GTD Revisited, Week 2: Mind Like Teflon #amwriting

Some minds are like water; others are like Teflon


Certain things just slip off my brain, like a raw egg off a greased Teflon griddle.

Now, one of the stated goals of GTD is “mind like water.” To quote,

In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.
—David Allen, Getting Things Done

I wish. I’m not calm like a still pond. Unlike his ideal GTD practitioner (or the karate student of his analogy), I am unable to control my level of attention. The result? I can build a habit (such as flossing my teeth), do it three months in a row, and have one day where I’m distracted—and it’s gone. I may as well give up on habits; I will always need a checklist for the simple things I need to do daily.

Right now, I’m struggling with simple things to do that aren’t getting done in a timely fashion—for the reason that I have serious trouble remembering them. Example: make a call to cancel an appointment during business hours. Whether I am able to do this is entirely dependent on

  1. Looking at Habitica or my calendar before end of business.
  2. Making the call right that moment.

If for any reason I can’t make the call exactly then (need to gather materials, need to keep the phone line open for an incoming call, need to keep lunch from burning—anything) it will slip off my Mind Like Teflon and I will be very lucky to remember it before end of business. Most often, I don’t.

Put an alarm on my phone, iPad, or Mac? (or all three at once—I’ve done that, too) That might work for a very rare event, but if I’m hyperfocused I’ve been known to not hear a Star Trek-like klaxon alarm going off at 90 decibels. If you think I’m exaggerating—well, I’m not. I nearly died as a teenager because I was hyperfocused on reading a book—in a car that was on fire. People were yelling and pounding on the windows—I didn’t hear.

Further, if I have a loud alarm going off every day, it shortly becomes background noise. I will turn it off and go right on with whatever I’m hyperfocused on, without ever registering that the alarm went off. I know, because I have.

Beeminder, like the alarm that goes off every day, is beginning to merge into the background.

This is a long, rather negative post, I’m afraid. This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time, and it’s not getting better as I’m getting older. If anything, it’s getting worse as I add “senior moments” to all the other things that keep me from getting… stuff… done.

Habitica at least has the virtue of being free (though I choose to subscribe.) And there is a certain flurry of activity every night at about ten PM as I look at my Habitica lists and say, “Oh, s__t.” I’m therefore not about to abandon it, as I may well do with Beeminder. But I need to find a better way to get time-sensitive things that are not appointments—done.

Any ideas?

“Distraction-Free” Writing Software v. ADHD #AmWriting #CampNaNoWriMo2016

Figure 1.Top: Scrivener Composition Mode Bottom: Ulysses Full Screen ModeIn these minimalist environments, I'm more likely to wander away or become hyperfocused.

Figure 1.
Top: Scrivener Composition Mode
Bottom: Ulysses Full Screen Mode
In these minimalist environments, I’m more likely to wander away or become hyperfocused.

I am ADHD. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean simply that I am noticeably more distraction-prone than most people — although that is certainly true.

What it means is that I can’t control my level of focus.

Think about that for a moment. It means that I can’t control whether my mind flits like a butterfly from — Oh, look! A squirrel! — subject to subject. Nor can I control whether I become “hyperfocused” and unable to break my focus on an activity. (Please note that hyperfocus is not the creative “flow” state that people talk about. I wish.)

There is no “medium-focus” state wherein I can choose what to focus on. This means that trying to protect myself from distraction is like a pig trying to sing. It wastes my time, and only results in me getting depressed when I compare my results to expected results.

Take a look at the Figure 1 above. Scrivener has its “distraction-free” Composition mode. Ulysses is ALL distraction-free mode. The theory of such a display is that all the “displacement” activities the author uses to avoid writing disappear and she has no other choice except to write.

I’ve tried it. My results:

  1. My brain throws a distraction. With no bright colors or flashing lights to hold me, I wander away and do something else. (90% probability.)
  2. I hyperfocus on my text so that I forget where I am, whether I need to go to the bathroom, and how this text is supposed to fit into my novel. (10% probability.)

Just looking at either screen induces panic. I’ll forget what I’m supposed to be doing, one way or the other — I know this as surely as I know the sun rises in the east. Hyperfocus is as deadly to my productivity as lack of focus.

Figure 2.With both my timeline and my project detail displayed, I have a better chance of staying in the neighborhood of my task.

Figure 2.
With both my timeline and my project detail displayed, I have a better chance of staying in the neighborhood of my task.

