Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Spring Cleaning? ADHD? No Problem!

Eight Tips for Getting Those Projects Done

by Leslie Rouder, LCSW

It’s time to consider those spring cleaning projects. Are your closets overflowing? Does your garage or attic need an overhaul? Have all those dresser or kitchen drawers accumulated mounds of clutter? Where does all that stuff in your night table come from, anyway?

Spring cleaning might seem like the biggest nightmare for someone with ADHD. But it doesn’t have to be. You can successfully tackle spring cleaning projects despite your ADHD. Let’s explore some ways to be consistently more productive and get those projects done.

1. Get motivated. Without motivation, many projects or tasks seem difficult even to start, no less finish. Get clear about the value of completing these projects, how they will positively affect your life, and keep those reasons in mind. Consider making a list of all the benefits and posting it near the project location so you will be reminded of them.

2. Know your engagement threshold and use it to your advantage. This is the longest amount of time you can consistently work while staying focused on a particular project, without being distracted or losing interest. Then evaluate how long you will actually need to accomplish the project. Try adding a cushion of about fifty percent more time. If the task takes less time than you think, you may be delighted to find you have a bit of unexpected extra time for yourself.

3. Make an action plan. How will you accomplish this goal? What are your specific action steps? For example, if you are cleaning out your closet, it might look like this:
  • Empty the entire closet (30 minutes)
  • Separate items by type of clothing (1 hour)
  • Have four boxes ready to sort all items
    •    One box for shoes and bags
    •    One box for donating to charity
    •    One box for clothing
    •    One box for items that you may want to discard
  • Re-hang all remaining clothing items by type and color (1 hour)
  • Re-fold and place clothing on shelves (1 hour)
  • Organize placement of shoes and hand bags on shelves  (30 minutes)

4. Schedule the time to do the project. Many adults with ADHD think that the only way to get something done is to break it down into small action steps. But every time you transition in and out of a particular activity, you lose a lot of time, which means you lose a lot of productivity. That's why it's important to know your uppermost threshold and set aside the time that most reflects it.

Keeping your engagement threshold in mind, set aside an appropriate amount of time to get a good chunk of the project completed. Consider those times when you have the greatest energy and ability to focus. If you know that your medication wears off at 6 PM, don’t start that project at 5 PM just because that’s when you get home from work. If you are a morning person, don’t start that project in the afternoon. Work with your schedule and block it off on your calendar.

5. Don’t be a perfectionist. Many people with ADHD get caught up in doing such a perfect job that they lose sight of the big picture. Avoid getting stuck in the minutiae. Do as much as you can as quickly as possible until the job is complete. You can always go back after it is finished to make it even better.

6. Work with a body double or professional organizer. Many adults with ADHD find it extremely helpful to have someone there to work with them while keeping them on track. Find a friend or family member who would be willing to assist. Or hire a professional organizer to work with you if you want and can afford their services.

7. Avoid distractions. Turn off the phone, television, or any other distraction that could interfere with completing your project. Once you get started, place a DO NOT DISTURB sign outside the door of the room where you are working. Tell your family not to disturb you during your allotted amount of time unless there’s an emergency. Take this commitment seriously and others will, too.

8. Make the project fun and interesting. Play fun and lively music. Invite your friends to come over and help. Use timers and create some kind of challenge to make it more engaging. Promise yourself a special reward for completing the task. Bet your partner or friend that you will finish by a certain time or else. You get the idea.

AFTER YOU READ THIS, don’t just consider the ideas. Take the time to actually plan your spring cleaning project on paper, following each step above. Imagine that it is already completed and visualize yourself having completed the task. Imagine and enjoy the feeling of having accomplished your goal. Then, take action and do it exactly as you planned and envisioned!

Want to receive more information like this? Join CHADD and receive every issue of
Attention magazine. A longer version of this post appeared in the April 2013 issue. 

Leslie Rouder, LCSW, is an ADHD coach and therapist in South Florida.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Make Peace with Paper

guest blog by Kacy Paide

As a professional office organizer, three words make me cringe: “File, don’t pile.” This is certainly a good idea, but it’s just that: an idea, not to be mistaken for solid, specific advice. How many times have you read those words and screamed inside, “I know I should file, I just don’t know how!”

Organizing advice should motivate and inspire, leaving you anxious to try something new, not feeling guilty that you haven’t yet been able to execute something so seemingly simple. An organized space cannot arise from feelings of inadequacy or a list of shoulds. The best of intentions gets buried when you don’t know how to do something, and paper organizing is no exception.

Look around your office. Do you see piles, stashes, overflowing in boxes, bags of paper, half-executed systems and remnants of good ideas? If so, you are not alone. My clients are sometimes surprised (and always relieved) that I encourage them to ditch the filing cabinet and think way outside of the box.

