adhd, hyperfocus, sleep. be vigilant.
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  • January 22, 2018

Though it’s some­times called a “super­power,” hyper­fo­cus is a clas­sic chal­lenge for adults with ADHD, and it’s par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic when it’s detri­men­tal to sleep.

I’ve men­tioned my ADHD here before, but I’ve been reluc­tant to share any­thing par­tic­u­larly spe­cific or per­sonal about it because, well, I’ve kind of felt like it was no one else’s business.

There’s a part of me that always thought shar­ing more would be ben­e­fi­cial, since there’s so much mis­in­for­ma­tion out there, and the only way to help peo­ple under­stand is to actu­ally help them under­stand. Also, though I’m not inter­ested in turn­ing this space into a stand-in for ther­apy, it’s clear that there’s a poten­tial for per­sonal ben­e­fit in pro­cess­ing my own thoughts and strug­gles in writing.

This all occurred to me when an arti­cle crit­i­cal of Gary Vaynerchuk’s philoso­phies on work appeared in my Medium feed. Though it was­n’t writ­ten about ADHD at all, I read it through that lens. (Because: That’s my lens. Or, rather, that’s one of my lenses.)

I don’t think I’d ever heard of “Gary Vee” before read­ing the arti­cle, and every­thing I know about him is from the reading/Googling I did after read­ing it. So my reac­tions here aren’t so much to him, since I don’t really know any­thing about him, his world­view, or the advice he gives peo­ple about busi­ness, work, and success.

The arti­cle on Medium, “Gary Vaynerchuk is Trying to Kill You,” is a reac­tion to a state­ment from Vaynerchuk, from his book, Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion:

turn water into wine

Here’s the deal: if you want it badly enough, the money is there, the suc­cess is there, and the ful­fill­ment is there. All you have to do is take it. So quit whin­ing, quit cry­ing, quit with the excuses. If you already have a full-time job, you can get a lot done between 7:00 P.M. and 2:00 A.M. (9:00 P.M. to 3:00 A.M. if you’ve got kids), so learn to love work­ing dur­ing those predawn hours. I promise it won’t be hard if you’re doing what you love more…

The arti­cle’s author, Jon Westenberg, argues that the behav­ior described above is prob­lem­atic because sleep is so important.

But I read it and thought to myself: Wow. That’s an incred­i­ble descrip­tion of self-destruc­tive ADHD behavior.

To explain what I mean, we need to start by clar­i­fy­ing the com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that ADHD is about not being able to pay atten­tion. That’s not at all what it is — and that mis­con­cep­tion is per­haps the most prob­lem­atic way in which the gen­eral pub­lic mis­un­der­stands ADHD, espe­cially in adults.

Rather than not being able to pay atten­tion, adults with ADHD have trou­ble reg­u­lat­ing their atten­tion. (You might say it’s a “mald­is­tri­b­u­tion of atten­tion.”)

ADHD is a dis­or­der of the brain’s exec­u­tive func­tion­ing abil­i­ties, among them “orga­niz­ing, pri­or­i­tiz­ing and acti­vat­ing for tasks.” That means there’s a prob­lem in the part of the brain that can (among other things) dif­fer­en­ti­ate between tasks and activ­i­ties related to long-term (delayed grat­i­fi­ca­tion) goals and those that lead to imme­di­ate stimulation.

And though “stim­u­la­tion” can mean the kind you might think — like what comes from caf­feine, sex, exer­cise, action movies, get­ting lots of likes on Facebook — it actu­ally means any­thing that releases copi­ous amounts dopamine. And a task that keeps that flow of happy hor­mones flow­ing for awhile by pro­vid­ing legit intel­lec­tual stim­u­la­tion… well, that’s just the ticket for the ADHD brain.

So: Working on an excit­ing and inter­est­ing new work project does the trick. That’s why adults with ADHD actu­ally have no prob­lem pay­ing atten­tion to tasks that are stim­u­lat­ing to their brains (at least in that moment). In fact, one com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tic of ADHD is the ten­dency to go into a state of “hyper­fo­cus,” in which we’re able to ded­i­cate total and com­plete atten­tion to a task.

It’s a euphoric expe­ri­ence of com­pletely los­ing your­self in some­thing. For me, it tends to be cre­ative projects. I find myself in a state of rec­og­niz­able hap­pi­ness when I immerse myself in the details of graphic design or well-orga­nized CSS, find­ing a sense of “flow” (see: Csikszentmihalyi) and “one-ness” with the artis­tic endeavor. (There’s a rea­son some peo­ple say that this aspect of ADHD is a “super­power.”)