What I do is surround myself with distractions — positive distractions. A timer goes off to remind me — not to take a break, but to reassess what I’m doing — every twenty-five to thirty minutes. I surround myself with as much temptingly cluttered screen real estate as possible that’s related to my work in progress, so that when (not if) my brain throws a distraction, I am at least likely to be drawn to something writing-related. (See Figure 2.) I think of this not as distraction-filled but as target-rich. Then when the timer goes off, I can get back to writing. I never, never hide clocks or battery indicators — if I’m lucky I might notice them when I’m hyperfocused and they’ll bring me out of my trance.

Not that the timer always works. When I become hyperfocused sound seems to slide off my brain. If that happens, my only hope is that I notice that I need to go to the bathroom before my chair gets soggy…

Where Do I Go From Here?

Jedi master, you are not. Padawan, still soggy, are you.

Jedi master, you are not. Padawan, still soggy, are you.

No, I am no Jedi, yet.

A lot of people misquote Malcolm Gladwell about his “10,000 hour rule.” Ten thousand hours (roughly ten years at 20 hours a week) spent in gaining expertise will gain you Household Word status. Think “Beatles,” or closer to home for writers, “Stephen King.”

But that’s not what he said.

Chaining yourself to a piano, or a computer keyboard, for ten thousand hours won’t do it. It takes luck. It takes willingness to make errors. It takes willingness to have those errors seen, heard, or read. It takes correcting those errors. It takes, yes, connections. Above all, it takes willingness to spend those ten thousand hours more-or-less gladly, without the thought that they’re an “investment” that will “pay off.” And by the way, a smaller investment — I’ll look up the exact number and update this post, but I seem to recall 7,000 hours, makes you a competent professional. Not a household word — but a pro.

As a kid, bluntly, I didn’t want to spend those hours on keyboard practice, despite my mother’s desire to have a church organist in the family. But without really thinking about it, I put in at least 7K hours in science, math, and engineering. I enjoyed it, for the most part — a lot more than I enjoyed keyboard exercises. I had some natural talent for both, but I enjoyed the nerdly stuff enough to plow through the parts that were just slogging. I resented them. I grumbled. But I did them, and so became a pro. When it came to keyboard, I sloughed it off. I still slough it off, though I own a piano again. I will never be a pro keyboardist simply because I don’t want to spend any significant number of hours doing for-God’s-sake scales. Again.

As an engineer, my specialty was troubleshooting. “Maintenance programming,” it’s called, and it’s looked down on in the software developer community. It played to my strengths — a tremendous burst of energy, leaving all else in my life ignored, and engineering detective work. It downplayed my weaknesses — organization, mostly, as well as steady application to a task. My difficulty with organization and sticking to a (boring) task is why I have no Ph.D. after my name.

What does that have to do with writing? Well, here I am, trying to write novels — the equivalent of producing Ph.D. theses, two or three a year. This is not playing to my strength. I’ve been at this now for twelve years. In that time, I’ve mananged to spend (I did a spreadsheet, based on my typical typing speed and allowing for research and other auxiliary tasks) about 2,000 hours writing.

For engineering, school provided the structure I needed to put in those practice hours, as well as the feedback on my errors. A few years of on-the-job mentoring from senior engineers put the polish on my skills so that I could be a confident professional.

There is no such formal structure for fiction writing — at least, none that I trust. I am far too uncertain of my skill to attempt to enter an MFA program. Worse, I look at the writing produced by MFAs and I don’t want to write like that. Peer critique — I’ve sat in on some groups and cringed.

Yes, here I am, at best a mid-level padawan with no Jedi master. I try to supply the lack with books on writing from authors whose work I admire, and from those who have achieved what I want to achieve — professional competence as measured in being able to write fiction for a living. Not a fortune — a living.

That’s input, and that’s great. What I need is feedback, and that’s what I’m too scared to seek for free, and too stingy to pay for.

At least now I have tools to improve my ability to work steadily — positive and negative feedback on such measures as hours spent at the keyboard, and number of words produced in those hours. I have every reason to believe that my rate of writing will increase. But where do I go for the feedback I need?

