The wall of awful and the miracle of submission

ADHD specialist Brendan Mahan coined the term ‘Wall of Awful’ to describe the emotional barrier that prevents you from doing seemingly easy tasks. Sometimes short, routine tasks are the most insurmountable. No amount of post-it notes, to-do lists or Alexa reminders will give me the ammo I need to crash through that wall. Although crucial, even positive emotion isn’t always enough.

In these circumstances only accountability can motivate me to get things done. A popular form of accountability is “body doubling” or coworking. This is great for providing a supportive environment to work on those pesky admin tasks. However, it is counterproductive when I have an assignment due since I do my best translations alone and in hyperfocus mode. I rarely get much notice before a project begins so scheduling co-working sessions is tricky. If my schedule happens to align with a friend’s and we can fit in a last-minute session, great. But when I’m in the translation zone weeks can easily go by with my important-but-not-urgent tasks going untouched.

So, what is a self-employed translator with an unpredictable schedule and a routine allergy to do? This probably wins the prize for my most atypical tip and is one that I guarantee you won’t find in any self-help book.

Enter, the BDSM app Obedience. Wait, hear me out!

I can’t tell you how I discovered this app. I’m not part of the BDSM community but I stumbled across this and have adapted it to meet my (non-sexual!) needs. I’d tried countless apps that made big claims about making habits stick but they all fell by the wayside and left me disappointed.

Obedience is different. It’s not about accountability, it’s about submission. For this to work you need a “Dom” and a “Sub”. The “Sub” enters the tasks they want to get done each week and assigns points to each task. Each time they complete a task the “Dom” receives a notification and the “Sub” wins points to be redeemed against previously agreed rewards.

The beauty of it is that two people can be each other’s “Dom” and “Sub” and compete for points. Gamifying your habits offers instant gratification and injects motivation into tasks that would usually require consistent long-term commitment before you see a return on your investment. It’s easier to get my workout done if I know my “Dom” is notified of my success and I’m earning points towards a meal out.

There are a couple of other nuclear options out there that I have yet to try. Boss as a Service uses real humans to take you to task if you fail to tick off your tasks (you need to give them evidence!).

Beeminder takes this to a whole new level and will fine you a pre-agreed amount if you don’t meet your goals. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to try that one. Is accountability important to you? Who holds you accountable?

Climbing my Everest: consistency

I now want to turn to one of my biggest challenges: maintaining consistency over time. It’s a theme that has already found its way into most of my posts including the ones on bookkeeping and learning. But it is such an important topic I think it deserves more space.

Consistency is my Everest. Why? ADHD brains experience time differently and tend to have two settings: “now” and “not now”. We thrive on dopamine and reward so find it hard to motivate ourselves to do tasks with no immediate benefit. ADHD affects working memory too which means I quickly forget the tasks and priorities I have set myself. It’s not unusual for me to unearth the vestiges of an extremely well-designed system that I have never used and can’t even remember creating. This makes working towards long-term goals extremely difficult.

My problems maintaining long-term consistency have never affected my core service: translation. Deadlines and the challenging, varied nature of my work spur me into hyperfocus mode which makes me very responsive to clients and very effective. I’m a good translator.

But it has been extremely debilitating and costly in other areas. My income has suffered because I have neglected to nurture relationships with clients, prospects and colleagues. Satisfied customers have disappeared into a black hole in my laptop and business ideas have evaporated overnight. Out of inbox, out of mind. I have failed to do myself justice in my marketing due to not updating my online profiles and CV regularly and consistently. Being in permanent responsive mode is not conducive to the pursuit of long-term business goals. Reactivity is fine when work is flooding in, but a huge problem when things are quiet and I need to drum up business.

Since I have learnt to love my brain, I have gone from having no routine at all, to tentatively establishing a few ADHD-friendly systems that gently nudge it towards those important, non-urgent tasks that are the cornerstone of any successful business. In the next few posts I want to discuss some of the strategies I use to wrestle myself into a consistent routine when needed. They are based on simplicity, reward, positive emotion and accountability. My strategies act as antihistamines for my routine allergy: they’re not a cure but allow me to work around it for a limited time.

This is a work in progress. If consistency is my Everest, I’ve just made it to base camp and I’m not sure I have the right equipment. So, I’d love to hear your tips. I will refer them to my brain for approval!

