Taking another stab at this organization and productivity thing

8 Jun

I’ve recently been investigating the possibility that I have ADD. What I actually mean here is that I’ve diagnosed myself, but you get all kinds of finger-wagging and tsk-tsking for doing that, so I’ll stick with the more conservative phrasing most of the time. My thoughts on self-diagnosis are basically that the goods and bads are really down to how you use it, and that it can be helpful in many ways, especially if you’re not able to seek professional diagnosis and help, as I’m not currently. (The awesome Miri has great thoughts on the whole subject here.) How I’m using it is seeking out resources, help, and strategies from sources that I do have access to, in hopes of being able to mitigate at least some of the symptoms and increase my overall productivity and ability to accomplish shit.

One thing I keep reading over and over is how much ADD folk need structure and routine in their lives. And you know what I hate? Structure and routine. (Nowhere in the literature does it say that ADD folk like it.) The more pinned down I am to doing specific things at specific times, the more grumpy I feel. But I am also realizing that certain mental habits I have are really making it difficult for me to accomplish any of the grand and wonderful things I want to do, and that a little structure and routine might actually help. So I’m trying out this tactic.

Like many people, with and without ADD, I both focus better when my workdesk is clean, and I have a terrible time keeping it clean. Stuff seems to pile up on it magically, within 18 hours of a cleaning effort. And devoting all that time to a painfully dull task that has to be done over and over is pretty much anathema to me. So I just let it build up and deal with the mental clutter that accompanies it.

Did you notice how I said “all that time” up there? One of the ADD symptoms I have is being seriously out of wack in how I think about time. I am terrible at estimating the time it will take to do anything. Most of the time I underestimate, like when I think that the process of getting up from my desk, finding my shoes and my bag, filling my water bottle, making sure I have my keys and wallet, and walking out to the car will take zero minutes. Every time… if I have to leave for somewhere at 11, I think that means I need to get up from my desk at 11. Years of observation and counter-examples have not dispelled this notion from my stubborn, time-blind brain.

When it comes to various chores and dull, unpleasant tasks, though, it goes the other way. I assume that cleaning up my desk will take basically my entire day, and who the hell wants to spend their day on that? Same for washing dishes, any other chore. Only since I started reading about ADD has it occurred to me to question my intuitions about these things, like, “You think if you start washing dishes you’ll basically be doing it FOR THE REST OF TIME, but if you actually look at the clock it might only be ten minutes or so?” So my first experiment is this: set a timer for 15 minutes. Clean up my desk and the surrounding area until the buzzer rings. Then I can stop, whether it’s done or not. I can face up to the idea of doing 15 minutes of desk cleaning, especially if it means having no stress or guilt about it during all the time that ISN’T those 15 minutes. My current goal is to do this every other day, which should be enough to keep the chaos under control.

I did it this morning and it worked great. (And my desk is shiny!) Of course, a new system nearly always works great for me for a week or two… I dig novelty. My hope is that the cleaning requirement is so minimal that I’ll be able to follow through after the novelty has worn off. One thing I noticed is that a time-based requirement instead of a task-based requirement cuts through a few more of my self-sabotaging mental habits. If my goal is “clean up my desk” I get hopelessly bogged down in issues like “where can I put this thing that makes the most sense?” and “this clearly goes with craft supplies, but there’s no room in my craft supply bin, and OH MY GOD I HAVE TO REORGANIZE MY ENTIRE CRAFT SYSTEM IT’S TOO MUCH” and then I break down and play logic puzzles while watching Angel for the next three hours. But when my goal is “get as much cleany-stuff done around your desk as you can in 15 minutes” it cuts through all that, and I’m able to just put a thing somewhere, somewhere that makes somewhat more sense and is less in the way than its current location. It might be that I’m just pushing my chaotic disorganization into the margins of my experience, but I can handle that. I doubt it’ll ever go away completely.

My next project for regular organization is to get writing done. I have sooo much writing I want to do at any given time, from blogs to website content to fiction. Very little of it actually gets done, and over the last 15 years I’ve resigned myself to being a person who doesn’t actually produce that much writing. In many areas, my way of coping with ADD as I’ve moved into adulthood is to continually lower my expectations for myself. But that’s not how I want things to be, especially as I once again nurture grand dreams of having my own sexuality education website and going into business for myself. I’m serious about this: I’ve sunk a non-trivial amount of money into it, partly as a way to lock me in and make it so that I can’t possibly back out and give up on myself without serious shame. But that’s going to mean getting my ass in gear and outputting a lot more than I’ve been doing previously.

So, on the same task calendar I’ve put my 15-minute cleanup, I’ve put a 30-minute writing session, every day. At this point in my life there’s no day where I’m so busy I can’t write for 30 minutes, especially since I’ve set no boundaries around what I can write. Fiction, nonfiction, blog posts, even schoolwork are fair game. This is absolutely possible to fit into my life. It also feels like a ridiculous bare minimum, but I’m trying to avoid overreaching myself. If I actually can make myself write for 30 minutes a day, over a period of a couple of months, maybe I’ll increase the requirement on my days off.

As with the cleaning, having a time requirement helps me get into it. I learned this with NaNoWriMo: the most productive times were the word wars, where a bunch of us would agree to start at a certain time, stop at a certain time, and post our word count at the end. I’ve written before (probably on another blog, as I can’t find it here) about how NaNo helps me overcome a lot of my writing issues, and this creates a similar dynamic: as long as I’m writing, I’m doing the right thing, so I don’t have to spend nearly as much time fussing about exactly what I write and how.

I did have some mental struggles with myself about setting the time at only 30 minutes (even though I know that’s the most I’ll realistically sit down for, especially on a workday.) I can be a slow starter, and spend 10 or 15 minutes clearing distractions, figuring out what I want to write, false-starting and realizing that what I actually want to write is something different. This is a trap that’s plagued me most of my life: I work best in shortish bursts, but I take so long to get started that I don’t feel like it’s worthwhile to work unless I have a stretch of several hours. So I avoid working when I only have a short window of time (I also hate being interrupted when I’m into my task, but that’s another issue), and then when I have a long window of time I only wind up using the first hour or so of it. Reading about ADD has helped me make sense of these contradicting challenges, and for the time being I’m just going to reconcile myself to the fact that I will “waste” a good chunk of my productive time in getting settled into it. At the end, I’ll still have more done than if I skip that 30 minutes of work because it’s not long enough to be worthwhile.

So this is my current game plan. We’ll see how it goes! (At least, I will see, and you readers may or may not see, depending on whether I follow through and give updates.)

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