See Part I of this series on managing ADHD here.
The last thing that I wanted to do after finishing my Master’s dissertation, was read more books. After my recent diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, I was faced with more homework. Instead of history books, however, I entered the realm of self-help, and began to discover why I was the way I was.
My life has changed dramatically since my diagnosis. After 6 months of ‘self-reflection’, and reading about the disorder, things became clear. I finally began to grasp why my brain behaves the way it does. More importantly, I learned it was not an excuse for my uncalled outbursts, or my inability to pay attention. In understanding and accepting how my brain works, I also learned some skills to mediate the effects of it. Even with the medication, I have found the onus is still very much on me to work through my ADHD. In this post, I will go through the techniques which have drastically improved my productivity. While many of you probably do not need the cocktail of medication and habits I need in order to focus, some of these insights and strategies might aid your own research.
Work in timed intervals, with many short breaks. This technique of time management is also called the Pomodoro Method. I found it practical to use timer apps on my phone, such as Be Focused. These apps allow you to customize your day; and set it up so an alert sounds when it’s time to take a break, or get back to work. You can schedule your whole work day with this– for example, 50 minutes for work, followed by a 10 minute break, with an hour break for lunch. This way, the bursts of constructive work are rewarded – these little breaks make all the difference for me.
Do the tasks you dread the most first. This will ensure that they get your attention before it has depleted. The motivation you have for doing tasks you enjoy should carry your attention until the end of the day.
Write it Down
Keep a dedicated notepad nearby (or torn off scraps of paper) to write down and do away with distracting thoughts that can wait, but will inevitably be forgotten if you don’t make a note of them. I must admit, there are many occasions I went off on an hour long shopping spree for house goods in the middle of my studies, just because I was worried I would forget. Plant fertilizer, for example, can wait until the evening.
If you don’t rely on the whole of the world wide web for work, there are ingenious computer plugins that restrict access of certain websites during your work hours. Cold Turkey is one of them. You can customise allowed websites, and the plugin blocks everything else. This ensures that, during study time, the habitual social media distraction is at a minimum.
Sitting still is hard. For those like me, sitting and focusing on black & beige research material with texts and scribbles is torture. To compensate for the lack of more colourful stimulation, I fidget. Movement helps my brain process and flow. I am not actually crazy, NPR suggested this phenomenon too. To curb my leg bouncing and pen clicking in study environments, the numerous buttons, switches, and textures on The Fidget Cube have become a pacifier of sorts. During lectures and talks I play with the quieter buttons, and I fuss with it during chapter writing as well. This helps to both take out my frustrations and to kick start my thought process.
I decided that I wanted to at least feel like what it felt to be ‘normal’. If I did not like how it wired my brain, I knew that I could manage without it, as evidenced by the first 25 years of my life. Since my first blog entry, I have been on medication for three months. As stimulants typically encourage hyperactivity, one would think that medication such as Ritalin would be counterproductive. However, stimulating the overactive ADHD brain, reconfigures a level plane of calm and focus.
The changes are both welcome and were unexpected. Granted, my mind still wanders, but I am now conscious of when it starts to divert. My thinking is more fluid, and I can more easily trace my thoughts from point a to point b, instead of the previous attention shifts that I had no control over. I also find my habits correcting themselves. Instead of spacing out while I am in an intense conversation, which used to be inevitable, I find that I am now following every word.
Of course, medication doesn’t solve everything and is not for everyone. While Ritalin stimulates my overactive brain, and in turn, quiets it, the medication still needs to be supplemented with my own efforts. These are where the adaptations mentioned above come into play. There is no longer a sense of dread when I sit down to do work. The formerly known exhaustion and frustration from trying to focus on the task at hand is mostly gone.
Focus At Last?
The aftereffects of my ADHD diagnosis have dramatically changed my PhD experience. So much so, that the last writing assignment I submitted prompted comments of marked improvement, instead of the “This is ok, BUT…”, that I had come to expect. My supervisors told me that it was the best work of mine they had read, and then said something even more crucial: it was focused.