Attention Deficit

To pay proper attention to anything is to inevitably ignore everything else.

My head does not like this fact.

What if I’m missing something?

Did I forget to…

Has such and such responded to so and so?

Sometimes, if I have enough resistance to a certain task, I’ll bounce around it like this for hours, or even days.

75% of the assignments I’ve ever submitted have been submitted within ninety seconds of the due time.

Given that about 20% have been submitted late… That’s not a good statistic.

This infuriates me.

I’ll bounce around the thing I need to do until there are literally seconds to spare; until I have no option but to do the thing, and only the thing, until it’s done.

This is not procrastination. Well, it is, but it’s slightly more complicated.

Procrastination implies a conscious effort has been made to ignore the thing.

But usually, it’s when I’m actively trying to do the thing that I run into the most trouble.

I get tripped up the same psychology behind choice paralysis.

Choice paralysis is when you have the option of twenty-five seemingly identical toothpastes, and it takes much longer to decide which to buy when compared to deciding which bag of flour you need to buy.

It’s why people spend so much time turning over apples in the produce section; there’s too many to choose from.

My experience, and the experience of many others who struggle with attention deficit stuff, is that as soon as I meet a task which doesn’t offer a clear, immediate and rewarding feedback loop, my brain starts inventing toothpaste brands and throwing apples in the air for me to catch and inspect.

The worst part is that I can often feel it doing this.

I can know that I’m about to avoid a task that I actually want to complete.

I can feel my brain inventing the excuse. Logically I know that I don’t need the cup of tea, or that nothing important will have happened in the few minutes since I last checked my phone. But I can’t stop myself.

It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion.

I’m screaming ‘STOP! We need to do this work.’ But my brain runs the red light anyway.

Next thing I know I’m on the couch with a cup of cold tea I didn’t want telling myself that the video documenting the history of Japan will in some way contribute to my essay on negritude poetry due in forty-five minutes.

I then write like a maniac for forty-three minutes, frantically edit the worst mistakes out and submit some sub-par work with seconds to spare.

The solutions I have found to this issue are twofold, and both have to do with stakes;

First, if I tell someone I care about that I’m going to have something done by a certain time, and I know that they’ll check it or know if I don’t, more often than not I’ll do it.

I do not like letting people down. Social stakes work wonders.

This is why I write at cafes and train jiu-jitsu with friends at 6am.

If they’re expecting me to show, I’ll show. But I have never got out of bed at 6am just because I wanted to get some work done for my own sake.

Secondly, if I set deadline pressure before the time things are actually due, I’m far more likely to succeeded.

This can’t be half assed. There needs to be stakes for not completing by the deadline, or I’ll just extent the deadline to the actual deadline and practice the same unwilling procrastination.

For example; assignment is due Wednesday, but if I’m not finished by Monday night I don’t get to eat out with friends on Tuesday night.

This works sometimes, but is less effective than creating accountability through involving other people in my work.

I can still weassel my way out of any self defined deadline. I’m quite good at it.

To pay proper attention to anything, you have to make the thing worth your attention.

If it isn’t by nature, and you’re sure you still have to do it, find a way.

And if you have any better ways of managing this, let me know!

On average, it takes two months for a new behaviour to become automatic.

It’s 11:37pm, and I haven’t published this blog post yet. I got distracted with another project, and here we are.

I will publish before midnight. But I wish I’d given myself more time.

This particular feeling lingers with a bitter familiar aftertaste.

Many of us taste this feeling often.

Two months is a tremendous amount of time for someone with an attention deficit disorder to routinely achieve something.

I’ve only just managed to do this with early mornings (well, at least three early mornings a week), and it’s required taking on a huge amount of social responsibility to keep me accountable.

I can’t write consistently or get out of bed unless I know that someone else will be impacted if I don’t.

I still find this very silly. But there’s no telling that to my zombie brain when it has a trigger finger poised over my snooze button.

