Bored? Alienate the Worker

The Sisyphus Series, Part IV

Of the three Sisyphean principles, this is perhaps the most counterintuitive. You’re thinking, I have to roll a boulder up a hill every friggin’ day, I hate this already, and you want me to feel more alienated? I get it. You’re feeling disconnected enough from your boring task. All I’m saying is, if you feel alienated from a chore anyway, why not try going with it ? We’re talking about something you do not want to be in the act of doing, no matter how much you want to have it done. A Sisyphean task is precisely one in which you have absolutely no interest. What happens if you do it without any interest on purpose?

That Sisyphus must roll the boulder up the hill repeatedly, without any variation or nuance or artistry, implies robotism. Most of the time you want to feel your full humanity and passion for life. By all means, when you are doing things you’re interested in, invest yourself! When it’s boulder-pushing time, though, you might be happier if you choose temporarily to di vest your full-blooded selfhood and robotically go through the motions with zero personal stake in the labor.

For our first example we return to the continuing saga of me and the cat box. I do not nor do I have any desire to appreciate, savor, or devote any part of myself other than brute muscle to the activity of removing animal waste. I derive no felt sense of satisfaction or accomplishment from it, yet do it I must. In our last episode I discussed how I fit scooping the cat box into my day as innocuously as possible; I do it sometime after dinner, at the same time my wife feeds the cats. This timing also helps me alienate myself from the task. The monkey-see-monkey-do act of simply following her in tending to the cats relieves me of the need to self-start an act I possess not one ounce of initiative for. I reduce the starting of the chore to a stimulus-response: she gets up, I get up. I don’t have to plan nor spare a single thought about scooping the box. To be as efficient as possible I’ve developed a scooping routine: tear off new disposal bag, bang box with mallet, scoop into old bag that lines plastic container, pull old bag out of container, tie it and trash it, put new bag into container, done. I follow this routine zombie-like every single night. I embrace my alienation from the work. I want to feel myself in the act of performing this task as little as possible.

Using a trigger to make starting the task automatic and repeating the same routine are two good alienation techniques. Now, when the task itself is cyclical—like washing a dish, then another, then another, then another, and so on, until you’d rather bungie jump into a live volcano rather than wash another dish—what you need is deconstruction. Take the cycle apart and group like steps together. In a complete cycle each dish gets soaped, rinsed, dried, and put away. Believe it or not when we perform the full cycle for each dish in turn, every transition from one physical activity to the next (e.g. from soaping to rinsing) though seemingly benign, requires attentional effort. Multiply several transitions per dish times the number of dishes, and—well, some of us feel overwhelmed just looking at a full sink. With ADHD, and especially when we’re bored with an activity, attention is our most precious resource. So let’s conserve it. Instead of soaping and rinsing each dish in turn, try soaping all the dishes, then rinsing all the dishes, then drying all the dishes, then putting all plates away, then all bowls away, then all cups away, then all silverware away. Performing the same physical action repeatedly helps your body get into a groove and is more likely to numb your mind and leave your attention alone. Mindless repetition is more efficient and leads to good, old fashioned, assembly-line alienation.

For a good alienated worker, there are two quite different kinds of tasks: dumb and smart. Washing dishes and scooping cat litter are dumb tasks; they can be done with virtually no thought and with minimal concentration. During dumb work, like pushing boulders up hills, alienation is relatively simple. Once you give your mind permission to disengage from what your body is doing, your mind is free to do what it wants. Some people listen to podcasts while doing busy work, others sing. One client of mine folds laundry while watching TV. Another cleans his room while talking on the phone.

For a smart task, like reading a book, thought and concentration are needed, and the mind is not free to gambol and cavort as it prefers. Alienating from smart tasks calls for stronger methods, because you’re trying to free your mind from work that requires your mind’s presence. It sounds paradoxical, but it can be done with some simple sleight of hand. The alienation goal is the same: perform a job that you are disinterested in disinterestedly. With smart work, though, you have to purchase your disinterest in the process by being interested in something else. Don’t worry, it’s something you probably really are interested in: crossing the finish line. If you really don’t want to read the book, but you really want to have read the book, then get interested in the future in which you have read it. Become product-oriented. Make your mental activity as robotically productive as possible, and eschew personal investment in the process. In fact, despise the process, if that helps. It often does. Just like swearing when you stub your toe, dissing out loud work you hate (when it is safe to do so) can provide effective pain relief.

