I was diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago. It was an illuminating experience to contextualize the struggles of my adolescence as a result of a manageable brain disorder rather than a set of personal failures.
This post is a concise version of what I went through logically and emotionally, as well as a starting point to lifestyle upgrades you can do. My goal is to assist anyone who has ADHD or thinks they might have it.
I guess I'm just not "Smart"
I never thought I had anything wrong with me, I just thought everyone else had more self control and less laziness. The prime example was the group of girls in my grade who would hang out after school in the library. The Smart Girls. They weren’t just socializing in the library, they were working. The Smart Girls finished all of their homework the same day it was assigned with zero complaints. The Smart Girls never cheated, complained, or forgot their homework. They just sat together silently, in some sort of communal state of flow. The Smart Girls got their driver’s licenses exactly on their 16th birthday in one try. The Smart Girls aced every test. The Smart Girls rode horses and vacationed in Germany. The Smart Girls were presidents of school clubs and finished every project they start. The Smart Girls remembered due dates and French vocabulary. The Smart Girls were also polite, kind, and easy to make friends with. The Smart Girls lent you a pen and paper when you inevitably forgot yours.
The Smart Girls had the ability to get to work on command. I was insecure and jealous. They would work until their assignments were complete and they did all of the practice problems in the textbook. They even completed the bonus assignments. In each class they sat quietly, taking beautiful, organized, precise, multi-colored notes with the type of perfect hand writing that never strayed beyond the lines of their green Hilroy notebooks.
I concluded that being organized and focused was something that "only girls could do."
I wasn’t a “hyperactive kid”, but I was certainly not a Smart Girl. I generally did well on tests, finished most of my homework, and wasn’t a distraction in class. For reasons that are only clear to me now, I asked a lot of questions and loved to get into debates. Only when I was in the middle of the action did I feel engaged in class. But mostly I was a marginally engaged kid who “had potential” but lacked “work ethic”.
My problem was I had a hard time focusing on assigned tasks or due dates. Somehow my grades were fine, but only because of my secret weapon. Once in a while, an uncontrollable burst of manic determination emerged from somewhere in my brain. It only turned up during high stress, desk slamming, pulsating headache, I’ll-never-make-it moments right before some midnight deadline that I should have marked in one of the many long abandoned calendars. The secret weapon gave me confidence that I was going to fool some university into accepting me. I would never have the iron clad, proud parents, Honor Roll, never-have-to-borrow-a-pen, infuriating confidence that the Smart Girls had, but I was going to make it.
And fool them I did. Fortunately, the universities started emphasizing “extra curriculars” around this time and I had a gluttony of mostly failed but "impressive for a kid" side projects that I could offer as proof of my worthiness. I was accepted into the University of British Columbia and completed my degree in four years. I passed every class, made many friends, got an interesting internship, and did everything one can possibly hope for during The College Years.
The Bad Feeling
Despite the my success, the pain and hurt I endured on this journey — that other people seemed to avoid completely — carved a shameful conclusion deep in my identity: I would never be a focused person. I would spend the rest of my life struggling to overcome basic organizational tasks, and I would always be fighting against motivation. This was The Bad Feeling.
The Bad Feeling believes that I am someone who has fooled everyone into thinking I’m "bright". The Bad Feeling says I’ll never be as organized or as disciplined as the Smart Girls. The Bad Feeling reminds me that being unfocused is part of my identity. I am not someone who can focus, and I will never have this power. The Bad Feeling leans towards me with its smug glare and says “why even bother? It didn’t work the first thousand times, did it?”
The Bad Feeling reminds me that focusing is for the Smart Girls and their peers. Focusing is not for me. I am lazy and disorganized. No matter how many to-do lists, notebooks, phone apps, or calendar tools I use, I will always forget about them after a week. All of the projects I ever start are destined for shameful failure. It is my identity to always leave a pile of half finished junk in my wake despite the loud and public enthusiasm I displayed only days or weeks before.
The worst part about The Bad Feeling is that all evidence points to it being correct. How many projects did I start on weekends during manic bursts of obsessive work? How many of those projects did I ever complete? How many half completed calendars, notebooks, to-do apps, reminders, and whiteboards do I have lying around in shame? The numbers aren’t in my favor.
Oh and then there is the cabal of Bad Feeling enablers. The well intentioned support of friends and family who naively reassure you that you’re indeed smart and brilliant, and so what if you don’t finish every project? Look at all of the achievements you have in the past. Do you think just anyone could do X, Y, and Z? As if you haven’t already read countless “reassuring” posts about Imposter Syndrome. And you, well intentioned reader, can be assured that you do not have Imposter Syndrome. You and your friend Mr. B. Feeling are correct. You unequivocally are someone who never finishes what they start. The naive advice you are given is insulting and just makes you feel more pathetic. Your failure to complete projects and forget deadlines isn't some illusion. You nod along and say “thanks I really appreciate it”, and you walk away feeling awful, with The Bad Feeling at the front of your mind.
