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By Rick Green
Now and then someone will tell me that Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a gift. A big, fat, wonderful, exciting gift.
Rather than a problem, disorder, constant challenge, or, on bad days, a curse.
Why such opposing views?
One reason is that ADHD is very ‘individual.’ Each of us has our own combination of challenges, and to varying degrees. Plus, we have a unique life situation. My ADHD is awesome when I’m doing comedy on stage. It is a big problem when I’m forced to sit quietly, and pay attention during a long meeting.
Add to all of this the fact that there are two main types of ADHD. Some folks don’t have the Hyperactivity—that impulsive, fidgety, driven, impatient, mercurial restlessness. Instead, many women and some men are quiet day-dreamers, often lost in thought. My grandmother would have said, “A dough head.” No, Nana, it’s the Predominantly Inattentive Subtype of ADHD. Me, I have the Combined Subtype.
ANOTHER REASON FOR CONFUSION?
It’s not a deficit of attention. Not always.
Sometimes we can be laser focused. Try getting a kid who has ADHD to stop playing with their X-Box. Or interrupt an adult who’s ‘in the zone.’
I’ve written and performed in over 700 episodes of television, and radio comedy, from The Red Green Show, to The Frantics, to History Bites. I run an ADHD website full of videos, blogs, tools, and more. Clearly, I can pay attention. In fact, like many folks with ADHD, I can hyperfocus. Just not always when I want to, or on what I should be paying attention to. You should see our basement, garage, and spare bedroom… A million things started and not finished.
IS IT A CURSE OR BLESSING?
No wonder there’s confusion about whether ADHD is a burden or a gift.
Almost every adult in our videos will tell you that their ADHD can be a life-sucking, frustrating, confusing. Yes, many are learning to manage it, often quite successfully, but they don’t love it.
They are VERY relieved they finally know what’s going on. Every person will tell you that getting a diagnosis is life-changing.
Other people, often well-meaning and loving parents, declare that ADHD is a gift.
“Here’s a wonderful gift that will cost you years of your life, countless opportunities, friendships, relationships, money… I didn’t have time to wrap it.”
At first I thought, “What nonsense.”
Some people actually envied me! (You can envy things I’ve done. Don’t envy this life-sucking saboteur!)
Now, after 15 years of hearing this disorder is in fact some kind of blessing, I give up.
Fine! Yes! You’re right! It’s a big honking gift!
I’ll go further if you want. ADHD is a hugely profitable gift, that keeps paying off, but NOT for me, or the millions of people who actually have it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving…to everyone else.
My ADHD is a gift for other people. Allow me to point out who they are…
1. SCREEEEEECH! CRASH!
When you have problems with focus, attention, distraction, and overwhelm, as numerous studies have confirmed people with ADHD do, you have more car accidents. One study found that adults with untreated ADHD means they are 7 times more likely to be at fault for multiple car accidents. Seven times the rate! That’s 600% higher than ‘regular’ folks. (As in non-ADHD.)
How is this a gift? Actually, the question is, who benefits? Well, who profits?
If you are an auto mechanic, truck driver, insurance adjuster, traffic cop, ambulance driver, E.R. doctor, or auto recycler, then you will have steady work thanks to those who have untreated ADHD.
When your mind is flitting like a butterfly, you tend to be a poor listener. Plus, a poor working memory means we forget appointments, anniversaries, promises, and everything from taking out the garbage to saving money for retirement.
It is so easy for our loved ones to conclude that we don’t care. And it’s no fun for them to always have to be ‘the responsible one.’
Many of us also have trouble managing frustration. Sudden outbursts of anger, that quickly pass, but leave everyone else shaken, are common. This is different from ‘Anger Management.’ Arguing, drama, and conflict can wake up our brain and make us feel better. But leave everyone around us exhausted.
So, if you’re a divorce lawyer, a family law-specialist, a marriage counselor, judge, a baliff, or accountant, we’re sending a lot of billable hours your way.
Depending on which study you read, we’re 2 to 4 times more likely to divorce.
3. BUNDLES OF JOY
Ever thought about having children? We can help.
One of the key traits of adult ADHD is Impulsivity. We tend to blurt things out. Things like, “Do you want to have sex?” And sometimes the other person does.
Being impulsive, we’re not always good at long-term planning…resulting in unplanned pregnancies. Which we’re not prepared to handle. Parenting is a commitment. It requires routines. Structure. Stability. Not our forte.