I think this is why I’ve always favoured tasks and jobs which commend impulsivity over large scale organisation.

I thrive in places where quick thinking and dynamic problem solving are required to float, and I flounder when I think I have a month to do something, or when I don’t think anyone else really minds if I’m not working.

I believe this is why I first dropped out of uni.

I believe this is why I burned through seven jobs in three years, but wasn’t fired from any.

I believe this is why it has taken so much effort to structure my life in a fulfilling way.

If you recognise this feeling, the lurching of anticipated regret as a deadline looms closer, I beg you to stop whatever it is you’re doing, and ask yourself this question;

What could I do right now, which I’ll be proud I did tomorrow morning?

And do it.

It’s 11:48. I’m calling it a night. If there are typos, I’m sorry.

I promise I’ll wake up proud I published this anyway.

What does a good game and an excellent piece of writing have in common?

They both get finished.

Neither make the audience too scared, nor too bored to continue; they create just enough challenge and just enough reward to keep the audience engaged, and intrigued.

Games aren’t interesting if they don’t present a challenge. Writing isn’t interesting if it doesn’t tell you something you don’t know.

Fundamentally, all games and all forms of writing operate as stories. Even Rock-Paper-Scissors has a beginning middle and an end.

Good games and good writing must surprise the audience, regularly and effectively.

Neither can afford to be predictable or confusing.

Failure to achieve this balance means that the book you’re writing will pile up in Tsundoku, and the game you’re making will sit unplayed.

Stories must exist in the goldilocks zone between the audience’s anxiety and boredom in order to be finished.

This zone is called the ‘Flow Channel’, named such because stories which occupy this space effectively maintain audience attention in a way which minimises resistance.

When audiences experience flow, they don’t think about whether or not they’re going to turn the page, or play the next level.

They just do.

Consider this diagram from Peter Turchi’s A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic.

What’s wrong with it?

All good stories exist within the flow channel from start to finish, but not all stories worth finishing are good stories.

Flow alone is not enough.

Imagine riding a rollercoaster without any hills, turns or bumps.

It wouldn’t be a rollercoaster, it would be a big mechanical slide. While its novelty might pull you in for one ride, you won’t be lining up to ride it again.

In principle, the secret sauce of rollercoasters is the same as that of your favourite games and writing;

The tension between anxiety and boredom must be variable, while still existing within the goldilocks zone.

Think about the moment of relief after you complete a hard level, or finish an intense chapter.

Without this variability. Without peaks and troughs of tension throughout the audience’s journey, audience attention cannot be sustained.

This is why every story arc has multiple peaks – moments throughout the piece where the stakes are high, and times of low pressure in between.

story structure

If tension flatlines, the story dies.

The end.

I was six months into training Jiu-Jitsu when I found myself standing across from my first opponent in a state-wide competition.

He had trained much longer, and I simply wasn’t on his level.

So he submitted me.

Looking back, I lasted much longer than perhaps I should have.

The fight taught me a valuable lesson. Not in the four and a half minutes of sloppily trying to defend myself while failing to implement the one technique I was half-good at, but in the opening ten seconds of the match.

The referee said ‘Combach!‘ And we were on. I locked eyes with my opponent as we each hesitated. We stared each other down for less than three seconds before my coach’s voice pierced my ear with a nugget of wisdom which has been bouncing around my head ever since;

‘Be first Luke. Be First!’

Without thinking twice, I took his advice. I closed the distance, took my grips forcefully, and executed the guard pull which I’d drilled for weeks leading up to the comp.

I caught my opponent completely un-prepared, and I had the fight where I needed it to be.

I created opportunity by seizing initiative.

I didn’t win, but I put myself in a position where I could have. A position I wouldn’t have found myself in had I not bitten the bullet and committed to action.

It’s unlikely that I would have lasted as long as I did had I not seized control of the fight at the start.

The importance of this extends far beyond losing Jiu-Jitsu fights slower than you could have.

