Too many interests, not enough time: how to be realistic and choose?
August 2, 2014 10:06 AM   Subscribe

I am a diagnosed ADHD inattentive type (comorbid with anxiety and major depression) who has WAY too many personal pursuits, hobbies and interests. For this reason, I often feel overwhelmed and end up starting but not finishing (or continuing to seriously pursue) many of them. This cyclical behavior makes me anxious and miserable, and it fuels my procrastination tendencies. Occasionally, I will get a jolt of enthusiasm that helps me start a project and finish it, but this is really no different than any of my other impulsive behavior that is, ultimately, inconsistent rather than disciplined and habitual. I often beat myself up and tell myself I'm a failure because I do so few of the things that I talk or think about doing. I also beat myself up (less often, but enough that it's cause for concern) even when I *do* start and finish a project/pursuit - the reason being that I still didn't get all of the OTHER things done. How do I choose one or two things to really focus on deeply, and accept and be happy with those choices? How do I stop letting myself get caught up in the allure of "everything else"?

I understand (from a theoretical standpoint, not so much an empirical one) that the only person "judging" me is myself. No one else is standing at my door and barking orders at me to do any of these things. They're supposed to be my passions and pleasures, not mind-numbing draconian tasks that I'd rather avoid. I also understand (again, theoretically) that regardless of what task I may choose, there is incredible satisfaction and happiness in the fact that I am doing something I enjoy.

I have had some modest success by reading books like David Allen's "Getting Things Done" (the two minute rule works for me; I'm generally great with two-minute-or-less tasks but anything beyond that is a struggle), keeping up with blogs like Leo Baobuta's and James Clear, and working through the psychological blocks/obsessive thoughts/anxiety and self-deprecation with my therapist.

Another issue tangled up in this is that I also feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks like cleaning the kitchen and putting dishes away, getting laundry done, going grocery shopping, keeping the plants watered, etc. So I make a list, blow through everything on it, and then when it's all said and done I have little energy or enthusiasm left for the fun stuff like painting, writing, reading a book on a topic I want to know more about, upcycling vintage furniture, listening to my records, etcetera. I've tried doing these things first in the day before I do the everyday/mundane tasks, but then I tell myself I'm being lazy for not putting the dishes away and won't allow myself to do anything until the mundane tasks are done.

A lot of this self-flagellation is the result of spending the first 20 or so years of my life thinking I was lazy, sloppy and stupid, only to later be diagnosed with ADHD and learn that it's really all because I seek out stimulation and am easily distracted by new and exciting things. I'm much kinder to myself now than I once was. But I still get angry because despite all the hard work I put in to school and personal pursuits in my teens and early twenties, I felt like I had to work three times as hard to stay focused as all the other successful people around me. I have a post-graduate degree, a full time job with a decent salary and a nice apartment - and still beat myself up because I haven't done more! I want to be a renaissance woman but don't know how renaissance types ever did it.

- ADHD inattentive type understands her stimulation-seeking behavior means having a million different interests, but can't accept this about herself
- Wants to figure out how to make a choice about what hobbies and passions to focus on, without beating herself up over not doing all those things she didn't choose
posted by nightrecordings to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The real answer for how renaissance types ever did it is that they were independently wealthy enough to have enough free time to pursue all those things.

There are two good books I know of that deal with precisely this problem: "Refuse to Choose" by Barbara Sher and "The Renaissance Soul" by Margaret Lobenstine. Both of those books are focused on the idea that having a million scattered interests rather than one focused passion is not a bad thing, but it's possible to make it work better for you -- by deliberately choosing to do some things now and some things later, or by figuring out for yourself what you get from a certain hobby and figure out how to get that without investing a ton of time and money into it, or in any number of other ways.

I mean, I wish I had these answers, because I often don't manage to get the groceries done and the dishes cleaned either, and I still start things in a burst of enthusiasm and then flame out, but I think those books will give you a framework for some alternatives to just focusing deeply on one or two things.
posted by Jeanne at 10:33 AM on August 2, 2014 [12 favorites]

The Renaissance types weren't doing their own dishes and laundry, so there's the fact that a middle-class lifestyle today involves a lot more housekeeping-type drudgery than da Vinci dealt with.

My husband is kind of like this - he has a ton of hobbies (painting, woodworking, metalworking, auto stuff, saltwater aquariums, computer stuff, running, working on a pilot's license, etc.). He flows in and out of them, focusing on a few for a while, then refocusing when something else captures his attention. He typically has a half-dozen unfinished projects around at any given time. I think the difference from what you are experiencing is that he doesn't beat himself up about any of it.

