn’t remember simple yet important things like “did I close the front door this morning?” or “did I leave the coffee pot on?”. These are all common worries that undoubtedly everyone will experience at some point in their lives, but the difference here is that I’ve actually forgotten to do some of these things. And not just once or twice, but many times. I can’t even count on both hands how many times I’ve literally forgotten to close the front door to my own house before I left for school or work. No – I didn’t forget to just lock the front door – I’ve literally left the front door to my home wide open all day long. You can imagine my shock when I came home those days to discover that, while thankfully we weren’t robbed, our dog certainly made herself right at home in a recently cleaned, pressed and folded basket of laundry.
Oh, and she tore up all of our toilet paper and mail, too. I still love her though.
So, back to vocalizations – it’s going to seem silly at first but try this: whenever you complete a task, no matter how trivial it may seem, say out-loud that you’ve completed it. For example, today before I left for work I made sure that our back door was locked. Once I confirmed that it was locked, I said out loud “I locked the back door!” Additionally, I made sure the coffee pot was turned off before I left. Once I flicked the on/off switch I said, “the coffee pot is off!” Make sense?
The theory behind this is that instead of thinking back to your morning routine and trying to remember a series of non-specific motions (locking the door), you remember saying “I locked the back door!”. I’m much more likely to remember something that I made the conscious effort to do, and even more so, something that is out of the ordinary – like shouting that you’ve turned off the coffee pot to no one in particular. In a way, the silliness of this exercise actually makes it more effective.
#3. Post-it Notes!
You’re probably getting the theme here – that most of these ideas are ridiculously simple, but often times people overlook what’s right in front of them.
The importance of Post-it Notes was lost on me until I started working at my current job. As an office/executive/personal assistant, the importance of the “little details” and completion of a myriad of random tasks cannot be understated. It’s also the AD/HD-er’s worst nightmare. Structure, routine and REMEMBERING TO SEND OUT INVOICES AND BILL PAYMENTS is essential, and the skills needed to do this job effectively are not ones that come naturally to me. Thankfully, my boss is one of the coolest people ever and has graciously adapted her communication style to my wildly disorganized brain.
Enter Post-its. Whenever my boss gives me a task to do, she’ll write down precisely what needs to be done on a Post-it Note and stick it to whatever document it regards. Now, any employer reading this would think “well, that’s less than efficient – she might as well just do it herself!” and they’d be sort of right – but to my own credit, I’m not unintelligent and I am capable of learning new skills, so the specificity of our Post-it Note communication has gotten less and less over the two years I’ve worked for her. I know a solid 75% of what needs to be done without her having to remind me.
Since I use Post-its so frequently (and effectively) at work, I’ve added them to my personal routines, too. It doesn’t matter how simple or easy the task is – if I need to remember it (meaning, I can’t do it right this second) I’ll write it on a Post-it and stick it anywhere I know I’ll see it later (bathroom mirror, fridge, computer screen, etc).
This method is similar to the to-do list tactic, but it’s more specific to little, unrelated, or unexpected tasks that I’ll encounter throughout the day. Now, you may be thinking, “why don’t you just set a reminder on your iPhone or something?” and while that can work for me, it’s not as effective. Like I previously mentioned, I’m a visual and kinetic (movement-based) learner. So the act of writing out a task letter-for-letter on a brightly colored sticky note helps my brain to remember it that much better. I don’t get the kinetic connection as much when I type something on my iPhone and quite frankly, I’m 100000000% over Siri. She’s done me wrong one too many times.
This method obviously dovetails with the sticky-notes but it can also be categorized on its own.
Handwriting checks off both the visual and kinetic aspects of my learning and comprehension styles. I don’t have the best handwriting in the world so don’t worry if you also have chicken scratch writing like I do. The point of this trick is not to be neat and precise, it’s to improve your working memory.
I don’t limit handwriting to my Post-its or to-do lists, either. While the rest of my classmates seem to prefer taking notes on their tablets or laptops, I still write my notes in a college-ruled notebook. Yeah, it’s slower, yeah, it’s messier, but I know that if I made the transition from paper to laptop, my comprehension levels would plummet.
I also use handwriting as a therapy tool-of-sorts. I journal quite a bit, and handwriting really helps me focus on and synthesize all the emotions that I put onto the page.