Discounting orthodox advice and trusting my process

In the last of this series of posts about listening to and working with my brain, I’d like to catalogue some of the orthodox advice my brain has rejected. Before my ADHD diagnosis I was caught in a cycle of inspiration, implementation, failure and giving up. I banged my head against the “should” wall sporadically, forgetting how much it hurt the first time, telling myself that I could find a way through if I just tried harder. More post-it notes! More reminders! A better system! More reprimands. More shame.

Advice predicated on a typical brain is toxic for me. Self-help books and well-intentioned suggestions from neurotypical friends and teachers have taught me that I am faulty and incompetent. As Jessica McCabe says, “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. After a lifetime of falling from trees I listened to other fish and learned how to swim.

I now have a healthy relationship with my brain. Instead of coercing it, I refer any advice to it for approval. Here is some of the advice that has ended up on the rejection pile:

Advice: Go for an early-morning run
Rationale: It is easier to get out of door first thing and sets you up for the day. My brain’s verdict: Rejected. You do your best translations in the morning so don’t waste that time. Exercise is for the afternoon when I am foggy and need a boost. Also, if you don’t open your laptop straight away you may get distracted and struggle to get down to work.

Advice: Establish a 9-5 routine Rationale: This enables you to plan and have work-life balance.
My brain’s verdict: Rejected. You hate routine and your focus varies through the day. Sometimes I need connection, fun, exercise or sleep to reset and this isn’t always predictable. Sometimes I want to translate on a rainy Saturday. As a bonus, your lack of routine means you can be flexible for clients.

Advice: Create an office space Rationale: It puts you in the right frame of mind for work My brain’s verdict:
Rejected. Advice that keeps you tied to one place doesn’t work for you or me. You need comfort and movement and I need novelty. Translate from bed, your sofa or cafes. It might not be ergonomic but you never get a sore neck since you move around a lot.

Advice: Shop at Aldi and shop around for bargains
Rationale: You save money My brain’s verdict:
Rejected. Decision-making and sensory overload when shopping put pressure on me, making you less productive. Doing your food shop from home limits the risk of impulse buying from the middle aisle which will save you money in the long run. It will also save you time so you can focus on translation.

If you love your brain, set it free! What advice does your brain reject? Do you listen to it?

Learning how to learn

I’ve offered some tips on working with your brain. This is particularly important when learning something new for work or pleasure. Most courses leave me feeling energised but clueless about how to put the content into practice. Countless books have motivated me to take action but were forgotten the next day. Choosing the right learning product is vital because I’m paying for it twice: through the course fee and the opportunity cost of not being available for work.

ADHD brains have a vociferous appetite for learning, but many have been let down by unsuitable teaching methods. I need clear instructions, engaging content, accountability, connection and immediate reward.

Corinne McKay’s March Marketing Madness challenge ticks all the boxes: – Novelty: the daily email is like opening a present!
– Freedom: do as little or as much as you like, when you like.
– Completion: you can choose between a challenging and basic task so you achieve something daily.
– Accountability and connection via a community of translators.
– Time limited: it’s not a course but an interactive time-limited challenge so it isn’t a motivational millstone around your neck and there no willpower is needed!
– Immediate rewards: you cannot fail to get fast results, including new clients and work. These short-term successes are extremely motivating and two years later I am still using the systems and strategies I set up at that time.

Corinne’s authenticity and clarity is exactly what I look for in a teacher. She explains her processes in clear, practical terms so you leave with lots of fresh meaty ingredients to work with rather than a bunch of word salad that has wilted by the time you’re ready to use it. I refer to her book regularly and hers is the only email newsletter I read.

Non-fiction podcasts are my favourite way to learn for pleasure, often whilst doing household tasks. I learn better when I have the freedom to move (I often switch the camera off during online courses and pace around the house with my Bluetooth headphones on resulting in a mad dash to my laptop when my name is called!). Podcast ‘clubs’ help the information to stick. My boyfriend and I chat about what we have learned from our favourite podcasts (the British History Podcast is great) and I discuss the ADHD for Smart Ass Women with a friend who has ADHD.

I prefer podcasts as they are made for the audio market, but some audiobooks are in the same bracket. I have learned basic Spanish with Paul Noble’s course. He replicates the way we naturally learn languages, so I got fast results with minimal effort. Brene Brown made me laugh and cry whilst offering fascinating insights into the toxic effects of shame.

How do you learn best?

Getting off the indecision merry-go-round

One of my biggest barriers to productivity is indecision. I’m not talking about the big stuff like where to live or what job to do (although I have agonised over those) but low-stakes decisions like, “what should I do now?”, “which shop should I go to?” or “should I take this assignment?”.