Your goal needn’t be to keep a clear desk. In fact, it should be the opposite: Cover your surfaces, just cover them with systems, not clutter. How do you file when you hate file folders and filing cabinets? How do you keep a clear desk when you lose anything that is in a cabinet or drawer? Here's how.

1. Use clipboards for active projects. These are especially helpful in organizing writing projects, upcoming trips and events, bills to pay, and more. Use them also as idea buckets, assigning one per project, collecting all related media—be it note scraps, stickies, tear-outs, or printouts. An added benefit is that clipboards are mobile, not married to the wall. Carry them to another room or take them to work--just remember to return them to their station on the wall.

2. Fill the desk with file boxes.  I’d rather see empty file drawers and a desk full of file boxes than orderly drawers that are useless and forgotten. This works especially well for paper-heavy current projects that you pull from or add to frequently.

3. Turn your bookcase into an open filing system.
Fill the bookshelves with file boxes. Boxes encourage you to create tight categories, drawing lines in the sand in a way that a deep file drawer can’t do. Shelves allow you to see all categories at quick glance, taking the mystery out of “what lurks in my file drawers.”

4. File on the wall. Use wall pockets just as you would file boxes. If one works, five or ten might work even better.

5. Ditch folders for magazine boxes. Convert your bookshelf into a tower of magazine files, each assigned a category.

An organized office should be a reflection of your best version of you. Sure, you may feel unfocused and scattered at times. This is not a complete picture though. At your best, you are creative, fast-thinking and expressive. Any of these suggestions, multiplied across the surfaces in your office will allow you to simultaneously thrive and live outside the lines.

Life will inevitably shake itself out all over your desk, but everything now has a home. You can see these places without opening a drawer or recalling a complicated file index. Revisiting order will take minutes, not months, and peace of mind will return just as quickly.

A longer version of this post appeared in the October 2014 issue of
Attention. The magazine is available through our free app, which you can download on the App store! Current CHADD members can access it through the app at no extra cost.

Kacy Paide (theinspiredoffice.com) is a professional organizer specializing in offices and paper. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and consults and speaks nationally.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ugly Organizational Systems

by Jeff Copper, PCC, PCAC, MBA

Look up the word organized and you'll find definitions that include "having formal structure," "systematized," "formed into structure," "planned," or "controlled." The word conjures up visions of stores, warehouses, storage facilities, filing cabinets, and bookshelves with things in rows, stacks, columns, all with tags, labels, identifiers, or color-coded by categories or associations with something. This picture implies everything is in its place. It's easy to access and there is ample space.

This image of perfection is really quite pleasing to the eye. In other words, it's pretty. I’ll leave it to the researchers to prove whether I’m right or wrong, but my experience as an attention coach is that many people associate “pretty” with being organized. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with an aesthetically pleasing space with everything in its place.

I would argue that it really isn't organized if it doesn't pass the litmus test, which is: Can you find what you need when you need it? Even better, can you find what you need when you need it and put your hands on it quickly? If that pretty space doesn't pass the litmus test, then it isn't organized.
What I have learned through experience is that some of the best organizational systems are just plain ugly. The workbench in my garage is a perfect example. To the untrained eye, it looks like chaos and is quite ugly, but I can assure you it passes the litmus test. When I need something, I can walk up to the bench and find it in an instant. Granted, anyone else would be lost trying to find something as simple as a hammer there, but understand, it’s my garage.

I suspect it puzzles you how I can find what I’m looking for. What's my system? It can't just be chaos. Granted, it looks like one big mess, and while I can't necessarily articulate it or I’m not consciously aware of the system, it just works. I suspect that the system is built around how my brain thinks and is reinforced by routine and habit. My wife regularly suggests that I organize it, make it pretty. I steadfastly resist. If it were organized, I wouldn't be able to find anything.

I’m not here to say you have to do it any specific way. The point is… if ugly works, don't get pressured into turning your space into nonfunctional pretty. The alternative is to decorate ugly to make it pretty or make it look like it's supposed to be that way.

Repetitive, boring, routine things don't capture the attention of those with ADHD. The many steps required to process dull tasks (like putting things away neatly in pretty places) exponentially increase friction and the likelihood the tasks won't be executed. I’m not suggesting you let your garage run amok, but I am suggesting this: If your organizational system is ugly, it doesn't mean it doesn't work. Try decorating and formalizing it—or own it as your own system that works flawlessly. If you do, you might be surprised at how much better you feel if you rid yourself of the guilt, shame, and judgment caused by obsessing over creating a pretty system—only to find that you can't find a thing.

Want to receive more information like this? Join CHADD and receive every issue of Attention magazine. A longer version of this post appears in the October 2014 issue.

