Attention Deficit Revisited

Long-time readers of this blog know how often I write about overcoming resistance to starting projects that have the element of uncertainty, which naturally tend to be the projects really worth doing. I have to do all sorts of mental gymnastics to trick myself into starting them, and while this is amusing when working on my own stuff, it isn’t an option when I’m doing contract work for paying clients.

As a result, I’m constantly tweaking my approach to maintain a “more even” pacing of my productivity in the face of this resistance, and I thought I had it mostly figured out until starting my current project. It’s the development of a fairly complex 3D interactive augmented reality system for teaching younger children the principles of science, and the longer development cycle has presented me a different set of challenges since I’m the main system programmer, working with the science and film technology education guys who are actually running the pilot. There is much more integration and coordination involved, with correspondingly more dependencies between my work and the productivity of others.

As uncertainty and newness abound in this project, I’ve had to pull out every trick I know to maintain progress. It’s been exciting, but I haven’t felt “100% productive” as I compare my ideal timeline to the actual development process as it’s proceeded. I’m never as fast as I want to be, but for once I’m not considering this a failure of competence. I’ve had two recurring insights over the past couple of months:

  • I have rediscovered the effectiveness of writing down my questions on paper as a way to maintain continuity and focus on a moment-by-moment basis during the day. I add the answers as I discover them. In the past, I’d maintained a detailed digital journal as a way of maintaining continuity in similar fashion, but there is something about having words on paper that is working better for me. I throw the paper out after transcribing what I got done to a very terse “daily log” I maintain for project coordination. I used to write in an online document of one sort or another, but I’ve found that switching windows between the work and the online journal is actually somewhat distracting; having the continuity on a sheet of paper is working better because it’s in its own “physical channel” on a clean desk.
  • Speed of development is a personal measure that I maintain, and I’m never as fast as I want to be. Partly this is my natural impatience, and to compensate I’ve decided that measuring how long it takes without judgement as a means of collecting data for future estimates is OK. When on the superhighway of big ideas, it’s easy to drive fast and imagine entire systems coming together in a matter of an hour. In reality, it takes an hour to implement half of a button, especially when it’s the first one in a new system. I have a terrible short-term memory, and have to spend a lot of time diagraming systems and writing code in a verbose self-documenting manner so I remember what I’m doing. While slow, the upside of this approach is that I generally write clear, robust and maintainable code that is easy to extend; this more than makes up for slowness in the beginning of a project. Anyway, I’m learning to accept these truths instead of fretting about them, because you know what? Fretting is distracting.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a description of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) that reminded me a lot of what I’ve been doing. It’s been kicking around the Internet unattributed for some time, but I tracked down the original source on Reddit: What is ADHD is Like. Here’s an excerpt:

ADHD is about having broken filters on your perception. Normal people have a sort of mental secretary that takes the 99% of irrelevant crap that crosses their mind, and simply deletes it before they become consciously aware of it. As such, their mental workspace is like a huge clean whiteboard, ready to hold and organize useful information. ADHD people… have no such luxury. Every single thing that comes in the front door gets written directly on the whiteboard in bold, underlined red letters, no matter what it is, and no matter what has to be erased in order for it to fit. As such, if we’re in the middle of some particularly important mental task, and our eye should happen to light upon… a doorknob, for instance, it’s like someone burst into the room, clad in pink feathers and heralded by trumpets, screaming HEY LOOK EVERYONE, IT’S A DOORKNOB! LOOK AT IT! LOOK! IT OPENS THE DOOR IF YOU TURN IT! ISN’T THAT NEAT? I WONDER HOW THAT ACTUALLY WORKS DO YOU SUPPOSE THERE’S A CAM OR WHAT? MAYBE ITS SOME KIND OF SPRING WINCH AFFAIR ALTHOUGH THAT SEEMS KIND OF UNWORKABLE. It’s like living in a soft rain of post-it notes. This happens every single waking moment, and we have to manually examine each thought, check for relevance, and try desperately to remember what the thing was we were thinking before it came along, if not. Most often we forget, and if we aren’t caught up in the intricacies of doorknob engineering, we cast wildly about for context, trying to guess what the fuck we were up to from the clues available.

