Habitual Responses to Time with ADHD

Episode 131

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Last week Cam and Shelly talked about habitual emotional responses to the stories we tell ourselves. This week they explore habitual responses in the context of time. Those of us with ADHD can have a complicated relationship with time. We can be extremely reactive to it, and we can be highly avoidant of it.

Today the hosts share client examples of some classic habitual responses to time. Shelly and Cam reference the Eisenhower Decision Matrix tool that distinguishes importance and urgency in a task, especially Quadrant I items that are important and urgent and the ever-challenging Quadrant II items that are important and not urgent. With ADHD just ‘scheduling’ our important items in the future is not enough. We have to first address the propensity to be drawn to the biggest signals – lit up by urgency and our level of interest.

Shelly leads off with her own client example where her client struggled with scheduling the all-important case notes in her role as a special education teacher. As Shelly and her client start to look for the “big chunks” of time the client starts to shift her perspective, not only seeing the time but how the time would be valuable to address much more relevant tasks. In doing so, Shelly’s client noticed and shifted away from her habit of thinking she needed big chunks to finish her notes. Cam follows with an example where the client’s habitual response is to avoid undefined but less urgent tasks, pushing them to the next day on his calendar. These self-described “black boxes” were a source of underlying anxiety for Cam’s client. But when the client let go of not knowing and embracing a narrow role of just assessing and defining the task, he could overcome his avoidant behavior. In both examples, the clients got curious and present to the opportunity at hand. Cam and Shelly leave listeners with some simple practices to start identifying and shifting habitual responses to time.

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Episode Transcript:

Shelly: Hi, I’m Shelly. 

Cam: I’m Cam. 

Shelly: And this is translating ADHD. Heads up that we are down to our last couple of slots for the resilience class, with both Cam and myself that begins Wednesday, June 22nd. So if you were planning on applying for that class, you might want to do so now. Visit the website translatingadhd.com, click on the group coaching tab, and the application, pricing, and all of the information about the course are available there. Another offering that is available is equanimity. That is a course just with Cam that begins Tuesday, July 12th, and meets at nine o’clock Eastern time. Again, all the information is on the website.

In last week’s episode, we got on this topic of habitual response, and it brought up an interesting topic for us about habitual response to time. Cam, do you want to say more about what we mean there before I go into a client example?

Cam: Yeah, I’ll take a stab at it. I think that just like we talked about last week and the week before, about how we can be beholden to our stories – so much so that we have these strong emotional responses to these stories, whether they’re in reality or not – part of that story is true and part of it is not. What came up in our conversation was these habitual responses to a strong emotion, and then how we behave with that strong emotion. So I think that this is a really nice segue here to habitual responses to time. We are wired to respond and react and ride that arc pony that we’ve talked about. The adrenaline response cycle that our habitual response to time is there’s not enough. There’s not enough. And when I need to do something that’s big, I need a lot of time in order to do it. So it’s a great place to explore. We’ve got a couple client examples, and I look forward to digging in with you.

Shelly: So let’s talk about the client that I had in mind when I first thought of this idea of taking habitual response and putting it in the context of time. this client is in special education. Which means there is a lot of paperwork required. Pretty much every time she meets with a kid and she’s meeting with kids on a daily basis as part of her job now, It’s first important to understand where we were in our work around. We had developed this great system for her to capture tasks and to do’s. So the things that she needed to attend to all lived in a place, and she had gotten into the habit of every morning, sitting down and choosing what tasks she might do for the day.

And so the dilemma we were trying to solve for next is how do we get her client case notes for the kids that she’s working with done on a more timely basis so that she’s not running up to the end of the month and needing to sit down and do a month’s worth of notes. And again, We had already cultivated a great system for capturing that information in advance, which allowed us to eliminate one of the walls of awful for her, because.

We took it from being both a data entry problem and an information gathering problem to just a data entry problem. All of the information she needed exist in a spreadsheet. Now she captures that daily. And so she just needs to log into the systems that they use at her job to actually enter the information.

