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Posted on: Saturday, 01 May 2010 by Rajiv Popat

I have never really discussed my ADHD openly until recently. It was also not until recently that I started talking about taking active and conscious steps to work around it. But then I have been working around it for years.

I have always been a vicarious reader of books connected to philosophy, the human mind, business or management. Poems have been something I have liked ever since school days and I could practically recite scenes from the William Shakespeare play I was studying.

I love books but then it took me years to figure out why I read a few books end-to-end in just one sitting and why I just could not gather enough focus to even browse through others end-to-end in spite of the fact that I desperately wanted to.

I either fell asleep way too randomly or I just quit reading them half way through.

ADHD Is Not About Attention Deficiency

For anyone who has browsed through the basics of ADHD if there is one thing qualified doctors often tell you, it is that ADHD is not about deficiency of the ability to gather attention. As a matter of fact, folks with ADHD tend to be much more attentive than their normal counter parts when they are paying attention. Having said that, ADHD is about the deficiency to 'voluntarily' focus your attention on something.

Put simply, your mind silently-and-quietly almost sub-consciously decides the things that it wants to pay attention to and the things it wants to ignore. Once it does that, no amount of convincing usually tends to work.

Of course you know exercising is good for your body, of-course you know that reading classics is a great way to improve your writing skills but if your brain has flipped the switch on the side of not doing it, chances are you wont be able to give enough attention to the thing to get it done.

Listen Don't Read.

When it came to Outliers, when I was reading it, you would find me with a hardbound copy of the book on my way to commute. If you caught me at a bus or a cab chances were that I was reading it. I completed the book within about a couple of weeks, reading it on my commute to office. 

Atlas shrugged has been in my list of favorite books for years. Having said that, here is a deep dark secret. I was never able to complete the book without skipping huge number of pages in the middle. Lets face it, the book was seriously hard to focus on.

Then then the miracle of a life time happened. I don't know exactly when or how this happened. As far as I remember I just bumped into an audio book and decided to download it. I was hooked on to the idea. My MP3 players started having physical scars because of overuse and it was practically next to impossible to see me on my way to office without a pair of headphones on.

When I went through my first audio-book of atlas-shrugged there was very little skipping. I started remembering and stumbling upon parts of the story that I did not even know existed. I started remembering incidents from the book, I started remembering the names of characters, phrases and writing techniques way better than I had ever remembered by reading the book multiple times over.

There were a certain kind of books that I could have read, for everything else, I almost instantly started preferring audio books. Then came a realization that I happen to be 5x to 10x more attentive and receptive to learning when I am listening to stuff rather than reading it.

For me audio books were like a conversation. My mind was suddenly focused and soaking in words like a wet sponge as I sat down with eyes half closed in a moving bus speeding on its way to my office.

My mind, it seems had pre-decided that while it was okay to listen through a version of the Da-Vinci-Code it was a criminal waste of time to flip pages of a text book and even try to read it.

Classics, literature, travel related books, love stories - the horizon opened up and I was reading, or should I say listening to everything and anything I could lay my hands on. Slowly, as I listened more I also started grabbing hard copies of these and I started reading them occasionally as well.

I had similar issues with long-winded emails which I often found pointless to read. Proof reading my emails, which were generally long was also painful. Editing the blog posts I write was a huge problem as well, because no matter how many times I proof read them, they would typically have a couple of mistakes. Besides proof reading them sounded like a boring chore as well.

Then one fine day the realization dawned unto me with divine intervention, that I could in-fact use the inbuilt engine of Microsoft word to read aloud what was written on screen. In the first few days of doing that, proof reading emails or blog posts like this one wasn't suddenly all that boring or difficult. I actually started liking it and getting done with just one round of review.

The point of this post, is a rather simple one. If you think you have ADHD, having issues with paying attention while multi-tasking and are having a hard time reading a certain kind of material, don't try to force yourself too hard to read it. Go grab an audio book or an audio version of the same content. If you cannot find the audio version, drop the content into Microsoft word and have it read aloud to you by the text to speech feature of Microsoft word.

Of better still, if you can afford it go grab a copy of text aloud with a few natural voices from AT&T and have your emails or word document read out to you. See if you can focus any better. If you suffer from ADHD and are like me, chances are that you will love audio and will soak in much more content than what you will absorb if you were reading the same content. Chances are that you will actually love audio. Try it.

I wish you good luck.

posted on Saturday, 01 May 2010 20:30:00 UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [1] Trackback
Posted on: Sunday, 25 April 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Quick! How many windows do you have open in the background right now as you read this? On a given day my desktop would have looked somewhat on the lines of this:

If you have more than ten parallel windows and you find yourself jumping from one window to another loosing complete track of what you were doing before you jumped to a different task, you might consider taking an online test for ADHD.

