Inside my Hyperactive Brain
Funny how things happen sometimes; I stumbled across Better Mess a short while ago, when Michael contacted me via mail just the other week. Coincidentally he suffers from a similar problem that I do.
I’ve been thinking back and forth whether to share this with the world or not, but reading his article and our private conversation gave me enough confidence.
What’s my problem
As I said, I “suffer” from a disorder that is very similar to ADHD. In fact I have ADHD, but without the AD part. What does that mean?
It means I can concentrate very well, but as soon as something distracts me, I go down that rabbit hole very very quickly (hyperactively).
My body moves constantly. As a result of “obsessive moving behavior” I had the problem that I actually hurt myself (read: until my fingers bleed). The thing is, I never saw my ragged fingers as a problem I could fix. So I never bothered, and took it for granted. Maybe you feel the same.
Another problem was that I just got very angry, very quickly, about all the negative comments I got from commenters on my blog and twitter. To a point where it felt so bad that I just wanted to throw in the towel. Now I can deal with this problem much more elegantly, because I learnt what to do. I learned to sit back, relax and look at what the person wants to tell me. (NVC to the rescue.)
Having ADHD, or a hyperactivity disorder, sounds bad to most people, but since I’ve been diagnosed I realized why I live my life the way I do, and now I can live it more fully than ever. Actually my hyperactive brain helps me do my work every day (I work as screencaster for those who don’t know).
When I think out new projects, I use mind maps to get an overview of the “big picture”. Because I’m hyperactive, my brain is able not to spend too much time with one little detail, but move forward instead. This is good for planning projects and working on projects. I naturally keep stale projects moving.
It also helps me to “master” the apps that I need to make a screencast of. It takes me about half a day/day to learn an app. An ability that naturally helps me do my work. Others “get into an app” much more slowly it seems.
Reading was always a problem for me. I realized later that reading is not the problem. The problem is my reading speed. My reading speed is just slower than my brain expects new information coming in. I literally get bored by the book.
So that’s my problem: people and things around me are simply too slow.
I’ll explain later how I counter my problems.
How it all started
For a long time I had this feeling that I just can’t concentrate. I thought it’s my fault and I just need to concentrate better. You know, just “do it”.
I always had problems reading. When I studied my audio engineer diploma, reading was a pain. My eyes just couldn’t stay on the page, I digressed all the time. So I started getting into managing my time (Getting Things Done, Time Management, etc. I learned a lot of stuff about management and motivation. A lesson I shouldn’t regret, as it turned out.) to help me. It helped, a little, but I still couldn’t read. It dawned on me I might have ADHD, but I ignored my worries.
I began working as lecturer and audio engineer. Most of the time during this time my problem wasn’t too apparent. “Editing” is great for someone like me, all the little things my brain has to keep in mind, all the hundreds of shortcuts to edit as efficiently as possible. I just edit faster than someone else, because my brain and body move faster.
Then I started studying again. This time a Bachelor’s degree in Audio Production. Again reading was a pain. Writing my second thesis was too. I ignored the problem.
Eventually yet another degree was on the horizon, a Master degree in Sonic Arts. I went to London, studied, and eventually got my degree. Focusing on paper wasn’t easy.
Then some time around last year I listened to one of the first episodes of Back to Work where Merlin admitted his ADD problem publicly.
In previous years I always wondered “Man, do I really have ADHD? I must have ADHD! The level of my inability to focus isn’t normal. I’m sure. … Nah, it’s probably nothing.”
Then I heard Merlin and thought to myself “How old was he when he got diagnosed? 35? 40?” If it was possible for a man of his age to get diagnosed with ADHD, then it was possible for me too.
I went to the doctor, explained my problem and he sent me to a therapist. Some tests were done to find out whether I can concentrate well and … my concentration is fine.
ADHD and Hyperactivity
Wait, what? Yes, my concentration is fine.
So, what’s the problem then? Do I really just have to get my act together after all? If it only were that easy. (Thanks to all the helpful Internet people who made this suggestion by the way!)
I can’t “just” get my act together. I can’t just turn it off. I can fight it with medication or with other techniques though. I chose the latter.
As I learned from Michael’s ADHD post, the difference between ADHD and Hyperactivity (besides having a cool acronym) seems to be the following:
“My brain is constantly trying to wander away from me, but it’s not for lack of desire or passion for how I’m spending my time.” (emphasis added)
That’s different for me. My brain doesn’t digress by itself, but as soon as something little (tiny, actually) shows up, I’m distracted. A Growl notification? I’m out of my flow. The “new mail message” sound? Zap! I’m in a different world.
