Disorganization that looks like organization

As a person who has been plagued by organization problems all my life, I do have a couple of things to say about it, not in the useful sense of what to do, but one or two things in the possibly-useful sense of what to avoid.

(This is prompted by events at work, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t use details from there.)

My problem with organization has always been that (a) I can’t remember the system from last time and (b) most systems seem exactly as good as each other. So next time I start from first principles (sounds better than “from scratch”) and create a new system, putting stuff away in the new place while everything else is still in the old place for the old system. However, living like this has led to a couple of insights.

First, there are organizational systems that only look organized. They impose some kind of order, but they’re not useful. As a totally silly example, let’s suggest that I have in my garage a new organizational system based on mass. Heavy stuff in one place, light in another, eight or nine gradations in between. This is nonsensical (I think you’ll agree), but it looks good: all the heavy power tools are over here, together, along with the bar fridge and the bicycles; all the light stuff is here in bins: washers and nuts and caps for bicycle inner tubes and gloves and those really small screwdrivers I need once in a while. Over there are most of my wrenches and some screwdrivers, but the rest are over on this other spot with my hammers and the long screwdrivers and some sections of copper pipe I have for plumbing repairs. Over there is my propane torch for sweat-welding.

Looks good and has some kind of organizing principle, but the system doesn’t take into account what I use things for. I mean, wouldn’t you figure that maybe  I want to visit only one or two spots in the garage to gather what I need to fix the bicycle? Or to saw wood?

I could do it by purpose, except there are some common things that get used a lot (the screwdrivers and wrenches, for instance). If we were talking about separate rooms, I might actually buy two different sets (one for upstairs, one for downstairs) to avoid the travelling-and-distracted problem…but we’re talking about my garage. 

So: an organizational system that puts the bulk of the materials in one place is good…that place is the garage. But then you have to subdivide the garage, because there’s just too much stuff. 

Fortunately, stuff doesn’t have to be right the first time, but you have to do two things, both of which I suck at:

  • You have to evaluate whether the current system is working, and be willing to listen to other people if you are not the only one using the system.
  • You have to be willing to make the changes to try something new.


Organization has long been a hassle for me. Almost every organizational scheme seems as good as any other, and when asked where I put something, I often have to figure out what I considered most important at the time in order to figure out what schema I made up…recreating it from scratch, as it were.

I’ve been reading a couple of books on organization and disorganization for the ADHD mind, and one of them had a couple of items that really struck home to me as being important (for me, anyway).

First, emphasize utility over beauty. Having the towels in the hall closet, the shampoo under the sink, and the shower in its own small room looks great–the towels and the shampoo are nicely hidden away–but sucks as an organizational strategy for me because I have to remember where the pieces are if I’m going to take a shower. Better to put the shampoo by the shower and some kind of towel rack in the same room as the shower.

Second, make things easier to put away than to take out. Think about it: when you need something, you have the impetus of that need to get it out; when you don’t need it any more, there is no impetus. So clever stacking arrangements, while they save space, are a pain to reassemble. If you have so much stuff that everything has to be arranged in the cupboard just so, you have too much stuff! Or the stuff is in the wrong cupboard.

Both of these come from Organizing Solutions for People with ADHD, by Susan C. Pinsky. I’m using the electronic edition, and it sometimes freezes up on my Kobo app on iPad, but is generally fixed when I go back in, so I don’t know whether the problem is with the book or the app.

The return of bad habits

It’s been a while since I posted…six months.


See, I haven’t made a habit of posting. And habits…are <em>tangentially</em> related to what I wanted to talk about. (I have Charles Duhigg’s <cite>The Power Of Habit</em> sitting here as an audiobook, waiting to be listened to, but I haven’t done that yet.)

You might have heard somewhere that it takes three weeks to establish a habit. I can tell you that it is not true for me. Six weeks might work, but there is still the chance that I will backslide.

If it’s a particularly unpleasant task, after years there is the chance I will backslide.

