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ADD + unemployed: help me develop coping habits without medication.
December 5, 2013 9:27 AM   Subscribe

I am pushing 30, and find myself unemployed for the first time in my life. I am staying at my parents' house for the time being until I sort things out, which has been a godsend. I have ADD/anxiety, and believe that deeply ingrained bad habits sprouting from these two conditions have been hijacking my life, with my unemployment being just a recent example. Has anyone been in a similar boat? How have you been able to replace your bad habits with better ones? I cannot let my life collapse to this point again. Details inside.

I have ADD, with all the co-morbid anxiety/self-esteem issues that have come along with it. I believe that the anxiety comes from the ADD, not the other way around; when I was successful in my job, I had a confidence that would seem almost alien to who I am today. Still, I was not as successful in my job as I could have been had I applied myself (such is the story of my life), so I was let go.

I have always had a problem when focusing and following through on long-term goals in particular; when faced with an issue that intimidates me or requires sustained mental effort (such as the job hunt) I have tended to try and put it off, often to the point of no return (ergo: I am now unemployed). I don't put my all into many things; maybe I am afraid of failure due to my sensitivity and anxiety. This proclivity to abstain from things that are difficult/scare me is due in part to what I believe are deeply ingrained bad habits/faulty thinking.

Although I wake up every day committed to getting something done, that something is so nebulous that my brain basically shuts down and I find myself hours later surfing Youtube videos. For example: I am considering going to graduate school in California. I am also considering searching for a job overseas, in the country I had been working before I become unemployed. I am also considering a few other options in-state. I am overwhelmed with the decisions I have to make and my inability to at least try and follow through on some leads is increasing my anxiety. I constantly also forget what I am doing, and jump to another project 30 seconds after starting the first (I must have had 30 tabs in multiple browsers before, easy).

Now that I am unemployed I have no set schedule from day-to-day, which in my opinion does not help. I have been trying to wake up at the same time every day (7:00), which is going okay and is a big step in a positive direction as I've always had a difficult time waking up. But without a concrete goal to focus on, I am basically doing the same thing in each one (live in the moment and worry about the future). Are there any other methods anyone on AskMe has used to keep ahead of their ADD? Which have been most effective for you? I would like to learn habits that will keep me from self-sabotaging myself; I get the feeling a strict schedule for my life would be important, but am not sure how to implement it. It has gotten to the point where I am considering buying a dry-erase board and writing down my schedule for tomorrow's day which I must stick to - all the way from wake-up time to what I will be doing every hour. Is this going too far??

Thanks in advance guys and gals, I hope to get out of this rut in my life soon.

PS: I am currently seeing a therapist, but I am not getting very much out of it; I don't feel understood. I tried Adderall, and although it certainly made me able to focus and makes me pretty happy I think the bad habits are undermining the effectiveness of the medication (I can concentrate even HARDER on youtube videos, woo hoo!) I am going to try switching to Vyvanse to see if that helps anything.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you need a job hunting coach - someone to help you prioritise your options, and to whom you are responsible for reporting your progress each week (though it's often twice a week for the first couple of weeks.) For people with ADD, it can be very helpful to have that kind of constant to organise yourself around. (And if this sounds appealing, I would probably choose to pay for this over a meh therapist right not.)
posted by DarlingBri at 9:34 AM on December 5, 2013

I've been on Adderall for about a month, and it's as close to a miracle drug, I think, as my general sciencey demeanor permits me to say. My apartment is immaculate, I'm caught up entirely on work and school related things, and my personal relationships are dramatically stronger, even in the limited time I've been on the drug.

That said - I've figured out that it is not a substitute for, nor will it provide, intrinsic motivation. My job isn't the greatest, to be honest, and I still have trouble getting myself motivated to do many tasks. When I do get myself up for them, they get done much more easily.

The steps you suggest might help, yeah, if you can make yourself stick to them. But absent a real reason to - and it doesn't sound like you have one - you might not have the greatest results.
posted by downing street memo at 9:34 AM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I became unemployed for a long period the first time, I didn't really have any idea how to get back in the saddle. The second time, I decided to go out on a limb and start a small business. That way, even though for the most part of the first six months all I was doing was cold-calling, I was able to wake up in the morning knowing I was doing something worthwhile. Ultimately, it helped me take the steps I needed to find a job I felt worth my time and where I could earn what I felt I deserved.
posted by parmanparman at 9:41 AM on December 5, 2013

I tried Adderall, and although it certainly made me able to focus and makes me pretty happy I think the bad habits are undermining the effectiveness of the medication (I can concentrate even HARDER on youtube videos, woo hoo!) I am going to try switching to Vyvanse to see if that helps anything.

