2017: Reflecting, Revising, Restructuring, Recovering (Part 2)

I’ve been reflecting back on my hard-won personal progress of the past year and making notes about what’s working best for me now, so that I can come back to this post in the future and remind myself of these strategies when I need to.

In my last post, I explained how my PTSD has shifted and how I’ve also come to suspect that I have ADHD. I spent 2017 mostly doing reflective assessment and revising my self-understanding, although I still feel hesitant to officially claim the label of ADHD. I am not sure that I have the option of going to get it properly diagnosed and treated right now. But even if it turns out I don’t have it, restructuring my life to apply the coping strategies others use to manage it has still helped me, so I’m going to talk about that in this post.

One thing I didn’t mention last time, mostly because I didn’t have a whole lot of space left in that post, was that I have been going back to school to finish my degree this past year. I’m doing it now out of necessity, because with the way things are going, if I wait much longer I may actually lose the option, or it will just become drastically more expensive. I don’t have much of it left to do, just a few more semesters (I mean, given that I can actually find enough of the classes that I need offered at times that don’t conflict with each other—which is a really big problem with my major). So I really have to work on productivity (or personal effectiveness) as much as possible this year and next.

Unfortunately, my heavy focus on school has left me unable to focus on other things that I’d really like to be able to juggle well too. I’ve managed this one aspect of my life all right, but very little else. I talked a little bit last time about how my PTSD symptoms are mostly invisible right now and so from an outside perspective, people overestimate how well I’m actually doing. This one area of my life that I’ve managed well is… well, it’s the one most strongly valued in a capitalistic society, the ability to produce something. In this case, academic work. But if you have any idea of how incredibly difficult schoolwork has always been for me, in part because of what I now assume is ADHD, and in part because of accessibility issues related to my PTSD… it’s worth celebrating that.

So that’s what I’m doing in this post.

Here are six ways I’ve restructured my life so that I can manage this aspect of it better:

1. I invested in a Chromebook to use to work on serious things.

This drastically reduces my ability to be distracted. I am not allowed to log in to sites or use apps that would create a temptation on this laptop. I do not even turn on the wifi unless I have a compelling reason. It does what I need it to do and nothing else.

And of course, crucially, it’s mobile. My last laptop became unusable more than 5 years ago, so I am incredibly overdue for this purchase. I tried to make the iPad mini my mom gave me… uh, 3ish?… years ago work as a mobile option, but it wasn’t comfortable to write on at all. Then I borrowed my partner’s laptop for a few years whenever I needed to work away from home, but this year that quickly became unsustainable. I need it too often now for that to work out. I had to just go ahead and buy one myself—so it’s a good thing that Chromebooks are pretty cheap.

It also boots up extremely quickly, compared to my home PC which takes 5-10 minutes, which is super important when I am rushing against the short time it will take me to forget what I was thinking and planning to do.

I was extremely hesitant to try this (instead of a standard laptop) at first, because I really don’t like being so reliant on Google for managing things in my life. I don’t like any single company having so much data about me. But these are the times we live in, and these are my limits. I have to accept that and work with what’s available, or I won’t actually get anywhere. It’s a risk, but I guess it’s not that much more of one than what I was doing before.

What eventually sold me on this is that I realized (after test-borrowing a Chromebook) that I don’t have to use Google Docs for everything, which is good because Google Docs butchers the formatting of what I was working on whenever I paste something from it into another program/place, like WordPress. There are lots of other apps and programs available, including Word Online and distraction-free writing services that play a lot nicer with formatting than Google Docs does. I’m not sure which one I prefer yet, but right now I’m testing out Calmly Writer for offline blog post writing.

What’s really nice about the Chromebook is that I now have the option of running android apps somewhere other than my phone, which is so old that many apps do not support it. This is particularly useful for timer apps, because my phone’s timers/alarms often simply do not go off until I actually check my phone again, which isn’t very useful. Even though most apps are not optimized for Chromebooks at all, they are still more accessible there than on my actual phone.

