When You Can’t Do It All, Do Something

A couple of weeks ago, I was reminded that, however good the scaffolding I’ve put in place to keep myself organized, it only takes a day or two with lowered vigilance to land me right back at square one.

This has been an awful winter, hasn’t it?  The same two or three seasonal ailments have been cycling through my family and classroom ad infinitum; it feels like every time we’ve recovered from one illness, we’re coming down with another one.  I – despite my classroom being absolutely lousy with germs, and having a typically hygiene-impaired four-year-old, managed to mostly escape getting sick.

Then, two weeks ago, I was hit with laryngitis.  The worst of the illness only lasted about two days, but it was two days when I was flat-out knocked on my ass, and let me tell you – my house fell to absolute chaos.

Because the persistent messiness of my life and my rampant ADHD don’t disappear just because I have the sniffles, I was faced, once I could walk and talk and think without coughing up a lung, with a once again seemingly insurmountable mess.

This time, I lucked out; I got sick on a Wednesday, and by the time I felt human again, it was Saturday and the start of my vacation, which meant I had no other obligations and the comfort of knowing that even if I spent an entire day (or two) fixing the mess, I still had days and days and days left to relax and chill afterward.  I’m happy to let you all know that I did, in fact, get back on track, and I’m ticking off most of the boxes on my To-Do list, most days.

But what if I didn’t have vacation? What if I had a super busy week coming up, or a series of commitments, or what if I was more seriously sick for longer?  How long do I let the house go for, and how long until it’s utterly, paralyzingly bad again (pssst – past experience says it really doesn’t take that long to get into a really bad place).

I started thinking about what I could have done if I really, truly felt like I didn’t have it in me – if I didn’t have the time, the energy, the “spoons,” whatever – what I could have done to keep that paralysis at bay without over-extending myself, without triggering my anxiety or wearing myself out physically or mentally.

So I’ve spent some time thinking, what’s one thing I could do in every room of my house to keep myself sane?  Just one thing to make me feel a little more grounded?

Like most things, I’m sure your mileage my vary, but I personally feel very sure of my list.  So, if my blog entries tend to resonate with you, maybe you’ll find this to be helpful, as well.

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Some Things to Keep in Mind

  • If you aren’t neurodivergent this list probably seems needless, obvious, and silly, but task paralysis is a major issue for me, and many others with neurodivergence, as is feeling overwhelmed by the inability to break down a task (and of course clutter and mess itself is a stressor for basically everyone, though it can literally stop me dead in my tracks). This list hopefully combats task paralysis by giving a starting point, and serves as a reminder that you don’t need to do it all at once; even completing one task makes a big difference (important for those grappling with ADHD perfectionism).
  • Even these tasks, in and of themselves, can be daunting on a bad day. I would love to eventually be able to offer a step-by-step break down on the way I get through these tasks (and others), and the strategies that work for me.  If you think this would be helpful to you (or as a general resource) please let me know and I’ll make it a priority.
  • I find that I function the best within a structure, but there is a point of diminishing returns with every increased point of rigidity or complexity within that structure (see my post about planners – the more “bells and whistles,” the more paralyzing, the more likely I am to abandon the system).  The catch-all bucket in the living room works well for me, as do broad categories of organization (an under sink bucket of general cleaning products (the more multipurpose, the better), bathroom bins for “hair stuff” (shampoo, conditioner, spray, gel), “body stuff” (shower gel, soap, lotion) and “hygiene” (toilet paper, q-tips, sanitary pads, etc) work well, because there is a system of organization that is broad enough to not be overwhelming, but clear enough to actually allow me to know where everything is.
  • I am in no way a cleaning or organizational guru, and holy crap, nor do I pretend to be.  I’m just learning, at age 36, what really works and what doesn’t work for me, and also learning to be patient with myself, let go of the need for things to be perfect, and work to the best of my ability within the head space I’m occupying at any given moment.  What works for me may not work for you, but sometimes, it’s worth a shot (and it may work for someone else).

 

When Drive is Detrimental

drive

This is going to sound like a complete contradiction to my previous post, but rest assured, I live both experiences, and if it’s confusing or frustrating to read about it, imagine living it.