So, if you work at, or seek help from an adoption agency, you may end up with one of our offspring. (ADHD is highly inheritable. It’s strongly genetic. So while only about 4 to 5% of adults have ADHD, each of our kids has a 30 to 40% chance of having it. So that’s why the kid you adopt may be a handful.)
Try and remember what a gift their ADHD is when that child asks you why they never get invited to birthday parties.
If 4 to 5% of adults qualify as having ADHD, then you’d assume that at any large gathering, about 1 in 25 people would have this. And yet, one of the earliest studies on the subject found that about 1 in 3 people at an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering showed the symptoms of ADHD. That’s about seven times what you’d expect.
So, if you own a tavern, a brewery, a winery, a distillery, a store that sells spirits, an alcohol addiction program, or a liver-transplant clinic, you are going to be able to afford that winter vacation thanks to the extra sales from us.
It’s our gift! A reward! Our contribution!
In fact, if you counsel people who are Shop-a-holics, Sex Addicts, or have substance abuse problems, we make up a disproportionately large slice of your clients. Why? People with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD find ways to wake up their brain. It’s called Self-Medicating. For me it used to be caffeine and adrenaline.
The point is, it’s a gift!
5. STARBUCKS SHOULD GIVE US A DISCOUNT
ADHD seems to result from low levels of certain neurotransmitters, the chemicals required to carry messages around your brain. One way to increase the level of these messengers is to stimulate the brain… with a stimulant.
You’re thinking, “Ritalin?!” I was thinking caffeine and nicotine.
If someone you know drinks 8 coffees, teas, or as I did, cans of cola, every day, and then fills in the gaps with chocolate and energy drinks, send them to our online ADHD quiz. Or refer them to our 5 part series on ADHD Medications – video 3 looks at self-medicating.
The point is that human being always find a way to get the brain chemicals they need to feel good, even if it’s destructive to the rest of their body.
Which is fabulous news for you coffee companies, coffee shops, chocolate companies, and energy drink bottlers. Baristas owe us a big thanks. (Sorry for our rudeness. We’re often impatient, hate line-ups, and want our coffee now! Plus, one study found we make between $8,000 to $14,000 less in annual income compared to our non-ADHD peers, and struggle with finances and paperwork, so we may not tip. Which kind of lessens the impact of the gift of our ADHD, I know. Please forgive us.)
6. JUSTICE? IT’S JUST US!
Are you a police officer? Penitentiary guard? Parole officer? Courtroom official? Bail supervisor? Judge? Crime reporter?
Again, the numbers are in debate, but studies suggest that between 25 and to 35% of the prison population has undiagnosed and untreated ADHD. (BTW, before you panic and assume ADHD automatically dooms your child to incarceration, the prison population usually has other challenges, like Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, or an inability to run faster than a police officer.)
The point is that you’d expect the rate in prison to be the same as in the general population, which is 4 to 5% of adults. So, people suffering from untreated ADHD are doing their bit to keep the justice system economically viable.
You’re welcome! It’s our gift to you! With a big friggin’ bow on it.
7. A SURE FIRE BET
I mentioned Alcoholics Anonymous…Then there’s Gambler’s Anonymous. We love risk!
When you’re short of certain neurotransmitters, in this case Dopamine and Norepinephrine, you find ways to wake up your brain. With adrenaline.
So it’s not just compulsive drinking, drugs, or cannabis… There’s gambling!
Good news for anyone working in Vegas, but especially casino employees, card dealers, and eventually, pawn-shop owners, bill collectors, repo companies, and divorce lawyers. That was gift number 2 – the divorce lawyers were also benefiting from our ADHD in Gift Number 2.
8. HELPING YOU GET A HIGHER EDUCATION
It’s never easy to get into the best colleges or universities.
People with ADHD can also suffer far higher rates of learning disorders, (ADHD is a difficulty managing information) adding to the challenge.
Plus, we’re easily distracted, and have a poor working memory. So we tend to be woefully underachieving in school, unless we’re lucky enough to have a teacher who recognizes what’s going on. (In that case, there’s a ton of great accommodations that can level the playing field.)
Otherwise, we are far more likely to be expelled, repeat a grade, or drop out. If we make it to college we really struggle to manage coursework, or simply get to early morning classes. (Getting good sleep is an almost universal hurdle with ADHD.)