And so she started off by saying the problem is, it takes a really long time to log into all of these systems. And so I feel like I need to sit down and do these in a big chunk of time to which I asked day-to-day. Are you aware of what your chunks of time are? Because between her meetings with kids which are on a regular schedule and the other meetings and things that come up in the course of working in a school that are not on a regular schedule, her schedule is pretty variable every day.

And there are some days where she might have bigger chunks of time and other days where she might not.

No, I have never once done that when I sit down in the morning and I pick my tasks for the day, I’m not doing is I’m not putting that in context with what my day looks like and what my chunks of time look like. It was like revolutionary information here. Because she had so long been in this habit of reacting to the day and in a role like that, that’s really easy to do. Not only is her schedule variable every day. There are always things that come up that are unexpected working with young children with developmental delays. And so it just hadn’t even occurred to her to sit down when she’s thinking about what she wants to accomplish that day to also think about what are my chunks of time. It was just habit to react. And here we added this practice of choosing tasks, but she wasn’t really choosing tasks based on the reality of that day. 

Cam: This is a great example because I think it’s indicative of many of our clients experiences with time, right? Is that over the years? Because time is. A challenge to understand. I love that language about looking for those chunks of time. In the day we set ourselves up to respond and react to kind of identify those big signals, those quadrant one important urgent, and we knock those down. I react to stuff as it comes in over the. The latest and loudest. And so this is really proactive. There’s elements of prospective memory here, right? Of kind of looking out in anticipating how time will show up for you. So this is uh, this is. 

Shelly: Yeah. So there’s a second part to this story that’s equally fascinating. So I’ve already said that this client was in the habit of sitting down and doing the bulk of her notes in a large chunk of time near the due date. And so there’s this belief on board that I need a large chunk of time in order to do these notes at all. It’s not worth it to sit down and do them a little bit at a time. Here’s the context we brought in that helped her shift her thinking there, part of the reason that you so interested in staying more caught up on her notes. Isn’t deadline driven. This client was actually meeting her deadlines just fine. What it was about was freeing up more time in the workday for her to do big agenda items.

So she’s not an educator, she’s an occupational therapist. And in addition to loving her work with her students, part of her big agenda is in educating. Other people in her role, making things better at the particular school she’s at, but also being a thought leader beyond that. And there are a number of initiatives that she has wanted to make the time to do that she hasn’t been able to find the time for. So the habit is I need a big chunk of. For anything, right. I need a big chunk of time, but when we start breaking down, what actually needs a big chunk of time. Now these big agenda projects need big chunks of time.

These notes, on the other hand, is it nicer to sit down and only have to log in and go through that whole rigmarole once maybe however. Is it worth giving up the limited number of large chunks of time that I have in any given work week. And that was the missing piece. That was the missing piece that suddenly allowed her to go from. I could only work on notes when I have a big chunk of time to the best time to work on notes is when I have a little chunk of time. And I can sit down and do the two or three from today because by virtue of keeping those caught up, I’m not going to have to sacrifice my big chunks later. I can start to allocate those to other things.

Cam: This reminds me of the class we’re finishing up tomorrow night, which is project X. Right? So project X is that those things that only matter to you. And so when you start to look at okay, with your client, your big agenda items, those things that really matter to you, notes are important, but they don’t define you as an individual. Right. That it’s these bigger things that we’re able to teach or share or contribute to this bigger picture, the sense of purpose, that’s the stuff that’s fulfilling. That’s the stuff that, can really elicit some strong, positive, emotional responses of why we should. Where we show up. So just to, first of all, see that as, oh, you know what, it’s also a sense of priority right? Of the priority for those big chunks as these, the big ticket items, the things that really matter. So that’s really some great work there. Shelly.

Shelly: Ha the priority for the big chunks are the things that really matter and not everything requires a big chunk. Even if that feels optimal for our brains. Can we talk about this? This kind of came up with this client in the context of you and I talking about how we schedule our clients differently, how I prefer to group mine tightly together so that I have chunks in my days. And you prefer to space yours out a little bit more so that you have a littler chunks to take care of administrative tasks. And my learning since then is that I, like my clients, tend to put things into big time chunks that don’t need to live there. I tend to let things like emails pile up in a way where I sit down and that’s now a big chunk task, but I’m much happier and it’s much easier if I take care of it a little at a time here and there.

