attention management

In the last year, I’ve repeatedly come across folks (especially fellow developers) sharing their experiences with diagnosed ADHD as an adult. After a lifetime of speculation, I’ve read enough now to say I am dead certain I have undiagnosed ADHD. Since many folks have very outdated and narrow views of what that means (and I was recently still in that camp), I’d like to elaborate for you on my personal experiences. I want to be clear I’m not attempting to write a guide to self-diagnosis, I’m just putting words to how I clearly see myself in others’ descriptions of it.

It’s very easy for me, now, to cite how ADHD affects me daily. Here’s over a dozen ways I wrote down as fast as I could type:

  • Things that are uninteresting to me are literally physically discomforting to work on. (Exhibit A: 90% of all homework, ever.) Caring deeply about it is irrelevant.
  • Things that are interesting to me I can sit uninterrupted working on for literally days. (Exhibit B: Most web and community work, which thankfully people like paying me to do.) Again, caring about a thing and my brain being tickled by it are not the same thing.
  • My brain tries to prioritize tasks by interest. It can take an entire agonizing day just to convince it to switch (or not even then).
  • I have trouble tracking & not interrupting conversations that go on for a while. I narrowly stopped myself from interrupting with an embarrassingly ridiculous non-sequitur just last night.
  • Meetings that exceed an hour are excruciating & physically exhausting to me. Topic doesn’t matter.
  • For any class or talk without visual aids, I have to sit right in front of the speaker to have any chance of focusing.
  • It is challenging for me to start new projects because I have trouble “finding” the start.
  • My emotional reactions to things can be very challenging to control, especially in person.
  • I cannot remember to do anything “in 5 minutes” ever. My short-term memory is nearly non-existent.
  • If I look annoyed when you start speaking, it’s because you interrupted something I know I’ll forget now.
  • I put a lot of effort into controlling my social media consumption with mixed results.
  • I fidget / tap my feet constantly to concentrate to the point I require carpet under my desk to code.
  • My tea drinking (and previously Altoid consumption) is primarily an excuse to change focus & move.
  • I will always think of one more thing at the last possible minute.
  • Hyperfixations? Let me tell you about Magic: The Gathering. (Or, don’t, if you wanna do anything else today.)

I used to joke about how bad my listening skills are. I’d somewhat proudly tell people that while I got 99th-percentile on every other category of standardized tests, I consistently bombed any Listening section with a 60%.

None of these things are personality defects or a sign I don’t care about something. I’ve never used them as an excuse. I tried just as hard on the Listening section of those tests as every other. It’s just the basic state of how I’m wired, and anything that I do better than that is me fighting against it and using techniques I’ve learned to compensate, like meditation and writing.

I got thru college by buying a new legal pad per class (god help me if the pages became unattached), and writing chronological notes thru every class to both stay focused and give myself something not-boring to study just before the test (and I’m counting “reading my notes 2+ times” as studying). I once missed a major test because I simply forgot it existed. I only passed the course because the professor believed my terrified apologies and let me re-take it for full credit, including giving me extra days to study.

Even today, my desk is dominated by different-sized notepads full of non-consecutive notes and towered over by large dry-erase boards to capture my ideas and priorities before they’re gone, or to help me brainstorm & free-associate my way to starting a project.

I can’t google ADHD without coming across a list of workarounds I discovered on my own. “Drop zones” for items to deal with later, buying multiples of things (like scissors) so you can stop looking for them, or even just forgiving yourself for buying books you just can’t seem to get into. You gotta let it go and move on.

At my last job, I can see pretty clearly now these qualities are the things my boss fixated on. He even constantly knit-picked at me for how I compensated for them. The way I functioned was wrong to him, and what I did to work around it was wrong, too. He used that as a pretext to constantly question how much I cared about my work, which hurt a lot, and made me feel like I was a bad person for not functioning the way he did. So it surprised me none to learn that folks with ADHD are susceptible to gaslighting, too.

I hope me sharing this helps folks identify similar traits in themselves or others they care about.

The latest discussion I read if you want to see more:

UPDATE: My mom has reminded me I was, in fact, diagnosed with “mild ADHD” sometime around Kindergarten age. They chose non-medication interventions at the time, which I am grateful for given the medications that were available then (~1990). I am currently considering pursuing a new diagnosis to investigate what’s available today.

The pursuant conversation about routine as an intervention further reminded me that I still to this day eat Honey Nut Cheerios every morning (unless planned otherwise the day before) to sidestep executive dysfunction when I’m groggy & hungry because it can seriously derail my entire day. I also get irrationally upset when there’s no milk in the morning, so now I keep strudels in the freezer (non-perishable, see?) as a back up. A great deal of my life is an elaborate ADHD workaround, and I’m mostly fine with that.

UPDATE 2: I cried when I found out Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria is a thing. Holy shit, it me.