2. I turned off all notifications on my phone, and I stopped using chat programs.

Well, I should say I stopped using chat programs except for Steam, but really only my partner ever messages me on there, and that’s because there are many times when she physically can’t talk. Otherwise, I’ll sign on to these at specific times if someone requests it, but I’m mostly using asynchronous communication for now. People can wait for me to respond to their texts, even if it’s hours (or days) later (though I’m trying to manage it better). If it’s really time-sensitive, they’ll just have to call me real quick to get my attention or alert me some other way. I can’t be glued to my phone 24/7, and my phone honestly doesn’t work well enough for that anyway (it has issues with battery life and its charging port doesn’t work consistently).

This has been pretty hard for people to adjust to, but it’s a necessary change. Notifications are incredibly intrusive for me, since I already have a lot of trouble with focus anyway. I have to do whatever I can to avoid breaking my concentration.

3. I set a timer for 20 minutes.

Methods involving setting a timer for 20 minutes work really well to help me focus on writing and other tasks. I downloaded Writeometer, and it’s really helping me stay motivated (setting low-effort goals at first to get used to using it and then ramping up helps). Setting myself up for a structured 20-minute session with breaks in between helps because I know that I won’t be sitting there for such a long time, so it’s easier to set things aside and focus. It’s still not necessarily easy, but it helps.

I’ve also found the Unfuck Your Habitat method of cleaning every day for 20 minutes (or less if it’s a bad day, with no pressure!) really helpful to make a dent in managing the terrible mess that has taken over my house. It especially helps that my partner has agreed to do this with me—we can both see that we’re making an effort (whereas before we cleaned on totally different schedules and sometimes had no idea that anything had been done at all), we cooperate more, and so we’re less likely to get in fights about the State of the House. It’s easier to get and stay motivated when we’re both doing this, and acknowledging each other’s efforts.

If you want to try setting a timer, keep in mind: 20 minutes is just the time that seems to work best for me, to give me a sense of actual progress without being overwhelming, and to discourage marathons, which end up being counter-productive by wearing me out. For you, the time that works best might be different. It takes some experimentation to figure that out.

4. If I have trouble starting to write, I type out notes for a while.

This is best for larger academic projects and doesn’t tend to work quite as well for shorter creative projects. But when the project involves quotes, it helps to just start typing up long passages from whatever I’m reading related to it. I do that for a while and it just gets me more in the mindset of whatever I’m working on. I’m thinking about it, I’m actively engaged with it, so my mind has some time to process while my fingers work. Often getting my fingers going is enough to actually get me into it.

But it doesn’t always work so well. Sometimes, I end up sitting there just typing out notes for a couple hours and never actually starting the writing portion of the project. On those days, I just take it as a processing day (if time allows) and try to do some brainstorming later. If time is short though, I’ll try to get into the project by taking different kinds of notes. If I have thoughts on whatever passages I just typed out, I start by commenting on them in whatever order I think up the comments. Usually this eventually leads me in a direction of organizing my thoughts well enough to actually start writing. But sometimes it’s hard because I have so many thoughts at once, and they’re all loudly competing for attention before my short-term memory fails and they’re gone.

If copying out quotes is necessary anyway, it helps me build up a good base of material to work with, making the whole thing easier later on. If this sort of thing is not naturally part of the process though, it feels like doing a whole lot of unnecessary work, and that’s a frustrating drawback. But there’s no way around it. I just have to work harder than a neurotypical person would (probably) have to do in order to get into my projects.

If you find these kinds of thoughts are bothering you a lot, it’s worth trying to shift your way of thinking about it: producing original words is not the only part of writing. This is a necessary part of it too: it’s called research, and when people skimp on it, it does tend to show. Just go read some Dan Brown if you want an example.

I do have to mention that this makes me look really busy though, which is sort of good in the sense that people stop viewing me as “lazy,” but sort of bad in the sense that they then assume that I’m doing way better than I actually am. They may be less likely to believe that I am disabled/neurodivergent or that my symptoms are serious.

5. I set up Todoist to remind myself of things I need to do and stay organized.

I tried quite a few different productivity apps, but ultimately this is the one I settled on, because it’s versatile enough to accommodate me. I found that if the app is only available on a few devices, it’s extremely difficult to remember to keep up with it. I really don’t like having this sort of detail about my life digitized and reliant on the internet, but I’ve come to recognize that it’s just a necessity for me. I still use pen-and-paper, but it just isn’t enough on its own, especially since my wrist problems make typing easier for me.