The result of all this? We’re more likely to never finish our degree. (More teacher time for you Non-ADHD students.)
We’re more likely to settle for a degree that’s beneath our true abilities. (As I did.)
And then there’s our higher rate of substance abuse… Cannabis actually doesn’t improve memory, despite what millions claim. It may make you feel calmer, and yes, people swear they can focus better, but… I’m not going to get into that debate again.
The point is, our failure rate at institutions of higher learning means there’s a lot more spaces for other students to get into college. Lucky them!
THE BAD NEWS…
It turns out ADHD is surprisingly treatable. Which is good for those of us who have it, and bad news for everyone who doesn’t.
With a holistic, or multi-modal approach, the turnaround can be incredible. One study said the core symptoms can be reduced by 75%! There are more and more tools, strategies, apps, and medication options. Hundreds of studies are proving the effectiveness of mindfulness, exercise, coaching and life-style changes.
Many famous and successful people have ADHD. More and more of them are, as one doctor put it, ‘coming out of the ADHD closet,’ Kudos to reporter Lisa Ling, actress Zooey Deschanel, and Adam Levine of Maroon 5.
I have to tell you, just getting diagnosed, knowing what’s going on, getting solid information from reliable sources, makes all the difference in the world. Plus it leads to you interesting, ADHD-Friendly strategies to help master this quirky, funky mindset.
Simply knowing what’s going on changes everything. That’s bad news for addiction counselors, divorce lawyers, and ambulance drivers. (So sorry!)
And it’s good news for those of us who have this ‘gift.’ And, of course, for our loved ones who are supporting us.
(Apologies if I got a little ‘dark.’ But if you have ADHD, I think you’ll understand.)
By Rick Green
In particular, there is the contentious claim that, “people with ADHD have real strengths.”
In our book, ADD Stole My Car Keys!, we list 155 traits, symptoms, beliefs, and behaviors common to people with ADHD. Of course not everyone has them all. Each of us is blessed with our own personal grab bag of issues. While most adults struggle with restlessness and impulsivity, a substantial minority are dealing only with the ‘Inattentive’ problems: distractions, focus, memory, follow-through, prioritizing, procrastinating, organizing, etc..
“I Do That! Is That ADHD?”
My intention for ADD Stole My Car Keys was to show the vast range of ways that ADHD shows up in real life. It’s hard to recognize myself on the list of symptoms. Since most of us are born this way, because this is so highly genetic, it’s all we know. It is our normal.
So, when someone suggests there’s something wrong with us, or that we are abnormal, or at least unusual, part of a small subset of the population, we can be forgiven for doubting that we have a disorder.
Instead, we assume everybody struggles with these issues to the same degree that we do, that life really is this hard, and that no human being is able to sit and focus for hours doing routine paperwork. Much less actually finish what they start in one go.
A Book I’d Actually Read
I tried to create a book that I myself would read, containing information that I wish I had had when my child was diagnosed, and then when I recognized, “This is me”!
155 different traits or beliefs. One per page, that you can read in any order. Illustrated with some cartoons. Perfect for anyone with ADHD, right?
But there is one part of the book that is controversial. Even to me. It’s the final chapter, listing 23 strengths that are common to people with ADHD. Strengths! Of course no one has them all. Some people may not have any. (Though I’ve never met those people–and I’ve met a lot of people with ADHD since our documentary ADD & Loving It?! debuted on PBS.)
Some of the strengths seem obvious for a mind that jumps around a lot… “Creative.” “Lateral thinker.” “Sense of humor.”
Other strengths seem more like the result of coping with struggling for a lifetime with an ADHD brain. For example, #147, Empathetic and Sensitive. Drawn to people and animals that are suffering. We can be great social workers, therapists, or social crusaders because of these qualities.
Chicken or Egg? A Result or a Reaction?
Here’s the question: are these strengths part of your ADHD? Or are they result of struggling with ADHD?
Are they an aspect of this mindset? A result of this neurology? Or a reaction to it? Are these traits we develop to cope with having this mindset? Just as our higher rates of addiction, risk-taking, and substance abuse are things we do to cope.
Do blind people instantly have better hearing, a more sensitive ear? Or is it what they develop to compensate for the inability to see?
One of the studies I mention frequently deals with creativity and ADHD. It was conducted at the University of Memphis. 60 University students were given 11 standard tests for creativity. These are tests designed by psychologists to measure one’s creative skills. Visually. Verbally. Coming up with new ideas. (There are a lot of ways to express creativity!)
