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Being easily distractible means you frequently forget your own plans and make hilarious (and sometimes dangerous) flipflops. And your decision-making can suffer
A funny moment and a scary moment
One of the funniest moments of my life came in 2012 / 13. I was walking down Brigade Road, having just met a friend, and I thought of going into the Levi’s store there to check out jeans. So I turned around to walk towards the store. A moment later, I decided I didn’t want to buy jeans that day, and I turned back. I might have taken two steps away from the store when I decided I wanted to check out the jeans after all.
And so, involuntarily, I kept taking 180 degree turns in quick succession on Brigade Road (one of Bangalore’s busiest roads) for a minute or so. It was uncontrollable. Finally, if I remember right, I went to the store that day but didn’t buy anything.
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One of the scariest moments of my life came in 2018. This was in Ealing, London, right in front of my then house. I was taking my (then 2-year old) daughter to her nursery (day care). The way the intersection is designed is that you cross half the road to an island, and then wait for a second set of lights to go green to cross the full road.
It was typical London weather, and while on the island it started drizzling mildly. So I decided I needed to get an umbrella and turn back home, and started crossing back the part of the road I had already crossed, wheeling my daughter in her buggy (the light was green for crossing).
I crossed halfway and decided “no, I can wing it, I’m wearing a cap anyway”, and turned back, pram and all. No sooner had I turned back when I decided I needed the umbrella after all, and turned towards home again. And again I decided I didn’t need the umbrella and turned back.
I was finally “saved” by the traffic light flashing, which told me it would turn red soon. At that moment, I was facing away from home and thus off I went to the nursery without the umbrella. It didn’t rain.
Looking back, it’s rather scary, not able to make up my mind while literally in the middle of the road, pushing my toddler daughter in her buggy (I don’t expect her to remember this). However, when you have ADHD, this kind of indecision can happen a lot of the time.
About 20 years ago, in quick succession, I learnt about formal languages and about Markov chains (the two are inter-related). As part of the formal languages course, we learnt about “context sensitive” and “context free” grammars. In a context free grammar, you can apply a rule on any given symbol irrespective of what symbols surround this symbol. In a context sensitive grammar, the transitions need to take into account the symbols around the symbol being transformed as well.
A Markovian process is one where the next state of the system is only a function of the current state of the system - how it got to this current state is meaningless. For example, consider a simplistic stock price model where each day the stock either goes up by 1% or down by 1% (let’s say with equal probabilities, but that’s not necessary). Now, given today’s stock price you can fully describe the distribution of tomorrow’s stock price - how the price got to today’s stock price doesn’t matter.
In other words, Markovian processes are “memoryless” (they don’t remember how the system got to this state). And in some sense, ADHD can make you this way.
“Live in the moment”, they say. I (and many others with ADHD) take that literally.
Planning two steps ahead
Most adult human beings are able to plan and execute on those plans. That is what generally distinguishes us from other animals (apart from the facts that we can talk, make up stories and gossip, among other things). Now, when you have ADHD, sticking to a plan is much harder than it is if you don’t.
It’s not that we are not able to plan - we can do it as well (or better) as others. The problem is in the execution. By the time we have executed the first step of the plan, it is possible that we have forgotten the plan itself.
Basically, when you have ADHD, your brain is looking for constant stimulus (ok now I had made up the next line in my head, but now forgot! So this paragraph may not flow that well). So if something nice and shiny and exciting comes in front of your eyes, it is more possible for your attention to switch to that and forget what you were thinking about.
So by the time I execute the first step of the plan, if something has distracted me (high likelihood of that), I would have forgotten the plan itself. At this point, I know where I am, but would have largely forgotten how I got there. So what do I do? I replan! And sometimes that means I undo what I would have just done. Because the previous moment has been forgotten, the plan is now lost. And because our minds work Faster Than Normal (here are my highlights from that book), making a new plan is rather simple.
Except that sometimes it involves undoing the current plan.
Decision-making and regret
This “memoryless life” means that decision making also becomes tricky. No decision is ever “done”. I make a decision and a moment later, I’m already regretting it. For example, this morning my wife messaged saying she and our daughter were at a nearby cafe, and asked me if I wanted to join them.
