There’s a theory that every choice we make in a day uses up a portion of our supply of willpower. It gets replenished while we sleep, and drained over the course of the day the more decisions we have to make. That’s part of why habits and routines are so helpful, if you can form them, because ideally they each take one or more choices out of the day by making those actions automatic.
I think that that kind of incremental willpower drain is extra hard on people with ADHD, because every time my brain goes “I wonder how hard it would be to build a miniature beach in an aquarium complete with real tiny fish and crustaceans” I have to use a little bit of energy to stop myself from immediately googling the best sources for Thai micro crabs and corkscrew vallisneria. I have to use some willpower every time I think of a cool thing to draw, which happens multiple times a day. I have to use it to decide that I’ll go out in the garden later because I’m currently writing my blog post. And then I have to decide that again fifteen minutes later when the dogs get excited and bark at a squirrel outside the window. And again when I hear the birds outside on our bird feeder. And again when I remember that I meant to move our tomato seedlings back inside so they won’t get sunburned.
Eventually, I usually get derailed. Maybe it’s because I just run out of willpower juice after ignoring every random suggestion my brain makes while I’m trying to just do one damn thing at a time.
I have no proposed solution at the moment. I’ve just been observing how many times a day I have to decide not to do a random thing and how tired that eventually makes me feel. It also, unfortunately, makes me sort of averse to doing creative stuff on a whim even when I do have the free time for it. I get into the habit of telling myself I’ll do that stuff later, even when I totally could just do it now.
I know it’s a trick, but this week of almost spring-like weather in Seattle is making me want to go out and dig stuff up, and plant other stuff, and just be outside. It’s been cold, but not too rainy. I hear we’re in for a proper cold snap, though, so I guess I’d better prepare to hunker down with various hot liquids and cuddly dogs and/or partners for a while. I did go out and check on the garden today, and found that most of my herbs and berries have survived the winter so far. Hopefully they can hang on a little longer.
My pet snakes are busy brumating, which is like hibernation but without the intense commitment. They’re awake, but they don’t eat, or really move around all that much. They mostly just hiss irritably at me every time I check on them. My little lizard has gone into her version of brumation, too, and she actually does sleep the whole time. I can wake her up to check on her, but she goes right back to her snoozin’ corner after I’m done handling her. She won’t eat anything for another month, probably. Possibly longer. (The frog doesn’t mess around with that winter fasting shit, though. He’ll try to eat my fingers if I take too long with his bugs any time of the year.)
Even all my indoor plants are growing extra slowly, despite all the lights I use to turn my office into an artificial sunroom. It’s funny, because I think part of the reason I’m so ready for any signs of spring being on the horizon is just because I’m not feeling especially dormant myself, even though I usually hate the cold and dark to the point of wanting to copy my reptiles and just sleep through it entirely.
The new year feels pretty promising to me so far, especially with the changes I’ve made over the last few months. Having medication that helps me stay alert and focused during the day, and actually doing most of my sleeping at night instead of during those precious few daylight hours changes my experience of winter dramatically. That isn’t exactly a shock, it’s just a new experience. Previously, this basic stability and control that a lot of people probably take for granted was mostly beyond my grasp.
Even though my garden and half my pets are down for the rest of the season, I feel like I’m just waking up.
I’ve been having trouble focusing enough to write this post, and part of the problem is that I always try to juggle too many things at once. It’s hard to simplify the situation after getting bogged down in it, because clearing specific items away requires focus, and I’m usually bouncing from one thing to another. It’s not even that my day is busy, it’s that my mind is constantly busy. I don’t always think about it this way, but every single thing I know is unfinished or needs my attention is like a tiny (or sometimes not so tiny) mental drain. It’s actually more noticeable when one of those little mental weights lifts, because I’m pretty used to all of that being there.
I hadn’t realized how worried I was about my pets being prepared for winter until I made time to renovate my lizard tank with an extra lamp and climbing log, and I suddenly felt lighter. It wasn’t urgent, so I let it wait, and I thought that was the smarter thing to do so I could focus on work, but just knowing that it needed to be done had been distracting me more than I guessed. I had a similar concern about my fish tank, which has needed a filter with stronger flow for a while. Again, not an urgent tank, but I got it swapped out today and I feel a lot better.
I’ve started trying to designate at least one of those non-urgent mentally draining tasks per week, so I can cross them off and remove more distractions from my mental space. I think it’s working, and maybe I’ll post about some of them as I go along if I think they could help inspire anybody else.
I’ve been walking a lot more, lately. It seems kinda vital to take advantage of these last bits of nice weather before things get truly wintery and unpleasant. Walking is my favorite form of exercise, and it’s been recommended by a surprising number of successful writers throughout history as a form of meditation when inspiration is lagging. It’s peaceful, the scenery provides stimulation for the imagination, and moving around is generally pretty good for the whole system. I’ve known for a long time that people with ADHD in particular tend to have better focus when they get exercise, but it has to be somewhat consistent to be effective, and consistency is difficult when you’ve got ADHD. Somehow, though, I’ve managed to get something like a routine established.