30 of the students in the study have ADHD. 30 do not – they are ‘normal’, or rather non-ADHD.
The 30 students who have ADHD scored higher than the non-ADHD students on all 11 tests.
We’re More Creative! Science Proves It!
When I read through the summary of this study, I came to the obvious conclusion that people with ADHD are more creative. Logical. Right? 60 students isn’t a huge population for a study. 30,000 would have been better. But still, they scored higher on ALL of the tests. So let’s assume it’s not a fluke.
What I have realized since is that this study, like all studies, wasn’t exactly random. It wasn’t a representative sample of the entire population. It was a series of tests given to people who had managed to get in to university.
Knowing that many studies have shown that people with ADHD are more likely to struggle in school, or dropout, or suffer from learning disorders, face financial problems, etc., one would expect that fewer of us would make it into university, let alone graduate. And a number of studies have suggested that is the case.
That means that we are under-represented in universities.
Natural Selection? Only the Creative Ones Survive High School.
I’m going to make up some figures just so we have something to work with…
Let’s say that 50% of kids get into college or university.
And lets say that kids with ADHD are twice as likely to drop out or fail to finish high school. (Or earn grades lower than they should based on their abilities. Sadly these numbers are pretty close to the actual figures.) That means that only about 25% of kids with ADHD will get into college or university.
And what is it that these kids had that allowed them to manage to succeed despite having problems with focus, memory, restlessness, etc.?
Does Creativity Compensate for ADHD?
Perhaps, dare I suggest, the more creative a person with ADHD is, the better the odds they have of negotiating the school system. What they lacked in willpower they made up for in creativity. They found ways to compensate.
I know for myself, in my 2nd year of a 4 year honors program to earn a degree in physics, I was struggling. Had I been diagnosed at that point, things might have turned out differently. Instead, I settled for a three-year general science degree. In most of my science courses, my marks were in the 60s and 70s. And a few 50s.
However, in the few arts courses that I took–film, figure drawing, painting—I scored 80’s and 90’s. Those marks saved me.
When I should have been studying for my physics courses, I was doing comedy on the campus radio station, or writing jokes at $.25 a pop for a local AM radio DJ. That was my 1st paying comedy gig. Since I didn’t own a typewriter, I actually had to print up the jokes at a university computer terminal, which then transferred them onto IBM punch cards, so I could print them off on long reams of green computer paper.
What Does It Mean?
So, does ADHD endow us with certain unalienable strengths? Or do we develop strengths to compensate?
Or is it a mixture of both?
I will mention that #137 of the 155 traits in our book is ‘Class Clown.’
I know a lot of comedians, and almost all of them told me they were diagnosed with ADHD as a kid, or they took our online test and scored through the roof, or their friends and family have begged them to get tested and find out.
Most of them don’t get tested. They’re afraid they’ll lose their edge, and become boring. Which is interesting, because in that University of Memphis study, half of the 30 kids with ADHD were taking medication and the other half were not. Yet there was no measurable difference in their creativity.
Thoughts? What are you strengths? Did they come part and parcel with your ADHD? Or did you develop some strengths to survive and thrive?
Before I was diagnosed as having ADHD, I had a lot of beliefs about myself. And about what ADHD was. And therefore, why I couldn’t have ADHD.
A belief is not the truth. But these had become my ‘truths.’ And what we believe limits us more than anything else.
A thousand psychological studies prove the power of limiting beliefs. Or of positive beliefs. No matter how stupid that belief may be.
If you tell students the test is easy, they will do better. If you tell them it’s hard, they will do worse. If you tell the teacher these students are gifted, they will score higher by the end of the term. Tell the same teacher these kids are troubled underachievers and in a few weeks the classroom will be a war zone.
Beliefs Are Everything
I can tell you, it’s disorienting. For many the dread of a diagnosis turns to relief. “There is an explanation!” A roller coaster ride. Some people love roller coasters. Others scream in terror.
But getting diagnosed? There was anger, sadness, and lots of regret about how much life might have been had I known sooner. But also relief. It was a tornado of emotions, one a lot of people experience, and it lead to the video Now You Tell Me?
Once you know that you’ve spent your whole life in a wrestling match with this invisible opponent, it’s… mind blowing.
Taking apart beliefs is intimidating… and exhilarating. Let’s explore some common perceptions and misperceptions that ADDers have about themselves.
