My office window looks right out on the tree that holds our bird feeder, so when I’m working I also get to watch the little house finches and juncos squabble and flit around. They’re all really cute, but these jays are probably my favorite birds that visit the yard. They’re all attitude and their little crests are just excellent. Plus, they sound like angry robots when they yell, which is very endearing.
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’ve recently come back to meditation. It has helped me immensely in the past, but I tend to forget about it when I’m feeling good and I get more active. Over the summer, I get outside more often and the sun makes me feel better in general. In the winter, I start to get foggy, tired, and more easily depressed and anxious. I start to struggle more with repetitive and upsetting thoughts, and tend to spiral into feeling angry or depressed about things in the past. All of that hurts my overall mood and ability to be productive, and all of that is exactly the kind of stuff that meditation, even just a few minutes of meditation a day, can help to reduce.
If you enjoy the works of Sir Terry Pratchett, especially his Tiffany Aching books, then you’re already familiar with mindfulness under another name. He called it second thoughts: The thoughts you think about your first (reflexive and automatic) thoughts. Having these self-regulating thoughts is one of the signs of a witch in his stories.
Meditation in its simplest form just helps you learn to hear yourself think, and strengthens your ability to be objective about your impulses and feelings. Instead of being angry because I remembered that thing my ex did that one time, I get to think “I’m feeling angry” from a slight distance, and then have the option to watch that feeling move through my mind and body without being carried away by it. It doesn’t necessarily make it more fun to feel angry, but it means that instead of being taken over by it, I can watch it move across the clear sky of my mind like a cloud bank (or a tornado, as the case may be.) It’s darker for a while, and it might bring unpleasant things like rain and wind, but it doesn’t control me and it isn’t endless. It doesn’t always work that neatly, of course, but I’m slowly getting better at catching myself before I get swept away.
If the idea of meditation itself leaves a bad taste in your mouth for any reason, then there may be alternatives that can help you practice those same skills without stressing yourself out. The benefits of mindfulness don’t come from sitting still, or from somehow magically resisting boredom, they come from increased awareness of the moment you’re in and of the way you’re thinking.
My favorite alternative practice: Do you have a pet? Specifically, do you have any animals in your life that you like to spend time with? Animals are pretty much permanently locked in the present moment. Yes, many of them have some limited ability to plan, and they certainly have memories, both good and bad, but they’re still mostly focused on the here and now. How else would they know when it’s time to wake up from a dead sleep and shout at the evil invading raccoons? That kind of presence in the current moment is a big part of what people try to achieve with meditation, and the cool part is that we can kind of piggyback onto an animal’s peace of mind just by being with them. Do you ever just chill out and watch your cat stare out the window at birds? For that period of time, you’re grounded. Your mind will naturally wander, but every time the cat twitches her tail or chitters her teeth, you’re drawn right back to the current moment. Notice what drew you away and then admire your kitten’s finely honed killer instinct, and that’s basically all the vital bits of mindfulness meditation.
Living closely with an animal comes with great health benefits for humans, benefits that already overlap a lot with the physical and mental health benefits of meditation. Any animals you hang out with (or garden patch you’re weeding, or landscape you hike through, or kiddo playing with legos, or maybe even a puzzle game on your phone if you need technology involved) can help keep you grounded while you practice.
If you have ADHD, your mind already works against you when it comes to focusing on something repetitive. That’s exactly why meditation can be so helpful for us, if we can manage it. It’s like strengthening a weak limb by exercising it, but if you can’t stay engaged with the practice in the first place, then the limb never gets strong enough to make the process easier. Picking something that sparks interest but is still soothing, like stroking a dog’s fur (or in my little dog’s case, soft skin and fuzzy pajamas) can keep an ADHD brain present when counting breaths would just get annoying.
The point isn’t to never let your mind wander away from your calming activity – in fact, if your mind never wanders then you’re not really getting the benefits of meditation. Meditation benefits us when we catch our minds wandering, note the type of thought or feeling that took us away, and go back to tracking the rhythm of our breath, or the cute snoring of the animal under our hands. Even if you immediately get distracted again by worrying about their vet bills, that’s just another chance to come back to the process. It helps that they’ll inevitably stretch or yawn or purr in their sleep, which drags you back and gives you extra chances to notice that your mind has wandered and where it went.
Bonus: The idea is to notice your own thoughts in a non-critical way, so try to think of your mind the way you think about your pet’s natural behavior. Getting distracted by something flashy and wandering off to investigate is just their nature, and it’s ours as well. Our minds are designed that way, especially the minds of ADHD folks. It used to be highly advantageous to be able to plan and dream up new solutions to old problems, all while keeping watch for a lion in the brush, grinding grain or weaving with our hands, and listening for a child or a neighbor in trouble. It’s definitely not always as helpful to us now, but our minds are simply always going to wander to the past and future (when we’re not hyper-focused, anyway, which is a different ADHD strength that comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks.)