There’s a beautiful bike path around a lake near my place, and I love going out there, even though my dogs absolutely lose their tiny minds at the sight of all the fat and insolent squirrels who taunt them from the sides of the trail. It takes us a lazy hour and a half to go around the lake, and I don’t usually spend the time specifically thinking about anything in particular. I think it’s been helping with my general mental clarity, which makes it easier to choose to keep going out, and to make choices about what to do with my time without getting overwhelmed. I’ve always unconsciously classified walking in pretty places as “the stuff I do when I should probably be doing the dishes or writing.”
That was not great. Jogging around the neighborhood will never be my thing, even if it might seem more efficient, or like a “better” form of exercise, or whatever other judgement I had in the back of my mind about the whole thing. It’s boring, it hurts, and my dogs would rather tie their leash into a bow around my legs than trot faithfully at my side. It just doesn’t work for me, but walking in a spot with some good trees and water does, and I can do it for a long time before I get bored or tired.
We’re often taught a very adversarial approach to exercising our bodies, but healthy movement really doesn’t have to be any kind of a punishment to be beneficial.
There’s soothing classical music playing in my office, but both of my dogs are being disruptive in their own special ways tonight. Toci has been doing her delightful little war scream at random intervals all evening because she believes there are raccoon invaders in the yard. (Possible, I’ll grant, but what does she actually propose to do about it? The average raccoon outweighs her by quite a bit, and she has, like, five teeth.) Tupac is just contentedly chewing a marrow bone and ignoring all the fuss, but that chomping sound can get a bit distracting after a while.
The dogs are definitely not the problem; they’re just where my focus gets most easily shunted off to when it slides off the invisible barrier surrounding my writing work. Writing a paragraph, even when I’m completely inspired, feels like lifting weights with my brain. This post has taken most of the day, and I keep getting into what feels like a little bit of a groove only to be pulled away by my body reminding me that food, drink, and bathroom breaks are all non-negotiable.
I’m pretty frustrated about my medication situation. I had something that kinda worked, but it started making me sick to the point that it didn’t matter if it helped or not, since I couldn’t focus through the nausea. My current psychiatrist doesn’t feel confident tweaking my prescription any more, so I’m being sent off to find someone new. In the meantime, I can use the drugs that make me feel ill, or I can do my best without meds. My best without meds is only marginally worse than my best with meds and nausea, so it’s a difficult trade-off.
I did a home sleep study a while ago, but have yet to actually review the results with a sleep doctor. I’m not really sure how helpful any answers there will be, but that could just be my general pessimism about medical stuff speaking. I’m open to being surprised, at least. I’m also tired, and sleeping ten or twelve hours a night doesn’t do as much to fix that as you’d think. It’s better than not sleeping, though, for sure. I’ve stopped pulling all-nighters and have been getting to bed much earlier than I used to. That means that even though I sleep longer than normal, I still have plenty of daytime to work with, and I think that alone helps a lot with my mood.
I’m taking steps to improve everything that’s slowing me down, and I’m still making progress. It’s hard not to be discouraged, but the progress is real, and I’m holding on to that as much as possible.
People who procrastinate tend to be overly optimistic about how long things will take. Its not that they don’t think about the time, it’s just that they tend to expect things to go well. I’m often late to appointments, because when I think about how long it takes to get to my psychiatrist’s office, I only remember the times when there was no traffic, the lights were all green, and I got there with a couple of minutes to spare after leaving late.
This kinda makes sense, because technically that is the most accurate example of how long it actually takes to drive there, but it still makes me late. Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to take that best-case scenario I came up with and tack on extra time for dealing with potential traffic, but that optimism also applies to my memories of how much the traffic could slow me down. I remember that one time I got stuck in traffic and was still only five minutes late, not the multiple times when I missed my appointment entirely due to a complete standstill on I5.
I think that the perfectionism that often comes with ADHD can be linked with this misplaced optimism when planning. When we look ahead, we often envision how everything should go, not how badly it might go. When we think about a project, we think of how it should turn out, and don’t leave ourselves much room for error, or even just for being human beings with human limitations. “Good enough” isn’t a thing that ADHD life primes us to celebrate, even though good enough on a consistent basis can be so much more powerful than occasional perfection.
When I think about doing a good job on a project, I envision perfection, not my personal best work, and certainly not my personal norm. My personal norm involves difficulty with focus, annoying nausea, rushing to finish things that I forgot, being extremely tired because of lack of sleep, and responsibilities to other people. It’s messy.
My personal best generally shows when I get lucky and none of these things wind up impeding me. Those days are my commutes without traffic. They’re the shining image of productivity that I hold up in my mind when forming expectations, optimistically believing I can duplicate that experience whenever I need to, even though many potential complications are actually out of my control. Life happens, and ADHD itself frequently makes the roads to success more trafficky. It causes accidents that can block progress for the rest of the day.
