This is a version of a talk that I gave to You Got This! in September 2022. If you'd like me to give this talk at your meetup or conference, let me know on Twitter!
I have a serious side project addiction, and have ever since I was at uni. Over the years this has manifested as a musical theatre director, actor and lighting designer, a cabaret company, theatre critic, an indie club night, a vinyl subscription company, amateur brewer, gig promoter, poster illustrator, ghost walker and various other things. Some of these lasted 6 months, some 6 years. Some of these were mildly successful, some were really not. A similar thing has happened in my professional life. Since I’ve been in full-time employment post university, I’ve held roles in marketing, PR, social media, design, product management, front-end engineering and advocacy. This is not me standing here and asking you to acknowledge how great and varied my life has been. This is more so I can stand here in disbelief and wonder how it only took until 2020 before I realised I probably have ADHD…
What is ADHD? It stands for Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is often marked by excessive amounts of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. In 1987 ADD and ADHD got bundled into ADHD officially, and in 1994 they revised the categorization to include subtypes, which are:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, combined type
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, predominantly inattentive type
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type
ADHD springs from executive dysfunction, which basically means there’s a deficit in the cognitive processes that regulate, control and manage other cognitive processes. In adults, according the NHS this results in things like:
- carelessness and lack of attention to detail
- continually starting new tasks before finishing old ones
- poor organisational skills
- inability to focus or prioritise
- continually losing or misplacing things
- restlessness and edginess
- difficulty keeping quiet, and speaking out of turn
- blurting out responses and often interrupting others
- mood swings, irritability and a quick temper
- inability to deal with stress
- extreme impatience
- taking risks in activities, often with little or no regard for personal safety or the safety of others
And if you think you’ve been seeing ADHD a lot more recently, that’s not surprising. Between 2007 and 2016, diagnosis of adult ADHD in the US shot up by 123%. Although I’d say this isn’t because of a bunch of people jumping on the bandwagon, or a generation of “defective” people, but more because there is a lot more informal education around it, mostly thanks to the internet, and the fact that we’re slowly shedding a lot of the stigma that revolves around ADHD, and neurodivergence in general. Which is a good thing.
There’s a whole bunch of interesting facts that I could go into about ADHD, like the fact that it is twice as likely to be diagnosed in men than women (mostly because women are much more adept at masking), how it’s often misdiagnosed in adults as depression and anxiety, as they share a lot of the same markers… Or how research suggests that much like other neurodivergences, ADHD exists on a spectrum, and isn’t clear-cut.
But that’s not what I’m hear to talk about today.
Instead I wanted to share with you some of the traits that i’ve identified as things that help or hinder my ability to not only do side projects, but live my life generally. It’s worth pointing out right now that this is my experience, and is not going to be a catch-all ‘this will work for you’. There might be some things that work here for everyone, and some that are specifically effective for me. Anyway, let’s get to it.
Lack of organisation and forgetfulness
First up, lack of organisation and forgetting things. This one is a big one, and one that I feel like I’ve only really started to nail in the last three years. With so many projects, you’d hope that my brain is neatly organised lists things to do. Like Tom Cruise in minority report, throwing things around a screen like its nobody’s business. It’s more of a tornado of chaos, with random things flying at me at inopportune times, vying for my attention.
One of the ways I’ve learnt to manage this is via lists, or more specifically, my own version of bullet journalling. I’m not going to go indepth on bullet journalling, but I recommend reading The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. A lot of crap too. Filter it out to see what works for you. But for me, creating monthly, weekly and daily to-do lists and notes allows me to pull the soup out of my head, get it on paper, and stop my brain from obsessing over it lying in bed at 3am.
Next up, low friction reminders are your friend. If there is something you need to do by a certain time, don’t be afraid to use Siri or Google Assistant to remind you. Slash remind is my favourite command in Slack. If it allows you to not drop everything to complete the task there and then, or allows you to not let it fall into the forgotten pit of forgotten tasks forever, then that’s a good thing.
Finally, and on a similar note, try and learn to embrace letting things go and forgetting them, in the hopes that they’ll come back later. One of my favourite things to do when I worked in an agency was when I got back from holiday, deleting all my emails with the knowledge that if someone REALLY needed to get back in touch with me, they’ll email me again. Fuck fomo.