Other apps, like Habitica, were not as flexible in terms of the kinds and number of tasks they could accommodate—without being able to set up custom organization of my task list, the interface was incredibly cluttered and overwhelming, because of the number of very small tasks that I had to add. Even adding them as a checklist in part of a larger task wasn’t helpful.

I also found that I was incredibly unmotivated by the bland bog-standard RPG mechanics, especially with the “retro” pixel art style, which made everything in the game visually indecipherable. This makes sense, because when I still played games like WoW and FFXIV (especially the latter), I was very motivated to play dress-up with my characters. When they have to wear clown suits, I am less interested in playing. In principle, I like the idea of collecting pets, mounts, and clothes… but when I can’t tell that what I’m looking at is a tiger at all, then I’m going to turn off the game. I really need an aspect of visual motivation for this sort of thing to work for me.

I couldn’t find anything like Habitica with beautiful artwork to look at, but I found that sort of gamification to be pretty unnecessary anyway. Apparently charts and graphs work just as well. The Karma point numbers on Todoist make absolutely no sense to me, but the visual display of completed tasks helps me feel that I’ve actually done something, and with color-coded categories I can also see at a glance what areas of my life I’m doing great at and which need some more focus.

Also, the “Add website as task” option is really, really great. I can save links to look at later with ease. And it’s nice that the app automatically recognizes phrases related to days and time so that you can just type dates in (including two different options to repeat “every ___”) without having to go through a bunch of tedious menus. Typing is faster, for me.

However, I didn’t set this up for a long time after I had already installed the app/extension just because, honestly, I had no idea how to set up a system that would work for me. I have to give credit to Sam Dylan Finch for giving me some really good ideas on that front. I would say that it takes a fair bit of cognitive effort to get it organized, but it was worth it for me.

6. I’m also just being really aggressive about doing self-care.

Not that I’m always great at managing this well, but… the more intently I focus on it, and the more I can stick to it, the better I feel. What I mean by “self-care” here isn’t just doing something special to “treat myself” (and honestly, I find that mindset goes against my self-care efforts sometimes). I’m talking about the absolute basics of life management, here—like drinking water, remembering to eat, showering, taking meds on time, and boring stuff like that—as well as trying very hard to ground myself, write regularly, and not get (too far) behind on important things like bills and cleaning.

And this means drastically restructuring how I spend my time, how I organize, and so on—because I can’t actually stick to a self-care routine unless I address the issues caused by my (presumably) ADHD first, to whatever extent I can. That has always been a major problem for me.

It also means stepping way the hell back from the internet and making every effort to not get caught up in the news, which is a lot harder than just staying off Twitter. It means reducing contact with anyone who always brings up politics or watches the news in front of me too much, especially if they lean conservative. I wish I could be more involved with politics, because I really want to do whatever I can to help change things and mitigate harm, but right now, I can only handle it in small doses. Until I recover more, I’m only doing the bare minimum of staying informed, and doing activism when I can manage.

I’ve had very little contact with my family-of-origin for the past year partly because of their politics (although I will say that I guess they are less bad than I thought they would be on that front, for whatever that’s worth?), along with their general bad treatment of me in 2016. Setting those boundaries has also been a form of self-care.

Self-care also means changing what I do to relax: games that keep me at my PC can be harder to deal with because of temptations to look at the internet, so I’m more of a console gamer now (although lately I haven’t been playing many games). This has the benefit of allowing for more cooperative couch play with my partner. And it’s better for me physically anyway—I just straight-up cannot play any games with a keyboard and mouse anymore due to my wrist problems. I’ve had to set up Controller Companion on my computer so that I can avoid using the mouse as much as possible while just catching up on whatever I missed on the internet, too.

Basically, self-care is an all-encompassing thing that pervades every aspect of my life. It requires a lot of intentional effort on my part, even for things that other people don’t even think about. It doesn’t always make me feel better in the moment—in fact, sometimes it’s pretty anxiety-inducing and difficult. And I often fail at various aspects of it. I try to keep in mind that it’s a process and it’s okay to mess up. But… well, it’s hard. I’ve been doing better at it in the past few months, at least. That’s progress.

And in times like these, celebrating any little bit of progress helps.

Moderation note: I have a new comment rule prohibiting unsolicited advice, but please feel free to share similar experiences and recommend other methods that work for you.