And that’s yet another common ADHD habit. You know, we have 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour, an hour, but next there’s some appointment on the calendar or some obligation that we know is upcoming and we can feel like there’s no time there. That’s not, it. That’s not enough time to do anything 45 minutes, not enough time to do anything.

And that itself, I think can be a kind of habit that gets created by the fact that we do things based on an urgent. We do them at the last minute. And so the default is to tackle things in big chunks and we develop this story in the sense that that is the only way for us to be successful when the reality is just the opposite.

If we can learn to take care of the routine, things that recurring things in smaller chunks, the payback. Is that our big chunks now have a freedom to pursue what matters, a freedom to dive into the type of work that can’t happen. 15, 20, 45 minutes at a time.

Cam: And also it illustrates that there are certain things that just will not respond to urgency, right. is that she has to get those notes done. There’s a demand for it. It’s It’s front of mind and these bigger items. And people are not necessarily tracking that, including the individual, right. It’s like, oh, I can, I can push that off until tomorrow. I can push that off until next week. And I think it, this takes us into my client example of this phenomenon called he calls them Blackbox. Yeah. So it’s very similar. It’s a similar story, but it’s a little bit different in the sense that again, the common thread is this habitual response to time Eddie came, he was like, yeah.

You know, I’m, I’ve been addressing my Q ones, right? These, these important urgent items clearing the deck on those. So guess what? The client has some space. To address these Q twos. Now some of them are bigger items, but some of them are be sort of smaller kind of detail oriented, no urgency. And yet something that he has to address it’s been placed in his queue. He sees it there and it was really interesting. He came to the colleagues like, yeah, Okay. I, we’ve been talking about for a long time. I finally have the time, the bandwidth to address these cuties and there’s ones that I’m just not finding the entry point. Right. And so this is where different habitual response in the sense of this urgent response. To always act out of urgency to address the latest and loudest doesn’t necessarily work. But as we kind of, again, we, we looked at these and started to name them. What exactly are they? What is the anatomy of this black box? So for him, the black box was. There was, he needed to have some information that he didn’t necessarily have at that point, but he had to do some research. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was. That was the big sticking point. I’m not sure exactly what this is and here’s the big kicker. It has a lot to do with chunks of time. Shelly, actually, as I think about. He couldn’t really predict if he was going to dig into this black box, there was no guarantee in how much time it would take. Right. So he sort of letting go of control there in the sense of if I dig again. Well, That could mean my to-do list expands by a large amount. And guess what? He was kind of avoiding there.

And avoidant behavior habitual to avoid not knowing to not have that information because it was a roll of the dice. It could have been a 10 minute thing. It could have been a five hour thing. It could have been a 50 hour thing. Didn’t know, and that uncertainty just lit up his emotional limbic center. Just enough to have him make a different choice. But what happens then is the habitual response to time is to kick that can down the road because no one’s asking for it. No, one’s asking for it, but couple of weeks go by and he’s got these black boxes and what do we do? We bring that mindfulness approach, that mindfulness practice of getting present.

And getting curious, right. His own interaction with that black box, what’s happening there to notice the habitual urge first kind of step back and like, okay, how can we go in and explore this with some sense of agency, if you go in, does it mean that you’re committing to 50 hours of work? No. Right. So setting the parameters of that exploration, I’m just going to go in and do some fact-finding. That’s all I’m going to do. Right. So in the same way, it’s like, you know what, I’m going to go 20 minutes, look at it. And that’s it. Cause that was another big fear he’s going to get in there. Get pulled in and that was anxiety provoking for him. Right. He’s giving up agency in the rest of his day was like, wait a second. This is not urgent. And that’s the thing you’ve got to fight against his queue. Twos are not urgent ever. So to go in and just say, Hey, I’m going to just look at this for 20 minutes. Maybe look at it with somebody. Can we look at this again? Right. Check it out just to get a sense of what is it? Is it mine, Is it a priority? Is it something I can hand off to someone else, right. to start to ask some questions and identifying possible resources other than. The brute force that we often use to get things done. So really fascinating. And listeners think an opportunity here for you is sort of think about what are your habitual responses to time.

