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Chasing the Squirrel: How I Stay Productive with ADHD
When I was diagnosed with ADHD, I decided to understand what that means for me. How does my brain function with ADHD? I’ve always been pretty productive, which is the opposite of what most people think of when it comes to ADHD.
How ADHD shows up for people varies, so I want to share how ADHD has shown up for me and the ways that I’ve consciously, and unconsciously, adapted my life to chasing my squirrel-like brain.
If you are a business owner or a team leader, you may recognize some of what I discovered in your teammates, or even yourself (ADHD is disproportionately present among entrepreneurs).
For me, my struggles break down into four categories, which I’ve learned how to both embrace and work through.
Growing up, I was the kid in school who got good grades but was constantly being reprimanded by the teachers for talking too much in class. If I was sitting, my legs were shaking or my fingers were tapping the desktop. I adapted to this in junior high by journaling obsessively during class or secretly reading novels under my desk. One of my college professors actually made me stand and pace in the back of the classroom because I was constantly distracting people.
But this type of hyperactivity also expresses itself in tremendously positive ways. When I’m excited about an idea, I’m that idea’s biggest cheerleader. I know that my Zone of Genius power is enthusiasm. Hyperactivity can spill over into hyperfocus very easily, and harnessing hyperfocus is a key step to being successful with ADHD. Hyperfocus is the ability to focus on a task to the exclusion of everything else for prolonged periods of time – hours, or sometimes even days.
In 2015 I wrote How to Sell Your Art Online in three weeks by spending four hours every morning writing; 60,000 words, to be specific, written, rewritten, and edited. I’m a morning person, and I’m at my most energetic and excited from about 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. I feel grateful that I’m able to get my best work done at the beginning of the day when a lot of people struggle to get going.
I love all things that are new, mostly just for the sake of it being new. If I go to a restaurant that serves a dish I’ve never had, I’ll almost certainly order it (even if it’s an avocado chocolate shake – terrible).
As a professional, this makes me susceptible to shiny object syndrome, where I’m chasing new tactics and strategies all the time. I’m a fountain of ideas and new things to try which, as you can imagine, is both a blessing and a curse.
One way Productive Flourishing has harnessed this novelty seeking is to create Project Brief documents for most of the big new ideas I have. It usually takes me anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days to write an idea down, size up the budget, time, and resources necessary to make it happen, and is helpful for everyone to see if the new idea is worth pursuing. When it’s, “good, but not right now” we put it in a folder that we’re calling The Battle Book. When the right time comes, we’ll be able to refer back to the Battle Book and pull out a plan that’s already been scoped.
This is the counterpoint to novelty seeking. If I’m not interested in something, I have to move metaphorical heaven and earth to make it happen. Business ideas I’m not interested in die in my inbox, emails never answered. Taxes, benefit paperwork, and bookkeeping? Forget about it. I hired people to do that, and I only read and respond to those things once a week at most.
I have a highly structured productivity routine that prompts me to do the things I don’t naturally think about. During a three-hour block early every Monday morning, I go through what happened in the last week and what needs to happen this week, like my own personal bills and finances. If I don’t do it that Monday, it doesn’t happen. All of my big priorities go directly into my Google calendar, complete with push notifications to my phone. This, I’ve found, is the only way I’m able to get these things done.
Oh, and this isn’t just for work stuff. My wife has learned over the years that if she needs me to do something by a specific time, the best way to get me to do it is to ask for, and watch me, put it in my calendar.
When I succeed at work, I want to punch the air, crank Rush’s Counterparts album, and buy everyone Bluestar donuts to celebrate. Conversely, when I’m struggling I turn inward, berating myself for poor performance and create anxiety by telling myself all the reasons everyone thinks I’m a failure.
I used to get really down on myself for reacting so strongly, one way or the other. I used to think there was something wrong with me, but I learned that this enthusiasm is actually my Zone of Genius. If I can induce an enthusiastic state in myself – through exercise, writing, meditation, or novelty seeking – I can blow through any productivity barrier.
As it turns out, humans are highly adaptive. One of the really fun things about having ADHD is that I’m pretty flexible and adaptive to new situations. It’s easy to see how any of the above ADHD traits can be a hindrance to my career, but I’ve managed to make them work by putting constraints in place that focus my attention and limit my ability to sabotage myself.