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ADHD: Tips & Tricks for Focus

If you are a graduate student struggling with ADHD and/or difficulties regulating your attention, you may find this post helpful. Also available here on Medium.

🚨 Help! I have a lot to do but I can’t focus.

In January 2020, I was officially diagnosed with Combined Type ADHD. Contrary to popular belief, there are 3 types of ADHD: (1) predominantly hyperactive/impulsive, (2) predominantly inattentive, and (3) combined type. ‘Inattentive’ is a bit of a misnomer in the case of the second type as ADHD is more about having difficulty regulating attention than it is about a lack of attention. As a first year graduate student, my diagnosis came as a relief to me because I knew it meant some very necessary help was on the way. That said, I lived nearly 30 years without this diagnosis. In that time, I learned essential coping strategies that made my educational, professional, and personal goals achievable when they otherwise may not have been. I’m writing to share some of my go-to tricks and tips for maximizing focus in graduate school and beyond.

A disclaimer: The recommendations below come from my personal experience with ADHD and my life as a graduate student. I sought the help of a neuropsychologist to determine my diagnosis. I use both medication and therapy to effectively manage life with ADHD.

OK – let’s get into it.

1. Put your phone away ☎️

I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, dad 🙄” – but I’m serious. One of my best and easiest tricks to help manage focus and inattention has been to put my cell phone in another room from the one where I am doing my work. If that is not possible, put your phone in a box, under a pillow, up on a bookshelf, or some other place where it is hidden. Out of sight, out of mind!

2. Use the Pomodoro Technique ⏲️

Check out my blog post here or here for more detail on how this technique has assisted me in getting my work done in graduate school. The Pomodoro Technique works like this in order to help improve focus, time management, and productivity: (1) set a timer for 25 minutes, (2) focus on your work/task/hobby until the timer goes off, (3) take a 5 minute break, (4) rinse and repeat. On every 4th round of this sequence, take a 15 minute break, and then get back to it. I use the free version of an app (installed on both my computer and phone) called “Be Focused.” It helps count and keep track of intervals for me, and I can label tasks to stay on-track.

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3. Lock down your browser and apps 💻

To do this, I use the free version of an app called 1Focus. It allows me to enter websites and computer apps I want to block myself from and to set a custom timer for how long the access will be restricted. If I get distracted and attempt to navigate toward those websites or utilize those applications, the app blocks my attempts and presents me with a cheesy-yet-delightful philosophical quote. I usually roll my eyes, chuckle, and go back to what I was doing before.

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4. Utilize text-to-speech software 🗣️

ADHD is accompanied by executive functioning issues. One of mine is an encoding issue in my brain that sometimes makes it difficult to process things like run-on sentences, large volumes of text (hello, graduate school!), certain mathematical formulas and symbols, and even information that is not difficult to understand but only sticks with me after repeatedly reading or hearing it. I compensate for this with a variety of techniques, particularly by using the free version of 2 awesome apps: (1) NaturalReader, and (2) Read&Write.

NaturalReader allows you to upload OCR-formatted PDF, Word, and other documents. The free version comes with several voice options, and the program reads the text aloud while I follow along in my own physical copy. I recently learned about Read&Write and have been using that more often. It allows me to take screenshots of any document (usually PDFs in my case), and it converts the screenshot to a readable format. It uses the built-in accessibility features on my Mac, and, as is the case with NaturalReader, I can control the speech, volume, and available voices from my own computer. These programs have been instrumental in enabling me to read my assignments and complete my work on-time in graduate school. Prior to using them, a 25-page reading assignment took me approximately 4.5 hours to complete due to needing to read and re-read much of the text. Yesterday, with the help of these programs, I finished a 65-page article and detailed reading notes in 3.25 hours. You can do the math.

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5. Listen to white noise or binaural tones while working

There is some science (#googleit) that suggests that people with ADHD may benefit from listening to white noise or binaural tones while doing work that requires focus. I often listen to this glorious 10-hour-long youtube video of ✨ celestial white noise ✨, and I recently discovered this Binaural Beats playlist on Spotify. Binaural sounds combine two slightly different frequencies (one in one ear, the other in the other ear) to create the perception of a single frequency/tone which is equal to the difference in the 2 separate tones. This is typically most effective when the hertz are less than 1000 and when the difference in the two tones is 50 hertz or fewer. You can read more here.