Now, the current speech I hear is that ADHD is related to problems or underdevelopment of the executive functions portion of the brain, such as inhibition. Those can grow or shrink or be otherwise modified through practice. (In fact, I suddenly suspect this is part of the practice of meditation: the need to exercise control over the self might lead to the encouragement of those functions, especially if they’re located in one or two section of the brain. I digress.) Habits increase the inhibition areas of your brain, at least in areas related to the habit. You inhibit behaviours X, Y, and Z until your habit is complete.

Except as I’ve always practiced it, creating habits doesn’t necessarily carry over to other areas.

I have also noticed that bad habits never go away: they’re always lurking there, waiting to re-establish themselves. I think this is probably something to be aware of: when everything is going well, you can’t abandon what has made your life go well. (Yes, there’s an edge condition where following the new behaviour is magical thinking; those are rare.)

So: in times of great stress, you might fall back into old habits. And, perhaps equally importantly, when everything is going well, you might also fall back into old habits.

I have Charles Duhrig’s Habit here on audiobook, so I’m going to give it a listen.

Guilt and the Parent

I tried posting this last week, but WordPress wasn’t cooperating.

We had kind of a major scale meltdown last week (and a smaller one on the other side), and it has left me feeling terribly guilty.

Here are the reasons I tell myself:

  • ADHD is about 85% heritable, according to the studies, and I am the ADHD parent. I am, therefore, about 85% responsible for our children having ADHD. (Well, one of them is adopted, but I’m responsible for the other one.)
  • Both kids have anxiety issues, and even if one is by chance, two starts looking like faulty parenting.
  • I know from long experience that I am just not as good as I ought to be, at anything. So why shouldn’t it be my fault, just in a way that I’m not bright enough to see right now?

Some of you might know the problem. When I am at my very worst, I figure the family would be better off without me, with all that implies, and I half-heartedly think of ways I could leave so they could be free.

I don’t do it, though. Instead, I concentrate on finding flaws in the reasons I just said, and finding good reasons to stay and stay involved.

Okay, yeah. ADHD is largely heritable. (In fact, I think it’s among the most heritable traits studied, but I could be wrong.) And it’s probably between 5 and 10 per cent of the population. Does it have a selective advantage to the group? I’m not in the group that thinks it has to, but that might be reassuring to some folks to think that. (There are doctors who talk about the advantages of ADHD. Club feet keep reoccurring, and I have trouble finding advantages there, so being a mutation with a known persistence in the population does not guarantee a selective advantage. But I digress:) Do I beat myself up because my daughter is blonde instead of some other colour? Do I beat myself up over skin colour? No.

Ah, you say (or at least I do when I’m doing this arguing-both-sides thing), but ADHD isn’t as benign as hair colour. No, you’re right. But would I beat myself up if, say, my daughter had inherited my club feet? Probably not: I’d be sad once in a while for possibilities that got taken from her, but it would not be the same source of guilt that this is.

Partly that’s because I am still struggling with ADHD myself. It’s a constant shadow, and while it’s nice to be able to point to some things and say, “Hey, ADHD is why I have such problems with consistency,” it doesn’t change the fact that really, for me, some things are always going to be harder than they are for 90% of the population.

(Which is when I point out to myself that I am a white male, playing on (as John Scalzi puts it) the lowest difficulty setting of North American life. But this is about me wallowing in self-pity.)

And yes, maybe my wife and I parented in some way that contributed to anxiety. It wasn’t on purpose, if it was so–it’s not like I’d have chosen to saddle the kids with anxiety issues. Unfortunately, that’s done. It’s in the past. If I ever identify what the specific things were, I’ll point them out so others don’t make the same mistakes. But that’s the past. All I can do at this point is change what I’m doing to try to address the symptoms, and to try to address the underlying cause.

For parenting, that’s all any of us can do. And there will come a time when our children have to make their own lives, just as they have to make their own mistakes now, while it’s still safe.

Sometimes, yes, I fear for my kids, and I go too far in the wrong direction, trying to make sure that they don’t make the same mistakes I did. Instead, I want them to make new mistakes. I want them to make mistakes where I have to scratch my head and say, “I dunno, sweetie: this is what it looks like to me, but you’ll have to make the decision yourself.”