Back when I was teaching college courses on mythology, I had a student—I’ll refer to him by the name Prior—who absolutely hated what happened to be my favorite book in the course. To me, teaching this book year after year was a highlight, but to Prior every page was a Sisyphean boulder. He was earning an A so far, and didn’t want to jeopardize that, but he found reading this book intolerable. Finally he came to me and asked what he needed to be able to understand and talk about from the text in order to maintain his A.1 I supplied him with A-level study questions. He proceeded to plow through the book, holding his nose, and mechanically applied his comprehension in order to grasp the required concepts and demonstrate them to his teacher’s (my) satisfaction in a paper that barely restrained his disgust. He got an A.

Prior asked the magic question that helped him to get through his chore without one shred of his own interest: What do I need to end up with? His eyes found the finish line and kept it in sight throughout his reading. Even in a chore that requires your active intelligence, knowing what you have to end up with enables you to focus on the part of the task that actually does interest you, being done.

Caveat emptor: Focusing on product rather than process is the most essential technique in alienating workers from their work. It’s how craftsmen were turned into disaffected assembly line cogs in the industrial era. Similarly, focusing on product rather than process in education, notably through high-stakes testing policies, reduces learning to academic input-output processing. Over-applied, alienation is very, very BAD for us. When doing work we love and when learning with genuine interest, we don’t want to feel and naturally don’t feel alienated from the process; instead we’re wholeheartedly engaged, fully present, enjoying, growing, appreciating, living our experience.

I’m only proposing using alienation surgically, when necessary. When our interest in process = 0% (or very near) and interest in finished product = 100%, alienating ourselves from the work can be an act of self-mercy, even self-protection. It helps us endure negative experiences with less pain. In truth, assembly-line-type alienation is essentially a form of dissociation, which is how our nervous system protects us from suffering when fight and flight aren’t possible. For most activities I emphatically do not recommend dissociation! But on those occasions when we can neither fight off nor run away from a deadly boring task without betraying our best interests, just a spoonful of alienation helps the medicine go down.

The object in this series has been all along to cut Sisyphean boulders down to size, from daunting to doable. Tools reduce needed effort. Flow minimizes time commitment. Carefully applied, consciously chosen alienation rejects boredom without sacrificing productivity. You can get done what you have to do with less suffering and more ease, freeing yourself to savor the challenge of life activities that interest you.

  1. Students, take note! Don’t be afraid to confront your professors with this question. 


ADHD: Nurture Matters

A recent press release announced: “Children in Foster Care Three Times More Likely to Have ADHD Diagnosis.” A study found that 25% of children in foster care had been diagnosed with ADHD, more than triple the 7.14% of all children in Medicaid who were not in foster care.

The obvious question is why this occurs. Clearly, neglect, abuse, attachment disruptions and emotional upheavals correlate with ADHD symptoms in this population of children in foster homes. In other words, their environment contributed to their mental health condition; the etiology of their ADHD was not strictly biological. If the above mentioned statistics are not pure happenstance, the ways these children were (and were not) taken care of caused them to develop ADHD.

A follow-up question, then, is: Why is the first-line treatment in these and so many other children most often medication? Why are there not more and better-known and used psychologically-based treatments that focus on mitigating abuse and neglect, repairing attachment disruptions, and healing emotional wounds? The issue is not restricted to children diagnosed with ADHD. Recent research reveals that poor children on Medicaid are four times as likely to receive antipsychotic medication as are kids whose parents can afford private insurance:

Some experts say they are stunned by the disparity in prescribing patterns. But others say it reinforces previous indications, and their own experience, that children with diagnoses of mental or emotional problems in low-income families are more likely to be given drugs than receive family counseling or psychotherapy.1

This is not only a mental health issue; it’s a public health and a social justice issue as well.

In the context of neurochemistry, medicating ADHD makes perfect sense. Studies have shown that people with attention-deficit symptoms have, for example, low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. If you’re a psychiatrist, and you have a patient complaining that she can’t focus, and you can give her a pill (Ritalin or Adderall) that will increase her dopamine, which will stimulate the “reward center”2 in her brain and increase her motivation, wouldn’t you write the prescription? There are so many cases in which medication has reduced symptoms (only while the drug is active in the body) that it has become by far the most established treatment for ADHD.