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6. Communicate your needs and boundaries ✅⛔

If you have roommates, family, a partner, or other folks living in the physical space where you also work, take the time to clearly communicate your needs and boundaries. If you need a quiet space, ask for that. If you need to be alone, ask for that. If you need to leave your current physical space to go be in another, more productive space, communicate that. You are your own best advocate.

7. Get professional help (#endthestigma) 👩🏿‍⚕️

ADHD is life-long. You are born with it, and while it may be more or less manageable depending on the scenario, you cannot force it to go away. There are doctors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, life coaches, yoga instructors, massage therapists, and others who want to help people struggling with attention management difficulties. Whether you have or will have an ADHD diagnosis or not, you deserve to struggle less than you do today. It is possible! Remember: you are your own best advocate. No one else can do a better job than you of communicating your difficulties, seeking help, and building the most supportive environment possible.

8. Sleep. I repeat: you. need. sleep. 💤

There’s a fascinating relationship between ADHD and sleep. I am unqualified to explain that relationship, but there’s a great Twitter thread here from Erynn Brook that gets at some interesting points. Prioritizing your sleep is absolutely fundamental to managing attention irregularities and a host of other issues both short and long-term. If you need to, consider adopting specific behaviors to help you get better sleep. These may include reducing caffeine intake, developing a nighttime routine to tell your body it’s time for bed, avoiding blue light devices an hour before sleep, exercising regularly, and a host of other sleep tips. If those things do not work, don’t hesitate to discuss your sleep norms with a doctor who can help navigate potential issues.

9. Miscellaneous recommendations 🧺

Some additional things you might try if you haven’t already:

  • Keep a master To Do list on your computer or someplace handy for all the random (and usually non-urgent) things that come to mind when you’re working
  • Turn your phone on grayscale (how-to here for iPhone and Android) to limit its ability to stimulate your brain with pretty colors and notification reminders
  • Meditate before starting your work (try free apps like Insight Timer)
  • Create a mantra for yourself – mine is: “I am safe, I am smart, and I’ve got this!”
  • Listen to your body. If you need to eat, stand, use the bathroom, etc. – do it!
  • Say no when you need to whether that is to social invitations, requests to take on additional work, or offers that entice you but ultimately make things harder for you

10. Lastly, don’t suffer alone 💛

If you are struggling, no matter how much or how little, tell someone. It might be scary or embarrassing at first, but I’ve found that my friends, my partner, my classmates, and my professors really want to support me. I can empower them to empower me by letting them know what my needs are, what my triggers and difficulties are, and what sorts of encouraging words help me get and stay on track with my work. You have resources around you and you are entitled to finding a way forward with less struggle.

Thanks for reading!

Note: This post assumes a certain level of privilege and access to professional resources, health care, ability, supportive friends and family, safe and affordable housing, technology, and mental wellness. Managing attention irregularities is infinitely more difficult the more precarious a person’s position becomes. In every case, a multiplicity of factors contribute to ADHD and/or attention management difficulties. Wherever you are, I see you, you are valid, and you deserve safety, stability, and whole health above all.

Struggle, Diagnosis, and Cure

[Originally published here on January 16, 2020]

CW: this post discusses ADHD, autism, anxiety, diagnosis, and disability

👋 Hi, friends. Little life announcement here. Thanks for reading and for your continued love and support.

So…what’s up?

Some of you know I began the lengthy process of neuropsychological evaluation in the fall of 2019. In October, I completed a 2-hour long interview with a Neuropsychologist, and on December 30th, I spent 7 hours completing a range of neuropsychological tests. The impetus for seeking this testing was the significant amount of struggle I experienced during my first semester of graduate school. Struggle here includes inability to focus, difficulty starting tasks, paralyzing feelings of overwhelm, increased perfectionism, sensory overload, intense frustration even to the point of physical pain, inability to do even basic tasks (washing dishes, going to the grocery store), and a variety of other things I’m happy to elaborate on if you have questions.

This week, I received an official diagnosis confirming my suspicions: I have Combined Type ADHD (complete with both inattention and hyperactivity or impulsivity), and I am also autistic. I have ‘high functioning’ autism, or what was previously known as Aspergers. More specifically, I am what psychologists refer to as ‘2E’ or twice-exceptional. This means I am both ‘exceptionally gifted,’ and ‘exceptionally disabled.’ Such a strange combination of words. What this boils down to in my case is that I have what is classified as a “very superior” IQ (which I put no stock in as IQ tests are ableist and have roots in racism, classism, and a host of other things I don’t support or subscribe to), and I also have exceptionalities relative to my same-aged peers. For me, those exceptionalities manifest in ADHD and autism.