Shelly: Cam something I’m noticing in your story is something I noticed with a lot of my clients and that’s not knowing the size or shape of something before you dive into it. And we’ve been working on that with several of our project X participants as well. Some do have a very clear size and shape, but many don’t.

And we struggle with that type of task as ADHD people, because how do we typically get things done? Before we reach a point where that stops working. It’s either an urgency response or an interest response. And when that powerful urgency or powerful interests takeover, we can sit down. And see something through from the beginning to completion.

This is your writing papers the night before they’re due, or the, I had a client who talked about writing them in the bathroom the day that they were due in high school, or this is your creative rabbit holes on the other side, your interest based stuff, camp. This is not completing for you. This is the stuff that you would jump into and do a bunch of work on and get pulled into the interest of it.

Without knowing the size and shape of it without knowing what am I trying to accomplish here? So what your client did is he took the unknowable part of, I don’t know what this task is yet or where it’s going to lead and you put it a scope to it. Let’s just start to answer that question. Let’s just walk down the research step and clarify.

What this actually is so that you can start to wrap your head around it, and putting a time box around it because again, urgency or interest. And we tend to sit down and do something to completion, particularly under urgency. So that learning to do something a little bit at a time. To move it forward one step or one working session at a time.

And to adapt to how it might evolve is just not a working Seiler working habit than most of us have developed. We know how to sit down and bang something out. We don’t know how to take something large. And make it incremental and be consistent with it. We don’t have those habits in place. We don’t have that relationship with time.

Cam: Right. So time boxing, number one, also roll boxing, To frame it in the role, as you said, it’s when we’re in our urgent mode and bang and stuff. All right. We’re in that do mode where it’s like, get her done. And that’s how we often approach everything. But here it’s really this reconnaissance it’s going in and assessing, okay.

What is it? What’s priority who has a vested interest in this? Right? What’s my time horizon on this. Just to ascertain certain elements and leave the Dewar on the side, right on the side of the road. Just go in with your assessing. You’re doing a little bit of research, just gathering information to start to define this And the other thing is. We tamped down that level of uncertainty. And this is what happened with this client is he found that the positive of breaking into black boxes was that it helped to tamp down this level of uncertainty. That was always in the room, right? Because there was that black box and it was this sort of this not knowing what’s behind door.

Number three. I don’t know. All right. Is it going to be something that’s going to surprise me? But when he started opening those doors, cracking into those black boxes and getting a sense of what they were, and also realizing that many of them were only 10 minute actions, 20 minute actions. It’s like, oh, okay, this is this.

And I just need to do quick and move on. And there’s that power of completion and closure. Had a whole lot of fun, Shelly doing a little group thing in our discord community and the topic was building water slides and rabbit holes. So started like, you know, what’s a rabbit hole, it’s those things we get pulled into. And the whole idea of this teaching unit. I don’t know, a little presentation.

I did a little interactive thing we did was how can we bring some definition, some structure to that experience? I think the same thing we can do here is that looking at. Your habitual responses to time and start with that mindful approach, that mindful practice of get curious, get present. What’s the opportunity.

Can you give some definition to some of these things you’re looking at, to assess in a sense of what do I know? What do I need to know? Who might be able to be a resource? But that would be a great exercise for this week, especially again, and by the way, give yourself a break. I was like, ah, there’s that habitual response again, that’s something you’ve been doing for 47 years. So just letting that happen, go easy on yourselves. Come back to what’s the opportunity and. Can we look at time in a different way, right? Can we look at how we break up work in a different light in a different way? Like we did with Shelly’s client? Can we look at tasks in a different way? Like we talked about with my client, a couple of opportunities here.

Shelly: So that’s a good place for us to wrap for today. And last week I said, since you all have long since stopped listening to the outro of this show, I’m sure that we’re just going to make one request. That one request this week would be share us with someone who might benefit from this podcast. So until next week, I’m Shelly. 

Cam: And I’m Cam. 

Shelly: and this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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