so your adhd coping strategies keep suddenly failing
I’m overdue for one of these ADHD posts. I know I’m overdue because I have the urge to write one, I guess — these things sort of bubble up seasonally, sometimes in clusters of several in a row, and then months of none. This might itself be an ADHD thing.
My two biggest posts on the matter were both very directed at academics — one is about writing your dissertation, and the other is about writing papers that aren’t necessarily The Big One. The third is also very academia-focused but it doesn’t follow the same naming convention so I think people don’t always know that it’s (ostensibly) one of my ADHD essays; it’s a lot more about emotion regulation than anything.
I think this post is going to be less academia-focused, but I’m still an academic in an academic job doing academic-like job activities, so this is going to continue to tinge my advice and particulars. I will attempt to make things applicable, but there’s certain aspects of non-academic jobs that simply haven’t applied to me in many years, so I can’t give first-hand advice necessarily. I strongly suspect that the non-academic adjacent jobs and trades where my advice will be most useful will be like, freelancing writing stuff and WFH tech stuff where no one is making you clock in or out.
So the problem is this: my system has stopped working again.
This is a known problem! This happens a lot! There’s something about ADHD where organizational systems don’t seem to stick for many of us,* if they work in the first place at all. I’m at a point in my career where I’ve got more responsibilities than I’ve had before, but also more freedom and much less supervision than I’ve had before. I’m a visiting assistant professor, meaning I am a professor but not on the tenure track. My job that gives me a paycheck is to teach college classes and maybe it would be a good idea to do some research in such a way as to edify college students who might be nearby, either via osmosis or involving them in research and stuff. But I also have a second job, which is to do LOTS of research and publish and go to as many conferences as possible and maybe try to do some public outreach, all with the goals of 1.) beefing up my CV so that when I am back on the job market** I have better chances and 2.) hopefully being Known in my field as an expert on the thing that I do, again so I have better chances on the job market whenever I am returned to its ungentle embrace.
“This sounds like you have a second half-to-full-time job that’s about trying to make sure that you eventually get hired for another job, in addition to the full-time job you have, Kirby.” Yes, correct, that is how academic precarity works.
So, so far I am quite liking the first job. I like teaching a lot. I like doing research and I am really enjoying trying to do so in such a way as to get students caught in the research splash zone, as it were. It’s been a bit of an adjustment, because I had to move across the country and away from my home and support network, but I think my first year has been pretty okay! The main bit of critical feedback I’ve gotten from students that I think is extremely well-warranted is that I’m a bit disorganized.
The second job would be a lot more fun if it were not my second job. I like writing papers and going to conferences and doing outreach! A lot! But as it is, there’s a lot of moving parts, some of them with externally-imposed deadlines (like submitting abstracts or paper revisions or paper reviews or grants or what have you) and many of them with zero externally-imposed structure (like… actually getting myself to write the paper in the first place).
The confluence, currently, is that I am falling back into some procrastination habits that are starting to spiral a bit. It’s not totally out of control, but I am spending a not insignificant portion of therapy just stressing out about deadlines.
I described it to my therapist thusly: it’s like I’m trying to get a fairly bright eight-year-old (me) to do homework. They are bright enough to have surmised that one way to get authority figures (me) off their back is to say, “Okay, I have a plan, I shall sit at the kitchen table after snack and I shall do the homework, and then I shall go to swim practice.” Cool, good plan! Love that! And then they go and sit at the kitchen table for an hour and a half and draw dolphins in the margins of the homework. And now it’s four-thirty, time to leave for swim practice, and their homework is not done.
I don’t…. know what to do with that. Yelling at the kid is not going to help; I know this because it’s been tried, and it just very demonstrably does not make Kirby Do Homework. Nothing happens except that they get a glazed look in their eyes, presumably as they retreat to the dolphin dimension in their mind. Bargaining with them doesn’t work, guilt-trips don’t work, taking away swim practice doesn’t work. I don’t know what would work. Fundamentally, this eight-year-old shouldn’t have been assigned the homework in the first place, because studies show that homework is bullshit and has no pedagogical value. Also, I don’t think when they told me their plan they were, like, maliciously lying to me or trying to get out of it. They’re not trying to spend that hour and a half doing something fun, or showing any overt signs of distress, they just… sat there. And didn’t do it.