I wish I had something profound and nuanced to say about being 2E or living life with Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. The truth is that I don’t. I have so much to learn and unlearn about the names I now have for my nearly 30 years of lived experience. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been waiting for these diagnoses all my life. I also feel both grief and relief, and I have a lot of work to do to build an environment and routine that supports me the best way possible.

A few notes in closing

  1. Autism does not need to be cured or eradicated. There is nothing wrong with me or other people with autism. Avoid getting your information from organizations like Autism Speaks. People with autism have different brains than people without autism, and none of this is a problem that needs to be solved. Vaccines do not cause autism. About 15–20% of people with autism do not communicate verbally. It’s very likely that you know someone who is autistic, even if you think you don’t, because most autistic people do not match the stereotypes you’ve been handed down by popular media
  2. There is a fascinating body of scientific literature exploring the links between gender non-confirming people and autism. Depending on what research you consult, a significant percentage of gender non-confirming people exhibit traits of autism, and there may be a link between gender dysphoria and autism. If you look into this research, I encourage you to resist the impulse to link gender identity to biological markers such as neurodiversity or brain structures. I haven’t read these books and therefore cannot endorse them, but Gender Identity, Sexuality and Autism and Supporting Transgender Autistic Youth and Adults have both been recommended to me as good sources of information for those who are curious
  3. Results from my neuropsychological testing revealed my anxiety levels rank in the 97th percentile (and that’s on Zoloft). What I want you to take away from all of this information is that I struggle in real and specific ways, but I also have friends, a loving partner, a successful career, and so much else. I own a home, drive a car, attend graduate school, get straight A’s, and appear “functional” in all aspects. Much of what I struggle with is masked. Take this as a reminder that disability looks so many different ways. Be patient, gentle, and loving with those around you. We never really know what pieces and parts make up the whole of a person, and it’s best not to make assumptions about what someone can or cannot do, be, say, accomplish, etc. given their status as a person with a disability

If you have questions for me, I’m happy to do my best to answer them. For anyone curious about my testing process and how they can seek similar testing for themselves, I am also more than happy to help you navigate that. I welcome recommendations for organizations, networks, skills, coping mechanisms, etc. related to living with ADHD and/or autism. Lastly, to my friends and family, I love you! Thanks for being on this journey with me. ✨

🕰️ On Becoming an Expert

Reading time: 5 minutes. Also available here on Medium

Journalist, author, and public speaker, Malcolm Gladwell, once argued that the “magic number for true expertise” is 10,000 hours (Outliers, chapter 2). Though the 10,000 Hour Rule has been debunked (again and again and again), Gladwell clarified his argument in 2018, saying something less controversial:

People have felt that the number is hard and fast and the truth is…it symbolizes this fact that the amount of time necessary to develop your innate abilities is probably larger than you think, so it’s…a metaphor for the extent of commitment that’s necessary [to gain expertise] in cognitively complex fields.

YouTube video, link here

Let me cut to the chase: I don’t particularly care how ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ Malcolm Gladwell is. That said, as a first year PhD student, I do think there’s a motivating and worthwhile insight for others in my position to take away from Gladwell’s sentiments: keep. going. you. shiny. brilliant. star.

Getting to 10,000 Hours

When I learned about the ⏲️ Pomodoro Technique during my first week of graduate school, I knew pretty immediately it was going to be essential for my longevity and sustainability. In a nutshell, it works like this to help improve focus and productivity: (1) set a timer for 25 minutes, (2) focus on your work/task/hobby until the timer goes off, (3) take a 5 minute break, (4) wash, rinse, repeat. On the 4th round (and subsequent multiples) of this sequence, take a 15 minute break – and then get back to it.

To help motivate myself to stick with the Pomodoro Technique, I cozied up with the reward center in my brain and started making checkmarks at the end of each set of 25 minutes. I briefly thought about how cool (read: really nerdy) it would be to continue this pattern all semester and to ultimately reflect on the sheer volume of sloppy checkmarks I amassed in 4 short months. When 4:00 pm on December 18, 2019 rolled around, I scribbled the last checkmarks for my first semester of graduate school in my mini Moleskine. 😱 I did it! I really kept that shit up. See below:

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✔️ Pomodoro Technique checkmarks from Elliot’s first semester of graduate school

