Essays on Technology and Culture

On My Work Ethic, ADHD, and Real Lifehacks

I coasted my way through elementary school. I coasted my way through middle school. I coasted my way through high school. When I went to college, the coasting stopped for a while, but in time, I found I was able to coast there as well. You coast by expending as little effort as possible to meet the expectations set before you. I could do homework assignments and write papers the night before—in college, sometimes an hour or two before—and earn perfectly acceptable grades. I pulled down A and B grades, on papers done in panicked states the night before. I churned out papers about books I hadn’t finished, or even read past the first few chapters. I knew what my teachers wanted, I knew how to do it, and I knew how to spell. I knew how to, if necessary, pad a paper out without making it look like it was padded.

Teachers either loved me, or hated me. In my high school American History class, my teacher would write detailed outline notes on the blackboard for us to copy down. I never did. He noticed this, but also noticed that I got and understood the material just by reading the notes and the textbooks, and let me slide. He loved me. I took another class with him. In high school geometry, the teacher taught the class with a hands-on method using tracing paper, compasses, and protractors. We figured stuff out ourselves, and I hated it. I picked up what needed to be picked up inside of the first five minutes. I slept through most classes, yet aced every test. She hated me. I earned no credits in geometry that year. [1]

This did not set me off on a good footing for my adult life.

I don’t know the root cause of my coasting, but I suspect it’s tied to my ADHD. [2] Sitting down and doing the work is, without a doubt, hard. For me, it couldn’t possibly be harder. There’s always some squirrel fighting for my attention. Even as I write this paragraph, I stopped to check a link in the show notes of the podcast I’m listening to while I work. Before that, I tried to do a Google search to find out if there’s syntax in Markdown to do an <abbr> tag. I’ve checked Twitter, and Facebook. When I was younger, I kept a TV on in my bedroom over my computer so I had something to distract the distractible part of my brain when I actually did my homework. It didn’t work. TV, computer games, and my own navel were all much more compelling.

Without something caffeinated in the morning, I often can’t get down to work at all.

The pieces are falling into place.

Here’s the thing: I’m pushing thirty. I’ve graduated college, had a few years in the work force, and I’m only figuring out these things now? I suspect a large part of this came from the lack of consequences in my coasting. That’s not to say I didn’t experience any consequences at times. The first time I ever got an F was a fourth grade test on poetry and rhyme schemes. I failed my Seventh Grade English class three semesters running, ruining my grade average in a year that determined what high school would attend. I failed out of my first college in three semesters. I spent a year out of work, slowly going insane.

Marcel Proust wrote:

We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by evil or commonplace that prevailed round them. They represent a struggle and a victory.

The question is what lesson did I take away from those failures? That depends on which one we’re talking about. My earliest failures taught me the limits of how little effort I could get away with, and that minimum only increases over time. Once you’re away from the structured environment of the modern American education system, the amount of effort you need to exert goes up exponentially. Maybe that’s why it’s taken so long for me to see the problem, and so long for me to work on solving it. Touch the stove enough times, and you’ll either realize it’s hot and stop, or you’ll get burned.

I’ve been burned.

It’s my own damn fault.

And owning up to that is, of course, the first step.

But, I’m learning how to deal with all of this. I’m learning to actually do the work, even with my a-neurotypical brain chemistry. A lot of the methods are hacky kludges, in lieu of something that can properly modify the chemical soup I live in. One of the biggest things is, of course, writing stuff down. Developing a trusted system to get things that have to be done out of my head, organized, and in a place that I can process them so I can know what has to be done and when has gone a long way to improving my work ethic.

Not all of these are based on the GTD methodology, though Things does play a major role. There’s also Lift for keeping track of all the things I have to do daily that I don’t already. When I’m doing stuff that’s tedious, I use timers. Lately, I’ve started using Pomodorable, which integrates with the Today list in Things. I choose the task I want to do, and a 25 minute timer starts ticking away. It’s an app that’s still new, and a bit buggy, but I think it shows great promise. It’s already becoming a vital part of my workflow.

I owe a large part of this essay to the most recent episode of Back to Work, and the wonderful conversation I had in the chat room during the show with people just as messed up as I am. This essay is just my own personal experiences, and my own personal set of tools. I have the help of technology—which is a double-edged sword I’m still learning to wield—and a loving partner to catch me. There’s still a ways to go.

Even for those of you who are a bit more neurotypical, and can get things done, and don’t need medication or therapy or “lifehacks” may find something of value in the idea of cultivating ways to patch up your own weaknesses. We all have our problems, and we all have our neuroses and things that get in the way of living our lives and making stuff. Sometimes, we need a yellow foam ball to relieve our anxiety.

As long as the work gets done.

And as long as the work that gets done is done to the best of our ability, without shortcuts, last-minute scrambles, or simply coasting on the minimal amount of effort. [3]

For me, that’s been the hardest lesson to learn.

  1. A brief explanation about the way my high school worked. Students did not get grades, but earned credits. Ten credits completed a course. One could, if they applied themselves, graduate early by earning credit faster. I almost graduated late because of geometry.  ↩

  2. n.b. This is self-diagnosed ADHD. I am not a medical professional, but I was diagnosed as possibly ADHD as a child. My parents opted to not medicate me. Once I am insured, I plan to get properly diagnosed, and we’ll take it from there. In the meantime, I have to work with the data I have.  ↩

  3. If medication makes the work happen, I don’t consider that a shortcut, only another tool. I’m not preaching the anti-psychiatric medication gospel here.  ↩