The average person makes 35,000 choices a day. The majority are so insignificant they are imperceptible to most. But for brains like mine the volume of options can be crippling. Working alone and managing my own time amplifies the problem. An empty schedule is a breeding ground for indecision. Since routine is not my friend I can’t rely on systems and habits to lessen the load on my executive function. When choosing how to spend my time a throng of variables pull me in different directions like toddlers in a playground. Cost, time commitment, weather, environmental impact, health, mood, physical appearance, energy levels, exercise, social considerations, footwear, sensory issues….

The decision-making merry-go-round is hard to get off and leaves me dizzy and disorientated. My default response is to do nothing resulting in frustration and shame. It’s hard to explain to people, or even to myself, I’ve achieved nothing because I couldn’t decide what to do.

Now that I know that this is a feature of my brain rather than a personal failing, I have strategies to help.

First, I remove a variable. Sometimes it’s cost. It may be more expensive to have groceries delivered but the decision-making process is easier without the sensory overload and distractions of the supermarket. You might go one-step further and order a weekly recipe box like Gousto.

Some variables can be eliminated with advance preparation. I keep all-weather clothing and accessories by the door so weather is one less variable to consider. Unfortunately, removing variables can mean compromising on my values. I am deeply concerned about the effects of the attention economy on society and used to prioritise analogue alternatives, but digital minimalism puts too much strain on my executive function. I’ve deleted Facebook but Amazon is an adaptation that I’m not yet willing to live without.

If removing variables hasn’t helped, I let fate decide. After all, usually the stakes are low and doing anything is better than nothing. I enter a list of options into the “Tiny Decisions” app then click on the roulette wheel to pick one at random. Alexa has a similar function (Blueprint>What to do).

It can be tempting to opt out and delegate the decision. This strategy has not served me well. Whilst it may solve my immediate problem, it leaves me feeling disempowered and frustrated. It is also unfair to encumber others with responsibility for my choices and ultimately breeds resentment. My indecision is my problem and I do my best not to let it infect my relationships.

What decisions do you struggle with? What are your strategies?

Outsourcing the urgh

You know those tasks that make you go “urgh”? The ones that burrow into the recesses of your brain at every waking moment but will prompt you to do a deep clean of your house (including the oven) just to avoid tackling them? Those tasks. Get. Rid. Of. Them. Asking for help does not make you a failure and forcing yourself to do things that sap your energy is not a virtue.

I once paid a personal trainer friend to force me to train for a 10K. Getting out of the door three times a week to run was urgh-inducing so I needed help. I also paid her to run the race with me in case the urgh made me resort to walking. She alternated between shouting motivational commentary and running behind me mooing (being chased by a cow is my biggest fear until I made it across the finish line. I can now say I have completed a 10k. Do I feel this is any less of an achievement because I had help? No.

Here is my non-exhaustive list of “urgh” tasks:

– Filing purchase orders

– Recording expenses

– Chasing payments

– Making sure my accounts are ready for the accountant to do my tax return

– Anything involving data entry, forms or numbers

As luck would have it there are people for whom the tasks that make me want to cry are a superpower. Who knew?! These superheroes are bookkeepers and for a small fee they will fight the urgh for you! Not all heroes wear capes.

Your biggest priority is to achieve flow state so you can focus, be productive and provide your clients with the benefit of your expertise. That’s what they are paying for. Flow state is impossible without positive emotion. Ruminating on urgh tasks is a sure-fire way to leave you emotionally depleted. Make no mistake, the opportunity cost of martyring yourself to do this stuff yourself is high.

If you can’t afford a bookkeeper, at the very least invest in a user-friendly invoicing system. I use Sage, or should I say my bookkeeper does. It allows her to seamlessly dispatch everything to the accountant without my having to do anything! I even get a neatly assembled file containing all my invoices and expenses in hard copy at the end of each tax year.

No more last-minute searching for purchase orders at the end of the month, no more infuriating email exchanges about late payments, no more head-scratchingly baffling data entry at the end of the financial year. Best of all I no longer live in fear of having to rummage through the shoe box of doom in my closet to justify an expense from 10 months ago.

I bet you’ve already thought about getting a bookkeeper haven’t you? What’s stopping you? You don’t need anyone’s permission to make your life easier but if you feel that you do then consider this post your green light. What are your ‘urgh’ tasks? Do/could you outsource them?