He started making a dresser, got distracted by a project with his car, and then went back to the dresser (over a period of several months). It's in the back of his mind that he needs to finish the dresser, but he's not taking that as demonstration of his failings as a human being. It is just a project that he'll get back to later.
posted by jeoc at 10:41 AM on August 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

You can remember that you've got your whole life to do all these things. That's decades and decades. If you wanted, you could spend five years on something or other, and finally get it done, and then you could spend the next five years getting into a different thing.

Any renaissance woman you read about in retrospect probably had a longer life than yours has been to date. Plus I expect most of them spent less of it at school and working for a living!
posted by emilyw at 11:22 AM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have this problem, and personally, I have to work on the quota system. My quota for hobbies is 2 per month. My quota for volunteer activities is 2 per month. I'm generous with myself in terms of letting myself define the hobbies or volunteer activities pretty broadly (for example, one of my hobbies is "music"), but I try hard to be strict with myself in keeping to the quota otherwise. That way, it feels like I'm lacking in discipline if I *do* play with the idea of volunteering for an extra activity or joining a new club. It feels lazy to *do* those things, not to keep myself from doing them.

So for me, that means that I can take swimming lessons and a darkroom class in August, but I can't ALSO join an aquaria club or start a chamber orchestra with my friends this month, even though I want to, because my quota for hobbies is two things. If I want to join the aquaria club and start the chamber orchestra with my friends in September, that means NO MORE swimming lessons or darkroom/photography stuff in September. For volunteering, I can only volunteer in 2 positions in any given month -- even if those positions are for the same organization, if they're different positions, I can't add on any more. There's an organization I only learned of last night that I think would be great to volunteer for and I already have ideas for how I want to volunteer. BUT NOPE. This month is already spoken for, because I am volunteering as a CPR/FR instructor for one organization and as an environmental monitor for another organization and THAT IS IT FOR AUGUST, I've already reached my quota of two. If I want to drop one of those volunteer positions in September then maybe I can apply for a position at this new organization. Your quota doesn't have to be two (frankly, two is too high! My quota *should* be one!) but I do really recommend having a quota system to keep yourself from overfilling your plate.

I build exercise and cleaning/housekeeping into my schedule, so doing that stuff doesn't really require self-discipline on my part anymore (for example, one way I exercise is by bicycling places instead of driving. I also have all my cleaning tasks assigned to specific days, so I never have to spend more than half an hour -- tops -- cleaning on any given day, but it's more of a normal "just thoughtlessly following the routine" thing than any kind of disciplined thing). I also write out to-do lists for each day, but keep each to-do list limited to less than a handful of things, because it's no problem for me to pull something from tomorrow's to-do list if I'm feeling really productive, but it's guilt-inducing and awful to not be able to get through the whole of today's list. I guess my point is, make it really, really easy to "succeed" at the stuff that requires discipline and/or organization, and assume that you are *supposed* to stop for the day once you've "succeeded."

It makes sense that a vague and time-consuming task, like "clean the house" or even "clean the kitchen" feels overwhelming. You're doing a good thing by breaking the task down into concrete pieces and putting everything down on a to-do list. However, I think where you're running aground is by not pacing yourself. Yes, you should probably do one cleaning task today, but the task can be just one single thing on that to-do list -- like, today can be the day that you clean the kitchen floor OR that you water the plants OR that you wash the house linens, but it probably shouldn't be the day you do ALL those things.

For me, my cleaning schedule is basically: Monday - Clean Bathroom, Tuesday - Dust Living Room, Thursday - Dust Bedroom, Friday - Vacuum, Saturday - Linens, Errands & Plants, Sunday - Wash Car. On the first of the month I disinfect whatever needs disinfecting (the cat box, the trash cans). For the kitchen, I don't do the cooking but I wash the dishes every day immediately after dinner, and wipe the counters down and put out the trash as part of that. All the other kitchen cleaning is an under-two-minutes task that you don't have trouble with (well, maybe not cleaning the oven, but to be honest I don't think I've ever cleaned the oven. I super-glued the knob back on a couple days ago and I guess that's going to be it for me in terms of making sure the oven isn't terrible). I also keep things tidy as I go -- easy stuff that's not really cleaning per se, like I make my bed when I get out of it, clean off the tub drain when I get out of the shower, etc -- so I never have to spend a longer stretch of time tidying up, and the actual cleaning (aside from washing dishes) that I do on any given day is half an hour or less, while still being enough to maintain my reputation as a neatnik. It sounds like you're able to complete one cleaning task/room/area in a day and therefore keeping things clean over the long term, right now you're just running into a problem because you're trying to do the whole week's worth of tasks in one day and then wearing yourself out so you're (over) exhausted. Just pace out your tasks so that you won't be wearing yourself out on any given day. Set a timer and STOP once the timer bings, if you have to have a reminder not to do ALL THE THINGS and RIGHT NOW (I do this frequently -- it helps). But however you do it, when it comes to tasks you're going to have to do over and over and over forever, find a pace that doesn't tire you out and go at that pace. I really recommend setting the timer for 45 minutes or less (preferably less! fifteen minutes is great, half an hour at the outside).