1 – Massive Denial
THE BELIEF: “ADHD? I don’t have a mental disorder. I don’t rant or rave or have delusions. My brain is fine. Sure, I make mistakes but everyone does. I am unique, but I am NOT abnormal. I just need more self-discipline.”
When my Doctor told me, “This ultrasound shows that your gall bladder has a problem,” I assumed it was true. He had visual proof.
Yet when another Doctor suggested my brain wasn’t functioning ‘normally’, I was mortified, “Not me!”
Why the denial? Well, to start with there was no Xray or Ultrasound image that the doctor could point to and say, “See… those blobs… that’s your ADHD.
It’s also because when my gall bladder went wonky, I felt wonky. I wasn’t myself. It was clearly ‘abnormal.’
My ADHD brain came hardwired this way. Mine is inherited. ADHD is over 75% genetic. (For some folks it’s a head injury, or premature birth, and other causes.)
I was always like this. This is my normal. Which, yes, I sensed was abnormal, or different from most people. But growing up, I had never experienced anything else, so I couldn’t compare. So, “This is just how I am.” Later on, as I was considering trying an ADHD medication I realized how much I relied on another stimulant, caffeine, to focus. And the difference it made.
2 – Wilting Power
THE BELIEF: “Everyone says if I would just try harder and stick with it, I’d be great. And they’re right. But I do try and I can’t stick with it. I’m a quitter. No will power.”
This was a big one for me. I never finished my taxes, which was proof I had no willpower. I’d written hundreds of episodes of television, but that was just cause it was fun, and didn’t count.
I was in awe of friends who could spend six hours straight and complete their taxes. Magical!
Meanwhile, I could spend hours, days, even weeks mastering the sleight of hand for a magic trick. Clearly I had will power. But it was selective. After taking on my ADHD, I can do both, master a magic trick and also get my taxes in… Actually, my accountant does that. Which is a great ADHD Strategy: GIVE IT TO SOMEONE WHO IS NATURALLY GOOD AND DOING IT!
3 – I Am Not Reliable
THE BELIEF: “I can’t be trusted. But I desperately want people to trust me. I do incredibly well for a while then, BAM, completely blow it. Do I fear success? Why do I seem to sabotage my finances and relationships? What’s wrong with me? I’m such a stupid loser!”
ADHD is not a lack of willpower. Actually… it is. But what is will-power? It’s a process that goes on in your brain, one that
A ‘lack of willpower’ is a lack of fuel, neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that carry messages and form memories. And we’re a bit low on them, especially Dopamine and Norepinephrine.
It’s not morality.
It’s biology. Neurology.
But I know so many ADDers, including yours truly, who mistook their ADHD for Depression. And so many women who have ADHD are misdiagnosed as having Depression. In fact, a lifetime struggling with undiagnosed ADHD, we often end up in Depression, or struggling with Anxiety. Doctor’s call is a ‘Secondary Disorder.’ Depression is far easier to diagnose that ADHD, so that’s often as far as it goes. The person goes on an Anti-Depressant, when the real problem is unrecognized ADHD.
4 – I’m Not Like Those ADHD Kids
THE BELIEF: “First of all, ADHD is a boy thing. And those kids are hyper. Trust me, I wasn’t bouncing off the classroom walls. Quite the opposite. I was quiet, never a problem for the teacher. The reason I barely passed was that I was lost in thought. Spaced out. Forgetful. The teachers all agreed I had potential, but as my Irish mom said, ’You were always off with the fairies.’”
The thing about the human brain is that it doesn’t come with an operating manual. But over the decades Doctors have created a kind of Repair Manual. It’s controversial. It’s always being revised. It’s hopelessly inadequate to describe what’s going on in the brain.
And it’s pretty useful in many ways.
It’s called the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The fifth edition, heavily revised, came out last year.
The DSM lists 18 Symptoms in children. It explains the subtypes of ADHD. Those who are predominantly Inattentive, struggling with focus, follow-through, procrastination, memory, losing things. And those who are also dealing with the Hyperactivity, the restlessness, and the Impulsivity, being driven by a motor.
Oh yes. It’s complex.
As many Doctors have told us, no one has all 18 of the symptoms of ADHD in equal amounts. To qualify as ADHD a child has to have 6 out of the 9 in each category. And they have to be impairing. In multiple-situations.