The final great thing about this kind of mindfulness practice is that it can even be done when you’re being physically active. Walking your dog? Walking meditation. Playing with your cat and a string? Still counts. I adore watching my dogs eat their meals, because they’re so happy and enthusiastic about it, so I always spend that couple of minutes twice a day holding their bowls for them and just enjoying their single-minded pleasure. As long as you’re being intentional about an activity, and you can notice your own thoughts as they happen, you can get the benefits of meditation. Even just five minutes of practice every day, or just once or twice a week, is basically guaranteed to provide some good for your brain and your life. Even if you don’t notice a difference, there’s pretty much no downside to taking a few spare minutes to enjoy a simple pleasure and practice being understanding with yourself.
The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness by Andy Puddicombe
The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasedale, Zindel Segal, Jon Kabat-Zin (This book made a big difference for me at a very low point.)
The Headspace app is really handy, and can be used for free. They also have a subscription system that gets you access to more features. The app lets you set reminders for meditation, it offers little tips at customizable intervals, and offers guided meditations of different lengths so you can choose exactly how long you want to commit yourself for every time you sit down to meditate. They also offer bedtime tracks to help you relax and get to sleep.
The Insight Timer app is very simple. It lets you set a timer for however long you want, and then choose from a set of pleasant little bells and chimes as your alarm. I think it has some other features, but that’s really all I use it for.
Writing days this past week: 2
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.
Writing days this past week: 2
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.
Writing days this past week: 3
Man, I am really struggling to write this post. It’s not that I’m thinking about a difficult topic, it’s just that I don’t really have anything coherent on my mind. There’s plenty of stuff floating around up there, but none of it seems to be coalescing in a timely fashion. I’ve started a couple of drafts on different topics, but I’m not ready to share those ones yet.
I did go for a really nice walk around the neighborhood this evening, partly in hope of kicking my brain into gear. It helped a bit, I think. There’s a pretty little park a few blocks up from me with a really great view, and the pups and I wandered around in it for a while.
I’m working on weaning myself off using my phone to fall asleep, which is difficult, and a bit scary, because I’ve really relied on audiobooks to help me sleep for a long time. It was what I needed around the time when I started, but I think it’s become more of a distraction than a help as my general mental health has improved. Plus, I hate getting tangled in my earbud cord when I roll over. It’s so annoying.
Keeping myself occupied was a good strategy when I couldn’t generally control or predict my mental state, but I really want to get comfortable in my own head again. If for no other reason than to boost my general creativity. Taking inspiration and learning from other people’s work is awesome, but it can be hard to create your own things when you’re constantly exposed to the creations of others.
Writing days this past week: 4
I’m having one of those days where I sit down to work, get distracted by some interesting piece of information, spend an hour and a half researching that, and then realize that I am hungry or need to use the restroom, so I have to get up again. While I’m up, I typically try to get some household task done, which distracts me further. Then, I sit back down, and repeat the process.
It’s fun. It’s a fun time. I feel like my brain is full of mosquitos.
So, since this is a blog, here’s what’s on my mind: Today, I learned that all fuchsia flowers are edible, and they also produce edible berries. They’re named after some guy called Fuchs, which is why their name is spelled super weirdly. I don’t have any of them, because I couldn’t settle on a variety, but that’s pretty cool. I cannot order the kind that were specially bred to produce extra yummy berries, because they’re sold out and also only available in the UK. This makes me a little sad.
While I was watering the garden the other night, I found out that we have local slugs with adorable leopard markings. I hope they don’t go after my lettuce, because I love them.
My new home office is great, and I like my little pink office chair, but my hairless pup still insists on cuddles whenever I’m stationary for more than five seconds, so I’m writing this at a very awkward angle while she’s tightly curled up on my lap. She’s still grumbling loudly about my rudeness. My left foot is dead to the world.
I have a pretty folk song – played on a hurdy gurdy – stuck in my head. Pretty, but not helpful. In a little less than two hours, I really have to go to bed, because I’ve finally at least gotten that under control. I haven’t stayed up all night since we moved, and we’ve been here for almost exactly one month. We’re finally approaching a state of unpacked, but not quite there yet. As a result, we sleep in the guest room downstairs, and all our clothes and the non-scary bathroom are upstairs. It actually works pretty well, but I’m looking forward to moving up here the rest of the way.
I just picked up my phone to add those photos from Instagram, and opened Pokemon Go instead. Not promising.
Writing days this week: 1