Whatever you want to call this (neurotic, meticulous, a waste of time, fascinating — all are fair), let me break it down. Each checkmark represents 25 minutes of work. ‘Work’ includes: reading, writing, and homework assignments. ‘Work’ does not include: going to class, TA duties, extracurricular/other developmental activities, or meeting with professors to discuss classwork and research. Here’s how this narrow definition of ‘work’ in my first semester of PhD school shakes out across 104 active work days:

  • 1271 checkmarks
  • 31,775 minutes
  • 529.6 hours
  • 22.1 days

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Graph
Elliot’s first semester started on 8/26/2019 and ended 12/18/2019. They had gallbladder removal surgery on 11/01/2019. Bet you can’t guess when midterms and finals happened! 👀

Assuming next semester requires a similar level of work as defined above, I’ll finish my first year with 2,542 checkmarks or 63,550 minutes or 1059.17 hours or 44.13 days of ‘work.’ In the US, sociology PhD programs often range from ~5–9 years in duration. I estimate taking ~6 years to complete my degree (with the first 2 years dedicated to my master’s degree). If I extrapolate these figures across the duration of my program, I can anticipate spending about 6,355 hours doing the work of becoming a sociologist.

This is a faulty calculation for a number of reasons: I didn’t include time spent achieving my undergraduate degree, and I didn’t include in my calculation several other valid forms of ‘work.’ I also can’t anticipate how my hours of work per day will change after 3 years when my core courses and comprehensive exams are complete. In short: I’m making a lot of assumptions, but let’s go with it. At the end of my 6-year PhD program, I’ll have invested 6,355 hours of work into, as Gladwell says, “the extent of commitment that’s necessary [to gain expertise] in cognitively complex fields.”

So, what’s the takeaway?

You know that professor you love — the one who is so smart, so nuanced, so brilliant, so cool? What you see is the product of years of cultivation and dedication. You’re on your way there. You will get there in good time, but you’ve gotta keep going. Not in the way that leads to burnout, and not in the way that’s unhealthy, and not in the way that’s unsustainable. Take care of yourself. Your health — mind, body, whole self — matters more than all the rest. But in the times when you are well and supported, keep at it.

Even after 6 years of day-in and day-out work, I’ll come up significantly shy of 10,000 hours of practiced commitment to my work and field. In fact, at my current rate of ‘work’ per 4-month semester, it will take me an additional 7 semesters (spring and fall) or 3.5 years after achieving my PhD to reach Gladwell’s 10,000-hour honorific. On one hand, this means many junior faculty haven’t hit the potentially-meaningless-yet-still-symbolic 10,000-hour mark and are still nurturing strong and vibrant foundations in their fields. On another, it gives some sense of the vast quantity of time senior faculty have invested in their educations, growth, research, and professions.

If you’re anything like me and several thousand graduate students who’ve come before me, being a PhD student can make you call into question even your most basic abilities. Next time you get that nagging, awful feeling of imposter syndrome and inadequacy creeping up from your stomach to sit on your chest and convince you you’re not cut out for your goals and dreams, remember you are so capable. You are so good, and you belong here. Even better: you deserve the patience, resilience, vision, and literal time it takes to hone your skills and talents to the point of expertise.

Cheers, friends! We’ve got this. 💪

🐦 @elliotbaebookco

✈️ 2018 Travels

📍 Places I visited in 2018:

2018 brought so many adventures and I’m grateful to have had the financial, social, and emotional freedom to have enjoyed them all. Can’t wait to see what 2019 brings!

✅ Denver, CO | February 2018: Made a quick trip to Denver on my way to San Francisco and stayed the most beautiful hotel room I’ve ever been in. Even splurged for in-room massage and spa service (10/10 recommend). 🏔️

✅ San Francisco, CA | February, March 2018: I had the opportunity to visit some colleagues, attend the Lesbians Who Tech Summit, and spend some time in northern California for my birthday! 🎈

✅ New York City, NY | April, July, September 2018: 2018 involved a few trips to NYC to see family, get some face time with colleagues, enjoy The Wing SoHo, attend a wedding, and see Hamilton! ⭐️

✅ Richmond, VA | May 2018: My partner and I spent Memorial Day weekend in the company of the dear and darling friend who introduced us. We both really love Richmond and can imagine ourselves having thrived there in another life. 💖

✅ Boston, MAJune 2018: In June, my partner’s cousin got married and I got to go to my first Jewish (gay!) wedding. The ceremony was so beautiful and I even learned a thing or two! 🤵🏼🤵🏻