One potential problem with the prescription of stimulant medication, in particular, is that a recent study suggests dopamine actually may not be the neuro-culprit.3 But the main problem with this medical approach is not in the neurochemical imbalances that the researchers and the prescribers are seeing plain as day in the data. The problem is that the data lacks environmental context, which turns out to be critically, and therefore clinically, relevant. A wealth of research over the past decade has been bringing into focus a much more complex and sensible picture: apparently—shockingly—what we do with our children permanently affects their mental health! In an editorial titled “‘It’s the environment stupid!’ On epigenetics, programming and plasticity in child mental health,” Edmund J.S. Sonuga-Barke writes:

we are seeing fascinating examples of the power of the environment to shape disorder expression and the neurobiological processes presumed to underpin it. Powerful new concepts are being applied to help explain the ways that environments influence gene expression4 (Mill & Petronis, 2008), program biological systems (Swanson & Wadhwa, 2008) and promote both functional and structural plasticity during brain development (Rapoport & Gogtay, 2008).5 [Emphases added.]

ADHD (and many other diagnoses not included in the scope of this post) is neuro-developmental. The brains—or, more accurately, the entire nervous systems—of children and adults with attentional symptoms have been shaped by their experiences, primarily in early childhood. In “A Developmental Investigation of Inattentiveness and Hyperactivity,” Carlson, Jacobvitz and Sroufe observe:

In early childhood, quality of caregiving more powerfully predicted distractibility, an early precursor of hyperactivity, than did early biological or temperament factors. Caregiving and contextual factors together with early distractibility significantly predicted hyperactivity in middle childhood.6

The mental health consequences of neglect and abuse—as well as parent-child misattunements in fundamentally loving families that simply have normal family problems—can turn out to be lifelong. (Just ask adult ADDers who are struggling to cope with midlife crises.) Can the damage be undone? The short answer is yes. Recent findings in the fields of neuroplasticity7 and somatic-based trauma treatment are demonstrating that permanent healing is possible for those with disrupted nervous systems. Some of us have taken this view all along. The “Nurtured Heart Approach,” developed by Howard Glasser, is a powerful, effective treatment for ADHD, which consists in, essentially, holding the child in “unconditional positive regard”:8 connecting with the child exclusively in love and admiration for who the child is, and disciplining in clear, short, non-punitive ways.

I, for my part, am overjoyed that scientific research is finally proving that we are not biological machines but rather that which we mean when we use the word human. Nevertheless, more research is needed in order to begin to shift the prevailing paradigm, a paradigm in which most people hearing of the Nurtured Heart Approach for the first time find the concept either impossible or ill advised or both.

I do not think prescribing medication for ADHD is bad. I do agree with many critics that medications for ADHD are grossly over-prescribed. If we are just patient and resilient enough ourselves to look more closely at the experiences of young ADDers who are jumping from desk to desk and twirling their hair while gazing at a flower in a jar, we will find that in most cases what they need in their lives is something other than a pill.

  1. “Poor Children Likelier to Get Antipsychotics”, New York Times, December 12, 2009, page A1 of the New York edition. 

  2. There is no “reward center” in the brain. This phrase is a metaphor. The brain is not a county fair; no kewpie dolls are handed out. The human brain is organic, and while we’re alive, it’s alive (and vice-versa). 

  3. “Imaging study shows dopamine dysfunction is not the main cause of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)” 

  4. It is still commonly thought among the college-educated that genes are to living organisms what programming code is to computer software. It is not so. There is an excellent discussion in Stephen Talbott’s Biology Worthy of Life. Here is an excerpt:

    Picture the situation concretely. Every bodily activity or condition presents its own requirements for gene expression. Whether you are running or sleeping, starving or feasting, getting aroused or calming down, suffering a flesh wound or recovering from pneumonia—in all cases the body and its different cells have specific, almost incomprehensibly complex and changing requirements for differential expression of thousands of genes. And one thing necessary for achieving this expression in all its fine detail is the properly choreographed performance of the chromosomes.

