Overcoming The Challenges Of ADHD And Life As A Freelancer

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(Due to the great response to my previous post about ADHD, I thought I’d continue on that topic and the challenges I face as a freelance engineer who has hands full with caregiver duties at home.)

This is hard. I’m still perfecting it. I’ve written before about my struggles with ADHD, and compared it to gain staging an audio signal to help peers who are unaffected by this disorder understand what we go through. It’s a daily struggle to keep on top of tasks when you’re at your best, and you have to really pay attention to yourself and learn where your strengths and weaknesses are. You also have to learn when your strongest in certain areas and weaker in those same areas, and organize your day around your body’s natural rhythms.

That can be challenging, especially for someone like me. I closed my recording studio in 2014 to be a caregiver to special needs twins who would become my step-daughters. They need round the clock care, and the challenge for me is providing an income while being effectively on call 24/7/365 to handle anything they may need. It’s a very dynamic situation, and at times I can get pulled away from a task when I’m hyper focused on it. This is a bad thing for someone like me, because once that hyper focus is gone I may not get it back until the next day. Even something as simple as a text message alert from one of their teachers can throw me out of my rhythm, and it can be difficult to get it back. While I’m grateful for excellent communication between the teachers and I, it’s a double edged sword due to how hard it is to find my rhythm again once interrupted. I began finding that my focus was totally shot by the time I was able to return to the task at hand, which makes working on projects at times a very frustrating endeavor.

As with my last post about ADHD, this isn’t a woe is me post. I acknowledge that the depth of my passion for art and community is rooted in the emotional intensity that can come with ADHD. Sure, I blow things out of proportion from time to time, but without that level of passion I wouldn’t care enough to pour every ounce of myself into what I do. ADHD has always been a part of me. This post merely hopes to put you into my field so you can see the hurdles I have to work around. And I’ve found that, just like my daughters who live on the autism spectrum, I work best with structure.

For example, It’s easiest for my mind to go into the good kind of hyper focus early in the day, at the time when my girls are typically at school. This is a great opportunity for me to focus with less chance of regular interruptions, though I’m unable to completely tune them out because I need to be able to be reached. Still, if I can harness that time of day without interruption, and can create a plan of action with easy to follow steps, I can usually make great progress with my time! When I try to just wing it without structure, and don’t plan out my activities on a short list that I can cross off, I typically find that I’ve let my poor impulse control take me to other things that maybe were more interesting. While those things often feel pretty important, they’re often not the most important item on the agenda. If I allow myself to act on impulse and persue those things, it can set me back and cause undue stress.

I remember being frustrated at myself before I accepted that I’m different than those get-it-done types I admire. Seeing authors who are well known being able to sit down and write regularly from 6am to noon every day of the week, and that’s how they start their day and stay productive…In many cases, these individuals have the freedom from interruption to just be in that zone until their brain is no longer focusing on being creative. And setting a structure for themselves helps them know automatically that they are at work, and must focus on work, so their brain has to be in the game. Before long, it becomes an automated task for them that they just do out of habit. For most people, this can be easy enough. Find time when you’re most productive, build your schedule around that, and turn off distractions until the time that your brain is losing its hyper focus on your craft.

Again, my situation is vastly different from most people. And again, not a woe is me post, but rather an acknowledgement that it’s very difficult to follow such seemingly simple guidelines to create the structure I need. Everyone is different, and in order to pull through these extra challenges we face we have to acknowledge that we have different things in our way. Even while writing this article, I received a text from the school asking about certain documents that I need to bring in. That took me out of the zone writing this, and that’s frustrating because I had to make a strong effort not to let my brain just run off toward the next distraction. I wanted that hyper focus back, and it’s like stopping a train suddenly. Starting the train back up requires persistence and effort to build momentum. It’s not like a muscle car that can go from 0 to 60 in a few seconds.

