Monday, May 24, 2010

HBHM (2 of 5): Work like a butterfly, focus like a goldfish

One of my earliest childhood memories is spending time at the Children's Hospital taking these funky tests. I didn't really know why I was there or why people kept asking me what seemed like odd questions, but I answered them the best I could. After that, I never went back and nothing really changed for me, so it was just a blip on the childhood radar - nothing of particular note.

What I didn't know then, and later found out, was that the whole purpose of the trip was to figure out if I had ADD. And this was in the early 80's, before it was popular! Turns out the doctors thought I did and my parents didn't want to put me on meds, so that was that and I don't really remember it coming up again. I guess I did well enough in school where no urgent action seemed to be needed.

I also remember very vividly a time in high school when I was writing a term paper and one of my friends gave me a ritalin from his prescription assuring me that it would help me get the work done. Did it ever. Suddenly I had the ability to block everything else out and work on just one thing. It was odd. It was a bit scary. But man, did I write. It also back-fired when I eventually did get distracted and proceeded to play Sega's NHL 95 until about 5am. Win some, lose some.

I don't know a whole lot about ADD or ADHD and how it should be dealt with the best, but I do know that uninterrupted focus is rare in my life. My PhD advisor (especially) and my postdoc advisor both have the ability to zone in on something and Get Shit Done in remarkably efficient ways. I don't. Apparently I hide it fairly well (not intentionally) because to my knowledge, no one else really seems to notice; nor would they unless they watched me work and that would just be creepy. It's not like this has derailed me or anything, my gerbil-like attention span is something I am used to. I just work very differently and had a hard time using "Dr. Focus, PI" as a model. In a lot of ways it can be a good thing in this job, where my day is often sliced in a zillion pieces of time doing different things. It is also probably a reason why we have so many projects going on in the lab right now or why I needed to be juggling several projects all the time as a student and postdoc. However, if I work on one thing for 2 hours straight it either means I am under huge deadline pressure or plague and pestilence are coming shortly, followed by a bunch of guys on horses.

Since my one experience, I haven't tried any other drugs to treat ADD. Who knows, maybe it would help, but I've found other ways to deal with my scatteredness. And since I only found out somewhat recently that I was "dealing" with anything, I guess I've just done what works for me. Typically I take a lot of breaks when I am working on something and spend 5-10 minutes doing something else. It's not particularly efficient, but it means I get the most out of the time I am spending working. Pre-blogging, a lot of my breaks were spent reading about sports, catching up on news or doing some of the random little things that everyone has to do in a day. Then, for some reason, I started a blog.

Blogging, for me, has become a productive way to reign in my inability to focus for long periods of time and turn my breaks into something more valuable than reading another opinion on the pre-season moves in the AFC-East. Whether you believe it or not, many of the posts I regularly write don't take longer than a few minutes to compose. If you are one who pays close attention to spelling and grammar, my time spent per post likely doesn't surprise you, but people often assume that this stuff takes longer than it actually does.

So, instead of broadening the scope of my NFL knowledge*, I have allocated my "non-work" time to writing about inane snippets of academic life and interacting with others doing the same. What I never anticipated, however, was how useful this would become for my development as a researcher, teacher and person. But more on that over the next couple of days.

*The Jets still suck, though. 


  1. It does feel a bit like you are like me! I am less distracted, with some sort of capablility to focus on one thing, however, in my mind I have multiple trains of thoughts running at the same time, in different paces. I need the feeling of plague and pestilence hunting me down to get me focused, but when I am I can pull things off. As such I spend a lot of time reading blogs. At work, as well actually. At first I felt bad, but it has helped me in so many ways, that the ICT people would be really stupid to block me off the net for that :)

  2. I have a very similar issue, scatteredness as you nicely put it. Listening to music (over headphones) helps me focus, the louder the better. And cutting back on caffeine helps.

    I consider the ability to juggle multiple projects is a great gift. There's never a dull moment!

  3. I too have ADHD issues. lin's description sounds a lot like me. But when there are no imminent deadlines looming, but there's still a big pile of work, it is very frustrating that my brain won't let me get on with it, particularly when the pile is large and frittering time away means that I leave myself very little time for relaxation and a social life as a result. Then I have these towering piles of all kinds of academic work, and feel overwhelmed and incapable as a result. :-(

  4. I wonder how common the ADD-like phenotype is among scientist types? Because I also relate to your tale. In fact, I was in the middle of writing something else when I had to stop to take a look around the interwebs. Also, I can't stand it when it is quiet (music/radio always going if I'm trying to work). I like to think that my scatteredness could be a good thing for this job, but I guess we'll see. Great post, and I like your idea for the series this week.

  5. Ha ha, ditto. Dunno if I like labeling as ADD or something clinical - even preclinical. I think too easy nowadays to do that (autism rates anyone?). I think it's just an ability, or need, to multitask and it might have more to do with addiction to dopamine rewards than misfiring/miswiring. When you're working on 100 things at once, you can feel a great sense of accomplishment at getting shit done. The downside is the masochistic sense of failure when you're panicking because you're over stretched.

  6. I'm not saying that I have any idea whether or not my ability to focus is something that a doctor might label as ADD, just noting that the possibility has been brought up before. Frankly, I don't really care how or if it's labeled, only that I have found what I consider an effective way to use the time I often need to refocus.

    I would guess that the ability to focus for a long period of time on one thing is in the minority of people, rather than the majority.

  7. Wow, I feel like I'm reading about myself, too. I often feel like I require a certain amount of screwing around in order to focus when necessary. I wonder what would happen if I tried ritalin... seeing as how I somehow manage to get a lot done this way, maybe I'd suddenly become superhuman? Coffee HELPS my focus though, if I have a shot of caffeine in the afternoon sometimes I just go on fire!

  8. One caveat from having observed untreated ADHD over a long period of time:

    Some adaptations are less benign than others. $EX_WIFE self-medicated on catecholamines -- she started out the day worrying until her stress level got high enough to keep her focused. Chronic stress is Not Good For You long term, so finding other ways to manage is pretty important.

    One of the boys looks to be doing something sort of similar. Well, "adult" means that Dad gets to be concerned without any real leverage. My stress point, I guess.

  9. Very interesting! When I was working, I happily kept my focus on several different things at once, and seemed to work best when I had lots of things going on. My desk was always a chaotic mess piled with papers but I knew where everything was. Now that I am not working and presumably have more time on my hands and fewer things with urgent deadlines, I find it harder to focus on any one thing that I would like to do. Still the same pile of papers on my desk, but I am less sure of where things are or what's in the pile. There are many different ways of coping successfully with work life, and when one is so fortunate as to be employed doing work one has chosen, even one's so called problems can be reformulated as advantageous work methods, which is fabulous! I am still on a quest after all these years to figure out how non-work life functions and how my ill-suited self, which did not choose this, can function more advantageously. Your post has given me some things to think about.

  10. I have, unmedicated, two attentional settings: "I think...oh, hey, sun on car! Glitters! Like snow! Must get new sunglasses before winter! Um...what was I saying?" and "Honey! I've only asked you five times! Didn't you smell the smoke? Didn't you hear the timer go off?"

    Either no focus or hyperfocus.
    Medication gives me settings in between which helps tremendously. I still prefer to write the novel in hyperfocus, and the light focus is helpful in driving. But for the rest of life, a middle setting is a good thing.