    This performance cannot be captured with an abstract code. Interacting with its surroundings, the chromosome belongs as much to a living activity as any other element in its cellular environment. [Emphasis added.]

  5. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 51:2 (2010), pp 113–115. 

  6. “A Developmental Investigation of Inattentiveness and Hyperactivity.” Child Development, 1995, 66, 37-54. 

  7. See, for example, Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity

  8. The phrase is not Glasser’s; it is from the writings of psychologist Carl Rogers. 


The Executive Functioning STOP Sign

What is executive functioning? Picture, if you will, an executive. Now notice some things about this picture. Most images of executives are lofty in a number of ways: working on the top floor, formally dressed (even on “dress-down Fridays”), with clean (not labor-soiled) hands; workers are under the executive; the population at large is held at a distance from the executive’s door, and can only get in for a consultation by making an appointment well in advance, not on the spur of the moment. These are not necessarily distinctions of importance: after all, an executive is of little value without workers. The distinction I’m pointing out is one of separation.

People with ADHD tend to have a whole lot of trouble with one executive in particular—their own inner executive. One leading theory is that the primary deficit in “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” is predominantly one of executive functioning (“EF” for short). One of the most highly respected ADHD researchers, Dr. Russell Barkley, offers this list:

  • Inhibition—self-restraint: having a response, yet deciding to hold it back
  • Foresight—projecting experience into the future: imaginatively seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and moving at a future time
  • Hindsight—reflecting on past sensory and movement experiences and learning from them
  • Self-awareness—being conscious of what one is thinking, feeling, wanting, doing
  • Sense of time—feeling time passing; correlating self-movement with time passing
  • Working (short-term) memory—recalling multiple pieces of verbal and nonverbal information (i.e. speech and images) for work; e.g. hearing a ten-digit phone number and later dialing it accurately
  • Planning—hierarchically ordering actions
  • Problem solving—revising, reframing, conceiving multiple scenarios…in effect, self-directed playing
  • Self-motivation—harnessing one’s will, which is the motive force that drives one’s actions (unharnessed will, for example, can manifest as hyperactivity)
  • Emotional self-regulation—feeling strong emotions and letting them pass without becoming overwhelmed by them; self-evoking emotion in the service of one’s goals

The number one essential characteristic of executive functioning, from a usefulness point of view, is that it works with representations of the experiences with which it is concerned. That is, executive functions don’t handle down-in-the-trenches work directly; rather, they handle reports and projections of that work. Executives don’t respond to stimuli. They get a report that a stimulus has been received. They analyze the report. They make a decision. They call in their administrative assistant and instruct the assistant to respond to the stimulus, or delegate the response to a worker. Executive functioning isn’t the hands-on work itself; it considers what work has already occurred in the past, determines what work will be done in the future, plans the work, monitors the work, thinks about and assesses the work, solves problems that arise in the midst of the work, and weathers the ups and downs of the work by keeping the big picture and long-term goals in mind.

Consider the common ADHD symptom hyperfocus, the on-task equivalent of the word banana(nananana—easy to spell, but who knows when to stop?). In a state of hyperfocus, an ADDer can work on a task for—well, let’s just say well past bedtime. To use myself as an example, when I was doing the research on EF that in part resulted in this post, I got interested in the subject, and just kept going. I periodically noted the time, as hour after hour inexorably wheeled by, but I did not feel that the day—and then the night—was getting progressively later (time insensitivity). Instead, I felt a continuous, unchanging sense of being in the moment of doing what I was doing.

Most of the symptoms of ADHD have this in common: being in their own moment of doing whatever the ADDer is doing—daydreaming and not noticing that they’re daydreaming, tapping and humming without noticing they’re tapping and humming, blurting out “Egad, what happened to your face?” to the scarred woman in the elevator without noticing.… In the midst of doing there is no noticing, and thus no self-regulation of the doing.

Something else to notice about the executive: the CEO is responsible for the well being and success of the corporation, in this case the body of the self.1 If we ADDers are to empower our inner CEOs, we have to perform those executive functions. And the only way to perform executive functions is to STOP working.

Don’t worry (or don’t rejoice)—I’m not proposing going on strike from all work. I just mean we have to put up stop signs at important intersections, and actually come to a full stop before proceeding along our route.