The Wonders of Beeminder

Screenshot 2015-12-16 10.02.00As a person with addiction problems also diagnosed with ADHD, well, my natural thought process is all about short-term gain and blowing off long-term pain, if I even notice long-term anything. I’ve not been making much progress on getting a publishable manuscript together, losing weight, increasing exercise, avoiding non-Paleo foods (which exacerbate my rheumatoid arthritis) or getting more sleep (lack of which exacerbates my rheumatoid arthritis.) I cover several of these things in my GTD practice (still doing that, via Evernote (for collecting) and Trello (for managing.)) Sadly, having a thing in my GTD list and actually doing it are two very different things. I’ve been having some success with Habitica, but there are certain things in my life that have proven resistant to its gentle carrot waving — and frankly I’ve learned the game well enough to avoid incurring its not very intimidating stick.

I was considering life coaching in desperation, but finding a good coach, and finding where I could come up with the hundreds of dollars needed were mysteries I couldn’t solve.

Then I found Beeminder. You track your goals with them, and if you go off course, they charge you. An excerpt from their website:

What is Beeminder?
It’s reminders with a sting! Or, goal-tracking with teeth. Mind anything you can graph — weight, pushups, to-do tasks completed — by replying with data when Beeminder prompts you. Or connect with a service (like Fitbit or RescueTime) to report automatically. We plot your progress on a Yellow Brick Road to your goal. Keep all your datapoints on the road and Beeminder will always be free. Go off the road and you (literally) pay the price.

So far, I’ve paid them exactly $1 for ten “freebies,” which means my first deviation from the “yellow brick road” is free. In return for this, I’ve been able to

  1. Work steadily on my writing! This alone is beyond price.
  2. Stop eating foods that make my rheumatoid arthritis worse, thus improving my mobility.
  3. Take advantage of #2 by gradually increasing the number of steps I take daily, improving my overall health.
  4. Gradually move my bedtime earlier so that I can get more sleep, thus lowering my stress level, lowering arthritis pain, and improving mobility.
  5. Start doing some range-of-motion exercises that I’ve been neglecting, further improving my mobility.

All of these interact with each other — so, a typical day for me before Beeminder:

I am in pain, especially shoulder and knee pain. The pain makes it hard to sit and write. I feel bad for not writing and besides I’m in pain, so I comfort myself with food that I know will make my arthritis worse in a day or so. I take some Tylenol to help with the pain, but I can’t focus so I just fire up a video game, which of course requires questionable food. Then I feel worse for neglecting my writing and other chores, so I stay up late to try to get them done and write a word or three, and I probably eat more pain-inducing food and get very little sleep ensuring high stress levels and therefore high pain levels in the morning. The entire day, I have moved only from bed to couch to kitchen to bathroom to bed — not healthy.

A typical day after Beeminder:

I am in pain, especially shoulder and knee pain, but less than yesterday. I take some Tylenol and do my range-of-motion exercises (a Beeminder goal), which help somewhat with the pain. I pack up my electronics and get out of the house, making sure to take another dose of Tylenol with me. I find a coffeeshop with a comfortable chair, far from the siren call of video games. I get writing done!!! (a Beeminder goal.) I take breaks from writing and walk around the shop, to increase my daily step total (a Beeminder goal.) I do not eat the tempting but arthritis-worsening goodies at the shop (a Beeminder goal.) Having completed my word goal for the day, I return home, do my chores, maybe have a session with a video game, and get to bed earlier than I have been for quite some time (a Beeminder goal.)

Further, Beeminder gives me every opportunity to avoid paying them money. The two times I’ve “derailed” (gone off the path to my goal,) I’ve had a chance to correct data, or just beg Beeminder not to count the incident. But both those derailments were real derailments from which I didn’t beg off, so I’m now on the hook for $5 for the next derailment on each of those goals. The derailments gave me valuable feedback on just what happens to push me away from my goals.

Beeminder has noticeably improved my quality of life after a few short weeks. I have paid them a paltry $1 to crack the whip over me in areas of MY choice, and they have done a wizard job. Should I incur an occasional $5 or $10 or even (Heaven forbid) a $30 penalty, I will count it money well-spent.

Mission: Improbable

Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

[Silver Dragon picks up a thumb drive from the seat of her desk chair, and inserts it into an empty USB slot on her Mac Mini. Immediately a rich baritone voice starts speaking.]

Good evening, Ms. Dragon. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to commit exercise, personal hygiene, dressing, morning pages, meditation with your hubby, daily planning, and breakfast — all within the first two hours after arising in the morning. As always, if you are captured or killed, the Agency will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This message will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Silver.

[She hastily throws the thumb drive in the trash, which promptly catches fire. Holding her breath to avoid the fumes of burning plastic, she throws open a window and starts an exhaust fan. ]

“Dammit! Is this going to happen every single night? I’m running out of trash cans.”