Jeff Copper, PCC, PCAC, MBA, specializes in coaching adult individuals and entrepreneurs who have been diagnosed with ADHD later in life. He is a speaker, an attention expert, and host of Attention Talk Radio and Attention Talk Video. Learn more about Jeff at www.digcoaching.com.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Words of Encouragement

by Terry M. Dickson, MD, ACG, CPCC

One of the best things I learned from coach training is that you can’t make someone else act or think in a certain way. You can only model good behavior and be a good example. Ultimately, each person has to take ownership for his or her life. So whether you are addressing your spouse or your child with ADHD, don’t attempt to mold them like clay. It doesn’t work! Besides, you can’t wave the magic brain-changing wand and make ADHD symptoms go away. But there is one thing you can do: You can encourage people and build them up.

Words can build up or they can tear down. Words that tear down can be internalized and may falsely define who another person is. Words that build up may inspire another person to greatness. Discouraging words also can alienate and result in communication breakdown and lack of trust.
Encouragement goes straight to the heart, however.

Knowing what a big difference encouragement has made in your own life, how can you be an encouragement to those in your family? Here are some tips:
  1. Be aware of what encourages you and do the same for others.
  2. Write your spouse or child a note with words of encouragement.
  3. Always be specific when you offer praise: “You did a great job at _____.”   “I really appreciate that you _____.”
  4. When you see positive changes in the other person’s life, affirm that person: “You really seem to have a great attitude about _____.”
  5. If encouraging thoughts come to mind, share them with your family.
  6. We all make mistakes, so look beyond fault. It may just be an opportunity for you to teach that there is much learning to be gained through failure.
  7. Remember that most people may not reach their potential without someone believing in them and taking the time to tell them so.


Terry M. Dickson, MD, ACG, CPCC, is the founder and director of The Behavioral Medicine Clinic of NW Michigan that has served and supported children, adolescents, and adults with ADHD for over eleven years. He has been a principal study investigator for several clinical ADHD medication trials. A Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, he is a graduate of the ADD Coach Academy and the Coaches Training Institute. Diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, Dr. Dickson speaks regularly on ADHD and has been interviewed locally and nationally on radio, television, and CHADD’s Ask the Expert online. Dr. Dickson and his wife of 32 years have two teenage children, both of whom have ADHD.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Get Your House in Order


People with ADHD often live in chaotic environments. They misplace things, they jump from project to project randomly, and they leave things incomplete or undone. Lacking skills to prioritize, seeing everything as “equal,” and not keeping things in short-term memory all contribute to making the tedious tasks of daily living—staying on top of finances, grocery shopping, laundry, or clutter—stifling. With the proper approach, these tasks can be managed, and then mastered!


Understand the cost benefit of delegating.

If you’re like most people with ADHD, you avoid details such as keeping up on bank accounts and paying bills on a regular basis. The thought of sitting down, sifting through mail, and writing checks is enough to make you run from the task, not toward it. Nonetheless, bills need to be paid or you’ll continue to get late notices, accrue bad credit, or run the risk of getting your electricity turned off, not to mention upsetting others who depend on you! If this describes you, learn to delegate. Pay someone to keep track of your finances. Arrange for bills to be automatically paid via your bank. Do what you can to get the job done. In the end, it will cost you less than you’re spending in late fees!

Separate the task from the set-up.

To make paying bills easier and less painful, do the set-up first before paying the bills, which is the real task. Equip a “bill-paying station” with your checkbook, stamps, envelopes, and a basket in which to collect the bills when they arrive in the mail. On a designated day, open the bills and stamp the return envelopes. On the next day, put your return address on the envelopes. On the next day, write and sign the checks. Then all you have to do is stuff the envelopes and send them! By separating setting up and execution, and by approaching the task step by step, you won’t find it so overwhelming, and the job will get done.

Create accountability.

I have several clients who meet with their accountant every three months simply to make sure they keep up with their finances. If this is something your accountant is willing to do, go for it! Your accountant can help you create systems for budgeting and tracking your income. Chances are, if left up to your own devices, you’ll get in trouble. Ask for help from an expert! You don’t have to do it alone.

Ritualize attending to your finances.

If you don’t create space in your life for paying bills and reviewing finances, it will never come to fruition and will remain only a wish. Set a regular weekly time and place to pay bills and review your accounts. Mark it as an appointment with yourself and don’t skip it, no matter what. Do it at the same time on the same day each week so it becomes a habit. Remember to choose a day when you are least likely to be distracted by a more entertaining activity.

Stay in the know to say NO.

Stay on top of how much money you have in your accounts and how much you owe. For example, when you get your bank statement, highlight the amounts and post it on the back of your door so you see it every day. Lack of information about what funds are actually available to you at any given time is a recipe for spending beyond your means and ultimately for financial disaster.

Create visual reminders.