The worst part about not knowing you have ADHD is that you contextualize all of your failures as lapses in "work ethic" or "motivation" or "discipline". You start watching inspirational videos or listening “epic” soundtracks to try and motivate yourself to focus on what’s in front of you. For me, it was “discipline”. I watched countless videos of Tough Guys talking about Discipline, whispering in deep voices set to the Inception soundtrack. The funniest part was it worked. I started waking up every single day at 6am to go to the gym. It didn’t help me focus on my work, but at least I learned to squat.
I remember one specific day in university. I had an exam the next week, and it was a Saturday night. I thought to myself, “this time, it’s going to be different.” I went to bed early, and woke up at 8am feeling great. I had everything ready. Papers, notes, last year's exam, a full stomach, a quiet environment, and all electronics turned off. I have no idea what transpired between 8am and 11am. I can’t remember. But I had made no progress on my studying. I was probably day dreaming. So I “took a break” and went to the nearby Bean Around The World and got myself the biggest coffee they had. The coffee was great, but it didn’t help. So I decided, “hey maybe I need to do this with music.” Still nothing. I spent 8 hours in front of my desk with zero progress. I was extremely upset. I cried in frustration and anger. At some point, my secret weapon, the manic desperation, decided it was time to show up. I finally made some progress, but only from 11pm until 1am. An entire day wasted in misery for 2 hours of mediocre, tired, red eye progress.
The next morning, because of Discipline, I woke up at 6am and went to the gym. It was leg day and of course I had to follow the spreadsheet Tough Guy had created. Time for squats, three sets of five reps. On the last rep of the last set I got lost in thought about something, and I accidentally released the tension in my abdominal muscles at the bottom of the squat. Sharp back pain. Sciatica. Not good.
I hurt myself, because I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t focus because I was tired. I was tired because I stayed up late. I stayed up late because…
What an awful cycle.
This cycle lasted for 3 more years. After I had successfully fooled additional administrators and professors at the University of British Columbia for four entire years, I graduated.
I found a job with a local tech start-up. Things became much more serious. It wasn’t just me messing around with arbitrary test scores anymore, people relied on me to complete my work.
At work, I had exceptional bursts of productivity followed by the same lack of focus I had become so accustomed to. The Bad Feeling was now more than some hidden shame. I was letting other people down.
I had enough. I was going to “get tested” for ADHD. I went to my family doctor and demanded a referral to an “ADHD specialist”. He happily obliged, and a few weeks later I was sitting in front of a nice old man in downtown Vancouver. He asked me what brought me in.
“I think I have ADHD, but I’m not sure. Is there a test for it?”
He laughed and told me there was no test to take, but based on my story, his professional opinion was that I might benefit from medication. He was a nice guy, but he was also a doctor whose treatments were based on the results of meta analysis across large sample sizes. Stimulants are proven to have the statistical net positive effect in helping those with ADHD symptoms control their focus. And stimulants I got. Ritalin, Adderall, Vyvanse, Dexedrine, I tried them all. After testing a multitude of dosages and brands, we found one that didn’t give me side effects.
The pills really worked. I was able to sit down and actually do what I wanted to do. I could actually do one task, and complete it. In one sitting.
I came to the realization that those who I had assumed were so much smarter and organized than me were simply able to choose what to focus on. Now I had that power too.
What the nice doctor didn’t tell me was that despite my new mental freedom, I would simply choose the same tasks that my ADHD brain had mindlessly been attracted to before. Medication works very well in a microscopic sense. Once you get down to work, you can continue to work and mostly avoid distractions. But they did not work in a larger, macroscopic context.
Medication is an important part of the solution, perhaps not for everyone, but for me they help a lot. They help stimulate the certain parts of your brain that need to be stimulated, but they don’t build a successful system. You must consciously act with purpose and choose the right things to work on, otherwise you’re going to get stuck. It’s like upgrading the tires on your car. You immediately have more grip, have better steering, and gain confidence while driving on wet roads, but even the best tires in the world can’t decide which road to take.
I think medication got me 40% of the way there. When I chose the right things to work on, I finally felt like I was completing tasks that held up to the standards in my head. The persisting issue was my inability to correctly choose what to work on. When my boss or co-workers sent me messages, I would immediately context switch out of what I was working on and complete the requested tasks with utter disregard for what I was currently working on. I was not trained to pause and make conscious decisions about where to direct my focus. I had no systems in place and no habits to fall back on. I was a ball of focused energy that kept switching targets whenever something new came up.
All of this context switching brought with it emotional deregulation. I had constant ups and downs because of how often I was changing the target of my beam of focus. I would get very focused, very happy. Then I would get anxious about something, and start laser focusing on whatever the pending catastrophe was. It was not uncommon for me to become far too angry at something totally insignificant. By then I was more aware of the greater context of my ADHD and its symptoms, and realized I needed an expert. I was still fed up. “Fuck it, I’ll go to therapy.”