(When I look at the third reason for guilt, it is just me whining. And when I write it down, it looks like exactly that. But I left it in, because you know habits of decades are hard to break and you should see that.)

So, guilty or not, we have to address the symptoms, find a cause, and try and address that. Rinse, wash, repeat. Parenting is too much a culmination of a billion tiny decisions and moments to say that the problem is here or here or there (with a few sad traumatic stories excepted). We might never find the real root cause: it might be ADHD or anxiety or epilepsy or stammering, compounded with low self-esteem from a history of failure, mixed with poor dietary habits and a terrible sleep schedule and a nonexistent exercise regime, and yesterday’s burrito.

But even if it is your fault, or your partner’s fault, feeling guilty about it isn’t going to fix it. If you have done something wrong, yes, you should feel remorse. You have done something wrong. If you’re like every other parent I know, you did it innocently or without thinking, but you’ve done something wrong.

But fix it. Fix what you can. Keep trying.

ADHD medication and avoiding tolerance

Not the social kind of tolerance, the medical/pharmaceutical kind.

One of the things we noticed about our son is that the dose of Vyvance he’s been on for about three years seems to wear off sooner: before it was good until after school (we used to call dinnertime the Arsenic Hour), and now we’re getting reports that he becomes his unmedicated self while at school in the afternoon. The temptation is to ask for an increased dosage, but tolerance is a known side effect for some people taking methilphenidate drugs. (There’s also an interesting thing that a doctor on some podcast mentioned, which is that changed life circumstances can affect how much you need. That doesn’t apply in this case, but I figured I’d mention it to lay the groundwork for pointless theorizing in some future post.)

Anyway. What my son’s pediatrician prescribed is alternating Concerta and Vyvance. The boy was on Concerta before, and for reasons related to anxiety, we switched to Vyvance, which has been good for several years.

As he explained it to me, a moderately-educated layman (I have a rusty B.Sc.Hons. in biology) is that the tolerance is in how well the liver processes the drug. Essentially, and I know I’m anthropomorphising here, the liver “knows” the stuff from familiarity and has become really good at eliminating it from the bloodstream.

So, just like switching up your exercise program when you plateau, what he’s doing is switching up medications. The liver isn’t as familiar with the form of the Concerta, it switches, and it “forgets” the shape of the Vyvance molecules. In our case, we’re alternating every two weeks. The pediatrician said he’s kept patients on this regime for as long as 11 years and has seen no increase in tolerance from either. (Given that he’s a pediatrician, he might only see a patient for 18 years, so 11 years is the longer end of testing regimes.)

I didn’t ask whether this has been tried only with Vyvance and Concerta, or whether it’s a general strategy for all of the slow-release methylphenidates. And I trust the man (I send my son to him, after all) but the most I can recommend is that, if you or someone in your household is experiencing tolerance problems, you should talk to your health care provider and see if it’s a strategy that would work for you.

Some basic ADHD strategies

With a recent diagnosis, now the majority of people in our house have ADHD, which drives the remaining person crazy. But. I need to write down the ADHD information for reference. Maybe this will be useful for others.

Dr. Ari Tuckman (More Attention, Less Deficit) suggests these six strategies as the ones that underlie the hundreds of strategies he’s run across. Sometimes you have to give the specific strategy because the underlying one here seems too diffuse to you, but with practice you can apply these. There are basically two strategies for each flavour of ADHD:


1. Reduce distractions. So if you have the TV going, shut it off while you’re having a conversation. If you have a cool neato program running when you’re supposed to be doing something else, shut it off. You can always tape the show and watch it later, or play the game later. Your friends will probably be on FaceBook later, too.

2. Make what you’re supposed to be doing more attractive. Sometimes that’s as simple as new pens or Post-Its for the novelty. Novelty isn’t a bad word; just make sure that the novelty makes you want to do the thing you’re supposed to be doing, and isn’t itself a distraction. (This would apply to those ADHD sufferers who have to have something else going on, like the fellow who had to have a movie playing on his laptop while he wrote his thesis.) Know yourself!