Keep track of when bills are due. Post dates on your calendar. Or here is a favorite of one of my clients: “I open all the mail when it comes in, and immediately sort out the bills, highlight the due dates, and tape them on the wall by the light switch. This way, I can quickly glance at the wall and know how many bills I have to pay, and when they are due. Because they're right next to the light switch, I'm forced to look at them at least once a day!”

Budgeting: Create a tracking system.

Keep track of receipts by labeling and carrying envelopes labeled Business, Groceries, and so forth. Put all receipts in the appropriate envelope when you pay for it, and if you forget to get the receipt, write the cost of the item on the outside of the envelope. At the end of each month, file them away for your records in a small, accordion-style 3x12 expanding file. This strategy is great for tracking receipts for expense reports, too.


Take action.

People with ADHD are highly affected by their immediate environment. It’s very important, therefore, to keep your living area organized and picked up. If you know you’re challenged in keeping up with laundry, take measures to get it done! Either delegate it by hiring someone to do it, or send it out to be done. Set a specific day of the week to do that, and write it on your calendar. Otherwise, the vicious cycle of having it pile up while you avoid it will continue. A messy environment also puts a strain on relationships and on those around you, so that’s another reason to take action!

Set personal standards and stick to them.

What is acceptable? What is not? Set standards and stick to them. Enlist a “no excuses” attitude in sticking to a schedule that you have clearly marked on your calendar. At the beginning of each month, for example, write LAUNDRY in each Wednesday box, and include the time you plan to do it, 7 PM. Don’t allow yourself to negotiate with your ADHD by saying, “Oh, I can skip this laundry week,” especially if you know that skipping a week will only lead down a path of shame and blame four weeks later as dirty clothes block your door!

Make it routine.

You must create the time and space for laundry. Otherwise, doing it will remain only a wish! Set a time and day to do it on a regular basis. Think this out and make it realistic. Don’t say you’ll do it Sunday mornings if you go to church. That’s setting yourself up for failure. If for some reason you can’t do laundry on your designated laundry day, have a back-up day and time. This way it doesn’t pile up and become unmanageable.

Use your environment.

Planning to do it and doing it are two separate things. Be sure you have systems in place to remember the day and time you have scheduled. Post a note to yourself as a reminder, or put a sign over your laundry basket “Do on Tuesday evening.” This strategy worked so well for one of my clients that when her fiancĂ© saw the sign “Do laundry on Wednesday,” he thought it was directed to him and he did the laundry!

Combine it with another activity.

While you’re doing your laundry, also do another project or task you engage in on a regular basis. This will help you to remember to do it more readily, regularly, and painlessly. For example, designate Saturday mornings while reading the paper, or Sunday evenings while watching your favorite TV show as laundry time.

Follow it all the way through.

Doing laundry means folding it and putting it away, not just washing it! If you’re going to take the time to wash it, take the extra five minutes to fold it and put it away. A pile of clothes on your floor is still a pile of clothes, clean or dirty!


No time for shame.

The only way to truly overcome the “messy closet” syndrome is to come out of the closet! That means accepting that your struggles are not a character flaw. It’s not you; it’s your ADHD. This doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t have to take responsibility for doing something about it. In order to take that first step, you must acknowledge it’s a problem and stop blaming yourself.

Know it could be emotional.

Going through old paperwork or clearing out clothes and clutter can be emotionally toxic, bringing up a host of feelings—shame, old memories, or horror that you’ve forgotten something important. Prepare yourself, and don’t allow negative tapes to sidetrack you.

Does it have a home?

Create “homes” for things like your keys, wallet, glasses, and cell phone—anything that you tend to lose track of easily. Some people use a small basket in the kitchen as a collection point for these items. One client keeps a pair of glasses next to her computer, another on the bathroom vanity, a third pair on the kitchen counter, and a fourth in her purse. It’s worth the expense, she says, to know she’ll be able to read anywhere!

Use the three-second rule.

When clearing out piles of papers or clothes, or doing any type of decluttering, don’t hold anything in your hand for more than three seconds. Make a quick decision: throw away, take action, or keep. Cleaning can be overwhelming, so take frequent breaks, but continue the process until it has been completed. Set a time and day for each “take action” item, and act on it! For example, if you have a pile of clothing to donate to your local church, designate Saturday, 9 AM, to deliver it.

Stand up and keep moving.

Stand up while decluttering, especially while going through paperwork. Don’t do it sitting down! Standing up helps your brain be more alert and prevents you from spacing out and/or hyperfocusing on one aspect of the job. Keep moving!

Don’t look back.

Once you’ve gone through clothes that you’re going to give to Goodwill or decided on things in the house you’re going to give away or throw out, DON’T LOOK BACK. Put everything in boxes or in non-see-through garbage bags. Get them out of the house or stick them in the trunk of your car as soon as you can. Otherwise, you might be tempted to go back through everything and keep things that you’ve already decided to eliminate.

