I need to improve problem solving skills and information processing skills
August 21, 2008 7:13 AM   Subscribe

I have concentration, focus, work efficiency, and motivation issues. I am much more motivated at this point in my life than ever before, but working inefficiently and focus issues make it difficult to sustain. I am looking for lifestyle changes, mental exercises, diet changes, and maybe an inexpensive over-the-counter supplements to help sharpen my problem solving and information processing skills.

I take longer doing simple tasks than most people. Sometimes I just pay attention to detail more than is reasonable, most of the time I just loose track of time. I'm not sure what I'm doing differently than other people, it doesn't even seem like it's going more slowly for me until I have to reach a deadline or compare my work to other's. Something that feels like only a few minutes often ends up being 45 minutes.

I have an unusual amount of trouble remembering sequences, lists, tasks, whatever I need to remember. Such as when I had a job as a waitress it is often not an option or not reasonable to write everything down. (sure, I wrote orders down, but a lot of little things come up during this job. It requires extreme multitasking.)

I repeatedly make simple mistakes when it comes to math, problem solving, keeping track of items I have been using regularly in my work area, and even to a lesser extent motor skills. The amount of my mistakes are much more than the average person and are difficult for anyone working with me to manage; this has caused problems in work environments and my marriage. Due to a shrink evaluation when I was a child, I know for a fact I have a very low information processing speed, comprehension of 3D space and number facts.

I'm getting close to 19, this isn't an aging issue. With things like forgetting or making simple mistakes I don't know how to change my life because I don't even realize I've done something wrong until it is too late. Simply being more careful or checking over my work multiple times seems to be ineffective, I often make mistakes double-checking my work and think my original work was wrong when it was my pass-over that was wrong, or I if there is a mistake present I am just as likely to miss it during my double-checking.

The first thing most people recommend to me is medication or therapy. This isn't an issue of me being afraid of the medication or me wanting to hold up to some no-medication ideal, medication is literally just not a possibility right now, so please don't stress that I need to just see a shrink already. No matter how much it might be needed circumstances just won't provide for it right now. I am looking for lifestyle changes (physical exercise is the obvious answer, I'm working on it) mental exercise, diet changes, and maybe an inexpensive over-the-counter supplements (St. John's Wort isn't an option because it makes Birth Control ineffective. I've been taking Fish Oil and multivitamins with no real marked difference.) to help sharpen my problem solving and information processing skills.

I'm starting to develop the feeling that I'm failure on legs, the depression and anxiety resulting from this has only made the situation worse.
posted by Niomi to Work & Money (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Supplements definitely aren't the answer. There's not a lot of good science to back up the claims they make. You're on the right track with physical exercise. Keep working on that. Diet is important too. You don't have to do anything fancy. Just eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and stay away from processed foods.

I also think you might benefit from getting some updated tests of you mental functioning. Getting a good handle on your strengths and weaknesses would help you find the right workarounds for your difficulties.
posted by diogenes at 7:38 AM on August 21, 2008

If you don't already, drink tea.

See The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood.
Caffeine improved subjective alertness at 60 min and accuracy on the attention-switching task at 90 min. The L-theanine and caffeine combination improved both speed and accuracy of performance of the attention-switching task at 60 min, and reduced susceptibility to distracting information in the memory task at both 60 min and 90 min. These results replicate previous evidence which suggests that L-theanine and caffeine in combination are beneficial for improving performance on cognitively demanding tasks.
posted by xchmp at 8:10 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding caffeine, if you're not already using it. But keep in mind that too much can be a bad thing, and combined with sugar it can be a bad thing too.

I personally can't stand tea, but I find that a small cup of (unsweetened!) coffee 2-3 times a day improves my memory, focus, and concentration considerably.
posted by chez shoes at 8:15 AM on August 21, 2008

Try meditation. Even for just a few minutes a day. It should help with your focus if nothing else.
posted by natteringnabob at 8:59 AM on August 21, 2008

Flylady! I've recommended her a bunch of times on askmefi. Yes, the site is dorky looking, but her system helped me with this sort of thing immensely.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:02 AM on August 21, 2008

Seconding diogenes recommendation of further evaluation - you can get a referral from your GP. This will give you more updated read on what's going on.

I'll be blunt, I could have written this post not that long ago, and it took me a lot longer to try and get a handle on things.

It's possible that you have ADD - the inattentive kind rather than the hyperactive kind. That's where I ended up after further evaluation.

I'd recommend reading Driven to Distraction and You Mean I'm Not Stupid, Lazy or Crazy?

As far as changes you can do right now:

Make sure you're getting enough sleep (if you're not sure if you are, get an extra hour per night and see how you feel after a week)

Cut back on junk food.

Find some sort of exercise, preferably something you can do with a friend, or on a schedule, like a class, so you've got something pushing you to do it.