But that eupho­ria is short lived when we finally snap out of hyper­fo­cus to real­ize we’d totally lost track of time and must deal with the con­se­quences of neglect­ing all those other tasks that needed to get done.

The prob­lem with hav­ing an inabil­ity to direct or man­age our atten­tion is that we go right to the most “stimulating”/interesting/exciting task, skip­ping right over the step where we stop and ask whether that’s the right task to be doing at that moment, or whether the time we’re spend­ing on that task is con­sis­tent with its importance.

(And even if we don’t skip that step and are able to rec­og­nize — cog­ni­tively — that there are more impor­tant things that need to get done, we have immense trou­ble bring­ing our­selves to get started on those more-impor­tant-but-less-stim­u­lat­ing things.)

All of that is just back­ground. And though I’d usu­ally be care­ful not to take so long to get to the point, I think it’s impor­tant con­text for my reac­tion to that book excerpt.

Working Late is a Very Bad Idea

For an adult with ADHD, Gary Vaynerchuk’s advice is extremely attrac­tive. And it’s also a recipe for disaster.

I say that for a two reasons.

1. Hyperfocus Run Amok

The idea of using the late-night hours to work — when every­one else is asleep and there’s noth­ing else demand­ing your atten­tion — is a per­fect tech­nique for falling into a state of hyper­fo­cus. For some­one capa­ble of focus­ing their atten­tion with inten­tion­al­ity, I sup­pose that could be a good thing, since hav­ing the time and quiet to focus on oth­er­wise-back­burner projects is an attrac­tive oppor­tu­nity. But if you can’t direct your focus, a quiet and unin­ter­rupted stretch of time means you can eas­ily spend those early morn­ing hours on unim­por­tant tasks.

When I was a (very nerdy) teenager, that meant spend­ing a whole night apply­ing per­fect seman­tic HTML (with inter­tex­tual hyper­link­ing) to a com­plete data­base down­loaded in plain­text from some sci-fi bul­letin board that listed every ship to ever appear or be men­tioned in Star Trek, TNG, and DS9 (well… the first sea­son of DS9). Sure — I taught myself HTML in the process and I under­stood the value of seman­tic markup before it was hip to talk about. If I’d actu­ally stayed com­mit­ted and kept learn­ing, it would have been a use­ful endeavor. But I barely looked at HTML again until after col­lege (and I fell out of love with Star Trek some­time mid-Voyager), and in the mean­time, I was a ninth grader who wanted to be a jour­nal­ist and I was barely pass­ing English. Had I maybe spent just a lit­tle of that time doing a small per­cent­age of my home­work, it would have been beneficial.

(I’m not say­ing the quiet night­time was dan­ger­ous because my par­ents weren’t there to nag me to do my home­work. The prob­lem is that the lack of reg­u­lar activ­ity around me — noise, light, move­ment, peo­ple ask­ing me ques­tions, the sound of some­one snack­ing in the kitchen, the sound of the TV in the other room — meant that it was espe­cially easy to slip into an espe­cially deep state of hyper­fo­cus. Could I slip into it despite all those dis­trac­tions? Definitely, if the task proved to be so stim­u­lat­ing that I could shut out every­thing else. But a list­ing of every obscure space­ship ever uttered in filler dia­log by Denise Crosby or Jonathan Frakes would prob­a­bly have not sucked me in quite so deep dur­ing reg­u­lar wak­ing hours.)

2. Sleep is Too Important, and Not Sleeping Enough is Too Disastrous

hyperfocus staying awakeThere are some experts who’ve made the claim that ADHD is, at its core, a sleep dis­or­der. I’m not sure if that’s true — it’s not the pre­vail­ing main­stream opin­ion — but it’s based on the notion that ADHD is related, per­haps on a pretty deep level, to sleep dysfunction.

I won’t get into the details, mostly because I’m not an expert and I don’t think I under­stand all the intri­ca­cies. But the sim­pli­fied ver­sion is that sleep is an issue for adults with ADHD. We tend to sleep weird hours, don’t nec­es­sar­ily always get “good” sleep, stay awake later than we should, have trou­ble wak­ing up in the morn­ing, and when we do wake up we strug­gle to tran­si­tion from sleep to true wake­ful­ness. And com­mon ADHD med­ica­tions can be a dou­ble-edged sword in this regard, since stim­u­lants can be help­ful in many ways, but just a slight mis-dosage or mis-tim­ing can severely throw off your sleep schedule.

