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Focus and Flow

Recently, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who have gotten a late diagnosis ADHD. I’m very open about my ADHD and when people in my network get their own diagnosis, I’m someone they feel comfortable reaching out to.

As many of them start reviewing their entire lives and noticing patterns they’d never seen before, they often find themselves struggling to adapt to some of the more challenging aspects of having ADHD. So, today’s post is mostly for my ADHD brothers and sisters, but also anyone else who has trouble focusing in this highly distracted world.

Today, I want to share some tips that help me stay focused, enter my state of flow, and get more done. I won’t get into medication in this post because it is neither part of my professional qualifications nor something I feel has a simple answer. Every person’s experience or preference for or against medication is their own.

If you have a friend with ADHD, maybe share this article with them. Oh, and bring them a glass of water. They probably haven’t had any water today.

Tip #1: Move from internal memory and processing to external memory and processing

Midjourney Prompt: a particularly productive whiteboard session with the team, cartoon strip style

One BIG shift that neurodivergent people often find helpful is to shift their processing and memory storage from internal to external. Here’s what I mean…

  • Instead of trying to remember your appointments, use and rely on your calendar (like Google Calendar or iOS Calendar).
  • Instead of trying to remember what’s on your task list, or grocery list…or any list, use a task management program (like Todoist, Asana, or Monday)
  • Instead of trying to figure out the solution to a problem in your head, draw it out on a piece of paper, a whiteboard, or in a mind mapping program (like Simplemind or Miro).
  • Instead of telling yourself that you’ll remember that great idea, write it in a trusted space for notes (like Notion or Evernote).
  • Instead of trying to conceptualize how long 30 minutes is, set a timer.

People with ADHD often have brains like supercomputers but without any RAM — hence, our short term memory is usually awful.

The best advice is to leverage tools to help with things that are more difficult for you. Stop relying on your brain — the one that works differently — to do everything the seems easy for others. You will likely find that when you can look at something, it immediately becomes easier to engage with the task instead of watching it compete with the noise in your head.

Tip #2: Experiment with ways to trigger Focus and Flow

Tell me if these sound familiar.

Midjourney Prompt: woman, non-white, she sees everything in slow motion, she is moving effortlessly, she is heroic, she is focused on an objective, 8k

You have a Superpower

Hyperfocus / State of Flow

a state where you become so thoroughly involved in something that time ceases to exist and your ability to complete tasks or attend to details defy the laws of nature. 8 hours of Hyperfocus can often output the equivalent of 24 hours of labor.

You have a Super Weakness

Executive Dysfunction

a state where 10,000 tasks are all competing for your attention, screaming at you through a void of silence in your head, trying desperately to get you to state something, or anything at all. Yet, from the outside it might look like you are just sitting on the couch, possibly scrolling through your phone. Little does anyone know the tornado of anxious immobility infecting your body.

Midjourney Prompt: a superhero trapped in sticky goo or quicksand unable to move, 8k, realistic

One is great and super useful, the other…not so much. One of the things I have spent a lot of time working on, for myself, is studying what puts me into either state.

Here are a few things I’ve found that work to trigger focus and flow:

Trigger #1: Music + Noise Cancelling Headphones

Some people I know with ADHD will watch Youtube videos while doing their work. They may stop periodically to scroll through Instagram. Maybe they like music they can sing along with. All of those will destroy my productivity. What does work is the right type of music with headphones that block out external distractions.

My strongest recommendation for anyone with attention issues, ADHD or not, is to try Brain FM.

I have listened to this app almost everyday over the past year. It has music for focus, music for relaxing, music for mediation, and music for sleep. I mostly use the focus music which is broken into the following categories: deep work, creative flow, study + read, and light work.

screenshot of the focus options from the app

You’re able to choose the genres you prefer (I like drone, electronic, grooves, and lofi), set timers, and adjust the neural effort to high, medium, or low (I prefer high).

Put on a 60-minute focus > deep work session with high neural tuning and the genres I suggest as a starting point. For me, this puts me in the zone in under 5 minutes.

However, this leads to the next big hurdle blocking our path to focus and flow: Getting started.

Trigger #2: The Art of Start

Midjourney Prompt: an enormous pile of laundry waiting to be done

“For me, the hardest part about doing the laundry, is starting it.

Once I start, I can do it all day.”

(yeah, I quoted myself — what are you gonna do about it?)

Even though I still regularly struggle with executive dysfunction, I have found a useful mental model to get unstuck. As illustrated by my quote above, I’ve come to recognize that momentum plays a huge role in ADHD. The key is often figuring out how to just get started.

Here’s how I do it…

BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, shares a model for behavior change: B = M * A * P (Behavior = Motivation x Ability x Prompt). This model contains a jewel for people with ADHD. We want to initiate a behavior, but due to executive dysfunction our motivation is frozen. While we may want to do something, we can’t because we’re paralyzed. A prompt may be useful but the most important part of the equation is the ability factor.

When stuck in Executive Dysfunction, I’ve found that the most important thing I can do is find a way to start and that means lowering the ability threshold by making the task so small, it’s impossible to not get started. I might say:

“I’m going to do 5 minutes of work and if I can’t get myself started after that, I’ll take the next hour off and come back to scrolling through TikTok”

This is usually a small enough ask for my brain to avoid being overwhelmed by all of the things I’m supposed to be doing. If it’s not, I make it smaller: maybe I say 1 minute. Next, I sit down, throw on my headphones, turn on, and before I know it, several hours have gone by and I’ve crossed multiple things off of my todo list.

Another one I used to do is set a Pomodoro timer and just keep working after the first alarm goes off.

The keys are to find a trigger to get unstuck and then one to get into focus.

Tip #3: Move from external awareness to internal awareness

The last tip I’ll give you is less about getting into focus or flow and more about getting rid of something that might be in your way. Many people with ADHD have spent a lifetime of pretending to be someone they are not for fear of being, once again, labeled lazy, unreliable, or not living up to their potential. This can happen at home, at school, or at previous jobs. It can come from those who have our best interest in mind, and those who wish to embarrass or shame us.

Today, I give you permission to move away from other people’s opinions or advice, and lean into what you know about yourself. Self-awareness is a superpower, and no one can do that work for you, or tell you how you’re supposed to process the world around you. All that advice people think is helpful like “you just need to try harder,” all the gaslighting about how “everyone deals with that,” and all of the suggestions such as “try using a paper daily planner” can be safely discarded if it doesn’t serve you.

You don’t owe anyone adherence to their method. You get to decide what you need help with, how you work best, and what systems work for you.

Do not listen to the judgements and directives of those who do not have to live in your head 24/7. Listen to the voice inside, pay attention to the feeling in your gut. These are the breadcrumbs that will lead you to focus and flow.

And if you don’t have ADHD, the same advice applies. You do it your way. You know yourself best.

What could we do with more focus and flow?

I love being in a state of Hyperfocus. I get so much done and it feels great; I feel like I can move mountains. But it’s not always easy to get there.

I’m lucky to have received an early ADHD diagnosis. I’ve been on meds and off meds for a little more than 20 years. During my time off medication, I spent a lot of time learning strategies and tactics for getting things done when my brain didn’t want to cooperate and I’m glad I did.

I think most of the progress we’ve made as a species can be attributed to our ability to focus, especially when we enter a state of flow. Today was my contribution to that conversation. I hope some of this was helpful for you, wherever you are on the neurodiversity spectrum — which includes neurotypicality.

If you’ve got a tip, I’d love to hear it. Comment below or email me.

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