Manipulating my mind

Self-diagnosis is a dangerous thing. Especially if that diagnosis is socially motivated—for example, labelling yourself as “on the spectrum” because of a desire to fit in with narratives about rationality, or affecting certain eccentricities in order to signal something to a particular community or audience. It is not my intention to do that. No, I’ve been forced to self-diagnosis in order to solve a persistent problem.

My partner will tell you that I am easily distracted. We’ll be talking and I’ll fade out. I’ll start tapping my foot, or playing with something in my hand, and a blankness will come over my features. It’s not because I’m not interested or that I don’t care. It’s just that my mind wanders without my permission. And sometimes it wanders far, far away.

In secondary school I was remarkably un-engaged. Teachers couldn’t get through and the subjects they taught were met with indifference. I’d only respond when I wanted to, when I was in the mood—which wasn’t often. Sometimes, I sit down to read and find it impossible to keep reading because I cannot focus on the book in hand, no matter the exhortations from my will. These are just a few manifestations of a particular problem I’ve encountered over the years as part of an effort to, first, write more, and second, launch a freelance career. The particular problem is this: I find it incredibly difficult to force myself to pay attention to something.

I hadn’t defined the problem as such until I read an article on ADHD by Gravis McElroy. Some of the most striking excerpts. Exhibit A:

“If I’m not interested in doing something, I can’t process any thoughts about how to do it. No, I don’t mean it’s not fun, I mean my brain will not do it. If I don’t want to wash a fence, I can’t think about how to wash the fence. I go into complete lockup. I ask the question, “how do I wash the fence?” and the answer will not come to me.”

Exhibit B:

“You know that tired old joke: “wanna hear a joke about ADHD? a guy w– hey, a squirrel!” I hate to tell you this, but it’s true. I hate it, but it’s almost completely accurate.

The “anterograde amnesia”-style reaction is a little overblown. But that’s part of what’s so frustrating about it. I can be in the middle of a sentence, a really important one even, and if something catches my eye I can completely forget what I was saying. I’ll know I forgot it, but I can’t get it back. And yes, I know, this happens to everyone, but imagine if it happened every single time you tried to talk at all. And this usually happens in a matter of seconds.

I can be midsentence and stop to say “hand me that pen” and my last idea is gone because my brain is now thinking about pens. If you think this is fun or funny, you have never experienced it. It’s a fucking nightmare.

Do you know how stunted my capabilities are because of this? Do you understand how INFURIATING it is that I don’t get to choose my interests, they choose me? I have very little say in my hobbies. I can put myself in front of things but if my brain doesn’t latch on, I just don’t get to do those things.”

Exhibit C:

“ADHD is debilitating. It is not a “kid disease” and it doesn’t make it “harder” to do things. It is a fundamental difference in the way brains work.

ADHD means you don’t have the ability to “buckle down” and “just get to it,” or if you can, it requires MUCH more effort. WAY more effort than for someone without this condition. ADHD means you can’t begin a task until you trick your brain into wanting to finish it.

If you have ADHD, everything you’ve ever accomplished was done this way even if you don’t realize it. How functional you are with ADHD depends on its severity but also on whether you learned, by chance, how to trick yourself. Some people pick it up on their own but others need help. If they don’t get it, they just get left behind.”

And finally, Exhibit D:

“My head is full of ideas, all day. I want to create, I want to accomplish. But everything creates a blast of static in my head that I can’t penetrate. If I try to think about anything I either can’t at all because I just slide off of it and onto whatever my brain wants to think about, or as soon as the idea enters my head I’m assaulted by a cacophony of related ideas. I can’t think about step 1 because my brain is already thinking about steps 6 and 7 and worrying about things that aren’t yet relevant so I can’t even take the initial steps.

Even for the things that I want to do, getting started is hard. Suppose I’m at work and I think, “I need to send an email to <people> about <issue>.” Before I can do anything, I’m already thinking about the issue.

I try to write the email, but as I’m writing it, questions fill my head. I try to push them aside and just concentrate on the initial task, send a simple email, but the questions keep hounding me. I have to stop and get answers to them or I can’t think about the email. And if I can’t get answers, I’m stuck. I just can’t proceed. I end up staring at the empty compose window for ten minutes, writing the first sentence over and over, because my mind is so far out of the game I can’t even do basic grammar.

I can only do tasks in one big shot. If I know I’m going to have to stop, if I know I’m going to be interrupted by some other dependency, I can’t even get started. And most of the time, that dependency can’t be satisfied unless I take the first steps.”