My focus time security system

Much has been said about the scourge of distraction in the modern world with phones taking most of the blame. Proposed solutions range from blocking apps to analogue alternatives. I embraced a Facebook-free life long ago and use Freedom to restrict my time on LinkedIn.

But, digital minimalism only gets me so far. For my rebellious brain any digital ban is an obstacle to be overcome rather than a master to be obeyed. Besides, when I am hyperfocussing on a text the temptation to scroll evaporates. My biggest focus gremlin is not my phone but myself. Willpower matters less than developing commitment to my process, my boundaries and my time.

As a freelancer it’s easy to prioritise the schedules of others over your own. Since hyperfocus is personal and invisible, it is tempting to see focus time as negotiable. Too often I have sacrificed my focus time to fit in with other people’s kids and shifts. Their external restrictions took precedence over my self-imposed ones. Social conditioning makes saying ‘no’ hard. It feels rude to turn away an unexpected offer or guest and my cognitive function never seemed like a valid excuse.

But I now consider my focus to be my business’s biggest asset and I protect it like Fort Knox. Here are the features of my focus time security system.

I manage expectations by letting others know that mornings are off limits. “I work in the mornings” has become a mantra. Establishing a rule and expressing it as a simple incontrovertible fact eliminates the pressure of considering individual requests. To avoid mixed messages, I turn down invitations and ignore calls even if I’m not busy. If I make an exception, I refer to it as “booking time off” as a reminder of the value of my focus time.

I schedule hair and medical appointments in the afternoon or evening or, failing that, book time off and cluster all my chores and appointments together.

Even short interruptions can kill my flow. Taking delivery of a purchase can divert my hyperfocus away from my work and towards my new toy. Couriers are instructed to leave deliveries in my shed. A sign on my door reads, “Shift worker. Please do not knock”. I tip my postman at Christmas to show my appreciation.

I schedule any attended deliveries in the afternoon. Deliveries with no specified time slot (my idea of hell) are for days when I’m doing mindless chores.

I do check my emails while working in case a client needs me, but I do so mindfully. I snooze non-urgent emails for later. If an idea or to-do list item comes to me, I email it to myself and get straight back to work.

Yes, I know. All of this is starting to sound a lot like a routine. What can I say? My brain knows what it wants and what it wants is to be left alone in the mornings.

Sorting the wheat from the chaff

I have decided to collate my recent LinkedIn posts about freelancing with ADHD in a blog.

Like many people with ADHD one of my strengths is finding creative solutions to problems. I am also good at simplifying complex ideas and use this skill as an editor and translator. Now I want to apply these skills to productivity and well-being advice.

Over the years I have devoured self-help books in attempts to be happier and more productive. What I didn’t know was that this advice was not designed for my brain. Since my diagnosis I have begun to sort the wheat from the chaff, taking what works and discarding what doesn’t. I love a good clear-out.

Whilst I want to be positive, I’m acutely aware that social media can be extremely detrimental to mental health and I refuse to peddle perfection. I’m pathologically honest anyway so I am not sure I could if I wanted to. 

I’m inspired by role models like Tracy Otsuka and Jessica McCabe who are showing neurodivergent women and girls that it’s OK to be different and that they can thrive with ADHD.

It’s OK to have imperfect hair, to hate high heels, to crave time-out at parties. It’s OK not to enjoy small talk or flirting. It’s OK to find fashion boring. It’s OK to be curious and interested in a particular topic, even if others don’t get it. Academia is full of people who are obsessed with niche subjects and their research can change the world. I want to tell them that another word for ‘impulsive’ is ‘risk-taking’ and that a Google search throws up tens of thousands of articles lauding entrepreneurs for having that quality.

I want to encourage them to learn about their brains and show that sometimes a simple atypical adjustment might be all they need to overcome their struggles in education, the workplace and relationships. When that’s not enough, there is no shame in asking for advice and seeking help but when it comes to the atypical brain it’s important to look in the right place.

Generating positive emotion

I have ADHD expert Tracy Otsuka to thank for this tip. I have always known that mood was a big factor in my ability to get things done but an onslaught of “you should”s prevented me from recognising it as the basis of a valid productivity strategy. Believe me, it is.

It is counterintuitive. You may judge yourself for slacking and feel like you are getting no closer to your goal. Stop and reframe. This is an investment which will pay huge productivity dividends. Trust me.