But then, by adulthood, should it still be 6 out of 9? That brings us to:
5 – Close But No Cigar
THE BELIEF: “I read a list of ADHD symptoms and sure, some rang a bell, but who isn’t forgetful and a bit jumpy nowadays? I was boisterous as a kid, but every class has a troublemaker. Plus, there are a bunch of the symptoms that didn’t apply to me at all. Sorry, no sale.”
By age 40 I had found ways to manage my undiagnosed ADHD. Mostly I avoided stuff where I struggled. After learning about ADHD, I could see that my coping strategies were really hit and miss. No wonder. Hard to hit a target you can’t see and don’t know is there. Recognizing that I can hyper-focus, but I’ll try to do 9 things at once, and don’t prioritize what’s important to do first, means I work with my coach when I’m overwhelmed to help sort out what’s crucial, what’s important to get to eventually, and what’s a ‘nice to have someday.’
Rather than my old, pre-diagnosis strategy, of trying to finish everything and working 7 days a week with little to show for it.
So basically, if something is causing you problems, well, it’s a problem.
And that’s an important distinction. As Dr. Steven Kurtz says in ADD& Loving It?! says, “No one is coming to see me because they have nothing better to do.” People are coming in complaining about being depressed, despairing, burnt out, angry, frustrated, and on the verge of divorce, bankruptcy, exhaustion, or even suicide.
And somehow sensing they are underachieving. (A big one for me.)
What shocked me was that when I started dealing with my ADHD–through Yoga and mindfulness, a stimulant medication, coaching, and ADHD-friendly tools–things changed. Sometimes rapidly.
The only challenge was remembering to do the yoga, use the calendar, and call my coach when I was stuck. It’s as if I would forget that I had ADHD and I’d be telling myself, “Just try harder. Focus on this. Pick one. Just do something…”
Ridiculous, I know. But then the hardest thing to change can be your beliefs.
(By the way, these 5 beliefs are taken from Chapter 1 of ADD Stole My Car Keys which I wrote with Dr. Umesh Jain. To discover all 155 of the beliefs, behaviors, challenges, and yes, the potential strengths of ADHD adults, the book is available in soft cover, or to download immediately.)
By Rick Green
Which aspect of your ADHD do you dislike the most? Which trait, or if you prefer, ‘symptom’, does the most damage?
It’s a valuable question to ask. For several reasons.
One payoff for identifying the trait that undermines you the most? It requires you to focus, and you won’t drown in good intentions, trying to manage every symptom at once. (A recipe for overwhelm as I found out after when first diagnosed.)
Another payoff? Mastering the bugaboo that most sabotages you makes it so much easier to take on the next symptom you want to eliminate. (Or more realistically, that you want to reduce to insignificance. Hey, everyone loses their keys now and then. Wouldn’t losing keys once a month be far better than 4 times a day?)
And if you want to get a sense of the many ways ADHD impacts your life, our book lays out 132 surprising traits, behaviors, and beliefs that we struggle with. As well, we reveal 23 potential strengths.
The Most Bang For Your Buck
As you’ll see, there’s a lot of ways ADHD undermines us. The one particular challenge that undermines you, and affects others around you, that’s the one to work on first.
It’s worth spending a few minutes a day imagining what life will be like once this ‘problem’ is no longer running your life. Or ruining your life.
For me, the biggest challenge was procrastination. I knew that if I developed the habit of taking action right away, without delay, my life would be easier, simpler, and more rewarding. Procrastination was Public Enemy #1, and Private Enemy too, impacting my work and my personal life. And yet…
I Always Procrastinate – About Everything!
But as my wife pointed out, I definitely didn’t procrastinate all the time.
When there is a work deadline I have to meet, I come through. Often just in time.
She reminded me that I’ve created hundreds of TV and radio programs and a score of stage productions, and never missed a delivery date or had to cancel opening night. I know that ‘the show must go on.’ And it always does. No matter what it takes.
Alas, far too often, what it took was all of my energy, time, and vitality. At the expense of my family, my friends, and my health.
Today I’m a bit less productive, but far happier. In ADD & Mastering It!, Patrick McKenna and I take a fun romp through 36 strategies and tools we personally use for dealing with the biggest challenges of ADHD/ADD, especially procrastination around big projects. Of course, I used to procrastinate over the small stuff too.
Procrastination Can Be Small
For example, I always put off washing the dinner dishes until the morning.