Do a swap.

Have a friend help you clean, and agree that, in return, you’ll help him or her clear out clutter or go through paperwork. It’s a lot easier having someone with you who can keep you moving and who has no emotional attachments to your “things.”

Keep it alive through accountability.

The issue for people with ADHD isn’t the lack of desire to stay organized; it’s the ability to keep the importance of doing so in the forefront of their minds. Share your desired goals with someone, and keep him posted on your progress along the way. The power of verbalizing your intention, as well as having a watchdog of sorts, should help keep you on course and true to your plan.

It’s a process. Be vigilant!

Remember that you have ADHD. It takes longer for you to change your old ways and develop new habits. You have to be committed to staying in for the long haul to make things stick. Don’t give up! Discovering what systems and strategies work for you will take time. The worst thing you can do is give up. Know that you will slip and slide, but keep at it. It takes time to break old habits and develop new ones.

Create tangible accountability systems for yourself.

Create time sheets for doing dreaded tasks. For example, if you need to clean out the pantry, post a piece of paper on the pantry door. On the paper list the task: “Clean Pantry!” Under that, state the goal for the amount of time: “Spend One Hour Cleaning Top Shelf!” The time spent can be spread throughout the day. It does not have to be done all at once. Every time you go into the kitchen, time yourself and write the time spent (10 min, 15 min, 20 min, and so on) cleaning the pantry. When you reach one hour, stop. This serves two purposes: 1) to break the project into small, doable pieces; 2) to allow you to actually see that you spent one hour’s worth of time cleaning.

The key is to make your goal specific so that you can see and feel progress. For example, when you set out to clean one pantry shelf, you won’t be able to miss the difference in how that shelf looks compared to the other messy ones you haven’t yet touched. Or set out to do one load of laundry. You’ll be able to see that the original pile has become smaller.

Change settings to get mundane tasks done.

If you can’t do certain kinds of work in one room, try another. I personally find that I can’t pay my bills anywhere except at my kitchen table. I have clients who take mundane paperwork and drive to a parking lot and do it in their car. Do whatever it takes to find out exactly what helps you focus long enough to get the task done.

YOU CAN GET MORE TIPS AND STRATEGIES for getting your home environment in order in some of the articles in the Attention magazine archives on the CHADD website—if you're a CHADD member. Access to the archives is a very good reason to join CHADD!

And if you have other strategies that help you keep your house in order, please share them with the rest of us!

Nancy Ratey

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is Impulsivity Wrecking Your Social Life?

One of the first things a client I’ll call James said to me was, “If I could only keep my big mouth shut.” He painted a picture of a life beset by inappropriate behavior and mired in paradox. Young and independent, he was also handsome, athletic, and outgoing, a Wall Street trader on the fast track. He already owned a condo, a vacation club share in the Rockies, and a new sports car that he’d purchased for cash.

What James couldn’t get was why he said things that people found uncouth and offensive; why a former fraternity president and popular super jock couldn’t keep a girlfriend for more than a few months while most of his old friends were settling down with spouses and children; why someone who’d already made “so much money it’s obscene” kept losing too much of it in casinos; why somebody who could make quick, lucrative trades on the floor of the stock market couldn’t manage his own credit cards or save more than a few thousand dollars.

“What’s up?” he wanted to know. “In the last two weeks, I lost my job, I got another notice from the condo association for parking in somebody else’s spot, I sprained my ankle skiing, and my girlfriend broke up with me. And oh yeah, I forgot my mom’s birthday on top of everything else, and now she’s all hurt and mad at me.”


By his own admission, James was displaying some of the classic characteristics of ADHD, specifically, an inability to control his impulsivity. “What’s with people?” he asked, speaking about his social life. “What do they want anyway? I see myself with a couple of kids someday, maybe a house at the beach, but hey, I’m not ready to settle down yet. Women—they want you to check in every day, they want to know what you’ll be doing six weeks from now, six years from now, and why don’t you come meet their mother in Minnesota after you’ve only just met them. All these women in the city are so boring, they’re all the same. Nobody just wants to do something without a million plans first, and it’s like they want you to try out for some Mr. Perfect prize. Nobody knows how to have fun anymore.”

Clearly, James was unable to understand that the frat boy behavior that had made him so popular in high school and college had worn thin. Old friends still included him when the Knicks or Jets or Mets were in town, but unable to predict what he might do or say next, especially after several drinks, few accompanied him on the ski vacations or fishing trips he often took, and no one invited him to gatherings including their wives and children. They weren’t willing to take a chance on James when their families were concerned.