We all have moments every day when we could use a coach to prompt us into action, but hiring someone to follow you around whispering ‘be first every forty seconds is expensive.

In life, we have to be our own coaches.

Remind yourself constantly.

Carpe diem translates to ‘seize the day’, but it means seize the moment.

Seize every moment possible.

You bump into a friend on the street and you’re both waiting for the other to extend their hand, or offer a hug?

You and a stranger are both politely waiting for the other to get on the bus, and now you’re holding up the queue?

Your lecturer asked a remedial question that everyone in the class should know the answer to, but nobody wants to risk answering?

Be. First.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, someone will be thankful you did.

What have you risked? Nothing.

The only think you’ve risked the one-in-a-hundred chance of an awkward three seconds, and you’re probably better for it.

Being first is always better than waiting for someone else to be.

Who’s the most decisive person you know? Who’s the most confident? Next time you see them, notice that they’ve made this a habit.

Try and think of one person you look up to who doesn’t put their front foot forward. Can you? I can’t.

Be first friends. Start now.

Our world is loud, but we don’t always have to listen.

For those of us distracted easily, the act of not-listening to sonic distractions can prove difficult.

I had no idea how distracted I could become by the clinking of a teaspoon in my kitchen, even if I didn’t want anything to drink.

We are built to investigate audible feedback.

Who’s in the kitchen? Are they making tea, or coffee? Can I smell anything? Am I hungry? I could pop into to the kitchen and get all these answers in an instant. Whatever I was doing can wait.

While trivial in isolation, that single decision to investigate the mystery teaspoon can derail my entire morning, and has. Because once I find my sister in the kitchen making tea, a whole new world of potential distractions open up.

Four hours later I’ve watched three excellent episodes of Peaky Blinders, consumed more Tim Tams than I’m comfortable admitting, and discussed – at length – whether or not I could pull off a newsboy cap.

Meanwhile, my notebook sits lonely on my desk, my to-do list groans, and my bed shivers, its blankets curled up in a ball – unmade.

Until noise cancelling headphones. I hadn’t spent serious money on headphones before these, so I splashed out a little. I picked up some Sony WH-MX1000XM3s, and they have been one of the best investments into my productivity to date.

Let’s run through the clinking fiasco again.

It’s the morning. I’m sitting at my desk, headphones on, getting stuff done.

My sister is clinking away in the kitchen, really going for it.

The potentially catastrophic sound-waves she’s making travel through my closed door and approach my head – their pavlovian Tim Tam magic rippling dangerously close.

Headphones to the rescue.

With a their in-built microphone, they catch the teaspoon’s sound-waves, and generate an identical, but opposite sound frequency to that being produced in the kitchen. This is called an anti-frequency, it peaks when the sound of the teaspoon troughs, and vice-versa. My headphones play both sounds to me.

The result? Silence.

I tick everything off my to-do list, I write, I make my bed. I even read a little. The satisfaction from this productivity reverberates throughout the rest of my day, and I’m energised to do the same tomorrow.

All because I managed to avoid the devilish clink of an anonymous teaspoon.

For a more detailed explanation of ANC technology, check out this video with James May:

Imagine being able to work happy and fast for 18 hours straight without complaint, as long as you have a new and rewarding task to complete every few minutes.

That’s my brain.

When I worked high-intensity catering gigs, my legs would give out before my focus would, and I became an asset to the small business I worked for as a result.

If you can give me a dish to serve, a drink to pour, a guest to guide to the bathroom, a box to pack, a smashed glass to clean, something, something, something, all the time, I’m good.

The only problem: once I’m on, I can’t stop working or continue one task for too long, or I turn off.

And once I’m off, it’s a train wreck. The simplest tasks are met with more resistance than I can rationalise.

I’ll get frustrated at myself for not wanting to do the thing I’m avoiding doing, start doing it, then start something else, which I’ll also be resistant to doing… And it cycles. Which sucks.

I’m diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but keep in mind that an attention deficit diagnosis is far from black or white.