It’s also clear that one par­tic­u­larly effec­tive strat­egy for man­ag­ing adult ADHD is to get reg­u­lar, ade­quate, rest­ful, restora­tive sleep.

On the other hand, when we don’t get decent sleep, we tend to have a much harder time man­ag­ing all the chal­lenges that come with ADHD, even if we’re aided by med­ica­tion, coach­ing, ther­apy, what­ever. ADHD mixed with inad­e­quate sleep leads to a down­ward spiral.

Be Vigilant About Hyperfocus and Sleep, or You’ll Find Yourself Stuck in an ADHD Hole

So the notion that it’s a good idea to stay up late, get­ting a few hours less sleep in order to focus on “work” — which is so attrac­tive to adults with ADHD since we have a deep, physical/chemical attrac­tion to the eupho­ria of hyper­fo­cus — has the poten­tial to be ruinous because those few hours of sleep are just too valuable.

I don’t blame Vaynerchuk for it. For folks with­out ADHD, his sug­ges­tion to get work done in the “predawn hours” may or may not be good advice. (Though Westenberg  is prob­a­bly right that it’s not.)

Rather, my point is that those of us with ADHD have to be vig­i­lant to resist the draw of atti­tudes like this one, since this think­ing can cause so much dam­age. For adults with ADHD — at least for this adult with ADHD — that dam­age means you can find your­self in a deep hole out of which it’s tough to climb.

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  • April 11, 2014

A lot of peo­ple make a lot of assump­tions about ADHD, and most peo­ple assume that they know what it is (and how it oper­ates) by observ­ing peo­ple who have it. But seen through the eyes of some­one with­out it, the behav­ior of some­one with ADHD doesn’t tell you much. That’s because all the impor­tant stuff is hap­pen­ing in their brain.

Though it’s on a site that seems to be mostly filled with stu­pid click-mag­net garbage, I liked this arti­cle, intended to explain what it’s like to have ADHD to some­one who doesn’t under­stand it. An excerpt:

We rely heav­ily on rou­tine, and 90% of the time get by on autopi­lot. You can’t get dis­tracted from a suf­fi­ciently ingrained habit, no mat­ter what use­less crap is going on inside your head… unless some­one goes and actu­ally dis­rupts your rou­tine. I’ve actu­ally been dis­tracted out of tak­ing my lunch to work, on sev­eral occa­sions, by my wife remind­ing me to take my lunch to work. What the? Who? Oh, yeah, will do. Where was I? um… brief­case! Got it. Now keys.. okay, see you honey!

[Hat tip.]

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  • July 19, 2013

Twenty years’ worth of sus­tained Internet use has left me with a head full of ran­dom trivia and a pro­found inabil­ity to con­cen­trate. Every time I sit down in front of my com­puter to write a post, I end up brows­ing the IMDb page for the movie Cool Runnings or the career stats for under­rated out­fielder Ryan Spilborghs. I’m just as dis­tractible when my com­puter isn’t con­nected to the Internet: I’ve wasted weeks of my life play­ing this stu­pid base­ball sim­u­la­tion game that I down­loaded years ago and can’t bring myself to delete.

- Justin Peters, “I Write All My Blog Posts Out Longhand, and You Should Too”

Ok, maybe Justin’s prob­lem is “[t]wenty years’ worth of sus­tained Internet use,” but that kind of inter­net dis­trac­tion sounds awful symp­to­matic of adult ADHD.

I’m not a doc­tor. I’m just saying…

According to Zentall, an activ­ity that uses a sense other than that required for the pri­mary task — lis­ten­ing to music while read­ing a social stud­ies text­book — can enhance per­for­mance in chil­dren with ADHD. Doing two things at once, she found, focuses the brain on the pri­mary task.

Know that it is OK to do two things at once: carry on a con­ver­sa­tion and knit, or take a shower and do your best think­ing, or jog and plan a busi­ness meet­ing. Often peo­ple with ADD need to be doing sev­eral things at once in order to get any­thing done at all.

Ratey, John J. Md; Hallowell, Edward M. Md.
Driven to Distraction (Revised): Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder, (p. 311).
c. 1994, Random House, Inc. (via adhdisme)