The rabbit hole problem is one I have too. Because I move so fast, I very quickly get into the obsessive state. After my therapy I now know why I do the kind of things that I do, and I actually embrace the time I spend “digressing”, e.g. by writing stupid scripts.
How I deal with it
By now you may wonder what I do about my Hyperactivity. The answer is really easy: “control”.
When I started to overcome my problems I had one more go at all the management techniques I learned years before. This time though from a different angle. Time management wasn’t just there anymore to keep myself organized, it is now a way to keep myself healthy.
If I don’t plan in advance, I get distracted all the time. The more I plan, the better I get through the day. It’s that easy.
Planning my day in advance is important: My brain can adjust to the environment, I can think about my day, I can imagine the things I’m going to do. Then when it actually is time to do the things, it is easier to start working.
Work and Free Time Environment are almost the same
I spend a lot of time in front of my computer. It is therefore really hard for my body and my brain to tell the difference between whether I’m doing stuff for recreation or stuff for work. The clue here is to set strict rules for each environment.
It helped me a lot to have an office I can go to. Just leaving my home on specific times sets work and free time apart. When I’m in the office at around 9-ish I usually spend some hours to communicate and basically “un-control” myself, so I have more energy later for my core business hours. I call this time “admin, emails, invoicing”. I use this time to read news about what’s going on in the industry, reply to emails clients sent me, try to get in touch with possible new clients, report bugs about beta apps I’m using, check Twitter, Google Reader, call my banker or tax consultant and all the other things.
At 12 it is time for me to get into “work mode”. I meditate for about 20 minutes. This helps to clearly distinguish “networking mode” from “work mode”. My brain gets that.
My meditation practice is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) by Jacobson. PMR has been known for many years to help with tension in the muscles. Hyperactive people are among those this practice can help, too. It does. It took only a very short period of time to see visible results. A PMR session is basically “trying not to move”. About 17 minutes a day of not having to move, relaxes me so well that I don’t unconsciously destroy my fingers anymore, I concentrate better. And all those nasty commenters? They’re just humans now!
I also go to the gym three times a week and I go running regularly to expend my “kinetic” energy.
At 12:30 I check my emails one more time and then start working.
As I said earlier, the smallest distraction in form of a little bing or notification destroys my flow. So what marks “work mode” is minimizing these to a bare minimum. I turn off Notification Center (⌥-click the menubar icon). I close Mail. I turn my phone silent. I turn my iPad and phone upside down, so that when the screen flashes I won’t see it. (Actually that’s a pretty huge distraction for me)
There’s more though.
Writing, or doing solo tasks in general, requires my whole attention. I appreciate doing a lot of creative things on my iPad since the screen is so big and I can only do one thing at a time.
On the Mac I solved this problem differently. I need one app that fades out all the other apps and hides my otherwise too-distracting wallpaper (a lovely Enderman drawing). Currently the app that does this is Desktop Curtain by Many Tricks. I used Quiet before. I draft my mails in OmniFocus (iPhone, iPad, OS X), TextEdit, or Byword (iOS, OS X).
I also use OS X’s Zoom feature available from the Accessibility panel to make the app as big as possible.1
Planning is really easy with a mind mapping app. My favorite is MindNode (iOS, OS X). I have used this app for years now, it’s great. Mind mapping is good to get a “30,000 feet overview” of a screencast. My mind moves quickly. That way I can constantly add new ideas here and there. When my creative energy runs out, I organize the map. Later my map translates into actual work steps.
I use OmniFocus to plan projects. Together with MindNode and OPML I can easily convert my mind map to a list of tasks. A list of “things to do” is also easier to exchange with clients, because most think in lists. It doesn’t matter much for me. Though I prefer lists after sketching out an idea.
My body wants to move. That’s just how it is. I try to get away from my computer regularly. I use apps like Pauses, Time Out, or BreakTime (iOS, OS X) that darken the screen and block all mouse and keyboard access to whatever I’m doing. Most of the time this is just annoying, but what I learned through meditation is that I need to be aware, I need to realize what’s going on. “Hey, this is the thing that you set to move around occasionally so that you’re body won’t hurt you.” When I’m conscious enough, I stand up and walk around.
That’s it basically. My secrets to dealing with Hyperactivity is: meditation, moving regularly and keeping distractions to a minimum.
The “scroll wheel” can be used to zoom in quickly. Set it in System Preferences. ↩