(My cousin Sidney tells my favorite stop-sign story. Sid pulls up to a stop sign and sees there’s a cop around the corner, so he slows waaaaaaaay down, till he’s moving like a three-toed sloth, one M.P.W. (mile per week). Sid looks to the right. Sid looks to the left. He eases like a gentleman in a Cadillac through the intersection. Immediately—siren, lights. The cop pulls him over. Sid protests, “Officer, sir, what did I do wrong? I stopped at the stop sign.” The officer flips open his summons book and replies: “Sir, your wheels never stopped turning.”)

David Giwerc, MCC and Founder and President of the ADD Coach Academy, calls this kind of stopping “The Power of the Pause: The Difference Between Reacting Impulsively and Responding Rationally.” Even in the marathon of hyperfocus, ADDers have moments of self-awareness. The main difference between such self-aware moments in an ADDer and a neuro-typical is that for the ADDer these moments don’t automatically result in recoiling and saying, “What the heck am I doing?” Instead, we tend to blow right through those moments of awareness. Even if we slow waaaaaaaay down, our wheels never stop turning. We can take our summons one of two ways: either as a call to appear before the judgment of our external circumstances, which usually results in a hefty fine—a penalty of sleep or productivity or time with loved ones…whatever our hyperfocusing typically costs us;—or we can take the summons as a call to our own inner judgment. Stop and ask some executive questions: What has happened when I’ve done this before? Tomorrow, what will I wish I had decided to do right now? How much time is passing for other people close to me while I’m engaged in this activity? What goal did I originally set out to accomplish when I started doing this? Problem solve. Plan. What does your heart feel is the course of action most in alignment with your intentions and values?

These are not light questions, and the answers you give to them are consequential. Before getting into them, though, I recommend taking them into your office—the biggest, cushiest, highest-up, picture-windowed corner office you can imagine. Take a few moments. Breathe. Relax. Take as much time as you need to arrive at a decision in your head that feels right in your gut.

  1. “Corporate,” from the Latin corporatus, means “formed into a body.” 


Get Started on To-Dos Without Anxiety

It’s all in the cards

Using a to-do list can be immensely helpful. But maybe, just maybe, your to-do list might start to overwhelm you. If you find yourself struggling to scale a mountain of to-dos, starting to panic that you’ll never be able to reach the top or work your way to the bottom, and contemplating just hurling yourself off the mountainside back into bed for the rest of the day—then try this.

It’s a card game. For fun, I call it Priorities Deathmatch, or sometimes Project Thunderdome. If you don’t like those names, you can call it anything you prefer.

You will need blank cards or the equivalent; index cards, stickies, even cut-up pieces of paper.

  1. Write one to-do on each card, for all the ones you want to consider right now (i.e. if you have ten to-dos you’re considering doing, you should end up with ten cards). When you’re done writing all the cards, you may optionally shuffle them.
  2. Stack the to-do cards in front of you, face down.
  3. Pick two cards off the top and turn them over. Here are two to-dos. Choose one that strikes the best balance between (a) being important to do now, and (b) your feeling prepared and willing to do now. You must choose only one of the two. (You can see why I alternately call it Priorities Deathmatch and Project Thunderdome: two tasks enter, one task leaves).
  4. Put the losing to-do in a discard pile, and take the next card off the top of the original stack. Repeat step 3: choose one of the two to-dos.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there is only one to-do left standing. Now, do your to-do. If you complete it, great! Do whatever you want with the card—toss it, frame it, give it to your dog to chew… If you don’t complete the task, write a new card for whatever remains to be done, and stick it back in your to-do deck.

When you want to tackle another to-do, play the game again (reusing the undone to-do cards), end up with one, and do it.

Why the game works

This game is based on sound psychological and neurocognitive principles.

Two is a choice, all is chaos

How many to-dos are in a long to-do list? All of them. Can you do all of them at once? No. And often that’s the feeling that comes with looking at the whole list: I can’t do all of these!

Looking at only two to-dos at a time is a straightforward choice between two things. That’s what a choice is supposed to feel like:

This one, or that one?

Simple. Not overwhelming.