The medicine isn't going to make you change your habits. It's going to make it easier to do so, but you can't expect to take it and then suddenly be able to prioritize your time and make good decisions of what to do at the moment. No medicine can do that. Switch to Vyvanse if you like -- I've heard people preferring it to Adderall -- but don't expect a different in your behavior. Nothing changes behavior except force of will, and that's what you have to work on. You seem to recognize that, but the way you wrote about your medication makes me think you're expecting a little more out of it than you should be, and chalking up the lack of an expected effect to the medicine not doing its job, rather than expecting too much out of it.

I get the feeling a strict schedule for my life would be important, but am not sure how to implement it. It has gotten to the point where I am considering buying a dry-erase board and writing down my schedule for tomorrow's day which I must stick to - all the way from wake-up time to what I will be doing every hour. Is this going too far??

I like to-do lists, just because they're not as imposing as schedule blocking. If you block your schedule down to the moment, either it will work and be great for your, OR you'll fuck up on a little thing and then throw the baby out with the bathwater. It totally depends on your personality. But simply writing things down and then referring to what you wrote down is huge, huge, huge.

Anyway, there's no "going too far" if it gets your life on track and you don't suffer in other areas of your life because of it. Don't think of it as "the right amount" vs. "overkill," because much like there's no such thing as "being on time," there's no such thing as "the right amount" of responsibility to yourself. There's just a right way and a wrong way to go about it, and that's entirely a matter of method.
posted by griphus at 9:42 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Get that dry erase board, but don't use it as a schedule: use it as a checklist grid for things to do to generally make your life better. My board has things like walking a certain amount each day, checking school related websites, etc.

When I was unemployed, the other thing I did was have my boyfriend give me three tasks to do in a given day: writing a particular email I'd been worried about, going to the bank, and making plans with a friend, for example. If I did the assigned tasks, I officially wasn't allowed to feel bad about myself. Anything extra I did was gravy, and something to be congratulated.

Those two coping strategies were key for dealing with my ADHD while I had no schedule. I still use the board, now that I'm in school.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:03 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I like griphus's comment. Hour-by-hour scheduling will either work like gangbusters, or it'll fail miserably. Getting up at the same time each morning is a great first start.

As an intermediate option: pick one thing per day. Something concrete that you can accomplish within the day. "Finish writing grad essays and requesting transcripts/letters of recommendation," or "Send resumes/cover letters to 3 new listings," etc. There'll be a calibration period--if you're consistently failing to make those goals within a single day, you might need to break them down further, or, conversely, if you're finding that you finish most of them in two hours and then spend the rest of the day online, you might need to add a second "If I finish that, I'll ____" task.

Leechblock is your friend. If you're expecting to go back to an 8-hour workday, you can set it up to block YouTube/Facebook/Metafilter/etc. for a given block. I keep weird and irregular hours, so I usually use the "block for N time period option" in three or so 3-4 hour chunks and let myself take breaks over the day. Experiment and see what works for you
posted by kagredon at 10:12 AM on December 5, 2013

It has gotten to the point where I am considering buying a dry-erase board and writing down my schedule for tomorrow's day which I must stick to - all the way from wake-up time to what I will be doing every hour. Is this going too far??

OK I wasn't going to comment but this is what I do! I have so many projects going on and then I get overwhelmed and then I like, disassociate and don't do anything. Writing stuff down keeps you accountable. You don't have to track yourself to the hour, but give your day a general outline. ALSO give yourself permission to skip a day and just veg in your pajamas if you want. It's SO EASY to get depressed when you're unemployed, just try not to tie yourself in knots trying to fix your whole life at once.

Have you ever seen About a Boy? Hugh Grant's character is independently wealthy and he manages his life in "units of time." (Not the best system, great movie though.)
posted by polly_dactyl at 10:58 AM on December 5, 2013

I got some help from some books... Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, Feeling Good for the anxiety.

I try, constantly, to set myself schedules... and I can never stick with them. But I had a therapist tell me at one point that at some point you need to work with your brain, not fight against it. Rigid schedules make me rebel harder against getting things done. I try to stick to short, achievable to-do lists, and to include some things on those lists that I want to do along with the things I have to do. The general outline thing is good. When I'm behind, I have to work hard not to just load my to-do list with everything that would be needed to catch up, because then it gets overwhelming. Don't put "apply for a dozen jobs" on your daily list when you've been struggling to do it at all--just start with one resume, one load of dishes, one errand, whatever.

