Friday, September 06, 2013

ADHD: Three Ways to Engage Hyperfocus at Will

A new take on Carrot Top
A new take on "Carrot Top"

A week has passed and I am still pleased with myself. My first draft is finished. Did I mention that already? I may have crowed about it earlier. What I am more pleased about, however, is that I used an unconventional approach to help me reach a goal and avoid a pitfall. I've already gone into detail about how growing out my hair, as silly a goal as it may seem, was perfect for the carrot I needed to start and finish my book's first draft within two months. But it also had the side-effect of helping me overcome ADHD's "depression after success".

When an ADHD mind finds focus, it finds clarity. This is a blissful experience for those whose minds are often filled with calamity and distractions. The sweet relief of hyperfocus on a project helps us feel calmly purposeful. It filters out the noise around us as we get busy being productive.

Hyperfocus is a great attribute of the ADHD mind, but it can be misspent. We tend to employ it accidentally when we are engaged in fun pursuits, but not often on what we should be doing. My goal has been to find ways to engage hyperfocus when I need it for things I'm supposed to do that may bore the life out of me.

Impossible you say? Not if you understand what motivates you. I have written about my ThreeDo lists before. I employ that technique all the time to be more productive. The key is to limit the todo list to three items that you commit to memory. The clarity of hyperfocus is blissful because we suddenly can see the end of the road as one direct path, not a branch with a thousand divergent paths. By memorizing my task list, I can simulate that same clarity. It's not exactly the same, but it's still very useful.

The other technique I use to engage hyperfocus is The Carrot. Find a carrot big and juicy enough, and you find your motivation to slog through boredom and distraction to get to the goal. Couple that with a system like my ThreeDos and you can engage hyperfocus on dull tasks.

Case in point? My book. It's easy to think of a book topic. It's harder to write the thing. When I conceived of my blog book on overcoming suicide, I wanted it to be more than a careless collection of blog entries over the years. I wanted it to be a book with purpose. I wanted it to be big. The problem with big is that it is work. And the problem with work is that it is usually boring. So not letting myself cut my hair was a perfect carrot to dangle in front of my highly distracted face. Then I broke down the book process into small tasks and checked them off. Sometimes I would discover new tasks needed to be added, and it felt as if I was going backwards not forwards. That's where the The Carrot came in, always encouraging me to finish because I was so tired of my hair in my face that I wanted to rip it out by its roots.

By following these simple steps…

  1. Choose a carrot.
  2. Break your project into steps.
  3. Memorize the top three steps at a time.

…I overcame ADHD and completed a book. I once shared with you what Dave Farland told me about ADHD and writing. Basically, Dave relayed to me that his writer friends who had ADHD struggled to finish their books—that it was almost impossible. It made me angry at the time, but in a determined way. A year and a half later I finished that book, but it was a year and a half later. Prolific I wasn't.

Finishing large projects for adults with ADHD can be excruciatingly difficult. Boredom sits on the mind like a fat, fidgety hippo. Hard to ignore, and hard to see around. When something is mentally uncomfortable for us, we tend to avoid it. For adults with ADHD, this moment can be instantaneous—even undetectable. That's why task lists are so vital for keeping ourselves on track. When I finished my first draft, it was a big deal. Despite the car accident and resultant recovery time, despite distractions, despite late bills and stress, I finished my big project and received a spiffy haircut to boot.

There is a fourth step that could be added to the above list. We need to prepare for "depression after success", that moment when hyperfocus fades after we finish. It's a common pitfall. The ADHD mind can swim a bit in those moments, floundering without purpose. However, if you expect it and prepare accordingly, as I did, you can avert that moment by becoming engaged in a new project or by immersing yourself with a reward. I did a little of both by setting up stage two of my book project, thus engaging my mind, then rewarding myself with guilt free TV. Even though I needed to wait a week to begin the next phase, those two steps carried me through.

Well, that and I grin like an idiot every time I look in the mirror. I got a great hair cut.