Executive functioning is fundamental

The process of choosing between two items based on the specific criteria of importance and doability is essentially a complex discrimination task. You are differentiating which to-do is more important and which is less important (however greatly or slightly); which to-do is more urgent, which less (i.e. time-sensitivity); which to-do is easier and which is harder; which you feel better prepared for and which less prepared for; which more inclined to perform at this moment and which less inclined to perform. You are unitizing (seeing a whole rather than the parts) by determining that one to-do strikes the balance between importance and doability better than the other one. You are also thinking calmly about your feelings, which is a powerful way of regulating emotion without suppressing it.

In short, you are engaged in executive functioning, and lighting up your prefrontal cortex. When your prefontal cortex activates, your amygdala (which starts the fight-flight-or-freeze response) calms down. Executive functioning reduces anxiety.

One step at a time

Even simpler and easier is having only one task to do at a time. The human mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time, so give yourself one thing only to concentrate on and do.

The to-do card game is a simple way to replace a daunting mountain with a single cute mole hill—that you can easily whack!


5 Rules for Being a Good American

I saw Anne Lamott speak years ago, and something she recounted (told to her by a Jesuit priest friend named Tom) has stayed with me all these years:

There are 5 rules for being a good American:

  1. Don’t have anything wrong with you.
  2. If there is something wrong with you, fix it immediately.
  3. If you can’t fix it, hide it.
  4. If you can’t hide it, stay home—just don’t show up or you’ll make other people uncomfortable.
  5. But, if you insist on showing up anyway and making everyone else uncomfortable, at least have the decency to feel ashamed of yourself.

These rules enjoy multiple, frequent applications—to stigmas about and discomfort with ADHD, neuro-atypicality, mental illness, addiction, bereavement, physical challenges, varieties of gender and sexual orientation… to all kinds of human differences, in fact, that are too often seen as something wrong with you.

Show up. Be seen. Just as you are. review: “Rewriting the Book of Belonging: Anne Lamott on the True Gift of Friendship and the Uncomfortable Art of Letting Yourself Be Seen”

*Anne Lamott*

I heartily recommend any of Lamott’s nonfiction. This woman is wise.


Emotions in the Body

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands, your chest, your face, your knees and your toes. According to a recent study, emotions are felt physically:

We propose that consciously felt emotions are associated with culturally universal, topographically distinct bodily sensations that may support the categorical experience of different emotions.1

In the study, happiness was found to be a full-body, warm, active experience, whereas depression was characterized by a notable inactivity in the heart and gut areas, with decreased inner sensation in the limbs.

The body maps show regions whose activation increased (warm colors) or decreased (cool colors) when feeling each emotion.

How are you feeling today—right now? Can you feel your emotion in your body? Try using your hands to sense where in your body your emotion feels alive. How does your posture feel? What expression are the muscles in your face forming?

If you are feeling emotion that is overwhelming or agitating, it can help to notice the sensations arising in your body. Noticing brings an observer’s perspective, which can be calming.

And if you are feeling emotion that is so delightful you can hardly contain yourself,2 embodying it fully is a fulfilling way of appreciating the moment.

  1. Bodily maps of emotions. Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, Jari K. Hietanen. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 January 14; 111(2): 646–651. Published online 2013 December 30. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1321664111 

  2. Take a moment to contemplate what it physically feels like to hardly be able to contain yourself. 


Write Off Worries

Overwhelmed by too many things to do, too many situations to keep track of, too many worries about what could go wrong in all those situations? All these concerns can weigh heavily on your mind. Why not unload them? Here’s how.

  1. Get paper and pen (handwriting this is better than typing it), and make a list of everything that’s weighing and preying on you. Don’t worry about order or organization; we’ll take care of that in a later step. For now, put on paper each thought, task, nag in your head in whatever order they come in, like dealing cards off the top of a deck. When the stream slows to a trickle, add anything that’s missing. Done? Let’s do some annotating.
  2. In the margin, write “DO” next to anything that is a task you can physically accomplish.
  3. Next to anything you’re worrying about that is not a clear to-do, draw a worry-icon (a frowny-face, or a dark circle—anything simple). If it’s a task you’re worried about, you can alleviate your worry by doing it; not so with worries that have no clear DO that will make them go away. Keep DOs and worries separate.
  4. If there are any situations you want to do something about, but aren’t sure how to deal with, mark those with a “?” (or “Huh?” or “WTF”…). These are things you need more information about, to enable you to do something about them.

