The engine is about to explode, but the car hasn’t moved an inch…
J here. Sorry this sucker took so long, I was about 3/4 done with it when the whole Edward Snowden/NSA Leak thing dropped, and I’ve been dedicating way too much time to following that for the last few weeks. I’ve been a fan of Glenn Greenwald for years, and seeing him vindicated like this is equal parts phenomenally exciting and existentially terrifying. That goes for Dan Carlin and double for the late Michael Hastings as well. Basically, this flips the whole national debate about everything on it’s head.
That is to say, it should, I guess. You can bet your entire ass I’ve got something coming on this, hopefully sooner rather than later. Just keeping up with the scope of the story is practically a full time job, but damn it, I’m going find a way…
In the meantime, meet “The Clutch” (sorry, the name similarity was too screwball to resist):
One of the biggest things to learn in dealing with AD/HD is the ridiculous number of pitfalls that one can fall victim to, often for days or weeks at a time, and often without even noticing. These conditions tend to be self-reinforcing, and the fact that you’re not terribly good at being cognizant of your own behavior or state of mind in the moment can make recognition and escape that much harder. Each affected person has different mental traps that they struggle with, depending on how the condition has manifested in the individual case. I want this to be the first in an ongoing series exploring the worst (at least for me) of these black holes of time and effort and positive self-regard, and (hopefully) some strategies to avoid or escape the problems when they come up.
And yes, I’ve taken to giving them bizarre pet names, in a pathetic and transparent attempt to render them small and non-threatening in my head. Can’t quite decide if it’s working or not; maybe this will make it more clear. So, without further delay and in no particular order, allow me to present:
Pitfall #1: The Clutch
This guy is, for lack of a better term, a motherfucker. This cycle doesn’t spring up too often, but when it does, I have a hell of a time getting out. Let me (try to) explain…
Usually, I start with some moderately complicated task to undertake. Not a chemistry experiment by any means, but some sort of semi-complex plan with several points or steps I need to hit to be successful. Now, for an average person, it would be fairly easy to keep track of where you are and move quickly from step to step. I, however, am not a normal person… When I come to, several hours have passed. Maybe I’m halfway through my project, or maybe I never got started at all, but either way, I’m out of time now and unlikely ever to find my way back to it to finish.
So, what the fuck happened?
Well, this is where things start to get weird…
The most helpful thing I’ve learned about AD/HD in the last couple of years is that the term “AD/HD” is a horrible and counterproductive misnomer. This is especially true in my case (little to no hyperactive component), but even if you leave that bit out, calling it “Attention Deficit Disorder” is still incredibly misleading. The central problem in AD/HD isn’t an inability to focus or pay attention, it’s a reduced ability to consciously control and direct that focus. Your brain can focus just fine, you just don’t get to pick when or on what it does so.
Modern research has pinpointed both chemical and structural deficiencies in the parts of the brain responsible for something called “Executive Function.” I won’t go into the neuroscience of it here, but your executive function is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: It coordinates and controls what various parts of your brain are working on. If you have AD/HD, your brain and its myriad parts may work fantastically well, they’re just rarely all on the same page, and the barrage of conflicting signals demolishes concentration interferes with any productive or desirable thoughts.
So, is that inability to sync up what ate my 3-4 hours? Not even close, but we are getting there, I promise.
While an uncoordinated cognitive clusterfuck may be the usual state of mind for people with AD/HD, it isn’t the only state that is possible. Every once in a while, for any variety of reasons, things line up perfectly, and every part of your brain is working together on the same task. This state is generally referred to as “hyperfocus,” and it feels, to be as clinical and professional as possible, fucking amazing. Tasks that are difficult (or downright impossible) under normal circumstances suddenly become easy, even natural, as though they’re happening on their own and you’re just along for the ride. I tend to hyperfocus when I do woodworking or play the guitar, and occasionally when reading or writing. I’ll use reading as a prime example, because the difference between results is particularly dramatic.
I usually read at a fairly slow pace. I’ve never really tried to measure it or compare it to other people, but I’d guess I read at roughly half the speed of an average person. There are a variety of causes for this, but the most prevalent one seems to be the weird mental tangents the subject matter can send my brain on, eating a minute here and a minute there, usually without my realization. While a boring text will merely be difficult to focus on, even an interesting one can be a problem because of the sheer number of those mental rabbit holes certain concepts or ideas will inevitably trigger for me.