What do you do with that?
I’m still sort of stuck on a global answer to what one even does, especially given that I’m trying to make this eight-year-old publish high-level scientific research in top journals. Or whatever. If this were an actual eight-year-old, I’d be trying to look into alternative schooling or programs that resulted in them not being assigned homework after a 9-hour day of school because good god. But it’s not an actual eight-year-old, it’s me, a professor in my mid-thirties with three college degrees and rent to pay. Like, I don’t think I get to just not do the homework, and I am getting more and more frustrated with watching myself sit at the kitchen table in front of the homework just not doing it.
One of the issues is also that the planning and the doing are really different skills. I not-really-jokingly tweeted that I wish I could clone myself:
Another of the issues is that when I’m in a “more ADHD than usual” phase, everything I try to do is inefficient. I don’t think inefficiency is inherently bad, but I’m disabled and have chronic pain and fatigue that’s only just kind of managed. Wasting energy spinning my wheels and not accomplishing a task is especially frustrating because my stores of energy are very limited and when I run out I can’t do really basic stuff like eat or get out of bed. It’s like maxing out a credit card — at some point, the interest rate shoots up really high, and at a point just beyond that, the card is cancelled entirely. I can’t really afford to pay an extra energy fee to do things inefficiently all the time, because if I hit my credit limit, that’s a big problem.
So my therapist, who is smart and good at their job, asked what has helped me when I’ve struggled with this level of organizational problems before. I told them about a number of strategies I’ve done:
- in the summer I was revising my dissertation, I got really into doing cute bujo spreads, and got a bunch of cute washi tape and gel pens and little notebooks. I would start each work session by making a nice little spread of what I was going to do, and making lots of pleasing ticky-boxes to check off with pens that were in cute color schemes that pleased my eyes to look upon
- in my first fall of this job, I started doing (I think Jo?)’s suggestion of sticky-note hell: each individual task got its own sticky-note, and the sticky-notes populated my desk and edges of my monitor, and as I finished a task I got to (very satisfyingly!) crunch up the sticky-note and throw it in a pile; it was deeply satisfying to see the pile of crumpled notes at the end of a good session, and to see the desk/monitor space become refreshingly clean and clear again
- during a bout of desperation this past winter, I started emailing myself from my personal email to my work email. I wrote out clear instructions of what I wanted me to do, what I wanted me to prioritize, and asked me to report back at the end of the day to tell me how it went. I got the satisfaction of being able to fold in a lot of warm validation and sort of self-mentorship, and to engage in some very therapeutic self-dialog about what barriers existed and what I wanted to do about them
- this past month or so, I finally followed this great advice from Shiloh and bought myself a cute-ass sparkly d20 from Etsy. I go in my big-ass spreadsheet where I have all the phases of each chapter of my book, with their own pleasing (digital) ticky-boxes, and I have a column in that spreadsheet assigning a number on the die to one of the chapters. A dice-roll decides what chapter I’ll work on that session, and the spreadsheet columns tell me which phase I’m in. This is working okay, but I’ve only been using it for my book, not my other projects.
I’ve noticed a few important commonalities between these systems. The first is that none of them work forever. I briefly touch on crop-rotation in my big “abd when adhd” post, but I didn’t really talk about what it looks like. I also have noticed that for the past two years or so, all the crop-rotation I’ve been doing has been accidental, not planned: a system stops working as well, then stops working at all, and then I have a fallow period where I just waft around my tasks feeling unmanaged and chaotic and stressed out, and it has to come to a crisis point of stress and burnout before I finally sit down and go, right, I’ve got to get this under control, time for a new system. I’m going to end this post with my plan of how I want to stop doing that chaos-burnout cycle and rotate my crops on purpose, god damn it.
The other important commonality is that these systems all are focused around helping “the talent” (the Kirby who writes, codes, gives talks, teaches) figure out what it is they’re supposed to be doing at any given time. This is because the Talent’s job is to be the Talent, not the manager! The diva does not book the theater and hire the ushers and print the tickets, the diva shows up and sings! If you tried to make the Talent also be the Management, they’d be bad at one of those things, for sure — this is why I want a clone, of course. So the systems are all trying to take the place of the Management, the most literal one being my Manager Emails To Myself. That’s clearly a feature I need, so it’s one I want to keep in future systems and/or make sure I weed out systems that don’t solve that problem for me. To-do lists don’t quite cut it, there needs to be a certain amount of continuity of planning.