Michael Lopp describes this classic symptom of having way too many tasks on at your desktop in his post about Nerd ADD. He explains:

Stop reading right now and take a look at your desktop. How many things are you doing right now in addition to reading this column? Me, I’ve got a terminal session open to a chat room, I’m listening to music, I’ve got Safari open with three tabs open where I’m watching Blogshares, tinkering with a web site, and looking at weekend movie returns. Not done yet. I’ve got iChat open, ESPN.COM is downloading sports new trailers in the background, and I’ve got two notepads open where I’m capturing random thoughts for later integration into various to do lists. Oh yeah, I’m writing this column, as well.

Folks, this isn’t multi-tasking. This is advanced case of Nerd Attention Deficiency Disorder. I am unable to function at my desktop unless I’ve got, at least, five things going on at the same time. If your count came close, you’re probably afflicted, as well. Most excellent.

My mother first diagnosed me with NADD. It was the late 80s and she was bringing me dinner in my bedroom (nerd). I was merrily typing away to friends in some primitive chat room on my IBM XT (super nerd), listening to some music (probably Flock of Seagulls — nerd++), and watching Back to the Future with the sound off (neeeeerrrrrrrd). She commented, “How can you focus on anything with all this stuff going on?” I responded, “Mom, I can’t focus without all this noise.”

While ADD, ADDHD, NADD or extreme multitasking and restlessness, whatever you want to call it, has its own advantages, after a while it gets to you. For me the noise and parallel processing in my brain started becoming scary when every project that I undertook outside of work hardly ever ended.

It was time that I decided to take a few online tests and realized that I scored consistently high in all of them, every single one of them ending with a result which was nudging me to start doing something about it.

The first side of dealing with it was through fitness and exercise which train the brain to control attention.

The second aspect of it was setting a few circuit breakers in place.

For me a circuit breaker in this case would be anything that stops me from ALT+Tabbing my way to another task while I am working on one. If I am in the middle of composing an email and I am called to a meeting what I want to do, is get back to composing that email when I get back to my desk. Typically, I don't. I instinctively spawn either a new visual studio instance or an internet explorer instance.

If I am in the middle of writing code and I suddenly think of paying my cell phone bill online, I want to resist the temptation of hitting the Window button and typing iexplore to bring up internet explorer.

What I wanted was a circuit breaker that would stop me from hitting ALT+TAB or the window key, pause for a second and let me consciously decide if I wanted to perform a task-switch. 

In my search for finding applications that will lock down all other applications and let me run just one or two programs that I wanted to focus on at any given time, I hardly came up with any solutions or tools that would lock down everything except the one program that I wanted to run.

In the end, I ended up using a simple hack to help me focus on just one thing at a time. Let's assume that you want to focus on writing a blog-post for which you need to focus on Windows Live Writer and nothing else. Here is what you do to set up a circuit breaker for yourself:

  1. Close all other applications.
  2. Start Windows Live Writer.
  3. Go to Task Manager by hitting ALT+CTRL+DEL, Move to the Processes Tab and kill explorer.exe.

Now all you are left with is Windows Live Writer and your desktop. Even the desktop icons would have disappeared. Your window button is gone. There is nothing to ALT+TAB to. Just you and Live Writer:

Of course, you could start your explorer again by brining up Task Manager and Hitting The New Task Button.

But then hitting ALT+CTRL+DEL and invoking explorer often involves a couple of clicks and it often acts as a circuit breaker. The mere act of going through a few clicks helps you slow down and consciously decide if you want to brain up explorer and move to multitasking mode again.

Do you also find the idea of multitasking painful?

Do you use special programs, post-it notes or labels to remind yourself that you should be doing less of it?

What is your circuit breaker?

Discuss.

posted on Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:30:00 UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0] Trackback
Posted on: Saturday, 24 April 2010 by Rajiv Popat

As far as most minds are concerned, the very words 'computer programmer', 'geek' or 'nerd' usually does not tend to conjure up an image of the most physically fit human beings that walk this planet. As a computer programmer myself, I have never really paid active attention to my health, exercise routine or a healthy life style. Old acquaintances back at school often referred to me as 'bill gates'. Well, what they meant was, this bill gates:

Honestly, being called out for being skinny every once in a while or the element of physical appearance somehow never seemed important enough to move to a stringent exercising regiment and then sticking to it. I hardly ever thought that I would be consistently or actively thinking about health leave aside, exercising and writing a series of blog post on it.

Things That Move A Nerd And Getting Him To Give A F@#CK.

During my life, a decent number of well-wishers have asked me to pay more attention to health and exercise. 'Its good for your body', 'its good for your mind' and 'it will make you feel good' are some of the most common reasons that have been sited.