Overall, the truth is, structure helps. It can be really, really, really difficult to build that structure for your life, and to create/learn a new routine, but once it's in place, it helps SO MUCH in terms of efficiency and consistency. I think because a routine means you can go on autopilot so much more and so you just have a whooooole lot less work to do even in order to keep up the same level of productivity. The trick is, you've got to make sure that routine/structure is easy enough on you that you can maintain it even during rough patches and over the long haul. If you make your routine difficult to maintain on a good day, then you're inevitably going to go through a rough patch and have it fall completely to pieces. A very difficult or hard-driving routine is very brittle and prone to falling apart. So when you're putting together that structure, remind yourself that you're actually strengthening it by editing it down to essentials, giving yourself enough unaccounted-for time that it's flexible, and keeping your accomplishments/tasks coming at an easy (not frantic!) pace.
posted by rue72 at 1:24 PM on August 2, 2014 [27 favorites]

Best answer: I do not have ADHD. I do have a million interests, a messy house, and a pretty successful record as a Renaissance person. Some things to consider:
  • If doing interesting things before chores stresses you out, consider setting a time to stop as well as a time to start.
  • Give yourself permission to do things badly. Read half a book. Write a ridiculously sentimental poem. Listen to that record while you're putting the dishes away, rather than giving the music your undivided attention.
  • Invoke other people. Invite folks over for craft day. Make a birthday card for a friend. Join a writer's workshop, if you're into that kind of thing.
  • Track the energy you're putting into your day job, and try to match big projects with times that work is less mentally demanding.

posted by yarntheory at 1:33 PM on August 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I like the way Danielle LaPorte talks about what to stop doing.

Sometimes a little ceremony can be helpful to let something go. Like a graduation from school or a funeral for a loved one, except on a much smaller scale here because it's just putting a hobby aside for an unspecified time. For example, after thoughtfully deciding that dance lessons don't fit into your current schedule, you could write "dance lessons" on a piece of paper and burn it and let it go.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 3:29 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The only that that gets my butt into gear in re a particular activity (over other ones) is having a long-term goal attached to it, one that's meaningful to me. Music is also one of my hobbies, but if I leave it to mood and chance, I might mess around for a while, dissipate the urge to play, and never develop an idea into anything more. Sometimes I'll get lucky and it'll turn into a song (or half a song). But if I've committed to a deadline (not just my own, some commitment involving other people), where I need to have three songs finished, they'll get done (somehow).

(Usually, it means dropping most other things in the meanwhile, and when I've finished, I move on to something unrelated. So it winds up that I'm working towards one goal or project after another in serial fashion. I don't think this is great; I'd rather be better at balancing multiple projects, and am in awe of rue72's schedule, which I will endeavour to follow.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:10 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

You say you're diagnosed ADHD with anxiety, which describes me perfectly. However, you don't mention whether you're taking any medications. I've been on Vyvanse (stimulant, for ADHD) and Sertraline (generic Zoloft, for anxiety) for a while now and it's fantastic. My wife and I can both tell when I skip a few days, as I start getting all the feelings you described and things begin to spiral. Of course, I'm not prescribing anything here, but I wanted to ask the question: Are you open to the idea of medication? It is absolutely NOT a failure on your part if you need a little chemical assistance in getting everything right neurologically. If you're open to the idea, consider making an appointment with a psychiatrist. There shouldn't be any commitment involved, but you should talk to someone who can advise you appropriately and help you make a decision that feels right.
posted by dondiego87 at 8:48 PM on August 4, 2014

I should say — medication is absolutely NOT a substitute for the kind of productivity-centered lifestyle you crave. For me, though, it absolutely makes putting that into action MUCH easier, and very much reduces the self-flagellation if I still end up screwing around a bit.
posted by dondiego87 at 8:50 PM on August 4, 2014

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