Productivity and ADHD or Getting Stuff Done When Your Brain Gets in the Way

The last couple of months, in the height of our busiest season, I’ve managed to record a ton of music. I also wrote a 40-page book proposal and two research journal articles. 

For my music, I increased our database of track combinations on Brain Shift Radio from about 100,000 to over 140,000. No, I didn’t record 40,000 tracks – these are combos, so I actually created somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 new tracks, a little over 50 hours of new music. No matter how you slice it, though, this a lot of music to record and requires a significant level of sustained focus.

For a typcial person this is pretty prolific, but for someone with ADHD it’s astounding.

Or is it?

To many people, having ADHD (ADD, AD/HD) makes getting stuff done nearly impossible. ADHD’ers often have so much trouble with their attention, motivation, and follow-through that ideas whither and die before anything gets done. Forget writing and recording a couple of songs, much less creating this much material. This must be from magic or at least some really high doses of stimulant medications, right?

Not for me. No magic. No meds (I tried them once – what a nightmare. Someday I’ll post something about that). So, what’s my secret? 

I’ll get to that, but first I want to mention that Attention Deficit Disorder (with or without hyperactivity) could be more accurately called “Attention Variability Disorder”. Here’s how it often plays out:

  • People with ADHD can’t necessarily control their focus. Sometimes you can focus, sometimes you can’t. This the most maddening part of ADHD. You wake up with a great idea, sit down to work it out, and can’t keep your attention in place long enough to make it into something. What’s worse is that most people with ADHD have no shortage of great ideas. So when they get stuck on one there is another waiting for attention (which, of course, the attention never comes). What you see is someone flitting from one idea to another with nothing getting finished.
  • Most people with ADHD can focus. In fact many can focus so well that nothing else matters. This is called hyper-focusing. This is a common trait among ADHD’ers and can cause as many problems as not being able to focus at all. Imagine getting caught up in some minor detail – such as getting the perfect guitar tone – that you can’t move beyond. You spend all day tweaking the settings only to run out of time or energy. Then the next day you may not have any focus, much less the hyper kind. So, ultimately the times you focus are spent on distractions that get you nowhere.

On the other hand, these traits can be used to get stuff done. Lots of it, in my case.

One of the beautiful traits of my ADHD is that I’m highly creative. I never run out of ideas and new ways of doing things. I’m also not afraid of my ideas or of putting them out into the world.

I’ve watched other artists struggle with their “demons” – you know, the inner critic that says anything you create sucks. History is filled with tons of very smart, creative artists who either didn’t do their work or who self-destructed because of these demons. I have nothing but compassion for my fellow artists who live this way.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have any demons. None. Instead I have an inner cheerleader. So, I have no idea what these people go through. And I’m sorry I can’t help you if you have your demons (I’ve tried to suggest the “ignore the demons and work through it” thing only to get slammed in the proces, so I won’t go there).

Anyway, this blog post is not about inner demons and how to deal with them (an exorcism, perhaps?). This about getting stuff done in spite of an unruly brain.

My brain, like a lot of people with ADHD, can be tamed and the traits that often stifle focus in many can be harnessed to get lot of stuff done. This section will cover my process.

Prep Separately

I hate preparation. All the little things that have to be done before I can actually work can stop me in my tracks. Working through the preparation is always uncomfortable. Physically. I feel feverish and nauseous. And I get angry at having to do these things. As you may guess, these feelings are not conducive to getting stuff done. So, the only way I can be productive and deal with these feelings is to separate the prep from the work.

This part of the process, by the way, is highly connected to the essentials I talk about in another post. If I’m doing my daily essentials this process gets easier; whereas if I’m not doing them, then preparation really, really sucks.

For me the prep looks like this: I dedicate one day or part of a day to setting up everything – session parameters, instruments, mics, and preamp levels. I can then go in later after a break and do the work I need to do.

I don’t let myself get distracted by things outside this prep. For example, if my desk is cluttered I won’t spend an hour (or day or week) trying to organize it. It’s not a priority so I just move the pile somewhere else to deal with later (yes, sometimes later never comes. This is where help comes in – I ask someone else to do it).