3. Find a way to fidget legitimately. This involves maybe having a fidget toy, or scheduling some time after school or work for some punishing exercise to try and get it out of your system for a while.

4. Avoid situations where you can’t fidget at all. If you have a choice (and sometimes you don’t), don’t go to the opera if you have to sit still for three hours. Don’t hang around with the friend who sits on the couch doing nothing if that’s all they do. (Everybody has bad days, so that might be what they do once in a while, but if you find they’re sitting still and you can’t more than half the time, well, maybe you should restrict your time with them and find people who want to do things.

School is tough, but usually they’re helpful about fidget toys if you just ask.


5. Try not put yourself in situations where you know you’re impulsive. If you know you spend too much money at a store, try not to go there; if you know you spend too much time at a web site, try not to go there. When I went to the World Fantasy Con, for instance, I left my credit and debit cards in the car in the glove compartment, and took a certain amount of cash. I was trying to limit how much I could spend.

6. Limit the damage of an impulsive action. For instance, if you spend too much money at a store, don’t take your credit or debit card, and decide how much you can spend–and then take that much cash. If you spend too much time at a website, don’t use it as your reward for doing 45 minutes of good work, because you know yourself and you’ll spend more than ten minutes there. So instead, visit the website as your end-of-the-day, it’s-all-finished reward. You might still spend too much time there, but at least the other stuff got done.

So for instance, my son frequently loses track of time at the bike park: so maybe he sets it up so a parent will come at the predetermined time, so he can’t miss the deadline. Or he sets his iPod to buzz him at 5:00 so he comes home. (He keeps losing his watch; he loses the iPod less often.)

My daughter spends a lot of time on Tumblr. Maybe she puts a time lock on her computer so that she can only open certain programs at certain times, or that they are up for only a little while before the program complains. (Actually, there are add-ons like that for Chrome and FireFox; there might be something for other browsers, too.) Sure, she can beat them (it’s her computer) but that takes time, and that gives her the chance to figure, "Should I be doing this?" Maybe she rewards herself for piano practice by playing some song that’s she’s really good at, so she gets that reward of "Yeah, I am good at this," because when you’re learning a new piece, you spend a lot of time making mistakes.

Making something into a habit is about reducing distractions. You don’t have to think about it, it just happens: I go into the bathroom in the morning and take my medicine just before I brush my teeth. If I don’t brush my teeth in the morning (which sometimes happens on a weekend) I usually forget to take my medicine until later, because the two usually go together for me. Often I don’t remember doing something that’s a habit (but that’s a different issue).

Hello world!

I got a WordPress account by accident; I was trying to consolidate my various subscriptions to other WordPress blogs, and I ended up giving myself an account.

Since I normally blog about writing and roleplaying (my hobbies) over on DreamWidth as doc_lemming, there didn’t seem any point to this blog, and then I posted a summary of ADHD strategies yesterday. Now, it’s not like anybody has responded to that post, but having a place focused on my family’s various altered abilities seems like an appropriate idea. So.

This will be a place to post things that are specifically about (in alphabetical order):

  • ADHD
  • Binocular vision problems
  • Club feet
  • Colour vision deficiencies (not, strictly speaking, colour blindness)
  • Epilepsy
  • Fibromyalgia
  • GAD (General Anxiety Disorder)
  • Learning disabilities
  • Near-sightedness
  • Schwannoma (better known as an acoustic neuroma)

Most of the time I’ll be talking about ADHD, because that’s the one that affects us the most and the one I’m currently looking into. And, for the most part, I’ll be hiding the identity of my wife and kids: not in a serious way–if you try hard, you can figure them out, but really, I don’t want them showing up with a copy of a blog post in three years and their names highlighted. They get the choice to reveal any problems that they have. For the purposes of this blog, I have Wife, Boy, and Girl, occasionally varied by the alternative names Spouse, Son, and Daughter.

So: next, the ADHD strategies I talked about.