However, when that perfect mix of luck, interest, and circumstance creates a hyperfocused state, and lines up all my mental functions on the same activity, I’ve been known to tear through a 400 page novel in just a few hours. Both the inner and outer distractions that would normally derail me go unnoticed and ignored. I’ll miss phone calls, space off meals, and often even a direct question from my wife or a friend will require a couple of tries and several extra seconds to elicit a response. The ability to hyperfocus is one of the few advantages that can (sometimes) come with AD/HD affliction, but it can also bring a whole new set of challenges to overcome.
And that, finally, gets us back to our central question…
What the hell is this so-called “Clutch,” and what can be done to avoid it?
As I’ve mentioned, AD/HD is effectively a problem of regulating and directing brain activity. While hyperfocused states can be incredibly advantageous when they coincide with particularly interesting or demanding activity, those aren’t the only times they happen. Sometimes, your hyperfocus will kick in for some mundane task, or sometimes for no task at all. You’ll end up over-thinking every angle of how and why you tie your shoes, or if you could do it better some other way. I have a particular problem losing myself into completely unproductive thought loops on the nature of destructive trading cycles that seem to spring up for almost no reason in modern equity markets. It’s usually very interesting, and I occasionally come to mind-blowing epiphanies while engaged in this sort of thinking, but the fact that the time had been set aside or needed for something else more than counteracts any good that might come of them. (Also, unless you’re immediately able to somehow record said brilliant new insights, the chances of you remembering them later are basically zero.)
So, there it is (at least in my experience and estimation): The dreaded “Clutch” is basically just a misdirected period of hyperfocused thought or activity. You’re brain is running at full throttle, but much like in a car with a stuck clutch, it’s totally disengaged from any practical purpose. It’s a massive waste of time and energy, and the wear on your morale is tough to quantify and even harder to repair. The Clutch can kick in at almost any time, and can last for hours when uninterrupted. Also, unlike a lot of other AD/HD symptoms, the usual pharmaceutical subjects have an annoying tendency to make this problem worse rather than better. Luckily, there are a couple of steps you can take to avoid losing your entire day to these errant periods of pointless mental activity.
First, always have at least a rough outline of what you want to be doing. You can break it down according to time in a calendar program or a day planner if you want, but just a basic sequence of activities should do the trick. “I want/intend to do this, then this, then this…” Having a rough sequence of tasks allows you to both check off accomplished ones (Hello, reward center stimuli!) and to be able to easily remind yourself of what’s up next. In my experience, that space between finishing one activity and starting the next is a serious danger zone for unhelpful distraction. Building a habit of checking your list anytime you finish an activity allows you to avoid getting sucked up into a “Clutch”-type situation.
(Also, don’t be afraid to get granular when writing your activity sequence. In addition to making big jobs seem easier to start, breaking larger tasks down into individual steps can make this strategy easier to adopt. Repetition is how actions become automatic, and giving yourself more opportunities per task to practice your process means you’ll pick up the habit much more quickly.)
The other big one that I’ve identified is setting a timer to go off at regular intervals throughout the day. You can use an alarm clock, an oven timer, or set an alert on your phone or other portable device. It seems to work best if you don’t have to actively think about setting and resetting it throughout the day, so a more automated solution is probably best. This method actually gives you two advantages: It makes tracking the passage of time easier, and the alarm works to interrupt pointless thought loops and allow you to periodically refocus your efforts and attention.
Finally, there are supposedly methods to sort of “fool” your focus centers into turning on and off when you need them. I’ve never been able to make any of these work for me, but AD/HD is a notoriously unpredictable condition, and things that don’t work for one person may be a revelation to another. Unfortunately, it’s basically just trial and error to find a good combination of medication, therapy, and planning techniques that will work best for you.
Effectively treating AD/HD symptoms is an ongoing process, and there are many places to look to for ideas. Books like “You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy” and “Your Life Can Be Better” are excellent sources of broad-based info and ideas from authors with personal experience battling AD/HD in their own lives. I’m always looking for good new sources of AD/HD info, so please feel free to put any personal favorites in the comments below.
I’ll be back at some point in time with another one of these “personal pitfall” accounts. Until then, good luck, and stay resilient! If you’re anything like me, you’ll need a lot of both.