Therapy and an Upward Trend
I had spent so much time pondering how my brain worked that I treated it like a muscular dysfunction. While investigating my lower back pain, I used the Tough Guy Discipline to follow closely what each physiotherapist had recommended. Unfortunately, most of these physiotherapists were wrong. They recommended that I stop squatting or strengthen the specific areas that were in pain. None of this worked of course, and I refused to quit squatting. What ultimately helped was an athletic therapist who immediately saw my lower back pain for what it was: a symptom of hip dysfunction. I saw immediate, linear improvement in my symptoms after I found the root cause and employed the corrective exercises for my hip.
The standard was set, I was hopeful that I could reap similar benefits from therapy. I was lucky that my search turned up a stellar therapist on the first try. He saw my ups and downs for what they were: I was predicting catastrophe around every corner. I had trained myself for so many years that there was always something I had forgotten or missed, and being reminded about something meant catastrophe. Medication enabled me to zoom in and focus on one task, but it never trained me to schedule my life or create habits around my tasks. So I lived a life of constant anxiety, because there was clear evidence that most of the time I was forgetting something. It was like a jump-scare every time I got a calendar notification. That meeting was TODAY? Did I fuck up?
To put it simply, I wasn't being mindful. I was not making conscious decisions about how I would spend this new focus I had acquired. I let my brain do whatever the hell it wanted. I wasn’t choosing anything, I just did whatever I felt was "next". Video games? Fuck it, let’s play. New task at work? Let’s do it right now. Phone buzzing? I wonder who texted me.
Fortunately, this was just a process issue. Like my hip dysfunction, it could be fixed with some corrective exercises.
With the help of my therapist, friends, family, partner, many books, and various online resources, I was able to design my way out of the ADHD brain fog. I built a successful framework of habits and practices and my life is far better than it has ever been. It’s far from perfect, and I am not without the frequent distraction, but the trend line of my personal and professional growth is now pointing in the direction of my choosing. I finally feel on track.
How to Get Better
If you have ADHD, or think you have it, you might have gone through a similar experience. It's also possible that you had a radically different experience.
ADHD seems to be a spectrum. Some people have it worse than others. Some people respond better to medication, some don't. I think it's entirely possible to be successful with ADHD without any medication, as long as you conciously design your life in an effective way.
There are two specific things I have done that were immediately effective.
You need to sleep 8 hours every day. If you sleep less, you will suffer. There are some who claim 5 hours is enough for them, but the vast majority of adults need 8 hours.
"Catching up" on weekends is not an effective compromise. You will simply have awake less time on weekends and suffer horribly on weekdays.
The simple conclusion I have reached is that the more I sleep, the better my focus is. The better my focus is, the better my mood becomes. The better my mood, the more productive I am.
And finally, if I am productive throughout the entire day, I can easily fall asleep right on schedule. It all fits together nicely.
How do you change your sleep schedule? Simply set a bed time that works around your school or work hours and follow it every single day. Personally, I go to sleep at 10pm, and wake up at 6:30am. Sometimes I wake up before my alarm goes off, sometimes I sleep right until 6:30am. You may notice this is more than 8 hours, but I give myself some buffer time just in case I can't fall asleep. If you toss and turn for 1 hour, guess what? You still got 7 hours of sleep.
Now if you wake up after 7.5 hours and can't sleep anymore, then perhaps 7.5 is the optimal number for you. But to start, schedule 8 hours.
If you are a "night owl" then simply go to bed later and wake up later. Nothing wrong with that as long as you consistently hit 8 hours.
If you have an important event to go to (such as a party), then just go and feel free to sleep in. Life isn't worth living without parties. Just accept that your sleep will suffer for that particular night, and just go back to your routine the following night.
Finally, there are probably hundreds of different sleep apps and alarm clocks in the App Store. Some of them claim to take optimize your REM cycles. I use one of these apps, but honestly haven't noticed a difference between that and the default alarm app. Use whatever you want, just remember to set 8 hours.
2. Take Breaks
Create a plan for yourself every day.
It's pretty simple. I get very wound up and obsessed with certain tasks. What happens next? I totally burn out.
To avoid that, I purposely stop doing work even if I feel productive. It sounds silly, but it lets me come back the next day with energy rather than burning myself out. Sounds stupid but it works.
I wish I could send this little post to my 17 year old self. The kid who was so stuck and frustrated. I can’t go back in time and help myself, but I can do the next best thing and share this with others.
You will not be successful immediately and you will never be perfect. I often forget what I've scheduled for myself, and have to go back and re-read what I should be doing at any specific moment. But rather than getting upset, I try to think about it as another rep of a corrective exercise - the same way I think about the silly leg exercises to fix my weak hip. Eventually, it becomes a simple routine and hopefully you start forgetting about The Bad Feeling and all of his agents.