# 5. Moving around!
This technique goes back to my kinetic learning style. While I do not have the hyperactivity aspect of AD/HD, I am an intense fidgeter. I’m constantly biting my nails, brushing my hair back from my face or picking at some abrasion on my skin. These “twitches” are probably more of a function of my anxiety, but they impede my ability to focus a great deal.
While I have trouble focusing on pretty much everything, I have a particularly hard time focusing when numbers and data are involved. I don’t have dyslexia, but sometimes I feel like the numbers on the page I’m looking at start to scramble and shift in size or shape.
One of my primary functions at work is to process payroll for the entire company on a weekly basis. Before I was diagnosed with AD/HD, this task would often reduce me to tears. My boss would look over the work I had done and find countless stupid mistakes – really, really simple miscalculations that made me look absolutely foolish. Before I knew I had AD/HD, there was a part of me that genuinely believed I was unintelligent, and making those kinds of mistakes at my brand-new job did not bode well for my self-confidence.
As I’ve been learning more and more about myself and my AD/HD, I’ve been able to use my fidget-y tendencies to my advantage. When I would enter payroll before, I would sit at my desk almost totally motionless. Subsequently, I would twitch and fidget which would cause what little focus I did have to shatter and I’d be forced to start all over again.
Over the past two months I’ve made the effort to stand up at my desk when I do complicated tasks like payroll. My boss bought me one of those fancy convertible standing-to-sitting desks off of Amazon so that I can adjust my desk accordingly. I make sure that I’m standing up as opposed to sitting down because if I do start to get the impulse to twitch, I can channel that energy into rocking back-and-forth on my feet. The natural rhythm created by subtly swaying back-and-forth also helps me to focus, which I’m sure has something to do with the same phenomenon behind listening to classical music while studying.
#6. Don’t force it.
The final AD/HD coping tactic that I’ll talk about today isn’t so much of a “trick” as it is a promise to make to yourself. Say it with me now…
Don’t force it!
What I mean by that is this – the AD/HD mind is under a constant barrage of both internal and external sensory overload. Because our “conductors” don’t function the way they’re supposed to, our minds have a tendency to overheat just like a car engine would on a hot day.
So imagine that your brain is a vehicle engine, and the heat and pressure of the day has finally caused it to go kaput. What’s the one thing that you know you’re not supposed to do when dealing with a hot engine? Keep driving it. Instead, you know you’re supposed to pull over to a safe side of the road, turn the car off, and let the engine cool down.
Now apply that same concept to your brain. If you’re having trouble focusing on something and you find yourself getting increasingly frustrated, anxious and overwhelmed – do you think it’s the best option to push your mind even harder in a futile attempt at comprehension? NOPE.
Pull over, cool down, take a breath.
I can’t overemphasize how important this trick is. When my psychiatrist first told me about it, I effectively laughed in her face. “Cool down? Change tasks? Don’t force it? Obviously!” I retorted. Of course I knew that I should take “deep, cleansing breaths…lower [my] heart rate…feel the power of the now…!” That’s what every pseudo self-help guru from some ashram in the Hollywood Hills always preaches about. I rolled my eyes at the suggestion and thought, “that sounds cute and all, but I need some actual help here, please.”
I thought this way until one day, as I was processing a bunch of new employee files at work, I felt the beginnings of a panic attack start to creep up the sides of my mind. Almost immediately, I took a step back from my desk and closed the program I was working on. While I didn’t close my eyes and imagine myself in my “happy place,” I did take a couple of deep breaths. Then I took a few more. In-out… in-out… in-out… creating an unintentional yet peaceful rhythm. Eventually, I excused myself for a moment and stepped outside my office building and took a quick walk – no more than an eighth of a mile from my office.
That was the trick. Just getting up and changing tasks, take a break, reset your mind. I knew that if I continued to push through the overwhelming anxiety, I would cause myself to have a panic attack. I didn’t force my mind to work through something that it quite literally wasn’t capable of doing.
Give yourself permission to breathe, rest and reset. You may think, “well, I can’t afford that! I’ve got deadlines to meet and appointments to make!” But think of it this way – will you be doing the best possible work you can do if you push yourself too hard? You don’t think that the quality of your work will be affected if you’re not calm and focused? Because it will. So if you find it difficult to give yourself permission to take a break, do it for your client, professor, co-worker or whoever else is depending on you.
Trust me, it will make all the difference in the world.
Do you have any other coping strategies that work for you? Let me know in the comments!
Featured image is Pablo Picasso’s “Head of a Woman” courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.