As an aside, this is important: If you have the means one of the best things you can do as a person with ADHD is to delegate tasks you know you can’t or won’t do. There is no shame in letting other people do what you hate to do. In fact, as hard as it may be to believe some people like to organize, some are actually very good at it. And enjoy it (I know, weird, isn’t it?). Wouldn’t it be better to let them do what gives them joy so you can focus on what you do best?

Spiral In

There is a time for details and a time for working on the big picture. People with ADHD tend to be big picture people. Minor details either stop us or suck us in and distract us from finishing the important stuff. When I work, I start from the outside with the big picture and work my way into the details as I go.

For example, when I work on the rhythm tracks for Brain Shift Radio I start by laying out a map of the rhythms and the tempo changes for a bunch of tracks, usually around 10. This is after the prep of creating sessions and setting up my drums and mics. This process can go quickly, usually just a couple of hours.

Then I record all the tracks I want to record. This can take many hours and it gets pretty exhausting, but I often get into a groove (in more ways than one) and can cruise through a lot in a little time. I don’t stop to fix mistakes. I leave them in. In fact, if you listen closely to the tracks on Brain Shift Radio you can hear some instances where I tripped over myself. But the thing is, these mistakes and inconsistencies are important for my music to have the effects that it does.

That said, because I’ve been playing so long none of these mistakes are big. You’d have to listen really carefully to hear them. In the rare occasion where I make a big mistake, I don’t stop recording. Instead I simply replay that section and cut out the messed up section later. The important thing is that I don’t stop recording.

After I have a ton of recorded tracks, I start the editing and mixing process. At this point I’m into the details and this is where I can get stuck again. So, to keep this from happening I…

Let go of perfection

The tendency to hyper-focus is fed by the need for perfection. Forget perfection. Perfection is an illusion and not attainable anyway, so why bother even trying. Close enough is good enough.

Of course, there is a huge difference between doing “good enough” and doing shoddy work. And you don’t want to do shoddy work.

You need to set a standard for yourself and your work and live up to it. But what you don’t want is to be paralyzed by the need for perfection. If your “good enough” is truly not good enough then you need to work on your skills so that you can produce high-quality good enough results.

The funny thing about being an artist is that your “good enough” will grow as you gain skills and experience. I’ve been playing drums for 40 years, professionally for 35, so my skills are pretty good. This helps me move quickly and produce consistently good enough results that are of very high quality. If you’re new to any of the skills necessary to play and record your music, you either need to take some more time to woodshed (practice) or allow yourself some room to work on your skills as you go. Just be careful not to get stuck on details that truly don’t matter (such as the rimshot on the snare drum in the 4th beat of the 27th bar).

Stick with it

I’ve written six books and over thirty journal articles, but I’m not a writer. Writers love to sit and write. I hate it.

Hate it, I say.

But I do it anyway. And for me, this requires sticking with it until I’m past my point of resistance (which some days lasts a long time).

I’ve spent days staring at a chapter or a song, putting something in, taking it out, trying something else, erasing it. Or, worse yet, writing something that looked good at the the time but made me wonder what the heck I was thinking upon reviewing it the next day.

Creative blocks are inevitable in any worthy project and require a certain amount of determination and sweat to break through. I often give myself a time-frame to work on the blockage before moving on. The length of time varies depending on the project type. For example, I’ll give myself an entire day or more for a book chapter, but only a couple of hours for a song. Only experience will guide you on how much time to devote to muscling through the tough times, but I recommend forcing yourself to focus (or to try to focus) for at least an hour before giving up and moving on.

This has to be an honest hour, not just watching the clock until the time is up. You have to try.

Note: During this time trying I often force myself to get some physical movement as I’m trying to get going. Some pushups, sun salutations, or, for me, time on one of my drums, gets the blood flowing. And more blood flow to the brain means more cognitive resources.

Shameless plug: I also listen to Brain Shift Radio as I work.

Anyway, if you’ve hit your time limit and feel as though you gave it your best shot, it may be time move on to something else. Which leads to…

Know when to quit

Anytime I’m creating, I’m working on more than one big project at a time. This is important because there are times when things just don’t gel and no amount of sticking with it is going to get me past my blocks. These blocks require the subconscious workings of my spatially-heightened ADHD brain.

