Focusing My Attention is Like Herding Cats

With ADHD, I often have scattered attention, which is where my brain behaves like a lot of cats that I have to somehow wrangle into getting some work done. Cats don’t do work, so it’s usually an exercise in futility.

Cats do what they want. Like my brain.
Cats do what they want. Like my brain. These are Pexels cats.
My ADHD meds prescription ran out so I was without for a week before I got a new prescription and another few days before I got the prescription filled, so I have been in worse shape than normal lately. In order to get myself to get any work done at my actual job, where they pay me to get work done, I had to give myself many breaks and treats to keep going. “Quirkella,” I told myself firmly, “you may look at Facebook for 10 minutes if you spend 30 minutes reviewing this contract.”

The ratio may have actually been more like 10 minutes with the contract and 30 minutes on Facebook. Like I said, I was struggling. But, I have found that if I give myself frequent breaks from the boring stuff, I can actually make some progress. I wish I had known that I could do this when I was younger. When I was a kid, no one knew I had ADHD. Probably, no one around me even knew what ADHD was. I doubt that my elementary school teachers in the 1970s were as knowledgeable about ADHD as elementary school teachers are today. Sadly, elementary school teachers today are not always very knowledgeable either. But I digress.

I was taught that I had to get my work done before I could play. As an ADHD kid, this meant that I could never play. When I was in third grade, I could never seem to get my school work done. My teacher was probably a very nice woman who meant well. My teacher was horrible. Once in a very rare while, she would let me and the one or two other loser kids like me (one was most likely dyslexic, the other was “slow”) stay inside at recess to finish a worksheet or write spelling words. It wasn’t supposed to be perceived by me as her “letting” me stay in from recess – it was intended as a punishment for not getting the work done. You can’t go play if you don’t do the work first! But to me, it was wonderful. A quiet classroom, at last! In my memory, I was able to finally concentrate on those spelling words or math problems and whip out some A+ work. Maybe. I don’t really remember that, but I do remember the relief of the quiet room while everyone else was outside.

Unfortunately, that punishment was a rarity. The regular punishment was being made to “stand by the pole” during recess. The elementary school playground in front of the school was bordered by a long sidewalk leading up to the school entrance. The sidewalk had a row of evenly spaced metal concrete filled poles running along either side of it. They were about shoulder height to a third grader. I have no idea what their purpose was. They weren’t bike racks. But, whenever we didn’t have our school work done, the other loser kids and I were instructed to pick a pole and stand by it for the duration of recess. It was horrible. Not only was it public shaming, but it was pretty damn boring too. And did it get the worksheets done? Of course not. No wonder I was grateful to be allowed to stay in the classroom to finish them on the very rare occasions that was the punishment.

I swear to God, I stood beside one of those damned poles every single day that year. I internalized that expectation. That year was the tipping point for me where I went from being a kid who wanted to learn and responded well to encouragement to a kid who hated school. It’s the year I started chewing my nails. And it’s also the year when it was hardcoded into me that I had to get my work done before I could, metaphorically speaking, “play”. I lived every hour of every day for the next 30 years feeling like I was ever going to get to play, metaphorically speaking, because I just could never get my work done. I was always going to be that loser kid standing by the pole at recess.

Diagnosis at age 39 was like being told I could go back inside and finish my spelling words!

Maybe I can finally finish that math homework!
Maybe I can finally finish that math homework! Photo courtesy of Pexels.
Now I know what I have and why it is so hard for me. And I know ultimatums don’t work for me. Once, when I had a mountain of laundry scattered all over the front room and I was overwhelmed trying to sort it and I was trying to explain this to my husband. I said, “You know, if you told me that you would take me to Disneyland if I got all the laundry sorted today, I would say, well, I guess I’m not going to Disneyland.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because I know I could never get it done, so why even try?” I said.

This is why that kind of reward or threat doesn’t work for ADHD people. Instead, I had to tackle sorting the laundry by rewarding myself every time I got another pile sorted. Every time I separated another stack of colors, I stopped and played on my phone for a little while. Then I went back to it. Back and forth, until it was done. Of course that makes no sense to my husband. And it was completely alien to my horrible third grade teacher. But it is a method that works for me.

The more I dread a task (like writing thank you notes or doing our tax return), the more effective this technique is. It helps to set a timer to keep my breaks under control.

I’m not a third grader anymore. No one is going to make me stand by the pole at recess. Of course there are consequences when I don’t get things done on time or completely, but they are not the arbitrary punishments of the classroom. I will always have ADHD, so I will always struggle, but knowing what I’m dealing with and having some techniques that work (most of the time) makes all the difference.

Did you have a terrible teacher growing up? Tell me about it in the comments!

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