The comments that followed were also highly illuminating, describing many of the sensations that I feel toward certain kinds of work, sluggishness, the need for timers and high-stimulation relaxation activities (Quake 3…yeah!). This got me thinking: while I don’t regard myself as having an attention deficit or feel the need for medication, I nevertheless seemed to have naturally gravitated toward the same kind of compensation techniques that the commenters were mentioning to constantly retain context and maintain continuity in their day-to-day activities. From writing stuff down in longhand to not letting my terrible short-term memory become overburdened by people, and the common practice of using small whiteboards, timers, and external structure to guide one’s day…it all sounded very familiar. Even my habit of writing code in a fashion that reminds me how it’s supposed to work is a form of memory compensation. My love of systems thinking is also related: I don’t love systems because of efficiency; I use them to compress information so I can remember how the universe works. Being able to do zen hacks is just the side benefit.

I had to consider that there might be something to be gained by studying ADD further. Here goes!

Revisiting Attention Deficit Disorder

I happen to be one of those people who believes that we can do what we set-out to achieve, and am optimistic about developing willpower and capability when we can plant ourselves in the right environment. Now, I’m considering that despite me thinking I’ve been following tihs belief, it’s possible that I’ve actually just designed my entire life to create an ADD-friendly existence. It’s an intriguing idea, so let me pick it up from where I left off last year.

But first, let me be clear:

I am NOT looking for a diagnosis or sense of affirmation. I am looking for useful patterns in the literature that correlate with my own experience with respect to meeting personal challenges. I am not looking for a box to fit in, or a magic recipe to make my life better. Even if I am on the ADD spectrum, it’s just one aspect of my set of values, goals, and underlying personality. It’s up to me, as the primary expert in Dave-ology, to carefully assess how those patterns fit me, and what behavioral or attitudinal changes arise as a result of that matching.

That said, let’s dive in!

Initial Review of ADHD Material

I was dimly aware of the idea of “Attention Deficit Disorder” (ADD) in the 80s, and that this term had been replaced with “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” (ADHD) sometime later. I hadn’t understood the difference until looking up the history of the term just now; my understanding of ADD/ADHD was based on terrible media that lumps everything together. Here’s a typical example:

  • You are restless
  • You have relationship trouble
  • You smoke
  • You had academic problems as a child
  • You’re a champion procrastinator
  • You’re a thrill seeker
  • You lose things all the time
  • You have trouble on the job
  • You have a quick temper
  • You have problems completing tasks
  • You’re impulsive
  • You can’t relax
  • You’re easily distracted
  • You’re disorganized

This is the kind of dreck that turned me off to the whole idea in the first place, as I didn’t have the majority of these symptoms. I procrastinate, sure, but not at champion levels. I don’t seek thrills. Etc. Moving on!

But wait a second. Let me look deeper into each statement. What if “restless” means a desire to escape boredom with mundane issues? I certainly feel that. While I’m not in a relationship to have trouble, I don’t have many of them; perhaps that’s why I don’t for them in the first place? I don’t “lose things all the time”, but that’s because I never take my keys out of my pants so the possibility of losing them will never arise. I have a key-recovery plan in the event that I lock myself out of the house for some stupid reason. In fact, I spend a lot of effort thinking about whether I have my keys with me. And as for academic problems? I found learning material by rote incredibly boring, and got told that I wasn’t paying attention when I was younger a lot; I just didn’t remember that until now because, um, I wasn’t really paying attention. I was lucky that I happened to find some classes I liked (English, Physics, and Computer Programming), and did well enough so I was never under any pressure to perform. I went to an international school on a tropical island in Asia, and lived on a theological seminary on a mountain with highly-educated Christian missionary parents; conformity was never really an issue, because I was already way off the baseline.

As I looked deeper into the definition of ADHD, perhaps more properly abbreviated as AD/HD as “Attention Deficit” is separate from “Hyperactivity”, but both are lumped together in the American Psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It turns out there are TWO kinds of “disorders” associated with this, the “Inattentive” type and the “Hyperactive” type. There’s also a third classification that is the combination of both.

The set of AD/HD patterns that seems to fit are those from the Inattentive type, not the Hyperactivity type. The hyperactivity variant seems to get more the attention, perhaps because in childhood it’s the kid who is running around and being disruptive that concerns parents and school administrators. In the meantime, the kids with the “Inattentive” type is less of an immediate problem, unless frustration with life leads to chronic depression that suddenly and violently erupts. It’s like the “extrovert vs introvert” dichotomy; I wonder if there is any correlation between the types?