✅ Nags Head, NC | July 2018: My family travels to the Outer Banks (OBX) every other year. In 2018, we stayed in Nags Head and I managed to not get sunburnt even once. 🏖

✅ Detroit, MI | July 2018: I visited Detroit for the first time to attend the Power of Pink conference. I attended as a volunteer with Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington. 💪

✅ Morgantown, WV | August 2018: I tagged along with my partner while she taught young people about the power of using data to improve organizing efforts and outcomes. Loved spending a few days in the WV mountains. 🌄

✅ Asheville, NC | September 2018: Road Trip Stop #1! My partner and I drove 1400 miles south east over the course of a 9-day road trip, ultimately bound for Miami. We enjoyed the Shoji Spa, Battery Park Book Exchange, and so much more! 🚗 ⛰️

✅ Charleston, SC | September 2018: Road Trip Stop #2! We made a 2-day stop in beautiful Charleston for the second leg of our road trip adventures. A good friend set us up with some amazing recommendations and we enjoyed exploring. That said, we both agreed we did not take pleasure in being white tourists in a place with such a critical and horrific history of slavery, racism, and injustice.  🚗 🏡

✅ Orlando, FL | September 2018: Road Trip Stop #3! No lies, we went to Orlando for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and all the magic that came with it. I am currently reading the Harry Potter books for the first time and had a great time experiencing the “real” thing in person! 🚗 ⚡

✅ Miami, FL | September 2018:  Road Trip Stop #4! We made our way down to Miami to visit my partner’s grandfather who turned 100 years old in 2018. We spent some time at the Wynwood Walls and stayed in the President Hotel. 🚗 💯

✅ Baltimore, MD | November 2018: I don’t live exceptionally far from Baltimore, but I also don’t travel there too often. In November, my partner and I attended the wedding of some dear friends and got to celebrate their love! 🦀

✅ Philadelphia, PA | November 2018: We headed to Philly for the 3rd (count them – three!) wedding in her family in 2018. Our first trip to Philly together culminated in an I love you, and we were especially excited to celebrate some family love as well. 💍

✅ Finger Lakes, NY | November 2018: We traveled to Watkins Glen, NY to visit the darling Ginger Cat Bed & Breakfast and celebrated Thanksgiving early with Farm Sanctuary‘s Celebration for the Turkeys. 🦃

✅ Stanardsville, VA | December 2018: My partner and I traveled to the middle of nowhere with two of our best friends to spend the very end of 2018 relaxing in a Getaway house! 10/10 would recommend! 🎉

Bucket List Item #40

Goal: Make my own website
Status: ✅ 🎉 🚀 💪

Thanks for visiting my new (and arguably first real) website

>> Pour one out for the graveyard of my former Xanga, Blogspot, Tumblr, and Myspace accounts. #rip ⚰️ ☠️ >>

In all seriousness, this has been a goal of mine for some time now. Getting this up and running is a tiny but mighty victory! I’m happy to have this platform to share things I love to do, read, think about, take pictures of, discuss, and explore. I’m especially excited to have a central place to share not only my education and career histories, but also more about what I’m up to now and what comes next.

Here’s a quick rundown of what you can find and where:

  • A Little More About Me: if you haven’t already, hop on over here to learn 6 fun facts about me and read a brief summary of my current and previous work experiences
    .
  • Resume: Um, it’s (a non-trivial portion of) my resume! Check it out, and let’s also connect on LinkedIn
    .
  • Projects: Under construction for now. Soon, you’ll be able to scroll through a summary of projects I have worked on for a better understanding of work I’ve been a part of and my relationship to it
    .
  • Testimonials: Aww, some thoughtful words from folks I’ve interacted with in a professional capacity within the last year. This includes peers, clients, and stakeholders
    .
  • Digesting: Tbh this is just the quirky-and-maybe-even-weird thing I decided to call the “blog” section of my website. Surprise! You’re here right now
    .
  • Hobbies + Travel: Check out some of the things I like to spend time doing and some of the neat places I have the privilege of exploring this year
    .
  • Lists: I love lists about really anything or nothing. I also love taking pictures of lists. Just…you’ll see what I mean
    .
  • 2018 Reads: Real question – paper books or eBooks? Take a look at what I’m reading and let’s connect on Goodreads (p.s. paper books, baby)
    .
  • Contact: Reach out if you wanna – I’d love to hear from you! If email isn’t your thing, try me on Twitter

Thanks, y’all!

Elliot