I immediately typed “no”, and the very next moment started regretting my decision (concerned that I was thus pissing off my wife). Looking back now, I’m pretty sure that even if I had said “yes” in that moment, I would have regretted that decision as well (I hadn’t showered - to quickly change and go out would ruin my nice Saturday morning vegetation)!
I accept a social engagement and immediately start regretting it. I agree to work from home some day and and question the decision throughout the day. I get second thoughts about pretty much every small decision that I make.
The main reason why decision making is so hard is that because I’m prone to getting distracted, I don’t remember my decisions and (more importantly) rationalisation behind my decisions. Since I don’t remember WHY I agreed to something, I soon start questioning it (until at some point I cycle back to my original decision with identical reasoning - at which point I usually recognise the repetition and stick by it).
The (pleasantly) surprising part of all this is that while I fret over all the minor decisions of my life, the major ones are far more straightforward and clear. Which school to send my daughter to, which job offer to accept, whether I should continue in my marriage - all of these are surprisingly easy decisions. My rationalisation for this is that because they are such high-impact decisions, it is not possible for me to forget the rationalisation behind them. And so I stick to whatever decision I took.
The biggest upside of frequently forgetting your decisions and not knowing how you got where you got is that adapting to change becomes rather easy. In electrical engineering terms (ChatGPT thinks I’m an electrical engineer), I am “level triggered” rather than “edge triggered”.
Again this is not always the case and there are minor state changes that I find incredibly hard to adapt to (for example, halfway through writing this my daughter walked in showing me a card she had made for her friend. It took me ten minutes to calm myself down and get back to writing - I’ll write about this phenomenon another day). However, major changes are relatively easy to adapt to.
In 2017, for example, we moved to London. Within a week, I felt rather settled there and largely forgotten our life in Bangalore. When we moved back two years later, it was a similar case as I managed to quickly adapt to being back here.
The bigger issue with dealing with big changes, though, is that I can’t understand why others can’t adapt to the changes as quickly as I can. And they can’t understand how I can move on so quickly from what seem to be absolutely massive events.
How this manifests at work
All this lack of simple decision making, quick turnarounds, easily moving on - everything applies to the work context as well. A couple of months back, my role at work slightly changed. It possibly took me a day to completely adapt to the new role and forget fully that the old role existed at all!
There are more mundane things. One week I declare that, “we should focus on Type A work and not Type B work”. Another week and a few conversations later I decide A is not important and B is the only thing we should do. And make the switch back to A again a month later. I agree to join a meeting and immediately begin to regret it. I occasionally decide I don’t want to join some meeting and begin to regret that as well.
My opinions of people also sometimes change rapidly (thankfully - again remember that big decisions are easier - this doesn’t happen in the case of people who matter). I can come across as being “flaky” and “inconsistent” (I’m Keynesian in that when the facts change, my opinions change as well. Given I work with data and I’m “faster than normal” (not linking again), my facts change rather quickly - too quickly for a lot of people’s comfort).
Again the upside is that I’m able to handle a certain level of chaos (or maybe I desire it - too much order can leave me bored). And quickly adopt to new normals.
Tailpiece: Notes from an ADHD friend
Today I was randomly going through some old notes I’d made (last 2-3 years I’ve been taking notes copiously. I’ll talk about that in another post), and found this note from a conversation with a friend just before I took up my current job. This friend has ADHD as well, but continuously been in corporate careers. Since I was getting back to corporate life after a very long time, I asked him for his advice. Here are my notes from that conversation:
Beware of meetings
they can really drain out
Carve out time for myself where I can do actual deep work
Else can have meetings peppered throughout the day and I won’t be able to do actual work in the slots I’ll get
I’ll need to do a lot of follow ups etc.
Because it’s a startup I won’t have that much control over my calendar
Managing people is giong to be a bit of a headache
need to learn to delegate, and that also involves following up
I need to make lists and stuff as well
He schedules his meetings around afternoon
Break out mail checking into a separate slot
maybe clear out mails in evenings, so that I keep mornings free for “my work”
Don’t worry about stopping Ritalin at any point in time
think of it as an insulin pill for diabetes
I’ll elaborate on some of these in future posts. In any case, your mileage may vary.
PS: I’m not sure this is exactly what I had planned to write when I started writing this. Then again, that’s how I’ve written most of my 2750+ blogposts.
This is what I’m listening to as I finish editing this:
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