If you want, you can now put all the DOs, all the Worried Faces and all the ?s on their own individual sheets.

Separated from all the worries and question marks, DOs feel more doable, ’cause now they’re merely to-dos and nothing else.

Worries, when written down and separated from doable tasks, start to lose their mystery and menace: they’re merely thoughts, and often there’s nothing that need be done other than accept them.

Questions about situations are merely another kind of DO: get information. Knowing that you need to find something out is much less stressful than feeling like you have to do something but don’t know what.

Finally, notice if there are any recurring themes. You might discover that many worries are really about one or two things—work, for example, or money, or relationships.… What appear to be a multitude of worries often boil down to a few manageable categories of concern.

Worries are like hungry hyenas: they’re terrifying when we know they’re there but can’t see them; they’re still scary but less monstrous when they’re in front of us and we can keep an eye on them; they’re not so dangerous when separated instead of in a pack; and they’re harmless when they are mere words on a page. When you’re dogged by hungry hyenas, transmute them into ink on paper, and see who’s laughing then!


How to Get the Reading Done (Enough): The UBER Method

Here is a tried and true outside-the-box method for doing course reading that works for people who feel weighed down by reading assignments.

Riddle yourself this: How often do you complete enough of your assigned reading to be able to go to class feeling confident that if called on you’ll be able to look the teacher in the eye and respond directly from your knowledge of the text? Restrict your answer to one of these two:

  1. Often enough to do as well as I want to
  2. Not often enough to do as well as I want to

If your answer is “a,” don’t mess with a winning streak. No need to spend time on this post; go do your reading.

If your answer is “b,” however, then the UBER method can change your academic life.

If you’re actively choosing not to read for class, then at least you’re exercising free will. But many of us don’t read (or not much), yet wish we could magically absorb books. We want to have done the reading, but somehow can’t manage to do it. When I played the “super-power” game for the first time in my life—“If you could have one super-power, what would it be?”—my answer was, “The ability to read a 500-page book in an hour with perfect comprehension.” All these years later, my answer is still the same.

My super-power wish betrays a common preconception: that reading needs to be done from beginning to end without skipping anything. Reading every word from start to finish is ideal, at least in the respect that most literature, fiction and nonfiction, is written to be read this way. If I’m reading for pleasure, I read from beginning to end (though not everyone does this; it’s a matter of personal preference). But reading for course work involves an important utilitarian consideration: if I understand the substance of the reading, who cares if I didn’t read every word? And what difference does it make if I read the pages out of order?

The essence of the UBER method is simple and practical. Be goal-directed. Read what you need to read.

Reading every word and following every thought in a text step by step is a beautiful thing. But when we’re having trouble getting reading done, we have to be willing to sacrifice beauty. We’re going to read in an ugly but efficient way. That’s the UBER method: Ugly But Efficient Reading.1

The first thing to do when using the UBER method is—don’t read the text!—at least not yet. Walk around it for a few minutes; survey it. You’re not going to dive into the reading, you’re going to figure out what you need to get out of it, and then go fishing in the best spots. You’re not going to wade slowly but dutifully through all the pages; you’re going to look things up.

The UBER (Ugly But Efficient Reading) Method

  1. Consider the context. What do you already know? How does this reading relate to the course material? (This latter question you can ask your professor outright, if it’s not clear to you.)
  2. Gather clues. Also known as “pre-reading,” this is when you read all the easy stuff and learn as much as possible as fast as possible. The first things you should read are:
    • the book cover
    • the summary on the back cover (or the abstract of the article)
    • the table of contents
    • pictures and captions
    • charts, graphs, tables, notes
    • questions at the end of the chapter; and then…
  3. STOP. What do you know now? More importantly, given what you’ve learned from the clues you’ve gathered, what do you now want to know about this reading? Ask questions.
  4. Find out where the text is going to end up. Read the last paragraph (or two). Then read the first paragraph to see where and how the text begins, and ask more questions: What is important in this reading? What is the last paragraph saying? What don’t you understand yet? What do you need to find out more about?
  5. Finally, read whatever parts of the text you need to in order to answer your questions. In other words, read to learn what you need to know.2

The key to the UBER method is making sure you have accomplishable goals in front of you at all times. Finding answers to questions you have, especially when you have the text that the answers are in, is an accomplishable goal. For some of us, the prospect of a dense 40-page article on a subject we don’t find interesting feels daunting enough that we avoid even starting it. Now compare having to read that article straight through to having an untimed open-book exam on it. Passing an open-book exam is an accomplishable goal.