I know, it’s a trivial procrastination. The consequences are hardly life threatening. I never let the food scraps pile up until they morphed into some kind of parasitic, fuzzy, blue bacterial life form. Not since University, anyway.
By the way, to understand how lazy I was, I put off doing the dishes even though we had a dishwasher… Which makes it even more embarrassing.
Yet, every night I’d convince myself I was too tired and, if I didn’t immediately flop into bed and begin snoring my body might collapse. I would promise myself to get to them in the morning. And, sure enough, at some point over the next day or two, I actually would.
This was fine when I lived alone.
My Wife Grew Up on a Farm
My wife came from a big family with lots of farmhands at every meal. Letting dishes pile up was never an option. (And the family didn’t have a dishwasher. It was all washed by hand.)
So whenever I left the dishes until the morning, my wife would quietly do them. No drama. No excuses. She put everything away. Wiped the counters… Because for her a messy kitchen was off-putting.
Since I usually make our breakfast, I eventually noticed that walking into a clean kitchen with lots of open space, nothing to work around or push aside… Well, it felt good… Surprisingly so.
When my wife was away for a day or two, and the dishes piled up, it actually began to bother me. I’d seen a vision… of something better.
Now I clean the kitchen before bed. Extraordinary. Usually it’s more than just loading the dishwasher. And yes, sometimes I still leave particularly horrifying saucepans to soak until morning. But mostly, the kitchen is clean when my head hits the pillow.
It’s Small – But It’s Big
If you don’t have ADHD, this miraculous transformation may strike you as somewhat trivial, or incredibly stupid. “This guy is excited because he no longer procrastinates about doing the dishes? Can’t wait to hear about the battle to dust the book shelf.”
However, if you have ADHD/ADD, or live with someone who does, you probably appreciate why this small victory matters. With ADHD, every victory matters. Especially the unexpected ones.
The chance that I would suddenly move to China and become a monk at the Shau-Lin temple, well, sure, that was remotely possible. But the idea that I would do dishes and clean the kitchen before crawling into bed, especially since they could easily keep until the morning?… That seemed beyond the realm of possibility. This wasn’t a huge goal for me. “Doing the dishes” wasn’t a habit I was trying to build. It wasn’t on my Bucket List. More like my F$%# It List.
How Did Mr. Green Become Mr. Clean?
Rather than rely on willpower or grit. I simply used several of the dozens of ADHD-Friendly strategies Patrick McKenna and I demonstrate in ADD & Mastering It!
A key trick is what we call, Reframing.
I reframed the task. Rather than see the messy kitchen as an onerous chore, which is one possible interpretation, I reframed it as an ‘opportunity.’ An opportunity to start the next day with ease. An opportunity to do something that makes my wife happy. And an opportunity to prove that I can accomplish things even when I’m craving sleep.
I also saw it as a chance to challenge my assumption that it was a huge job. It took about 1/3 as long as I guessed it would. Timing yourself, another ADHD strategy Patrick and I use in ADD & Mastering It!, is a great way to develop solid Time Management skills.
Reframing is simple. You create a better perspective. Rather than see the pile of greasy dishes, I pictured a spotless kitchen… and then took 7 minutes to clean, wash, and tidy up so that reality matched the vision.
Instead of feeling guilty, I want to be feeling absurdly pleased.
The Surprising Payoff
It feels silly to admit how much better I feel when the kitchen is spic and span. But the next morning when I come down to start making breakfast the usual ‘Ugh!’ is replaced by, ‘Ah! Nice.’ It actually sets a whole different tone to the day.
Rather than nagging myself, laying on a guilt trip, I found that picturing how I would feel to be greeted by clean, clear counters first thing in the morning made the decision easy. I made it a game to see how fast I could declutter and clean up. To my shock, I actually quite enjoyed it.
And yes, I know, it sounds ridiculous. But I’ve found this technique works, providing real motivation, whether I’m trying to procrastinate about exercise, making a difficult phone call, or writing a challenging script.
I succeed with ADHD by focusing on the result, envisioning it finished, feeling the pleasure of a job well done. Rather than seeing only what needs to be done.
What’s the best job in the world for you and your mindset? Or for anyone with ADHD? Being a comedy actor, director, producer, and writer, I know what I’d suggest.
And yes, I know that’s actually four jobs, not one, but then I have ADHD.
Now, let’s be clear, by ‘best job’ I mean the most fun… joyful… engaging… challenging.