😣First, identify your emotions. Are you anxious or stressed? Your brain is not designed to be productive in fight or flight mode so don’t force it. Listen to your brain and take 30 minutes to reset.

📜When in a negative emotional state it’s easy to lose sight of the route to feeling better. Create a menu of mood boosters using an automated system like the Tiny Decisions app or Alexa’s Blueprints skill (Blueprints>What to Do) to choose for you.

🎵Create a mood-booster playlist. Music increases dopamine and oxytocin levels and research shows that tunes from our youth are particularly beneficial. Dancing around to Wham at top volume immediately makes me smile.

🏋️Speaking of dance, exercise is an excellent mood-booster and improves focus. The EMKFit Youtube Channel offers quick, fun workouts on themes like the Rocky Horror Show and 80s Dance Classics. Emily’s mantra ‘wrong and strong’ is a perfect salve for the emotional scars left by PE class.

🌲Being outside is good for your brain. If you can’t go for a walk in nature can you indulge your senses in the garden for 5 minutes? Walk barefoot in the grass, smell the flowers, listen to the birds.

👩‍❤️‍👩 Connection boosts dopamine and, therefore focus. Phone or meet a friend. Pay attention to how you feel afterwards. Are you ready to be productive? If so, ignore the inner critic telling you you’re shirking. How can it be a waste of time if it helps you work?

🎨Do something you love when you’re anxious or stressed. For some it’s cross-stitch, drawing or crosswords. For me nothing is more relaxing than cooking. It is impossible to stay in fight-or-flight mode when chopping an onion or stirring a roux.

🐱Cuddle the cat. Nothing grounds me more than stroking my cats while they purr. I remind myself to appreciate every moment because they won’t be here forever. It’s like meditation. Pet ownership is linked to slower decline in cognition over time so I can feel smug that I’m investing in my brain too.

🛏️Are you tired? Try to distinguish between feeling tired and feeling fatigued. Endorphins or dopamine might be more beneficial than a nap so try the suggestions above first. Pay attention to how they affect your cognitive function.

What are your mood-boosters?

Leaving targets in the 1990s where they belong, leaving habit-stacking to other people and going with the flow

Since the ’90s governments and businesses have worshiped at the alter of targets. Targets have become ubiquitous in education, fitness programmes and the workplace. Who hasn’t attended a workplace sermon preaching the gospel of SMART objectives? Like most productivity advice at first glance it makes sense. It is rational to quantify what you want to achieve, set time limits and monitor progress.

But this dogma doesn’t allow for the myriad of ever-changing internal and external variables or the features of a non-linear, neurodivergent brain. The toxic byproduct of any targets-based approach is shame. It seeps into your operating system causing it to malfunction. Anyone familiar with the academic Brene Brown will know that shame is kryptonite to growth, learning and creativity. So much for productivity.

With the explosion of the attention economy, habits have made it into the canon of sacred producivity texts. Silicon Valley, the diet industry and employers have a vested interest in understanding the mechanisms of habit-formation. The theory goes that if you sow the seed of new habits in the right plot, they will take root and grow. Tag new habits onto existing ones and voilà! You’ll be a creature of perfect habits in no time. Want to run every day? Leave your trainers by your toothbrush as a visual reminder. You’ll be ticking off a marathon in no time.

But what if you don’t have a lush abundant field of consistent habits in which to sow new ones? What if while brushing your teeth your mind is elsewhere and you don’t even see the shoes? What if you brush your teeth at a different time every day? What’s the alternative?

Tracking targets and forming new habits is like pushing a boulder up the hill. In flow state my brain is unstoppable and the currents take me where I need to be. So, rather than arbitrary, punitive targets or slippery, shaming habits, I focus on flow.

It is a truism that you should listen to your body, but it is just as crucial to listen to your brain. Indeed, recent research suggests that your brain is actually part of your body! Really! My brain tells me when it is ready to work. As this tends to be in the morning I ignore advice on morning habits or a ‘normal’ 9-5 routine. Others can have a morning run, get into ‘work clothes’, write lists of objectives or meditate. My laptop is on as soon as the coffee hits my lips.

Conversely 1pm to 3pm is my ‘should-free time’. I no longer beat myself up if focus eludes me in the afternoon. My brain is my guide. I stare at the wall (formerly known as being ‘lazy’, now rebranded ‘recharging’), do housework, have a bath, whatever I feel like until my brain tells me it wants to get back to work.

Your brain knows what it needs. Listen to it.

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