The third commonality between these systems is that there is a reward. This is really important. The reward has to scratch some itch, it has to be genuinely satisfying, and overdosing on it is going to make it less rewarding over time. I think, actually, that this is fundamentally why the crop rotation is necessary in the first place: I build up a tolerance and get diminishing returns on the dopamine afforded to me by gel pens, and have to get my hit of dopamine from sticky-note scrunching, or whatever. (I find it interesting that the manager-emails-to-myself system does actually have a built-in reward; praise is a good reward for me! And apparently I can satisfy that need for myself, which is a little surprising.)
So, back to the thing where systems reliably stop working. As best I can tell, my cycle is about four months long: I start a new system and it’s a little shiny and new for a month, then works pretty solidly for a couple months after that. Towards the end of the third month it starts to drag, the rewards aren’t as rewarding, and I start ignoring my own reminders. I get decision paralysis and spend a lot of work sessions puttering around accomplishing nothing in particular, or hyperfocusing on the wrong thing. Deadlines start piling up and I get stressed out, and it goes really off the rails in the fourth month. Usually by the end of the fourth month I’m back to the oh my god I need to get my shit together stage.
So to head this off, what I really need is to rotate systems before they get so unhelpful that I start spiraling; each system has to serve the purpose of letting me figure out what I’m doing without expending extra brain cells; and each system has to have a built-in reward that is sufficiently enticing to give me the little dopamine hit that I need to generate the doing-stuff brain-juice or whatever.*** To that first point, what I have decided after this therapy discussion is that I want to treat it as a truly seasonal thing, maybe taking the crop-rotation metaphor a bit literally. I am currently approaching the end of summer, so I am going to keep using my summer system until it feels like the beginning of fall, at which time I’ve got to switch to my fall system.
What this means is that I think I need at least four systems that are tested and work well for me to rotate them out seasonally. (I think in all honesty that I should try to rotate five seasons, so that for example “dice season” doesn’t always line up with summer.) Part of my homework this week is going to be trying to figure out what systems I’ve tried besides these ones, what has been useful from them, and whether they would need to be adapted. I think, also, that for at least the first year of seasonal crop rotation I’m going to intentionally not plan it out more than a season in advance — I don’t know right now what my fall is going to look like well enough to plan what system I should use in winter, for example.
Anyways! Tl;dr of this post:
- I need to rotate my crops of organizational systems. Due to my adhd and also qualities as a person.
- The systems need to be good systems. A good system for me is one that acts as a “manager” so that I can just be the “talent.” A good system also needs to have built-in rewards or satisfaction in order for it to work.
- I am going to rotate them based on literal seasons of the year, because this is slightly shorter than the cycle of chaos I’ve observed in my own habits.
IF you have any systems that you think meet these criteria, feel free to share them in the comments! (Keep in mind, I’ll only ever be trying a system for a few months at a time, so something with a huge start-up cost is not going to be great for me.) If you’ve also tried crop rotation like this, I’d like to hear about it! And god, let’s just please aim specifically at keeping our shit from spiraling with the goal of reducing stress and distress in our lives, not for some hustle/grindset capitalist nonsense, thanks in advance ❤
* Please note that this is not a diagnostic criterion for ADHD necessarily, nor is it a qualification you need to have to use tools meant to help ADHDers. You do not need a formal diagnosis and you definitely should not read this sentence and go “I don’t have that, I guess I don’t have ADHD and therefore am not allowed to use any advice for people who do.” I know some of you will try it so I am getting out ahead of that.
** Honestly the academic job market is such a unique heckscape that if I ever escape it I totally intend to do a blog post about ADHD and job searching. I don’t think it would be a good idea to do so while I’m still even remotely adjacent to the market, in part because I don’t think I’m qualified to do so, sorry. If you have a TT job and rampant ADHD hit me up and do a guest post with me or something.
*** Please note I am using brain chemicals metaphorically and not making any neurobiological claims about mechanisms or etiology of ADHD or anything at all. Do not at me, please and thank you