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Decisions and Workflows
When you have ADHD, every single decision takes a lot of mental effort, so you need to develop workflows so that you minimise the decision-making
In response to my post from last month about how you need to be “long volatility” if you had ADHD, Ravikiran had objected saying that too much optionality is not necessarily a good thing - since that means more time to procrastinate, and more decisions to make, and making decisions can be rather draining.
I’ve written about decision-making before. When you have ADHD, the magnitude of the decision doesn’t matter. Every decision is a decision. Even not making a decision is a decision. And every single decision can take away some bit of your willpower. So you would rather make a small number of big decisions rather than a large number of small decisions.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
Neil Peart (Rush), 1980
Not taking any decisions is itself a decision
PV Narasimha Rao (then Prime Minister of India), 1992
Actually you can listen to this as you read:
Back to the show
As usual, I got distracted, but then again I’ve always wondered if PV Narasimha Rao was a Rush fan.
When you have ADHD, every single decision can be potentially expensive. One of the reasons this happens is that sometimes you can get distracted easily, so each time you start thinking about a decision, you start from scratch. Sometimes this leads to hilarious (or even dangerous) consequences where you keep “turning around” every few seconds.
In any case, making decisions is expensive. So the obvious response to that is to make fewer decisions. It is a bit ironical - that when you have ADHD you are inherently LESS organised, but what you need is MORE organisation. You need simple principles or rules to live by, so that you cut down the number of decisions you make.
And so of late here are some of the “pre-made decisions” that I have for myself:
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, early in the morning (before 6am) I go to the gym
I shave three times a week, and change my blades every alternate Wednesday
On days I go to office, I take a lunch box along. This consists of grilled paneer, grilled veggies (onion, carrot, zucchini and onion) and roasted almonds and cashewnuts.
On Mondays, I work from home
I only have breakfast on days I don’t go to the gym
And so on and so forth. A lot of these “decisions” might seem rather trivial to a lot of you, but given the amount of energy every single decision takes, some of these things need to be set in stone.
Of course, when you make these “workflows” for yourself, you forget that there can be randomness in life, and that things don’t always go as per plan. Since at least March of this year, for some strange reason, I’ve been sleeping badly on Sunday nights (my psychiatrist, in my last consultation, suggested this might be because I eat more high-carb foods on Sundays, resulting in crashes). This means I can’t go to the gym on a Monday (“never to go the gym if you haven’t slept well” is another of my pre-made decisions, since I lift fairly heavy weights and don’t want to risk injury).
That one simple volatile “event” (not sleeping well on Sunday) throws my entire week out of gear. On Monday evening, I suddenly start wondering if I should just go to the gym in the evening (not wanting to risk another sleepless night on Monday night). And then I have to remind myself that my gym is rather hot and crowded in the evenings, and if I go to the gym in the evenings my sleep won’t be so great.
Yet another of my rules is to not go to the gym two days in a row - again an injury risk mitigation exercise. So if I miss the Monday gym, I might end up going to the gym only twice that week.
There are more sources of decision-making and people unwittingly throwing them off. A few months back, on most days I would have two cups of coffee. My early morning (half an hour after whenever I woke up) cup would be an Aeropress, and my late morning coffee would be a Pour Over. The latter I would make for my wife as well. Very standard routine and it worked well. No thinking.
However, on some days, when I woke up late, my wife would’ve already had her traditional morning dose of South Indian coffee, and ask me for “a little bit of your coffee”. And that would throw me off. The thing with an Aeropress is you can only make one cup at a time (the pourover is more flexible in that way), and this would force me to make a pourover as my first coffee. Which meant making decisions on how to consume the rest of my day’s coffee intake.
Earlier I mentioned that this year since March I haven’t been sleeping well. My wife suggested this might be due to excess caffeine intake, so I decided to cut down my consumption to one cup a day. Suddenly my workflow had been disturbed, and I had to make decisions on when to have my coffee. This is one of the things that has massively messed me up over the last three months - maybe I’ve lost more sleep due to this than what I might have gained due to having less coffee!