When All Else Fails, Cycle Power

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I really should figure out how to lock away my WordPress access between midnight and 7 AM.

I have so many ADHD traits it’s not even funny. I am impulsive. I am distractible. I enter unpredictably into a state of “hyperfocus” in which I cannot be budged from what I am doing. (The worst example? At the age of twelve I had retreated to the family car in a parking lot to read, being unable to endure the simultaneous tedium and overstimulation of shopping. After a while I became aware that there had been a thumping on the windows and a distant yelling for a while. I looked up. The car was on fire.)

(I still hate to shop.)

I have no real sense of time. For years I used “creative procrastination” as a way of coping with the inability to start on a large project. I have serious trouble with transitions — from project to project to chore, from waking to sleeping.

Right now, the worst offenders are my procrastination (Writing. Duh.) and the inability to transition from waking to sleeping unless I’m so tired I’m stumbling.

After actually sleeping for two nights (!) I’ve taken a look at my HabitRPG items — and the truth is that I’m making a lot of progress. My diet has improved after the vacation meltdown. I”m exercising regularly again (an activity I find so boring as to practically need to point a gun at my own head to get me going.) The diet and exercise are improving my ability to control focus. I’m getting some writing done (Halleluia!)

On any given day, one or another or several of these items may slip. But overall, the trend is upward (or in the case of my weight, downward.) I need to give myself credit.

I especially need to be kind to myself as I make the transition to (immediately) gainful employment. I will need to ramp up my daily rewards for getting writing done — because with almost immediate payment directly proportional to how much driving I do, I don’t think I’ll have a problem with focusing on the new activity. What I’ll have trouble with is transitioning to writing, and keeping on with it. And it may take me a few weeks to readjust my Rube Goldberg-like external structure to accommodate a new routine.

So — not employed to employed. Big freaking transition. Deep breath — here it comes.

Camp NaNoWriMo — July Comes Too Soon

Image courtesy of iosphere / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of iosphere / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

OMG, what do you mean that it’s almost July?

It seems like every time NaNoWriMo or Camp NaNoWriMo rolls around, I’m not ready. I didn’t even bother trying in April. Nonetheless, I’m on for July.

My intent is to revise last July’s novel, working title Leticia. To my own surprise, I may be ready with background notes, character summaries, a (gasp) timeline, and a scene-level outline. Please, don’t faint or guffaw. I have everything but the scene-level outline, and that’s in process. There just may be time in the remaining 13 days of June to get it done.

I’ve set myself the ambitious goal of 100K words for July — but I’m hoping that most of my words from last year will make it through to this year’s draft. I’m not going to beat myself with the “not a winner” stick if I don’t make my goal — I will declare myself a winner if I either a) get the revision finished or, b) get 50K new words written. I’m hoping for a lot more than 1600 words per day, though.

I’m a different writer from the one who sat down last year to a blank screen with no prep. I’ve learned a lot about productivity, writing, and myself. Last year, I didn’t have an outstanding process engineer (Hubby!) on my team. I didn’t know about GTD. I was emotionally, if not intellectually, in denial about the realities of being ADHD with respect to being a writer. And while I knew what was supposed to happen in revision, I had no clue as to where to start.

Now, I have a process. I have a plan. I have a skilled production engineer to coach me and help me refine my process. The process is not written in stone — I revised my weekly schedule yesterday to more closely match the realities of the productivity patterns I’ve noticed over the last month. And since January I’ve gone through one attempt to structure the story according to one author’s suggested process, gotten hopelessly bogged down, and restarted with a different author as guide.

It’s all OK. After 40 years of being a poor employee and a worse boss, I’m learning to be a decent employee and a decent boss — to myself. I never cared enough either engineering or any employer to make more than a half-hearted attempt at this. But I care enough writing and being a writer to keep at it — and make progress.

Making Self-Employment ADHD-Friendly

Image courtesy of Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Not ADHD-Friendly #1 (Image courtesy of Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Like many ADHD adults, I have problems with Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind (OOSOOM.) If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. This leads to a tendency to leave objects out and clearly visible as reminders. If not checked (especially in a house with two severely and one mildly ADHD adults,) the tendency to use objects as reminders can lead to vistas like the one in “Not ADHD Friendly #1.”

