Thursday, May 25, 2006

AD/HD: Too Little Fire for All the Irons

Writing blogs about AD/HD is particularly difficult when the writer has AD/HD. Case in point, I'm having a hard time tuning out noise at the moment. I've got my neighbor's bass booming through the living room wall. Somebody's running a leaf blower in the yard next door, and the telephone is ringing. Judging by my wife and other "normal" people I know, that may be an awful lot of racket happening in one moment, but it wouldn't be overwhelming. It certainly wouldn't cause cogent thoughts to be cast out of their ears like dandelion seeds into the wind as it does for me. I'm left wishing desperately for silence.

Wait! My wish was granted. I have but a few precious moments perhaps before a new onslaught of sound drives my thoughts out into the wind again.

Ah, I waited too long. The leaf blower is going again.

This pandemonium in my brain isn't only brought on by multiple streams of sound. (There goes the phone again) It can be brought on by too much of anything all at one time. For instance, I have a tendency to accidently leave one project to begin ten others. This has an accumulative affect over time leaving me feeling quite harried by my own undertakings. It's called having too many irons in the fire. I've written about this before. The culprit is boredom - the fickle taskmaster. Right now I have so much going on I'm actually not getting much done. I'm switching projects too much and not bearing down on the projects that need completion. My prioritization is off. I don't have enough fire to complete all the tasks I've begun.

Have you ever wondered why you have so many unfinished projects? Like me, you could be suffering from a terminal case of boredom. Every meaningful project has a bit of boring work hidden within. In fact, most work is boring. Period. People in general have to struggle with this all the time. It's so easy to jump on a new project. New ideas are so exhilarating. To avoid this people train themselves to plow through the tedium to take pleasure in the completion of the task. What makes this so challenging for people with AD/HD is that our minds recoil from boredom by reflex. Like the doctor tapping your knee for that involuntary kick, the AD/HD mind leaps onto anything that can help it stay entertained. As many of you can attest to, this was and still is often thought of as a weakness in moral character. Now we know that people with AD/HD have a weakened impulse control center. In general, they are very bright and intelligent people trapped in minds that seem incapable of doing great works.

But is that really true? I wrote recently about great thinkers and inventors that probably had AD/HD. How did they do it with out medication or diagnosis? Today, all the "smart" kids in class can pace themselves and juggle multiple assignments. This is why teachers and parents look upon kids with ADHD as lacking willpower and discipline. However, their advice to AD/HD kids is often off target and fills kids with shame. They demolish the very spirits they are trying to motivate. This is because their advice is usually lacking in compassion or even practicality simply because they don't understand the nature of the problem. I believe they are not teaching kids with ADHD how to prioritize. If the great thinkers of old didn't know how to prioritize their discoveries in order to complete and publish them those discoveries would have remained in piles of loose sheets of paper, unlabeled notebooks, napkins, wall scribblings, etc.

Many people take to prioritizing like fish in water. They instinctively know which projects are the most important to work on, and can switch from project to project depending on these variable priorities. However, not all people can prioritize well which is why teaching it as a skill is such big business.

The trick to controlling this impulse to add new irons to the fire is to close the gap between boredom and realization that you're off to the races again. This takes practice and discipline, but can be done. It is also something that needs to be done repeatedly from time to time. You didn't think you'd suddenly stop being distracted because you could keep a to do list, did you? I have found that my seven year old absolutely loves To Do lists. She's been making them on her own for some time. At first we thought she was just being cute, but now we realize that she needs them to get projects completed. We list what needs to be done and break those projects down into smaller projects when necessary. This is how I work and now I can teach her.

These days I can usually sense my attention slipping and refocus it much like I can prevent my leg from involuntarily reacting to a doctor's knee tap. The conscious effort to prioritize my life over and over again keeps me on track despite occasional neurological periods of down time - even those that last for weeks. Interestingly, one upside to AD/HD is that I have an awful lot of fire to burn on projects. By prioritizing I can ensure those projects are the ones I care about most passionately.

Now to answer that phone.