Turned off by his excessive spending or rude remarks, newer acquaintances, especially women, were even less likely to last. At first he might seem charming and energetic and charismatic, but relationships usually ended abruptly when he was “loud, overbearing, and obnoxious, always the center of attention,” a description his girlfriend had recently invoked in ending their relationship. Other times, he simply got bored. The thrill of the hunt invigorated him, not the day-to-day commitment and empathy that invited intimacy.

Much of what James said in that initial interview troubled me, because I knew that if coaching were to make a difference for him, he would have to start assuming responsibility for his actions. At that point, everything was somebody else’s fault. Probably the most important issue for him was acknowledging the reality that his problems would not go away by themselves and that it was going to take hard work on his part to change things.

Impulsivity was wreaking havoc with his life, and he needed to face up to the fact that he’d been deceiving himself. His quick wit had helped him succeed thus far, but he’d been equally dependent on adrenaline, a formula that couldn’t last. He’d gotten as far as he could without a clearly identified long-term goal and a plan to achieve it. Now it was time to learn how ADHD was affecting his functioning, including his social life, and to take action to address it.

Unless he began to understand what was causing his behavior, and until he created strategies to compensate for his impulsivity, James would continue to jeopardize any chance of acquiring new, long-term relationships of any kind. While he could recognize, after the fact, that he’d said or done something untoward or indecent or downright rude, he never had a lesson learned from the past to apply to the future. And because he had never learned to inhibit his impulses, no matter how many promises he made to himself or to others, he always forgot. A prisoner of impulsivity, he was truly a prisoner of the present, and a lonely one at that. The number of acquaintances he had used to be enough, he admitted. The quality of relationships was finally beginning to matter, and he wanted to acquire a few strong ones.

You can read more about how coaching helped James and his difficult, but ultimately successful efforts to manage his impulsivity and improve his social life in my book, The Disorganized Mind. For now, in this blog, I’ll discuss the importance of adhering to basic social rules and some strategies that can help adults with ADHD improve their social lives.


Many people consider etiquette a quaint art of the past, but while no one can dispute that we seem to be living in an “anything goes” society, there is a breaking point. “Enough!” we eventually hear when someone has brazenly, or even inadvertently, crossed a certain line. “I don’t have to listen to this, I don’t have to accept this anymore.”

Constructing a healthy social life requires people to adhere to social rules and to maintain personal boundaries—skills with which my client, and most people with ADHD, generally struggle. Talking too much and interrupting others, for example, or being too “honest,” without regard to anyone’s feelings are not acceptable. My client would have to face the fact that, even if talk show hosts and television personalities shout each other down with barbed insults and coarse language, ordinary people have a very limited threshold for absorbing such insults on a personal level.

Most won’t abide unreliability for too long, either. Repeatedly canceling appointments, showing up late, and forgetting important dates like anniversaries or birthdays test even a parent’s infinite patience, and it’s a rare individual—hardly a superficial acquaintance—who will put up with a pattern of it.


In order to have a life outside of work, you have to have the ability to construct a social life. This means making and keeping a variety of friends, getting along with others in group situations as well as one-on-one, reading and adhering to social rules, and maintaining personal boundaries—skills with which people with ADHD generally struggle. Other issues can include talking too much and interrupting others, being too “honest,” and being repeatedly unreliable with friends: canceling appointments, showing up late, forgetting important dates like anniversaries or birthdays. These symptoms often make you come across as arrogant, selfish, aggressive, or not honoring personal boundaries.

Know the steps.

The first step in knowing how to make and keep friends is knowing yourself. What are your interests? What type of things do you like to do? Once you can identify what your interests are, you can then increase the opportunities of meeting like-minded people. That means locating clubs or activities that focus on those same interests. Next is carving out the time to be involved and showing up to meetings and activities so you can increase your possibilities of meeting people. Lastly, if you get nervous in new situations, you must have a dialogue rehearsed to break the ice and introduce yourself to others.

Make soft commitments.

Keep friends by keeping the lines of communication open. If you are the type of person who often backs out of plans due to over-commitments or who gets overwhelmed at the last minute, simply let people know that you’re making a “soft commitment” and not a “hard one.” Tell them, for example, that you’d like to go to the show and are tentatively saying yes, but that you might have a conflict and be unable to make it at the last minute. That way you will avoid disappointing people if you don’t show up. Do, however, have the courtesy to at least let the person know you’re backing out as much in advance as possible!

Plan! Plan! Plan!

If you don’t make the time and space for meeting up with friends and having a social life, it won’t happen. Learn to plan to see your friends and to have fun! Be sure to look at your calendar weekly and actually block out social time. Make a commitment and keep to it. Make it a regular and re-occurring activity so it becomes a ritual, like a movie on Sunday evening or a bike ride on Saturday afternoon.

Keep organized!

