Tips for ADHD Creatives: Part 5 – Optimism and Perfectionism Go Together

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.

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The last part for my desk arrived, and it is now officially finished. This is the knob for that shallow center drawer. I felt like it needed something a little fancier than the rest.

Writing days this past week: 2

ADHD Feels About Consistency and Time

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.┬áBeing 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.

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My current desk arrangement includes a preserved mudpuppy in a jar, a random book on slugs and snails, rosewater spray (because few things are more refreshing on a hot day,) and my brilliant ergonomic plan for making my shoulders not hurt when I write, which consists mainly of boosting my screen higher and getting a slightly better keyboard. The extra pretty knob for that middle drawer hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s on its way.

Writing days this past week: 3