Rules and Principles
This Sunday night, once again, rather inevitably, I lost sleep. The night had gone well. We had gone out and had an excellent Korean dinner. I went to bed at 10, and soon passed out. And then I got woken up around midnight - my mosquito repellant had run out and the mosquitoes were running amok.
Simultaneously I was preparing myself to wake up and put in a new refill, and panicking that I hadn’t taken care of this earlier in the evening and my sleep (and thus the rest of my week) had gotten ruined.
It happened as I had expected - I couldn’t sleep for a very long time. I tossed and turned. Wondered many times if I should cancel my 5am alarm (preset for all weekdays). Wondered if I should still go to the gym. I couldn’t make a decision on whether a podcast would put me to sleep, or if I should just walk around the house. I was paranoid about waking up my wife. i was soon in a full blown panic.
During that panic, I was walking up and down the kitchen (I had gone to refill my water bottle). I realised I’m living a fairly regimented and “precarious” life, that can be easily thrown out of gear by a very small number of things going wrong. It was almost as if I had overoptimised my life. There is coffee. There is the gym. There are meals that I skip. There are things I eat and don’t eat. There is work. There is time for myself. Everything is so jampacked that if one thing goes out of gear, it’s like all the juggling balls come crashing down.
On Monday evening, I spoke to my wife about this. “You are crazy. Why do you have to make so many decisions”, she admonished. “And the problem is that you need to live by some simple principles and not the insane number of rules that you’ve made for yourself”.
This hit a raw nerve. I’ve forever argued in favour of principles over rules. Principles will keep things more flexible, and be able to absorb more simple shocks. Rules, when subject to a small amount of randomness, can become intractable. So, when you try to redesign your life such that you don’t want to make too many decisions, you should design it around principles and not rules. That way, there is more opportunity to absorb shocks.
All this said, the difficulty of making everyday decisions means that if you aren’t able to follow through on your principles, you can end up wasting a whole lot of mental energy on simple decisions. And this sometimes means saying no to people, and protecting your principles.
You know you don’t want to eat post 6pm, so you accept dinner or party invitations, but have your dinner at home before you go.
The office has arranged for a lunch on some occasion, but you take your standard box anyway.
Your guests come and sit in your favourite spot at home. You politely ask them to move saying that is your spot.
You like to shower just before you shave. Some day, the family might be able to get ready faster if you shaved before you showered, but even if your wife brings all the PERT and CPM in the world, you stand your ground in terms of how you do things.
One fine day, your daughter might ask for a boiled egg instead of her usual French Toast. If it is a weekday, you say no, for the workflow is important and established. She can have her boiled egg and toast on Saturday.
Sometimes, people might find this funny or weird, but then what you need to keep in mind is that you need to optimise for yourself - you have these principles and ways of life precisely because you want to avoid making small decisions (which are costly for you), and trivial things such as pissing people off or not appearing funny to people cannot disturb you from the workflows.
Work and workflows
How does this difficulty in making decisions pan out when it comes to work, and what kind of job must you take? One thing is that you should avoid jobs where you need to make a large number of small decisions in a day (with full benefit of hindsight, this might be one reason I didn’t take up that trading offer I had during my MBA). You need to take stuff where you have some semblance of freedom in the way you work (for you’ll have workflows there as well).
I can imagine finding a job like this being a challenge in the beginning of your career - in fact, as it happened, I entirely skipped the middle management phase, being a consultant through most of my thirties.
Ideally you shouldn’t be doing jobs where you are managing large numbers of people, or are involved in too many meetings in a day - that can again drain you. Again, your mileage might vary.
Finally, I must admit I still haven’t fully thought through how to implement “principles rather than rules”. It is easier said than done.
What are some of the routines or “workflows” that you have instituted for yourself, so that you don’t stress yourself out making too many decisions? Leave your comments below.