resources for a person with Attention Deficit Disorder learning organizational skills?
May 11, 2004 1:48 PM   Subscribe

Need resources for a person with Attention Deficit Disorder learning organizational skills. [much more inside]

My fiancee is brilliant, creative and hard-working. She has a masters degree in experimental psychology and is currently halfway through working on her doctorate in social psychology. She also is chaotically disorganized and has ADD (confirmed diagnosis, finally on medication as of a few months ago.)

She has always done well in her classes, but has come under fire from her advisor for ongoing errors in her research work. These aren't conceptual errors, but more organizational mistakes (forgetting about detail #17 in a 30-step experimental procedure, mis-scheduling appointments, etc sort of thing.) It's gotten bad enough to the point where she's been presented with an ultimatum - make a drastic improvement or get out of the program.

I've finally been able to convince her of something I figured out by observation a while ago. Regardless of her ADD, she needs to learn fundamental organizational skills. Because of her natural intelligence, she's always been able to use mental "brute force" to keep track of everything at once, even with her papers strewn in random piles around the room. If she lost track of something, she viewed it as a mental defect and vowed to work harder at it. Not any more. Running multiple studies at once, each of which involves a dozen variables and hundreds of subjects, while also re-writing someone else's research paper, while also teaching undergraduates and studying for her own exams - it's too many balls in the air. Trying to hold everything in her head at once wouldn't work well for anyone. The ADD just makes it worse.

Now that she's convinced, the next step is to find resource material for learning these skills. We're looking for well-written books, websites, or any other useful material on developing these organizational skills to achieve such goals as:
a) being able to consistently find the raw data sheet, latest analysis, revised paper, etc that she needs at the moment, with a minimum of effort
b) being able to consistently keep track of schedules and appointments
c) being able to ensure that nothing gets missed when following long, involved procedures, especially when those procedures may start out ill-defined or get revised in the middle.

That last point brings up a related issue. My fiancee is a really good "find creative connections in the Big Picture" sort of person. She's not as strong in the "step-by-step procedural programming" mode. This means that if her advisor gives her instructions that are missing some vital piece of infromation, she's less likely to catch that fact up front the way I would. I've suggested that she let me teach her some basic computer programming skills, as that absolutely enforces the "step-by-step" awareness of following instructions. If anyone has other suggestions for building those mental skills, feel free to chime in.

Bonus points for resources which are ADD-specific or high-level academic-specific.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions.
posted by tdismukes to Education (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, I've been meaning to ask this question for a while now. My law school boyfriend is ADD [diagnosed as a kid, not interested in medication, mostly okay though disorganized except for finals/crunch times when he can get surly and recalcitrant]. Part of the issue in our household is not getting the organizational stuff down [there are set calendars, highlighting pens, post-its, schedules, touching base every few hours, regular routines, checking and re-checking of anything important etc] but making sure all the stuff we put in motion actually gets used.

It sounds like you and your fiancee have a strong relationship and the ADD isn't really negatively impacting it. That's really good, and a great place to start. Support is important and being able to at least help create a home life that doesn't exacerbate ADD stuff is equally important.

Talking to my partner for a second, he says "I would die if I didn't have outlines for every class" Now, outlines make more sense for law school, but you can use them for other processes as well. One page outline per class is how he did it, and it's literally like checklists for understanding how things work, and how the class fits together, more like flowcharts. One notebook per class. He takes notes by hand and then re-types them for his finals. The re-typing is where a jumbled collection of ideas, written down often under stress, coalesce into higher-level concepts.

For appointments, we have only one calendar for everything in our life, with highlighter pens to indicate levels of importance or to categorize things so that he can glance at the calendar and say "okay, there's something in pink today, I really need to remember to do that" mapping this to sets of post-it flags [matched colors for Urgent, Not as Urgent, Need for Test, etc] that go on physical objects and the world of crap-to-remember becomes more of a series of colored boxes. For some reason, these visual cues -- so that everything doesn't look like one more piece of paper -- are really helpful.

The most useful step is a recap, usually in the morning before we go off to work/school "what are you up to today?" "when is that appointment with so-and-so" "don't forget to call the car guy" Anything urgent gets follow-up emails from me, and he has an email inbox that specifically hold the "to do" stuff. The day's "to do" stuff is written in the calendar and on a post-it that gets stuck on the laptop and not taken off until the task is done. Since he's married to his laptop -- and was a programmer before he started law school -- this place for reminders is natural. Your fiancee might want to avail herself of Outlook's reminders or some other desktop app that will pop-up little "hey, don't forget" items with dull plodding regularity. Once you know you're forgetful and not just stupid, it's easier to let yourself be reminded to get things done. In our house, I keep most of the schedule [mine and his] and he does most of the dishes/trash detail and we treat it like any other chore.

My bf has one table where all his work stuff goes, so there's an enforced sense of keeping it somewhat structured. In addition to the one-notebook-per-class, there's also one-pile-per-class so that, at worst, he's searching through one pile to track something down, not seven. Also, he chimes in "for long lists of crap, I just need to check, double-check, and triple-check" It was heartbreaking last semester when he thought he aced a midterm and it turned out he misread a question and blew the whole thing, but that's part of living with ADD. Now he underlines, circles and doesn't allow his normally smart self to say "oh I know how this goes" He has more of an obligation to prove to himself what it means, not just assume he gets it because he's bright. Same with procedural lists, everything gets checked off as it's done, no quick scan to remember where you are, it's all written down and double-checked. We go through highlighters like some families go through potato chips.