So, open your books and get out of them what you need. Ugly But Efficient Reading is much more enlightening than perfect reading that doesn’t get done at all.

P.S. Try the UBER method out on this post. Read the title and the footnotes, the lists, and the phrases in bold type. Then read the final paragraphs, then the first couple of paragraphs. See how much you can learn just from these?

  1. The reading strategies in this post are not original on my part; in fact they’re well known among reading teachers. However, the acronym “UBER” for “Ugly But Efficient Reading” is my own invention. 

  2. Now, don’t be a dope: what you need to know is not defined by what you learn until you get bored; it’s what you need to know to participate intelligently and confidently in a class discussion. 


Thanks for the AD/HD!

A diagnosis of AD/HD comes with a lot of can’t s and bad-at s: can’t sit still, bad at getting places on time, can’t focus, bad at finishing projects, and so on. But it comes with plenty of strengths. Sometimes a weakness in one context is a strength in a different context. An example of a deficit of executive functioning in some ADDers is difficulty following recipes or building furniture from a kit with instructions. Grasping the relationship between one step and the next can come slowly, and the experience of having to go step by step can be excruciating. But give these same ADDers a box of Legos and—stand back! Mansions, whole city blocks, Model T’s, cruise ships, flying saucers, crop circles, dinosaurs.… All of a sudden what was a deficit in relating one piece to the next becomes a talent for putting pieces together in unexpected ways.

I sometimes describe the experience of AD/HD thinking as a mental landscape of pools. Thoughts and images sit in pools in the minds of us ADDers, but these pools don’t connect with each other automatically. When we’re kids our mother can march us to the threshold of the disaster area that is our room, and when she says, “Okay, get started, and soon I’ll come help you,” we look at her quizzically and ask, “Get started with what?” We didn’t see a mess, we saw clothes and games and paper and a hockey stick and pillows and cards and legos on the floor. A mess was only one of the many possible ways of seeing the room. We have to intentionally connect the dots, irrigate between the pools, create canals. This requires more effort than if we had a mental matrix of streams and rivers which flowed from one place to the next in a definite from-upstream-to-downstream order. On the other hand, we can link our pools any way we want. We can also see many of them simultaneously; ADDers can be great synthesists, intuitively grasping complex holistic pictures very quickly.

David Giwerc and Barbara Luther, Master Certified Coaches at the ADD Coach Academy, note that “ADHD can… be a strength and gift in the right context.” They have come up with this top ten list of reasons they love their AD/HD coaching clients:

  • They think and function outside the box, which makes them interesting and fun.
  • They are incredibly creative, non-linear thinkers and love to brainstorm.
  • They usually have high energy and enthusiasm.
  • They are quick and spontaneous, often living in flow rather than in the artificial structure of minutes and hours.
  • They make intuitive leaps and connections that make for very interesting ideas and projects to work on within coaching.
  • They absolutely thrive in partnerships.  They can be quite charismatic and empathetic, and they are truly appreciative of a thinking/listening partner.
  • They are usually very bright and interested in many things, so they can be fascinating to talk with.
  • They can concentrate intensely on things they care about, and they usually work well to deadlines they’ve committed to.
  • They may thrive in chaos and change, and they may be very good at juggling multiple tasks at once.
  • They work hard, are adventurous, and are often quite driven.

The deficits in “Attention Deficit” are contextual. This is not to say that the deficits are illusory. (If they were, I would have finished this post hours before 2:00 this morning.) But they tend to be deficits in the context of time-sensitive, linear, pre-defined task-oriented situations. In other contexts which prioritize cognitive feeling, intuition, creativity, imagination, analysis, synthesis, idealism, and the kind of moral sensitivity that revolts at soulless bean counting, executive management deficits can metamorphose into salt-of-the-earth gifts.

And for these gifts, I invite you to join me in giving thanks. May your Thanksgiving be joyful this week on—whatever day it’s on.


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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