So what do I do? It’d be ideal if I could just go into a room that was dedicated to writing articles, working on tutorials, and working for clients. I have such a room. But lately it barely gets used. This is because the needs of my family demanded that I work in my daughter’s bedroom at night, and in the master bedroom during the day so I could care for my wife after a major surgery. These areas are full of distractions, making it excruciatingly slow and difficult to stay on topic. At some point, I realize it’s futile, and end up scrolling through Facebook to talk shop with people in Facebook groups. At least I’m helping people understand and learn, even if I can’t write the article I’m inspired to write due to the amount of external stimuli surrounding me that I can’t turn off.

It’s been a long and slow evolution to get to the point where I am right now, and I am in no way suggesting that I’ve found the perfect solution. Just like previous attempts, this will need fine tuned as I go. But I have been attempting to regain some control of my environment and build some structure so I can get work done. My wife’s had some health problems, and leaned heavily on me, so for the longest time she was unable to help. But she’s trying to bounce back, and take on some of the responsibilities of the house so I can focus on work, which I appreciate more than she knows.

Furthermore, the behavioral issues that had required me to work in their bedroom at night have began subsiding somewhat, and I’ve been able to back off of such close supervision. Now I’m working in my home office again, with the door open because it’s across the hallway from their bedroom. I can keep a close eye on things, but be in a quieter space so I can actually get something done at night. This is when I try to be more creative, because that’s where my brain is at that time of day, and it’s a little easier to recover if I’m pulled away.

The thing is, I acknowledge now that it’s difficult to maintain a certain structure in regards to scheduling. So I had to take a different approach to building structure. I’m experimenting with only working in one set space during set times, which gives me a division from home duties and course development/blog writing/audio editing for clients/etc. If I’m unable to give 85% to being creative, I don’t go in the office at all. It’s pointless. And by removing the computer from their bedroom at night, I’m making a concerted effort to separate work and family duties. Combining them was getting me nowhere, and family duties are always going to supersede work duties. While it will be necessary again to work in their room at night in the near future, I’m embracing the opportunity that has presented itself to work in my office instead…for now.

This post started as a description of how I built a structure and am overcoming the grinding halt to productivity of the distractions that I can’t ignore. I was going to mention using timers, taking brain breaks to let my mind focus elsewhere for 10 minutes, and what you could possibly do to overcome your own struggles in this area. But as I began writing, I realized I’m still figuring this all out. I’ll always be figuring this out, because my situation keeps evolving. As supervision needs fluctuate, this may be harder to maintain at times. I’m always going to need to adapt to what’s happening around me. So I’ve in no way figured out some master plan that people can use to conquer their own ADHD. That doesn’t exist.

Instead, I want to give some advice. Acknowledge that you have a different way of processing information than others, and that it’s ok to be that way. Acknowledge that there are times where it’s just going to be impossible to maintain your focus level without some serious efforts, and put systems in place that require you to stay the course. Explore productivity tools like the Pomodoro technique, or something similar, but make sure it works with the way your mind actually works and be honest with yourself about that. If you can find the time to indulge your hyper focus and churn out project after project after project without interruption, embrace that and roll with it. If you slip up, don’t stress over it. You can keep getting back on the horse and trying that jump again and again until you nail it. But be patient with yourself, honest with yourself about your situational limitations, and do the best you can to establish a routine. As you get used to this routine, your brain will begin to go into the right spaces at the right times. If you’re lucky enough to turn off all distractions, do it. If you’re not, and you get distracted by a need elsewhere, make a note of where you were. Write it on paper, because your brain will be more likely to recall where you were if you focus on actually writing the letters on paper. Put that note within sight of your chair so it’s the first thing you see when you sit back down. And make yourself find that groove again, even when it’s hard.

ADHD is annoying, but it’s just a different way of being. Work with yourself, not against it, and you can get more done. We’re only incompetent when it comes to working the way someone else works. We can be very competent and thrive if we work with our natural rhythms, and feel less anxiety about our progress as a result.

If you’re interested in courses that can help you overcome or even just understand your ADHD, check out ADD Crusher