One other small bit is Blocks of Time. Every task is broken down into blocks "study for final for an hour" "write paper for two hours" "watch simpsons for 1/2 hour" "eat" "go for 20 minute walk" which become part of the "checking in" scheduling thing we do and then he has a little desktop alarm clock thing that pops up on the screen and tells him to knock it off. During finals this gets tough because invariably there isn't enough time, but as a general rule if he's realistic about how long things take, it moves him from one task to another instead of leaving him hyperfocussing on his paper at the expense of his final.

You didn't mention if your finacee's professors know she is grappling with ADD. My bf insists on not telling anyone at school which would not be how I would handle it, but it's his choice. If they DO know, they need to sort of tread lightly because kicking someone out for ADD-related issues [if she's working on it, taking medication, seeing a counselor, whatever] is potentially an ADA issue. However, that's beside the point and not neccessarily helpful. On the other hand, her profs need to be part of helping her out, and conflicting/shifting procedures aren't helpful. If there's a way to bring them into this and try to shoot for some standardization of how these things are communicated to her, it might smooth out some bumps. My SO also says "Keep in mind also that the program may just be a poor fit if her profs are too demanding in directions she is unable to go in" Of course, he's of the "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" ethos w/r/t law school [and I bet your finacee is too] but just keep in mind that not every set of professors is good for every student in ways that have nothing at all to do with ADD or anything else.

As far as outside resources, I've dug through a lot of them and not enjoyed very many. Some exceptions are:

- Driven to Distraction [my review]
- help4adhd brought to you by the helpful folks at CHADD [for folks with ADD and/or AD/HD]

Also keep in mind that ADD medication takes a while not just to kick in but for the person taking it to get used to "thinking with the new brain" so to speak. There's a learning curve to NOT having as much ADD which can sometimes be as disorienting as the ADD itself. Putting procedures in place during this ramp-up/med-check phase is probably one of the best things you can be doing. Feel free to email through my site if you wanna chat more.
posted by jessamyn at 3:56 PM on May 11, 2004 [3 favorites]

While I haven't actually tried it out, Getting Things Done has been highly recommended by many people I know. This chart seems to provide a basic overview of the process. Google around a bit, and you will find a lot out there.
posted by ajr at 4:33 PM on May 11, 2004

Oh yeah, the chart is a pdf.
posted by ajr at 4:47 PM on May 11, 2004

As someone with ADD who sounds a LOT like each of your significant others (well, a bit more like tdismukes than jessamyn, since i still operate sans organizational techniques), my best advice ever would be this:

keep. them. off. metafilter.

seriously, i'm avoiding a paper as we speak.

I've never read any books or anything, but will certainly follow this thread with interest, as so far my experiences have (mostly) allowed me to "keep track of all the balls in the air" with much success (I'm graduating from a well regarded college next weekend, provided I get this paper done), but i've often wondered how I would handle it if things ever got too multi-tasked/complicated. And wow, mad props to you both for being so committed to helping your SOs with this. I can't even imagine how much that support must help them. I only hope if I ever have serious issues with my ADD that my girlfriend would go to half the lengths that jessamyn described.
posted by rorycberger at 5:21 PM on May 11, 2004

Rather late to this thread, but I did so want to contribute.

I am a 36 yr old female with ADD - opera singer. A few things struck me:

Failsafe methods - forget it. Even non-ADD-ers can't find failsafe methods. I know it's only a word, an expression, but that whole "try harder" thing can be deathly.

Fundamental organisational skills - of course! But things will always escape her from time to time. She is not, even with your help (great support!) going to be able to "solve" this easily.

I heartily recommend reading Women with Attention Deficit Disorder by Sari Solden. I had read a few books before this one, but it gave me a sense of how much I need to adapt my life to my disorder, and how much denial I previously had. For the first time, I am thinking seriously about where in my life I might need help; I cannot necessarily do it all, no matter how hard I try or how creative my problem solving is. It may be, for example, that your fiancee could do with some kind of assistance, perhaps on an ad-hoc basis. For example, finding the right data sheet or analysis could be made easier if someone were "tidying up" her documents regularly, asking her "what's this?" and finding stuff for her. It may also be that she needs accomodation for her disorder, and needs to know how to ask for it.

I see it as coming from both ends. I am trying to solve my disorganisation, of course, but I have to accept the difficulty involved, and make sure that the most important things in my life are not compromised.

FWIW I have been searching for the "perfect system" for two years now. I have a Palm Vx and have tried all sorts of software for it, but although after a while I learnt how to store information very efficiently, day-to-day time management eluded me. I now use my Palm for the basic data, and I enter appointments there, but I write things out on a specially templated and xeroxed piece of paper every day, and I can scribble, erase, add-to and circle all day, and then in the evening it gets processed. I use things from GTD and from Franklin Covey and from Taming the Paper Tiger. I'd be happy to share what I do and what I have found out.

All the best to you both.
posted by suleikacasilda at 3:21 PM on May 14, 2004

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