If you don’t have or can’t find your friends’ e-mail addresses or telephone numbers, how can you keep in touch with them! Create a system to track these details. Put numbers in your palm pilot, in Outlook, or type out a list and post them over your phone. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’ll find that post-it when the time comes and you really need it! Make creating and maintaining an organizational system for these details a priority!

The small things count.

People with ADHD often let small things slide, like remembering a birthday, returning a call, or responding to e-mail. These small details can go a long, long way in helping to build relationships. Set reminders; write birthdays in your calendar or PDF and make plans around the special events. If you don’t have time to chat on the phone, at least acknowledge that you received the call and are busy, but don’t just let things hang and expect people to understand. Making and keeping friends is a two-way street, and communication is a large part of it.

Get feedback.

Some people with ADHD are very adept at social skills, while others are not. If you have challenges starting small talk or reading nonverbal social cues, for example, or if you simply want to improve your general social skills, ask a trusted observer for candid feedback on how you present yourself. This feedback can be invaluable in helping to know how you come across. It can help you learn to better self-observe, to fine-tune things like eye contact and table manners, and to avoid talking too much or too loudly.

Don’t let yourself get trapped.

If you know you get bored quickly at parties, or get tired and want to leave but are dependent on others for a ride, plan an escape route! Drive separately, or take money for a cab. Tell your friends ahead of time that you might leave early so they’re not surprised. Don’t allow yourself to be in any open-ended situations if they cause you problems. It is essential that everything be as planned and structured as possible.

IF YOU'RE TRYING TO CONTROL YOUR IMPULSIVITY AND IMPROVE YOUR SOCIAL LIFE, the key to success is to select a strategy, work through it, and judge its effectiveness. If you’ve given a strategy sufficient time and it’s really not working, try something else. Use your creativity to design strategies of your own and share what works for you. And you can learn more about social skills on the Adults with ADHD and Relationships page of CHADD’s website.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Do You Leap Before You Look?

Years ago, I was surprised when a client told me that during the twenty-odd years since he’d graduated from college, he had worked for eight different companies. “Yeah, I told my manager to shove it,” was how he described the latest time he’d been fired. “And he told me goodbye. Too bad I’m so used to it.”

Unfortunately, stories like his no longer surprise me. Many of my clients have gone from job to job, let go each time by employers no longer willing to overlook offensive actions and speech directed at clients, colleagues, and the bosses themselves. Sadly, these individuals have often been highly intelligent and skilled, in many ways so well suited for their jobs that success should have been automatic. What they’ve lacked has been a way to keep from saying and doing things so inappropriate that dismissal was their employers’ only option.

One of the classic characteristics of ADHD, impulsivity is a lack of the brain’s self-inhibiting function. In simpler terms, it’s an emotional response to the world characteristic of childhood, rather than a rational response—one that includes deliberation, judgment, and reflection—characteristic of adulthood. Instead of thinking about their intended actions or weighing the consequences sure to follow, people with impulsivity issues leap before they look, with neither foresight nor hindsight to guide them.

Those who manifest impulsivity lack impulse control—a way for their minds to “put the brakes on.” Without a cognitive response to a stimulus—without working memory or judgment or a way to evaluate consequences—they find it impossible not to speak their minds in the moment, and they often blurt things out, interrupt, or even finish other people’s thoughts for them, eliciting a lot of resentment along the way.

True, it might be refreshing to hear somebody speak without a script once in a while, but it’s also disconcerting to be on the receiving end of an unfiltered rant. Nobody likes it, and very few adults are willing to put up with it. Nor are they willing to endure indefinitely the company of someone who constantly draws attention to himself. To put it bluntly, that kind of behavior becomes embarrassing, if not exhausting, to be around.

Specifically, then, unless impulsive individuals begin to understand what was causing their behavior, and until they create strategies to compensate for impulsivity, they would continue to jeopardize any chance of acquiring new, long-term relationships of any kind. Whatever job they have would also be in constant jeopardy, and money problems would continue to haunt them because of excessive spending and frequent gambling. If the impulsivity remained unaddressed, their struggles would be seen as character flaws or a lack of desire to change and improve. They need to understand that their neurobiology is at the root of their struggles. Acknowledging that ADHD is causing—and, unchecked, would continue to cause—real problems is their first step in understanding what they need to do to help themselves.

One of the most difficult struggles for people with ADHD is being stuck in the perpetual “now.” They are unable to learn from past experiences in order to evaluate the potential consequences of present or future ones. Every situation is therefore something new, and their reactions are based solely on the moment in which they find themselves. It’s not unlike the person who continues to touch the lit burner on the stove, even though he’s been burned every other time he’s done the same thing. There’s nothing in his head saying, “Hey, wait. Don’t touch. You don’t want to get burned again.”