Use task websites like Remember The Milk or ToodleDo or just carry around a notebook at all times to write down stuff that needs to be done.

Create task templates for work duties you perform regularly, and literally check stuff off as you go. Include things like "proof-read." This will force you to slow down a bit.

Use google calendar (or a pocket calendar, if you won't lose it ) to keep track of your life.
posted by canine epigram at 9:45 AM on August 21, 2008

Further evaluation is impossible for the same reason medication is, I don't have healthcare coverage. While it's coming, I need solutions to help improve my life in the meantime.
posted by Niomi at 9:53 AM on August 21, 2008

I have found that cutting way down on carbohydrates has helped me concentrate more. I'm talking about elimating white flour and sugar completely and eating only one serving or so of whole grain carbs/ day. Get the rest of your carbs from fruits, legumes, and nuts. The added benefits are also more energy and weight loss (if you need it.)

Get up in the morning at a regular time, after a proper night's sleep. Get completely dressed and ready to leave the home, even if you aren't goint to right away. And then, when you are going to start the productive portion of your day, make a list of the things you want to accomplish within a certain block of time ie the morning until lunch, and then do them- go from one, to the next. Come up with a strategy for how you will handle interruptions. When you are through the list go for a walk and eat a light lunch. Don't surf the internet until you are done with your day! Repeat the list-making for the afternoon productivity block (if that's how your day is structured.)

If you make this a habit for three weeks without straying- I think you will see some improvement. It takes about three weeks to form a new habit.
posted by mistsandrain at 10:14 AM on August 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Then everything but my first line should be useful.
posted by canine epigram at 10:15 AM on August 21, 2008

Darn, hit post too quickly.

Doing a morning task review like mistsandrain can be really useful. The tough thing is to make it a habit - come in, get tea/coffee, sit down, do review.
posted by canine epigram at 10:17 AM on August 21, 2008

A lot of stuff like this resolved when I started Ritalin a couple years ago (at 38), though since you can't do the medication thing, I'll say that prior to that I used caffeine to approximate the same effect (though it was more short-lived and the coverage was more inconsistent).

With regard to diet, I would say to watch out for high-carb anything, as it can tend to give you a brief push, but then you're in for a longer crash.
posted by troybob at 10:30 AM on August 21, 2008

Nthing to the recommendations for caffeine, exercise, and minimal carbs. Exercise helps me the most if it's sprinkled in short, intense bursts through the day. I work all day at a computer, so I have software (Time Out) that tells me when it's time for a break. Ten minutes of crazy high-energy dancing to Bollywood tunes several times a day is best for me. Small, frequent meals of high-protein food might help, too.
posted by PatoPata at 10:48 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try drinking Yerba Mate, you can find it in health food stores. A cup or two of that in the morning gives me the clarity, focus and energy I need to get through a long day of classes, and after drinking it for a few months, I feel healthier. It doesn't give you that heavy, jittery or bloated feeling that coffee sometimes can (always did for me), and the energy seems to sustain longer, instead of crashing two hours later. I love the stuff!! It doesnt taste amazing, but it definitely makes you feel amazing.
Try to find the loose leaf tea and use a french press to make it fresh yourself. I prefer Guayaki, I just tried the EcoTeas brand and it didnt seem as fresh or something, ick..

Also, ever since moving into my new apartment, I have not had TV and find that I am more focused without it. Instead of ending up in front of the TV for hours wasting brain cells, I go to a yoga class, which is another thing you might try. After a good yoga class, I feel like my mind is clearer than ever and I feel great all day! I think it has a lot to do with the last ten minutes of meditation, but the workout definitely helps get me going and makes me feel better about myself physically.
posted by osloheart at 11:10 AM on August 21, 2008

On the narrow mention of fish oil:

A lot of fish oil/omega-3 supplement brands are inferior; make sure you're taking at least the minimum recommended amount of a pharmaceutical-grade product. High quality products will have a combined EPA/DHA of around 500 mg per capsule. Also, it takes several weeks to a couple months to kick in. Definitely not the main solution to your problem, but it should be beneficial.
posted by for_serious at 2:11 PM on August 21, 2008

I've found two supplements that have profound and immediate effects (on my brain chemistry, anyway):

Biotest's "Spike" pills and Genera's "Adrenaline" pills.

A bottle of each costs $25-30, and you can get them at a vitamin shop or online.

In my experience, they're totally non-addictive (I'll go for months without using either)-- I would suggest taking them early in the morning, though, so as not to find oneself counting sheep at 2 a.m.

Oh, and high-grade fish oil, like Carlson's, is of course useful also-- fish oil, in my experience, has effects, but they're subtle, and can take a couple of weeks to kick in.

The two speed-ish pills mentioned above aren't subtle, and don't take two weeks.
posted by darth_tedious at 10:25 PM on August 21, 2008

ginkgo biloba, ginseng...?
posted by aielen at 1:09 AM on August 22, 2008

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