(That is not my house. I never took a picture of my house when it was that bad…)

The Tomb of the Action Items

Not ADHD Friendly #2

Helpful non-ADHD friends and many organizing books from the past would advise getting rid of objects that were no longer useful (I heartily endorse) and putting needed items into filing cabinets or other closed opaque containers (see “Not ADHD-Friendly #2.”) I called it “The Tomb of the Action Items” because, without a visual reference, anything in there that needed something done was destined to be completely forgotten until the Highway Patrol stopped me because my registration had not been renewed since 1992, or the city sent my business taxes to a bill collector, or…

I use it now to hold office supplies, tools and small bits of electronics that I don’t use on at least a weekly basis. Periodically, when I can’t shove anything more in there, I’ll go through it and toss anything that has decayed beyond usability or has become obsolete (Apple Desktop Bus mouse, anyone?)

ADHD-Friendly

ADHD-Friendly

Evernote and GTD have helped me to convert my home office to “ADHD Friendly.” I didn’t even realize that I was doing this until I looked around me this weekend and realized that my office area is MUCH less cluttered than the rest of my home.

My top shelf contains my artist’s mannikins, a collection of plush toys and bobbleheads from local minor-league sports, and my Kings and MIT pennants. The rest of my desk contents are 90% used in my current work at least once a week. The rest will move elsewhere or be tossed when they become an annoyance.

See all that wonderful bare desk area? It didn’t exist in January. Every square inch was covered with object “reminders” of things to do, few of which were work-related. As I put all that stuff into Evernote, and put a weekly review item into Habit RPG, the backlog has cleared out. I have a credenza which is similarly cleared, and a smaller work table I use for art and for charity projects, same story.

As I put more and more of the old paper into Evernote, paradoxically it becomes more accessible. I can usually think of something that a document might contain, and Evernote can find it regardless of which “drawer” I stuffed it into online.

Maybe I will achieve “Mind Like Water.” At least the stuff that slid off Mind Like Teflon is sliding into Evernote now.

It’s Just ADHD. Nothing to See Here, Move Along

20140520-133554-48954857.jpgI’ve mentioned that I have ADHD before in this blog. I’ve spoken of having Mind Like Teflon ™, and made jokes about it. I’ve ranted a bit about how GTD proponents (and I’m one of ’em) often have no clue how impossible their suggestions are for someone with my disability.

But yet, I am so imbued with shame from my upbringing, that I will seize the concept that I’m Blocked with Fear (Artist’s Way, Write Every Day) or that my novel has Problems (2K to 10K) rather than face the simple fact that ADHD is messing me up here in my efforts to revise and finish a massive project.

Yeah, I’ve picked up both those sticks and beaten myself with them over the last two weeks. It’s not that any of the above authors particularly is insistent upon the fear block or the bad writing block or whichever, it’s just that I would rather think myself neurotic or undisciplined or as having written badly than accept being ADHD.

In desperation I picked up a book I bought about 8 years ago, ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life (AFWTOYL) and started to look at the time management chapters.

Dear Lord. I resemble those chapters. The “before” scenario exactly describes my feelings of helplessness and chaos when faced with a complex task that I really want to accomplish, but off which my brain slips.

It’s not lack of discipline. It’s not fear of success. It’s not that subconsciously I know my novel has problems. (It’s not subconscious; I know damn well it has problems. If I didn’t know that, I’d just publish it and have done.) It’s that I have serious problems with both sustained and appropriate focus.

AFWTOYL has its problems as a guide, starting with the fact that it was written 12 years ago, so that much that is new and shiny is not addressed as possible tools. But once again, I’ve tried to put down blocks of time and expect myself to Just Do It. (Massive blocks! 8 hours straight! I can’t do anything for more than 30 minutes straight unless I’m hyperfocused, and I can’t control when I’m hyperfocused. And if I am hyperfocused, I can’t stop when I hit the end of the two hours. Or eight, or twelve. I really don’t WANT to be hyperfocused; in its own way, it’s as destructive as unfocused.) Even if I have small tasks to do in that time, each written out and rewarded in Habit RPG, it doesn’t much help.

So from now on, I adapt one of the techniques in AFWTOYL and give it a solid trial before I look at anything in an ordinary time management book, or a writing productivity book, or, well, anything that doesn’t assume that I have a thirty-minute attention span, tops.

And if anyone thinks that I’m putting myself down here, I’m not. Facing my difficulty realistically is far better than either denying it or trying to fix something else that isn’t really broken.

I’m sure I’ve convinced you. I hope I’ve convinced me.