What most folks forget however, is that when you are selling a life-changing idea that needs solid commitment to a geek, selling him physical appearance, the idea of 'feeling good'  or the concept of well-being is not going to do it. The geek as it turns out, does not care enough for that stuff. At-least, he wont admit that he does, even if he cares about these things. He likes his dark cave and his interactions with his compiler.

He just won't buy your 'it will make you look and feel good' argument.

What the geek needs is a challenge or a problem that he can connect to. A problem that is worth fixing. A problem that is engaging and consuming as a software program. Something that he can connect to. Consider this thought process from John Walker:

I'm an engineer by training, a computer programmer by avocation, and an businessman through lack of alternatives. From grade school in the 1950's until 1988 I was fat--anywhere from 30 to 80 pounds overweight. This is a diet book by somebody who spent most of his life fat. The absurdity of my situation finally struck home in 1987.

"Look," I said to myself, "you founded one of the five biggest software companies in the world, Autodesk. You wrote large pieces of AutoCAD, the world standard for computer aided design. You've made in excess of fifty million dollars without dropping dead, going crazy, or winding up in jail. You've succeeded at some pretty difficult things, and you can't control your flipping weight?''

Through all the years of struggling with my weight, the fad diets, the tedious and depressing history most fat people share, I had never, even once, approached controlling my weight the way I'd work on any other problem: a malfunctioning circuit, a buggy program, an ineffective department in my company.

Michael Lopp in his article on The Nerd Handbook describes one of the examples that can really move a nerd to address fitness. He explains:

Make it a project. You might’ve noticed your nerd’s strange relation to food. Does he eat fast? Like really fast? You should know what’s going on here. Food is thrown into the irrelevant bucket because it’s getting in the way of the content. Exercise, too. Thing is, you want your nerd to eat healthily so that he’s here in another thirty years, so how do you change this behavior? You make diet and exercise the project.

For me, exercise became the project ten years ago after a horrible break-up. When the project was no longer the Ex, I dove into exercise every single day of the week.

There were charts tracking my workouts, there were graphs tracking my weight, and there was the exercise. Every single day for two years until the day I passed out in a McDonald’s post-workout after not eating for a day.

Ok, so time for a new project. Yeah, nerds also have moderation issues. That’s another essay.

Significant nerd behavioral change is only going to happen if your nerd engages in the project heart and soul, otherwise it’s just another thought for the irrelevant bucket.

For someone like me, the idea of being called fat or the idea of a break-up is not compelling enough to get my ass off the couch and start running, but if you can appeal to my brain and convince me with objective and scientific facts which tell me that getting up and walking five miles a day will help me write better code, you have my attention.

With me the idea of exercise every day started rather recently with a realization that the ADHD that I often joked about having and never even bothered to get tested or formally diagnosed, was starting to impact my life and was preventing me from working on things that I always wanted to work on.

The open source timesheet entry system that I started, my announcement of working on a book and my announcement of starting to write technical posts were just some examples of incomplete ideas that have not yet seen the day of light purely because I could not generate enough focus or attention that these activities deserved. To be honest, there are a zillion more ideas that float in parallel and create a turmoil in my head.

After a while these things get painful to deal with.

This was clearly a problem needing a solution. It was time to do some serious geek-type-research using the same information tools that I use when I sit down to research a new topic when I am going to blog about it. One thing that kept coming back in all the research that I read about and all the material that I came across was that cardio-exercises have concrete and scientific benefits at improving your attention span.  

Strangely enough, it was these scientific researches I read about (which I might do another blog post to talk about) that I could connect to the most. And then, one fine morning, on my way to office, I got off the bus a couple of miles before office and walked. The nerd in me had voluntarily and seriously started giving a f@#ck about this workout thing.

In the end things are fairly simple. As programmers we tend to build some fairly complicated systems and work on some fairly interesting problems. We are often in a war on multiple fronts, where chances of losing are way higher than chances of winning.

But we adapt, improvise, and work.

Consistently.

If you can build complex software that works reliably in a production environment and not police or panic even when the sky is falling, figuring out a fitness regiment that meets your need, clears your head, helps you focus and keeps you mentally fit, should not be all that hard, if only you can get the nerd within you to give a f@#ck.

How you get the nerd within you to give a fu#@k however is a whole new problem that you are going to have to deal with yourself. For me, it was ADHD and the fear of not being able to work on things that I always wanted to work on. For you, it could be something totally different. Whatever it is, the sooner you can convince the nerd within you to get his ass off the couch and run a few miles consistently day after day, the better off you are.

I wish you good luck.

posted on Saturday, 24 April 2010 20:30:00 UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0] Trackback