Anyway, WebMD lists the symptoms for the inattentive type as follows:

  1. Difficulty paying attention to details and tendency to make careless mistakes in school or other activities; producing work that is often messy and careless
  2. Easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli and frequently interrupting ongoing tasks to attend to trivial noises or events that are usually ignored by others
  3. Inability to sustain attention on tasks or activities
  4. Difficulty finishing schoolwork or paperwork or performing tasks that require concentration
  5. Frequent shifts from one uncompleted activity to another
  6. Procrastination
  7. Disorganized work habits
  8. Forgetfulness in daily activities (for example, missing appointments, forgetting to bring lunch)
  9. Failure to complete tasks such as homework or chores
  10. Frequent shifts in conversation, not listening to others, not keeping one’s mind on conversations, and not following details or rules of activities in social situations

I still have difficulty correlating my own frustrations with these descriptions unless I again read between the lines. My life context is different than what the language in this list implies: a working and social environment that extol organization, timeliness, and non-obsessive focus as normative. Consciously or not, I’ve actively avoided this type of judgmental environment all my life, so if I were to rewrite the symptom list for my own context they’d look like this:

  1. Difficulty memorizing and accepting details at face value, skipping ahead on instructions, doing something different than what was expected but not clearly detailed in context and purpose.
  2. Distracted by the possibilities of related lines of thought not related to completing the assigned task at hand, often investigating a broader meaning behind the work with all its ramifications.
  3. Inability to work on tasks that are boring, mundane, or are projected to have a “crappy” outcomes.
  4. Unable to concentrate on schoolwork or paperwork that makes no sense or has actual meaning because it is drawn from authoritarian doctrinal bullshit.
  5. Tendency toward boredom and stuckness, resulting in doing something else that seemed equally or somewhat important as well at the time.
  6. Procrastination because of uncertainty what to do first, whether it is worth doing, or because the payoff is far in the future. Not wanting to expend the mental effort, even though it’s understood to be necessary, because it feels like it will be unrewarding in the near term.
  7. Disorganized and inefficient transition between project contexts, because of difficulty re-loading the continuity from the previous work session without being distracted by the very process of re-establishing context.
  8. Forgetfulness, but compensated for by religious use of Google Calendar. Keeping track of things that I’m responsible for is incredibly taxing mentally, and prevents me from doing work at all.
  9. I have a long list of tasks that I should do, but I never start them because I know I won’t be able to finish them any time soon. Having lingering open projects is something I really hate. I like things resolved quickly, or not at all. This list is REALLY long but there are no immediate pressures on me to complete them.
  10. I don’t seem to have this problem unless the conversation is boring, fake, or meaningless.

Adult Reflection

As an adult that survived adolescence without major psychological scarring, I may have avoided the kind of situations that would have made my cognitive deficits a real problem. In other words, I’ve not had to deal with high levels of anxiety and frustration that would otherwise have forced me to self-diagnose earlier, as I might have had I stayed in a normal job. I was fortunate to have had an early interest in subjects that have been in high demand, so the stress of figuring out how to make a living was alleviated. I have been very blessed. Nevertheless, certain frustrations have always been there:

  • The nagging feeling that I haven’t achieved anything of great note
  • The resistance I feel starting projects that I know will take a long time
  • My poor short-term memory and difficulty in learning foreign languages
  • My extreme disinterest in chores, routine tasks, and following-through with rigid planning

Over the years, I’ve come up with ways of reframing these frustrations to keep myself from being too anxious about them:

  • Am I not achieving? The process is long and uncertain, and achievement won’t be apparent until I look back. Adopt the fruit farm approach to productivity.
  • Feeling resistance? It’s a matter of retraining my brain to accept incremental progress. Also, harnessing the power of maintaining a daily commitment to maintaining continuity and commitment to causes I think are truly worthwhile.
  • Bad memory? Write everything down! Adopt systems to help me remember through context. Create systems of meaning and emotional connection to enhance memory recall.
  • Hate routine tasks? Maybe it’s ok to ignore a lot of them, and just do the necessary ones.

I’ve thought of my challenges in these area as my own blend of personal quirks, and since no one is yelling at me I have been feeling fine about them. Sure, I wish I didn’t have these issues because I think a lot more might get done, but I don’t feel particularly awful about them. That said, and thanks to the earlier kind suggestions by readers, I’ve become more accepting of the possibility that I share many symptoms with others that have the “Inattentive type” of ADHD. And that suggests that there is a lot of interesting research to be done outside the “productivity” segment of knowledge I’ve focused on.