Attention Deficit

We associate the quantity of choice a person has available to them with the amount of freedom that person possess.

Freedom is good. Therefore, we assume that choice must also be good – and to an extent, it is. However, there’s a turning point at which our freedom to choose from a growing list of options no longer increases our level of happiness. In fact, over saturation of choice can actually diminish our happiness.

In the early 2000s, a scientist name Barry Schwartz popularised this idea with a challenge western society’s obsession with generating freedom through an ever increasing number of options.

Image result for paradox of choice schwartz

After conducting multiple studies, he wrote a book called The Paradox of Choice which argued that while abundance of choice provides some short term satisfaction in the moment (and keeps us coming back for more), the more options a person has available to them, the less likely they are to be satisfied with the result of their choice.

To demonstrate, imagine that you have to choose between two restaurants. You have no way to look at the menus, but you know that the first restaurant features a menu with four main courses, while the second has sixteen main courses on theirs.

Which restaurant are you more likely to try?

Statistically, you’d probably go with the second, and there’s a lot of sense in this; if there’s four times as many main dishes at the second restaurant, there’s a better chance that they’ll have a meal perfectly suited to your taste.

At first glance, it makes logical sense to give yourself as many options as possible. We are hardwired not to limit ourselves, even when it comes to something as basic as dinner.

But when we take a closer look, Schwartz’s paradox of choice comes into play.

He discovered that in circumstances where people had to decide between an outlet with more choice versus an outlet with less, it was true that those who opted for more choice, the ones who went to the second restaurant and scoured over the ingredients in all sixteen dishes before finally making a decision, reported being more satisfied with their choice than those who limited their options and made a quick dinner selection. But only by a tiny margin.

What’s fascinating is that while the group who went to the first restaurant didn’t think about the choice again, when asked about their decision after the fact (once the meal was over) those who went to the second restaurant started to second guess the choice they made. Their satisfaction, despite being mildy higher at the time of consumption, took a hit once they started to consider all the options they opted not to choose.

As our options increase, so do our expectations that we’ll be able find the perfect option.

The more options we have to forgo when making a choice, the higher the possibility that we’ll make the wrong one.

More choice does not equate to more happiness because choice itself is a double edged sword.

When we are constantly saturated with choice, it’s not uncommon to experience choice paralysis. A sensation which often results in no choice being made at all.

While sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, we have a lot more control over the choices we present ourselves with than we feel like we do.

Do your best to find a balance.

Our attention is even more valuable than our time, and we trade it every day.

We live in an attention economy.

Businesses bid for it constantly. On billboards, backs of busses, and through buzzes in your pocket.

How frugal we are with our attention influences every aspect of our lives.

Where can you see your attention seeping through the gaps of things which don’t matter?

Good time management means nothing without good attention management.

Fail to focus your attention, and all that time you saved is waste.

Now’s the time to stocktake and trim the fat.

I’ve never been a fast reader.

In fact, unless it’s an exceptional book, my attention span struggles to with written text. As most of the books I ‘read’ are audiobooks, reading quickly is just never a skill I’d invested in.

This was until a few days ago, when I stumbled across a ten minute Tim Ferris video which changed the game.

I’ve been trying out the techniques he describes for a few days, and I can’t believe nobody taught me how to do this sooner.

The tip which blew my mind has to do with taking advantage of your peripheral vision.

When we were first learning to read, we had to focus intently on the letters which made up each word. As we did this, our eyes were trained to jump from word to word as we read across the page.

Unfortunately, most of us didn’t adapt our reading style once we started to recognise words without needing to break them down letter by letter.

Now we can!

By progressively indenting your focal points further into the centre of the page, you can eventually end up only needing to focus on the central third of a chunk of text, as your peripherals allow you to read the first and last third of the page without needing to direct your focus away from the centre.

Never before had I considered that I could read words in my periphery.

I understand how strange this sounds, and I’ll admit that it does feel weird for the first few pages.

But once you adjust, you’ll find it hard to go back. My reading speed has more than doubled in less than a week.

There are a couple of other techniques to add to this one in the video below, which I highly recommend checking it out.

It’ll take ten minutes of your time, but has already saved me hours.

Today was the first day I’ve ever ‘thrown’ clay on a pottery wheel.

Naturally, I wasn’t very good. But after four hours of incredibly rewarding hyper focus, I left at least 200x better at pottery than I when I arrived.

200x better than abysmal isn’t good, but it’s something.

Image result for throwing clay

This experience reminded me of two things;

  • Learning new skills that have tactile feedback loops can be an absolute delight for ADD/ADHD minds.
  • Being shit at stuff is awesome. Our weakest skills usually offer the largest opportunity for progress and growth.

I cannot recommend a pursuit or obsession like this highly enough to anyone who struggles to manage any form of attention deficit disorder.

In fact, any activity which involves a tactile element that you can’t afford to take your eyes off, which also has instant measurable outcomes is a winner.

At its core, ADD/ADHD is the chemical disruption of regular executive functions. This basically just means that we’re not great at resisting impulsivity; we find it harder to stay on the path towards accomplishing goals because every side street or alley way could be where our next adventure begins. Even when we know there’s nothing down the alley, we can’t always resist checking. Just in case.

Activities like pottery are such blessings because they promote healthy hyper-focus. The hyperfocus is built-in because as the wheel spins and your hands are moulding the wet clay in front of you, there’s not room for any other inputs. This feels exquisite to people who don’t get to feel this often.

Hyper-focus is like putting on noise cancelling headphones at a football game.

The background static dissipates and you’re left with nothing but yourself and the task at hand.

This applies to short term goals, and is why we forget stuff, but it’s also why many of us struggle to stay committed to meaningful long-term progress.

By constantly exposing yourself to your own hyper-focus through an activity like this, you become better at managing (and hopefully harnessing) it.

Getting the hang of this and finding ways to maximise the time you get to spend hyper-focussed on interesting activities and problems that you care about is the key to a satisfying ADD/ADHD life.

The few hours after a Jiu-Jitsu class are the most productive hours of my day because my brain is primed to work in a way that it doesn’t prime itself naturally- I suspect this is the same for potters.

If you’re in Perth and are in any way interested in where you can go to try this, check out Clay Make Studio. The staff were lovely and their pricing is totally affordable.

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.