So, in these instances I switch to one of my other big projects. I choose a project of significance because it’s easy to get lazy and develop a pattern of not being productive. If I choose some simple or insignificant task, I feel like I’m letting myself off the hook and lowering my expectations for myself. Then it’s just a matter of time before I’m spending hours on the couch watching movies.

For me, it’s important to keep a high level of expectation and drive in my life. This means that I have to know what has to be done on any given project so I spend as little time as possible thinking and as much time as possible doing. This is why it’s important to…

Keep Your Goals In Mind

There are days that the process sucks so badly I want to stop (especially when that dusty keyboard is staring me in the face and I just need to get out the Q-tip and spend an hour excavating every particle…).

Hang on…

I’m back. What was I saying?…

Oh yeah, keep the goal in mind. Don’t get sidetracked by distractions…

Seriously, big projects (you know, the kind of grand visions that us ADHD’ers get all the time) take a commitment that having ADHD often doesn’t play with well.

To stay on track, I keep a list of my goals along with whatever steps I need to be taking to get the project done. When I write these goals and their associated steps I put in as much detail as I can think of so that I don’t get sidetracked by unnecessary tasks or, worse yet, get hit with a lack of clarity which can send me back to the beginning and sabotage any progress I’ve made so far. So, the more detailed each action plan is for my project, the easier it is for me to stay on track.

Note: Try not to worry about putting all the details in your action plan to begin with. This can keep you from even building a list. Instead write down the tasks you can think of and add to it as you get clearer. The goal is to keep things moving.

The process of brainstorming and creating the big picture and the process of accomplishing goals are very different. Most times, the creative process involves the kind of thinking where an unfettered ADHD brain excels. This is the time of brainstorming, making connections, and thinking spatially. On the other hand, it’s the step-by-step grind that most ADHD people struggle with, but it’s these steps that make the project work.

With a detailed action plan containing small steps, doing these tasks actually becomes easier. And, because my attention span is shortened significantly whenever I encounter a mundane task, the trick I use is to make each task as small as possible so that none of them become mundane. This means that you need to…

Know your limits

One of the most important things that you can learn is what your threshold is for the mundane and how certain types of tasks fit in relation to this limit. For me, placing mics and setting levels are activities where I have little patience. And where I quickly lose interest. This is why I set them aside for preparation and why I use a Jecklin disc to record with.

Not to get too far afield, but a Jecklin disc is a mic stand that positions two matched microphones in perfect alignment with one another so I consistently get proper phase coherence without fussing around with this alignment as I move the mics to find the best location in the room for the instrument I’m recording.

Because I only have to think about where the instruments sound best in a room I can move quickly and not get bored or distracted my the minutia of phase alignment.

Other tasks, such as creating cool synth sounds, fill me with wonder and joy. I can spend a very long time tweaking oscillators or effects to dial in just the right sound for a particular ambient track without getting bored. So, my threshold for tweaking synth sounds is much higher than for positioning microphones. The flip-side is that, because I love this process and it never gets boring, it’s easy for me to hyper-focus on creating awesome synth sounds. So, I am careful to save this task for times when hyper-focusing is okay.

Knowing the difference between my threshold for various task types makes it easier for me to choose the task that fits my mood and attentional reserves. Choosing the right task for where I’m at keeps me moving forward on my goals and allows me to…

Feel successful

Nothing breeds success better than success. Little victories along the way to a big goal keep me motivated and on track. So, it’s important to me to feel like I accomplished something everytime I sit down to work. I doesn’t have to be much, but it does need to be something.

This means that no matter how hard the day is, I don’t quit until I’ve accomplished one task related to one of my big goals. I scour my action plans and look for whatever I can find that I can do successfully.

On my worst days, this may simply mean setting up for a task that I’ll tackle the next day. In other instances, it’s editing a paper or song (both tasks that don’t require deep attentional reserves for me). And on other occasions, it may be time for my synth-sound-symphony (if hyper-focusing is a concern, then I set a timer or alarm to make sure I stop before I miss an important appointment).

You need to find a group of tasks that you keep in your back pocket. So that even on your worst focusing days, you can not only find good work to do; but you can walk away from your work feeling good about the day.

Oh, and the last, and probably most important, thing to do to feel successful is to treat yourself right and be consistent in following a daily routine that fosters success. Here’s mine.