Not the most lucrative. I’m saying ‘best’ as in ‘spiritually rewarding’ versus ‘financially rewarding.’ Not that joy and money are mutually exclusive.
So, does that mean I recommend that anyone and everyone with ADHD get into comedy? No. First of all, I don’t need the competition.
Plus, if I stop and think it through, (which is not like me), I realize that not everybody loves getting up in front of large crowds.
Apparently public speaking is a bigger fear for most people than death, poverty, or listening to a political debate.
Everyone is Different (How Annoying!)
Every person is a unique individual. We’re each weird in our own way. Whether we have ADHD or not, we all have our personal buffet of challenges and strengths.
I suppose this is good, and it makes for a more interesting world. But the fact that everyone is different is exhausting isn’t it? I find it takes a lot more energy to remember people’s likes, dislikes, marital status, or name. By the way, if name tags are so handy at conferences and other events, why don’t we all wear them? All the time. That would save me a lot of mental strain. Who’s with me on this?
What Was I Talking About Again?
Oh, right. The ideal vocation for someone with ADHD.
After editing interviews with a dozen experts to create The Perfect Career for ADHD, it is clear to me that there are two universal truths for ADDers and work.
First Universal Truth (FUT): There is no one all-round right job. (Don’t pout! This is good news. If there was only once choice, it wouldn’t be a choice, right?) Your ‘calling’ is whatever calls to you.
In the Perfect Career video, Wilma Fellman, a Career Counselor who specializes in folks with ADHD, explains that every member of our tribe has a unique combination of challenges. Your personal pot-pourri of strengths and weaknesses are different than mine. Sure, there is lots of overlap.
It’s like human faces–lots of variation from one individual to the next, but generally a nose, two eyes, a mouth, forehead on top, chin near the bottom. And yet these elements can produce faces as different as actress Zooey Deschanel and billionaire Richard Branson. (Two people who are very open about having ADHD.)
So, yes, there are common challenges for people with ADHD. (Easily bored. Impatient. Able to focus when interested.) This is why it’s not surprising that certain occupations attract a disproportionate number of ADDers. In fact, as Dr. Margaret Weiss jokes, there are certain jobs that only someone with ADHD would even consider! (She was looking at me as she said this.)
This Is a Big Deal
Second Universal Truth: Finding the right job can be crucial for someone with ADHD.
As you can probably attest ADHD is very situational. In the right situation we can soar. (Onstage at a Comedy Club, I’m great!) And in the wrong situation we will struggle mightily, or simply give up. (Doing my taxes. Making follow up calls. Following a To-Do list…)
The first time I watched the finished version of The Perfect Career For ADHD, I was struck by two things. One, framing it as a parody of Mad Men really worked. (Although my Don Draper was a bit more Pee Wee Herman.) Second, I realized how lucky I have been to find a job, or rather a series of jobs, that really play to my strengths.
One piece of advice the experts all recommend is ‘Handing off the stuff you don’t do well to someone else.’ Sounds sensible. Not so easy to do.
Handing off chores that I hated was not something I did for a very long time. Even though I hated them. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed that I started to understand that I didn’t have to do everything myself. And I was wasting my already limited willpower trying.
Funny, if you’d ask me, ‘Can one person do everything?’ I’d have said, ‘Of course not.’
Why then, do I, and many of adults with ADHD, think we have to do everything ourselves? Perhaps when you’ve grown up feeling you can’t trust yourself to do things, you find it hard to trust others.
If you try to do everything, which is impossible and exhausting, you end up living a very small life.
Almost every career you can think of involves working with others. Somebody made doing stage and television productions require me to work with scores of other people: experts in costume, makeup, set design, lighting…
I was glad to hand off those things because they were exotic specialties. Yet I insisted on struggling to finish my taxes every year, which meant they were always late. I spent more on late fees and fines than we now spend on our bookkeeper.
That’s right, we have bookkeeper who handles almost everything. Flawlessly. For her, numbers and precision are a real strength. She finds it interesting. Challenging.
Remember I said everyone is unique. Well, bookkeeping is the Perfect Career for her.
Funny thing, when I talked a bit about my work she just shook her head. The prospect of being a writer, actor, and director, ‘In front of all those people…’ terrified her about as much as that giant shoebox overflowing with crumpled receipts, invoices, and letters from the tax department used to paralyze me.