Hyperfocus and hyperfixation
Next up, hyperfocus and hyperfixation. This was definitely one that I wasn’t aware of until I started reading up on ADHD. ADHD isn’t just about an inability to focus. It’s about having trouble regulating focus. This means that there are times when I get into a blinkered hole of focus and nothing can distract me for hours on end. It’s even led to people in my life insisting I get my hearing checked because of my lack of ability to filter when someone is talking to me when I’m in this state. It also shapes itself at a more macro level with becoming fixated on an idea or topic for days or weeks. New hobbies, interests or ideas can seem like they’re core to your being for a short period of time and then just be forgotten almost instantly (Side note: It’s also why people with ADHD are more susceptible to addiction).
This can obviously be handy, especially when you think about starting projects. That all-consuming focus can help you start things, get them off the ground and put in the hours required to make whatever it is successful (for a time). On the flip side, it can also blind you to the downsides of whatever it is you’re starting. It can also mean that when that fixation is over, you’re left with a project that you don’t particular want to do anymore.
One of the ways I’ve managed this with side projects or things I want to start is through self awareness. It was something I picked up in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy of labelling and analysing thought patterns that have helped me realise when I’m hyperfixating. Labelling it almost takes some of the power away, and then, even though it’s hard, I can choose whether to focus on it or not. It doesn’t always work, but it can help judge whether something is worth fixating on.
Constantly changing tasks, inability to concentrate, not being able to complete
So let’s swing the other way to inattention and what this brings about. One of the markers that has dominated my life is that I am top tier at not being able to multitask. Or, more accurately, I will have 20 different tabs open constantly switching between trying to write a talk, check twitter, book a hotel, respond to an email, update a website and organise a time to chat with my mum at the weekend. And by 20 different tabs I mean 120. The bullet journalling has helped quite a lot with this, as it helps bring some order to the tasks that need doing. Radical focus, of shutting everything down and forcing myself to do one task at a time is another one that is sometimes needed.
However, a weird side-hack that I’ve found has strangely worked in most cases is partnering up on side projects. Ideally, partnering up with a neurotypical person, but partnering up with anyone. This helps spread the load, and also gives you a chance to split things in a way that helps you maintain focus on the parts you actually enjoy. Most of the things above (especially the things that have lasted) have been co-run. I co-ran a vinyl subscription business. I co-DJed an indie club night for five years (and festivals and gigs). I co-host a beer podcast. I co-manage the band that I’m in.
One of the things that I’ve found is that if I’m beholden to someone else to complete something, especially if a deadline is set, there is way more chance it will get done (probably at the last minute, but hey…).
Losing interest in things
The other side of hyperfixation is that things can feel a bit faddy if you look back. There’s a good chance that the thing you’re investing loads of time into becomes uninteresting, or a burden after a while. There are two things that I’ve tried to keep in mind with this: Everything is an MVP, and quit (or at least reassess) when it feels like work.
Back in 2012, a friend and I birthed Early Doors Disco. We started it in a rush of excitement with a real problem to solve. We wanted to dance to trashy indie music, and nowhere was open early enough for our old souls to do it. We had two major problems standing in the way: We had never DJed, and we had never put on a clubnight, so had no pedigree with venues. We took an MVP approach: All we needed was gear, some googling, and a venue to give us space. We chose a deliberately quiet night (Wednesday), looked up how to do it and gave it a go. What’s the worst that could happen. By month two, we had 150 people in a sweaty club on a Wednesday night dancing to Vampire Weekend at 8pm. We had two rules: If it took longer than a couple of days to plan, it probably wasn’t worth it, and if it ever felt like work, we’d stop doing it. It took 5 years, a podcast, festival slots around the country, ill-advised gig promoting and 4 different club themes for the interest to properly peter out. Now, we DJ a small indie-pop festival in the fjords each year. Knowing when to quit is really important.
Recognising when it’s all a bit too much
And this has been one of the biggest challenges for me. When I have nothing on, I feel restless and bored, like I need to be creating or doing something. When I have loads on, I feel overwhelmed and find it hard to complete anything. It’s a constant balance to keep this in check, and I have to keep an eye out for signs (of usually the latter). Stimming is a big one. Repetitive behaviours start happening more when I’m uncomfortable, stressed or overwhelmed. Rubbing the ends of my fingers against each other, shaking my leg on the ball of my foot, scratching my head. These are usually a sign that something is off balance and I”m heading to burnout or panic attacks, and recognising these can help.
So, have I nailed it? Not really. Is it getting more and more manageable with time? Definitely. I hope something in here is mildly interesting or provides some comfort or help if you recognise any of it, or at least provides awareness for some folks of how some other folks minds’ work. I look forward to coming back and sharing some more techniques as I continue to learn about it.
First I have to clear a few things off my todo list.