I believe that the excess of negative reinforcement that ADHD kids tend to receive contributes to this underlying belief that only perfect outcomes are worth considering. Our personal best sometimes looks a lot like the bare minimum to neurotypicals, which means we don’t get much praise for even our most extraordinary efforts. The people around us can’t always see that effort, and the results alone may not impress them. They only see that we didn’t do as well as they expected. Instead of praise for doing what we could, we frequently face nitpicking and corrections. This encourages a belief that only complete perfection will ever satisfy our parents, and later-on our partners and friends.
If our very best wasn’t good enough for others, why should it be good enough for us? Sure, we could say “screw them and their negativity” but that’s simply not how people work. We’re not designed to ignore that kind of conditioning, especially when we’re young, but even as adults. We’re likely to either give up, because we can’t do better than our best and our best wasn’t good enough, or to chase perfection till we fall apart. Often, we wind up swapping between those two, because perfectionism is exhausting, but you’re just not allowed to quit being human and become a cat.
Another aspect of this constant negative reinforcement is that we’re basically taught to ignore limitations like lack of sleep, trouble with focus, and other legitimate struggles. When we’re constantly being told that we’re lazy and just not trying hard enough, what we’re learning is that nothing is ever a reason to fail. When being tired, confused, uncomfortable, or unable to find vital materials is never accepted as a roadblock by the people around you, you learn to just not think about what might go wrong. Why should we, if it feels like there’s nothing we can do to stop having problems, and they’re not really acknowledged by the people judging us? It’s not a realistic way to engage with the world, but it’s a potential side-effect of perfectionism. We just don’t consider our own limits, because our limits have never been respected or acknowledged. Under those conditions, thinking about worst-case scenarios doesn’t feel like productive prep-work, it feels like a recipe for an anxiety attack.
A final example of all this in action: I wound up writing most of this post at 2am on Thursday and then finishing it Friday night, because I didn’t expect to need more than a couple of hours to wrap it up. That’s how long it usually takes me to edit a post when I have most of my thoughts on the page in advance, I’m very focused, and nothing pulls me away from the computer. It is not how long it actually takes me on average to finish a post, but my brain refuses to accept most of that imperfect data. It’s tainted by all those other factors. Even when I’m literally writing a post about this phenomenon, it still gets me.
Edited to add, because I got a bit carried away and forgot to actually articulate the tip: I guess the point here is really just to consider what might be affecting your expectations, and try to compensate for that with better context and more self-compassion. You’re not wrong for struggling, and the things that stop you are legitimate and worth considering. Both your best and your norm are good enough, and being able to live with those standards will take you much farther than perfection ever will.
My desk is almost finished. We’ve been working on it for over a month, and moving along pretty steadily. A lot of elements have come together to make it work out well, and that’s making it easier to examine why most long-term projects have gone poorly for me in the past.
My efforts have always been characterized by a couple of bursts of intense interest, followed by long periods of no progress at all. If I can’t do something in one contiguous day and night, my odds of ever finishing drop dramatically. If I have to put something down, I know I won’t be able to count on having the same interest and focus the next day, much less a week later, so I feel this intense pressure to finish things all in one go. The more I care about the project, the more anxiety and disappointment I’m likely to feel about the idea of stopping work on it, and that’s not just because I’m impatient. I genuinely have good reason to worry that it won’t happen. It’s like being a little kid who’s been disappointed too many times by an absentminded parent and no longer trusts their promises, except I’m also the parent who keeps letting them down. (Fun!)
There’s also this element of general disconnection from time that seems to be common among ADHD people, and which makes long-term projects difficult. Planning to do something in the future doesn’t give me much satisfaction or security, because it feels incredibly unreal to me. Other ADHD people have told me that time can feel very unreal and difficult to track for them. Some are fairly aware of the passage of time over a day, but have trouble remembering if an event happened last week or last year. Some people have more trouble tracking time during the day, like me, but tend to tag long-term memories with timestamps a little more accurately. Regardless of how it manifests, the struggle with time is real for a lot of ADHD people.
This pretty naturally extends to the future as well, making it difficult to wait for fun things and hang on to motivation. Planning is just a whole mess, in general. Being disconnected from time can mean that mental preparation for a task doesn’t just happen the way it should, so it’s jarring when the time arrives, and that makes it harder to start up again. Stuff is either going to happen way out in the future, or it’s happening now. I’ve got plenty of time, or I’m about to be late.
It’s like having no depth perception, and watching something in the distance moving straight toward me. I know it’s out there, and that it’s probably coming here, but it’s still a shock when it suddenly arrives. It was out there in the hazy distance, and then it was close enough to touch. That’s probably not how depth perception actually works, but it’s the only comparison I could think of to express how weird it feels to know something is coming up, but to still not experience that approach in a functional way.