That’s what happens to individuals with ADHD. In any given moment, they can’t keep in mind the idea of the past or the idea of a future—that tomorrow or even an hour from now will actually exist. Mistakes don’t get “cemented” in memory in the ADHD brain, so there is no plan in place to prevent new mistakes—mistakes just like the old ones—from happening yet again.


The strategies that have worked for my clients might work for you, too, especially engaging an accountability partner with whom to role-play or rehearse before a social or business event. Many have found keeping a log of impulsive behaviors and asking for feedback to be helpful (as long as you’re willing to accept the feedback openly). You can try any of the following strategies, being sure to give yourself enough time to evaluate how they’re working. Change will not happen overnight, though, so don’t give up after one or two attempts.

Appoint a “watch dog.”

Enlist a trusted friend to watch over you and your actions. Give this person permission to be very honest and to confront you if you are about to do something you might regret, like calling an old flame, for example, or walking off your job or skipping a business meeting. Go over an agreed-upon dialogue for these circumstances—for example, “Jake, remember you told me to hold you back when you try to do these types of things because you forget the consequences.” For this to work, you must allow the appointed person to become firm with you if you continue to try to justify your actions.

Use a team of advisors.

One of my most impulsive clients surrounds herself with a strong team of advisors and uses them regularly. She says to build this philosophy into your life: “Don't make too many moves without consulting at least three trusted advisors. Choose people whose values are closest to yours and whose minds are more logical than yours.” Using this strategy, you’ll stay more on-course by thinking through consequences.

Plan ahead by rehearsing or role-playing.

Rehearsing and role-playing are ways of planning possible details for an upcoming conversation so you can collect your thoughts ahead of time. They also help you avoid emotionally charged, counterproductive responses to others, exactly the kind of behavior you’re trying to eliminate.

People who are at ease socially might wonder about such deliberate planning ahead of time, but for people with ADHD issues, especially impulsivity, it can mean the difference between keeping and losing friends. The strategy can work just as well professionally.

Write out your schedule nightly.

To successfully self-manage, it is imperative that you mark out a To-Do list and a schedule at the end of each day. Waking up without a designated structure for the day is as good as taking a day off! Look at the schedule first thing in the morning. Make this a ritual.

Create a “home” for thoughts.

If you’re someone who often complains that great ideas come to you in the middle of meetings or when you’re concentrating on something else, you can capture those ideas by giving them a home and writing them down. Keep track of your ideas in a notebook or computer file so that you can get to them at a better time. The purpose is to provide “containers” for thoughts so that you don’t impulsively act on them in the moment.

Think before jumping.

Before agreeing to work on yet one more project, join one more board, or meet someone for lunch, stop and ask yourself, before answering: Is this reasonable?

It is okay to say “no.” Do not overextend yourself! Often people say “yes” too quickly without first thinking of the consequences. Have a dialogue rehearsed in your mind to be ready for requests on your time. Say, for example, “I need some time to think about how this will fit it into my schedule. Let me get back to you.” If they demand an immediate answer, simply say no!

Rid yourself of toxic feelings.

If you do get sidetracked and consumed by toxic emotions, it’s important to get rid of them before going into a meeting or having an important conversation. Do what one of my clients did” Call a (close) friend and say, “I have to clear my head, can I just talk at you? After five minutes tell me to hang up! Okay?” Then let it rip! This helps to clear your head of your extraneous thoughts and enables you to more fully concentrate on what is in front of you without the fear of blurting something out that you'll regret later.

Learn to self-observe.

To help curb acting on impulsive thoughts, learn to “watch” yourself in action and monitor what you do, and don’t do! I personally pretend I have a mini-camera attached to a hat I’m wearing. I try to observe myself through the lens of this camera—my hands, my body – in all actions I take throughout the day. I continually ask myself, “Am I on-task? Off-task? Am I where I am supposed to be? Am I working on priority items?” This strategy worked so well for me that once I slapped one of my hands when I noticed it had “wandered off” and was brushing my dog’s teeth instead of at the computer keyboard writing my book, where it was supposed to be!

Do it actively.

Allow yourself to use flipcharts or to hash things out on pieces of paper as you talk. Often, standing up or pacing while talking can help thoughts come together in a more organized manner.

Practice bottom-lining.

If you’re like a lot of people with ADHD, you may have difficulty getting to the essence of a thought and will engage, instead, in long, descriptive stories. If this is you, practice the art of ‘bottom-lining,” which means getting to the point. Ask yourself, “What is the key thing I want the other person to understand?” By clarifying your point this way first, you’ll make it more easily when you actually speak to the other person.

IF YOU’RE TRYING TO CONTROL YOUR IMPULSIVITY, the key to success is to select a strategy, work through it, and judge its effectiveness. If you’ve given a strategy sufficient time and it’s really not working, try something else. Remember, impulsive people are usually creative people, so use that creativity to design strategies of your own. Share what works for you!

Nancy Ratey