A disclaimer: I haven’t experienced ADHD to the degree mentioned in the article. My experience is somewhat more mild, but it is still chronic, and it is still a gigantic pain in the ass. And realising that it even is a property of my mind, and accepting it as such, has necessitated a change in how I work on a day-to-day basis, and in how I plan, structure and execute short- and long-term initiatives.

When it comes to strategic planning I prefer frequent, lightweight and agile processes. I don’t go in for yearly and bi-yearly reviews and meticulous monthly evaluations and examinations. I’ve tried and I never even make it through them. Currently, I opt for a once-weekly “RPR” session. It looks like this:

  1. Review the previous week for pluses and minuses, freeform in my notebook.
  2. Review “The Archipelago”—a document which contains my stated priority, my list of projects and the primary next actions associated with each one, a list of random to-dos and obligations, my daily/weekly/monthly repeatable processes, and my publishing pathway. I’m basically looking to see if I’ve changed my mind about any of it, or if I need to make any additions or subtractions.
  3. I then plan out the next week in the same “Archipelago” document. I input hard activities—appointments, work, things bound to specific times—and lay out, roughly, what soft activities I need to do during each day in the course of the coming week.
  4. After that, I give myself five or ten minutes to look over, examine or reflect upon anything that seems worthy of attention.

That’s about it. And on a day-to-day basis? Well.

I used to go for the standard to-do list approach. 4×6 index card. Tasks ordered from top to bottom in terms of importance, and thus, in chronological order. Random tasks or obligations were tacked to the bottom and all of it cross-referenced with a master list—like “The Archipelago”. I still do a similar thing, but now I think and plan in terms of “scalable loops”.

One of the most interesting conflicts—for me—about my own ability to work is this: I like routine—I’m hesitant to say I need it, but without it, it is more difficult to work—but I won’t do anything I’m not in the mood to do. Scalable loops are a workaround for this conflict. My particular loop is this:

Med / Re / Wr / Mo / Pl

So, in the morning for example, I meditate, then I read for a bit, then I’ll write for a while, then I’ll move, then I’ll spend some time playing around with whatever I feel like. That’s the loop, and it’s scalable because I can increase or decrease it, collectively, in length, or I can increase or decrease each component individually in length. I can go through the loop once in a day or three times. The loop can take an hour or five. It’s rather flexible, which works well for me. However. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing a particular sort of writing, or a certain type of reading or movement. What then?

Venkatesh Rao tweeted “a workflow management cheat sheet”. Here it is:

“Grunt labor: optimize for productivity/utilization/yield rate

Maker work: do things in order of importance, subject to sequencing constraints, to ship early/often

Creative work: sequence demons in optimal killing order as they emerge from shadow”

As a person with mild ADHD, grunt work isn’t compatible. Doing something I don’t want to do at a time I don’t want to do it is like eating a food that I hate. Sure, I could do it, but my mind will scream in protest, I’ll hate every second, and I’ll feel an everlasting fury towards whoever is forcing me to eat said food. Maker work is similar: it’s still externally imposed obligations upon my inner world. Creative work is more palatable. Mostly because it contains an element of choice. “Sequence demons”—there’s multiple—”in optimal killing order”—an order which I can choose—”as they emerge from shadow”—as seems appropriate to whatever my mind’s momentary obsession is.

How does this fit with the idea of a “scalable loop”? Simple. Each component of the loop—”meditate”, “read”, “write”, “move”, “play”—is not a specific task, but a class of activity. “Move”, for example, can mean strength train, or practice BJJ, or go for a cycle, or take a walk, or do some yoga. Here’s the notecard that I’ve taped at the front of my notebook:

scalable loop classes

As you can see, each component of the loop contains different possibilities. Which is how, on a day-to-day basis, I am able to negate some of the peculiar properties of a mind prone to distraction and semi-arbitrary obsession. Like most people, I operate within a framework of routine and structure, but within that framework is embedded the option to adapt on the fly and engage in opportunistic focusing.


It’s taken me several years—and multiple lucky discoveries—to work out the above. But the main insight seems to be that I do not respond well to being told to do something I don’t want to do, especially when the command comes from myself. Instead, I have to find a way of subtly manipulating my own energies, letting my whims and desires run free whilst, like kingmakers and other puppeteers of power and influence, invisibly guiding unfolding events.