A good chunk of this is more the anxiety than the ADD. Anxiety+ADD, for me, has always meant that when I deal with the anxiety and I have my ADD meds, things are fine. Deal with the ADD but not anxiety, and I focus very well on Netflix. Deal with the anxiety and not the ADD, and I'm working on stuff but I have no idea where the time went and why none of it is done. YMMV, obviously. I take Inderal with my Adderall and that seems to keep the worst of the anxiety at bay, otherwise it aggravates it pretty badly. I have Ativan for occasional use but I only need it once or twice a week. It makes a huge difference, but so does the CBT stuff which I started with a therapist and now try to keep up on my own.
posted by Sequence at 11:11 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding Taking Charge of Adult ADHD. Also, if you've given your current therapist a fair try, search for another one. Someone you do feel comfortable with and who you feel is hearing you and can help give more insight into your ADHD and all your other issues.
posted by Blitz at 1:27 PM on December 5, 2013

Coming from a different angle: you may want to consider your diet.. Just last night I heard a lecture on Nutrition's impact on mental health and ADHD was covered, as was anxiety, bipolar, etc. There are numerous studies showing that sometimes diet is more powerful than medication. More info at Just a thought.
posted by la_rousse at 2:26 PM on December 5, 2013

I have ADHD, but I wasn't diagnosed until a couple of years ago, when I was 33. So I got through my degree programs and held down steady jobs through various coping mechanisms.

Earplugs: I remember using earplugs for the first time, and the amazing difference that they made for my focus on college exams in a big room full of people. It's not just that they block some noise, but it's also that the sound of my own breathing is amplified. There's something about my own steady, rhythmic breathing that helps me focus. I use earplugs at work and at home. Other white noise can help as well; I even layer headphones over earplugs and play from the white noise website when I really need to block out noise.
Caffeine helps, too. I have a latte about every day, and it's a crucial part of my day.
Internet blocking is important as well. There are some programs listed above that will help block out the unproductive websites and they may be of help to you.

Lists are good, and I like your idea of trying to schedule a whole day. However, know thyself! Be realistic about what you can accomplish and don't set the bar too high. If you get off-schedule, don't beat yourself up about it so that you just chuck the whole thing and go back to YouTube. Give yourself time for breaks and rewards, but try to be strategic about them. For instance, I would be more successful at accomplishing two tasks if I took a break in the middle of the second task, not after the first task is finished. While I'm on my break, I'm thinking about the second task and I'm more likely to go back to it. If I break between tasks, I'm coasting on my task-completion high and I go off for my reward for an hour and then find myself watching cat videos and I never get to the second task, and that task-completion high turns into beating myself up again.

If a task has more than one step to it, like the research for your overseas jobs and graduate studies, that's going to make it harder for me to do. I put off multi-step tasks. But if I break down the task steps in my mind first, I find it easier to set about doing each step incrementally. Breaking down the task on paper, visualizing each step and considering what I will need to have or do to accomplish it, makes the whole thing far less daunting.

I have to say that Adderall has been the miracle drug for me, though it hasn't eliminated the need for coping mechanisms. I need my lists, my calendars, my organization tools as much as ever. I still use earplugs, too.
Like you said, sometimes I get focused on the wrong thing on Adderall. I'm late to work because I started cleaning up the house. I check email and start writing a lengthy response to a friend. I'm so focused on these side tasks that I can waste a bunch of time not getting the real tasks done.
Here's a trick I've learned: Write that list of things to do the night before, and put it where you'll see it first thing in the morning. That way, when you start your day's work, your brain will start chewing on those tasks before it's had a chance to be pulled into some sideline issue.
Or: close all your windows and tabs, write the needed task on a post-it note, and then go get a drink of water. When you return, you'll see that task first, and you'll be motivated to start it right away.

I think the best part of Adderall is that I don't have to build up motivation to stop the procrastination. It's no longer a struggle. My non-Adderall self is slow and foggy and acts like a petulant five-year-old when I have to do something I don't want to do. My Adderall self has none of that emotion tied up in motivation. I finish tasks like an adult, and I feel competent because of it. That's the self that planned a wedding & a honeymoon this year, right after getting promoted at work, and didn't forget any elderly relatives' birthdays in the meantime.

Sorry for the lengthy reply. Hope some of it is helpful.
posted by aabbbiee at 3:05 PM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

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