There’s a huge spectrum, and no two of us display exactly the same cocktail of inattentive, hyperactive, or impulsive behaviours.

Also, almost everyone not diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder will illicit some of the behaviours which are key signposts of an attention deficit diagnosis.

Everybody loses their keys, fidgets, or shows up late from time to time.

But not everybody gets so wrapped up in a project that they regularly forget to eat for three days even though they fully intended on cooking, and were really looking forward the (now inedible) salmon they bought themselves a week and a half ago, which they also forgot to freeze four days ago.

People with ADD/ADHD just experience this stuff more regularly, and more severely.

My brain has worked this way for as long a I can remember, but didn’t consider the possibility that I even could be on the spectrum until I was into my adulthood. I was lucky to be a bright kid, and I could always hyperfocus in tests and exams, so nobody really noticed.

It wasn’t until I was unintentionally domineering a conversation with a new friend at a bar, completely bombarding him with all the things I had going on, when he gently and respectfully asked if I was on the ADD spectrum.

He meant no offence (although I caught myself wanting to take some), so I brushed it off and continued to revel in how busy I was.

Or I thought I brushed it off – it ached like a thorn in my head for weeks, which I continued to dismiss.

After all, I knew what ADHD looked like. I knew hyper kids who couldn’t sit still, did poorly at school, who acted out, these were the kids who bullied me.

I, like most of the people around me, falsely associated ADHD with disrespectful, troubled kids.

If I hadn’t, I might have been able to find better ways to organise my life at a much earlier age. I probably wouldn’t have been messing with polyphasic sleep schedules to get through high school.

By no means do I blame myself for these assumptions. Attention deficit is not something that the majority of people are well informed on. The stigma surrounding the condition is thick.

To muddy matters further, I grew up in one of those typically misinformed, ‘big-pharma is the root of all evil and want to numb everyone’s personalities with poisonous drugs,’ households.

While I’d separated myself from those views on an intellectual level, I certainly hadn’t done so emotionally.

I didn’t realise it until later on, but I had a hardwired distrust of psychoactive medication, as well as anyone involved in the production, distribution, or advocacy for it.

Still, the thorn continued to ache and I needed to pick it out. So I started reading.

I vividly remember going through a grief cycle the first time I read a symptoms list.

I cried sitting at my computer.

I always just thought that either this was something everyone experienced, or I just wasn’t smart, or organised, or dedicated enough.

This turned out not to be true, and my first response was shame.

The more I read, the more certain I became, until I booked an appointment with my GP.

A year or two down the line, I feel incredible. I’ve managed to put systems in place to maximise the blessings of my ADHD, while avoiding my distractive triggers and shitty impulsive cycles.

Becoming aware of my ADHD allowed me to take control of it.

I’ve lost more than 10 kilograms. I’ve been more productive than I’ve ever been. I’m starting things, and finishing them. I’m reading – something I hadn’t been able to do consistently since my early teenage years. I get up at ungodly hours of the morning, often to exercise (what?).

I have many content creators to thank for helping me to reframe the way I think about ADHD, and I’d love to share just a couple.

The first, and most motivating, voice I encountered in this space was Peter Shankman. Peter is the author of Faster Than Normal: Turbocharge Your Focus, Productivity, and Success with the Secrets of the ADHD Brain. Which is full of Dad jokes, but is a really accessible read which I recommend highly.

This book convinced me that ADHD was a blessing, not a curse.

His podcast, also called Faster Than Normal, is great place to start if you want to know more about what ADHD looks/sounds/feels like from professionals in the field, or successful people who manage their ADHD in interesting ways.

My favourite episode is this one, where he interviews Seth Godin (the inspiration for this blog) about his own ADD.

Seth brings up the famous Hunter vs Farmer analogy, which is popular in marketing circles, but also perfectly describes the difference in natural intensity and focus between ADHD and non ADHD folks. You can read Seth’s thoughts on this in his blog post, Hunters and Farmers.