Got ADHD On the Brain?
Feeling like disorganization and poor time management are thwarting your goals for success? Learn how to reprogram old habits, and turn high energy and impulsivity into positive attributes.
If you have ADHD, you and I probably have similar characteristics: Though you struggle with symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness, you have had some success in life, thanks in no small part to the people around you who accommodate you when your ADHD characteristics pose problems.
My wife, Dolores, is a middle-school teacher; being organized is essential to her job. She manages her life according to a motto: “a place for everything and everything in its place.” I’ve always wished I could be like her!
Keeping my side of the bedroom in order always seemed too hard. For years, Dolores kept her side of the room irreproachably neat, while I kept my side as best I could. Countless times I tried to organize my stuff. I never attempted to make big changes, because when I did that, I knew I would fail. So I tried small things, like not leaving books on the floor next to my side of the bed or putting my running shoes back in the closet. But none of these micro-moves lasted for more than a week or so. I was full of good intentions that never seemed to take hold.
Then I learned why. My ADHD coach, Victoria Ball, said one day, “You know, Greg, people with ADHD take 10 times as long as others to learn a habit and one-tenth the time to forget it.”
Her insight reminded me of Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey talked about developing the habit of being proactive, and suggested that you think of yourself as a computer that needs to be programmed. Highly effective people, he says, program their own computer.
Poor Memory, Time Management
My coach’s comments made me realize that my ADHD brain (or computer) is different from that of most people. Mine thrives on creative, surprising, fun-loving programs. But its habit-forming function needs upgraded software. For other people, a task becomes a habit after doing it two or three times. It takes ADDers 20 or 30 times to accomplish the same thing.
I decided to apply this insight to organizing the bedroom. I made a list of the things I should do each morning before leaving for the day, and taped it to the top of my dresser. It included all the things I might forget to take with me, as well as some things my wife had been asking me to do for years — everything from removing papers from the floor to turning off the light and raising the shades halfway, the way she likes it. I didn’t tell Dolores about it. I hoped she’d notice.
It took four months before I could do the morning routine 25 times in a row without forgetting anything. My side of the room has been almost as neat as Dolores’s for two years now. And, yes, she noticed.
Talkative, Poor Social Skills
I also used this technique to change some habits at work. I tended to be so vociferous during brainstorming sessions that others around the conference table shut down. One colleague told me that I exhibited “despotic enthusiasm.” I wanted to be more measured in my contributions.
I set two rules for myself during group discussions. I didn’t speak until at least three other people had spoken first, and I didn’t contribute a second comment or question until at least one other person had offered a second comment or question. Any questions or comments that I didn’t have the chance to express, I talked over with people individually after the group discussion.
It took me three months before I got through 10 meetings following these rules. I still have to remind myself every so often that this is a habit I want to keep — otherwise my brain will drop it. Now colleagues encourage me to share my ideas.
Has the technique turned my life around? Do I have a place for everything and keep everything in its place? No. But I have a formula for personal change that allows me to enjoy my characteristics – my creativity and impulsivity – while forming better habits about things that are important to me and to those I care about.