One of the things people with ADHD can be counted on to do is be inconsistent. Sometimes we are hyper-focused on cleaning for an entire day and we couldn’t say why, but then the next day we can’t be bothered to put away the milk. If we’re given a really interesting project at work we’re likely to speed through it and appear super organized and productive... Until the end of that project, or more likely right up until about the last 20% of the project, then boredom causes us to lose steam fast and that productivity that so impressed our manager is gone, without warning.
And this happens everywhere, in every area of our lives. That includes that elusive “work/life balance” thing so many people have written so much about.
There are many response behaviours people with mental health challenges have in the face of not achieving that balance. A common one is forcing ourselves, often bullying ourselves, into working as hard and as fast and as much as we possibly can because the “life” part of the balance isn’t nearly as urgent as a boss who seems on the verge of firing us.
Some people throw their hands up entirely and avoid the stressful work or school schedule in favour of an activity that numbs the brain to the point where we don’t have to think about the stress. Most people with ADHD I’ve met, including myself, usually bounce between these two states. A seemingly endless cycle of frantic work and exhausted burnout.
Another common and equally unhelpful one is where perfectionism takes over. We spend far more time than necessary organizing, researching, preparing, and fiddling with details until we have no time left and buzz through everything in an adrenaline induced panic. The idea that there must be the perfect place or way to do something, or - and this is one I often fall victim to - that we must have a certain length window of time in which to work on something, is more perfectionism. Not fun.
Now, work/life balance is unique to every person. I’ve even read articles making compelling cases to throw out this phrase altogether. Whatever way it manifests, however, I think a lot of us agree that extreme states of being do not contribute to contentment. That’s certainly my attitude in coaching. I assume my clients want to move away from the rush and panic and toward calm and things making sense.
Here are some ways to address the extreme states I’ve talked about so far:
Work ‘til I drop
One of the top things that fuels the mentality that we must work as long as we can without a break is lack of boundaries. Even when it comes to things we supposedly enjoy. Coaching soccer and being in a choir and helping out the local theatre and teaching Sunday school all at the same time will burn a lot of people out very quickly. The key is to learn effective boundaries and the core of good boundaries is knowing when and how to say “no”.
This is obviously easier said than done. Despite knowing how vital it is, having felt the anguish of poor boundaries my entire life, and having a lot of excellent role models for good boundaries, I struggle constantly with this concept. It is a skill, however, and can be strengthened. Maybe that will take some serious work with a professional to achieve, but it is possible.
Another thing people with ADHD are really bad at is learning from our mistakes. We don’t automatically course correct based on past experiences like some others do. This means we need to more artificially remind ourselves of what has happened before.
“What was the result, the last time I pushed myself too hard?”
Even if we hear a little voice trying to convince us that this time it will be different, don’t listen. I’m very fond of quoting Einstein who said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. It can feel different each time. Don’t fall for that trap either. Just because this time there’s a brand new planner or a new job does not mean that burnout is not inevitable if we push ourselves too hard.
There are different levels of avoidance. Sometimes it looks like garbage piling up because we really don’t want to take out the trash. Sometimes it looks like ten years unfiled taxes because we simply cannot face that agonizing process. Sometimes it looks like constant, crippling anxiety. There are times when we can do things to help ourselves - learning a new strategy, taking a course - and other times a qualified professional is needed.
It could be that our avoidance of some things is rooted in past events that need to be healed. It is my opinion there is no shame in this, but I realize a lot of the world disagrees with me and chooses to pile shame on people who find themselves in such a situation. Maybe there is an underlying, undiagnosed mental health challenge that is causing the avoidance. This is also a situation where qualified and professional help may be needed to move forward.
Whether intense or mild, it has been my experience that facing and addressing anxiety is key to combating avoidance. If we deny what is causing us to feel uneasy, fearful, panicky, or whatever level of anxiety is happening, that denial can quickly turn into avoidance of the subject of our anxiety.
For mild anxiety, one of my favourite techniques is spelling out exactly what is scary about the task or situation. This can often de-fang the monster. Seeing our fear written down can give us valuable perspective on its true size.
Another useful tool in the fight against avoidance is body doubling. Asking someone else we trust to simply be there for us, be it in person, over the phone, or text message/instant message, while we do something we don’t want to do can help erode avoidance.
And if none of these strategies seem to work, this is a clue that professional help might be a route to consider.
Perfectionism is another method of avoidance. Sometimes it can be used to pretend to ourselves, and sometimes even others, that we're doing something when really we're not. Because someone engaged in being paralyzed by their perfectionism sometimes looks very busy. Even if it’s busy doing things that could have waited (cleaning is a super common one).
A strategy I use is to figure out the difference between when we truly need something, and when we are setting up standards that prevent us from taking action. For example, I find it really difficult to write on my lap, so a desk or table makes it 75% more likely I’ll work on writing. And I’d like to be at Starbucks every time I write my blog, but holding my blogging habit up to that standard would prevent me posting weekly blogs.
This subject can be hugely tricky to tackle. Again, for serious and crippling levels, seek professional help.
What helps you, or prevents you, from achieving balance?