I spend so much of my time creatively stalled out, that when The Muse hits me, I grab that shiz by the horns and ride her as far and as fast as she’ll carry me.

Sadly, this rarely yields quality results.

When I get something in my head that I really want to do (and that I think is a really cool or exciting idea), I jump in with both feet, often so eager to reach the end product I neglect to put any real thought into the process.  The last time I tried to teach myself to paint, for example, I jumped in with the most ambitious project in my mental repertoire (because it was the one that excited me the most!).  I spent no time reading up on or experimenting with the medium; I didn’t draw up a sketch, or an outline, or rough draft; I tried to complete the whole painting in a few hours; and when I was about three-quarters of the way through and realized it wasn’t exactly as I envisioned it, I grew agitated and gave up (see my previous post about being a raging perfectionist).

Part of the problem is that there is a natural appeal to the excitement of a new idea, and it makes me want to see that idea materialize so eagerly that it’s all I can do to produce it as swiftly as I can.  The planning stages: learning about the medium I’m working in, gathering appropriate materials, brainstorming, drafting are not nearly as exciting as the making.

And they don’t feel as real.  You know?  I don’t know if this is a quirk of my neurotype or a nuance of my own personality, but there’s some part of me that views the planning stages of something as lesser than the doing – even if the planning is integral to the doing, even if the planning is necessary scaffolding in order for the doing to be successful.  It feels, in some ways, like just sitting and spinning my wheels.

Maybe because that’s so often what it turns into.  Maybe I rush into projects because I know that, if I don’t, it’ll become just another entry on my Eternal To-Do List, and I’ll never see it through to completion.

But my ideas deserve more than that.  They are project that deserve to get done, but they deserve to get done well, you

🎉 🎉 🎉 Let’s Pace Ourselves 2K19! 🎉 🎉 🎉

  1. Remember that there will be a tomorrow.  I mean, not forever, obviously, but let’s not dwell on the existential bummer that is mortality.  My point is, yeah, sure, you don’t want to drag your feet on getting things done, but let’s, like, set up a timeline, or find a consistent chunk of time to devote to working on projects.  On that note…
  2. Find a reliable time to devote to working on projects – a little time each day to brainstorm and work through ideas, and a larger chunk of time at least once a week devoted to actually working.  Knowing that you have that time coming up (instead of perpetually asking yourself, “when am I going to get this done?”) mollifies some of that anxiety and restless energy that normally makes jumping into a project just to get it done seem like a good idea.
  3. Find a place to work, and keep your supplies on hand, organized, and accessible.  Good job, Jess, you are actually making some headway in this direction already.  The craft room (ahem, basement) is starting to actually look inhabitable, and your art supplies are corralled, organized, and easy to find (for once in your life).  Now you can find what you need when you need it, instead of getting frustrated, grabbing whatever’s on hand, and regretting it in the finished result.
  4. Carry around a notebook (for me it will be two, one for art, one for writing) to jot, sketch, and plan projects.  Date them.  Choose one (two, tops) at a time to work on.  You have a huge problem with 1.) forgetting your “best” ideas, and 2.) having ideas that are woefully un/underdeveloped.  Jot them down.  Flesh them out.  Let them sit and come back to them.  See if you can improve.  Cycle through this process at least once before you even think of sitting down to work.
  5. Do not start new projects until you finish the current ones.  No, not even if you get stuck.  If you get stuck, open that notebook back up.  See where you went wrong.  See what you could do differently.  Run to your blog or Twitter or your artsy friends on Facebook and ask them to take a second look, ask them for advice, ask them for new perspective on the problem.  It feels better (and is better for your mental health) to have one or two projects in meaningfully and thoughtfully in production than to have a dozen nascent projects being hastily and sloppily thrown together.

I don’t think I’ve asked you all yet; what are your creative goals for this year?  Is there a particular project you want to tackle, or are you like me, and interested in developing a reliable method to make creativity as a meaningful part of your life?

New Year’s, Planners, and the Culture of Perfectionism

black ball point pen with brown spiral notebook
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

I devour what I’d call “Pinterest culture” gluttonously; picture-perfect home decor walkthroughs, DIYs that transform Dollar Tree items into chic dupes of designer products, and seemingly preternaturally organized households with color-coordinated storage solutions.  I know that even for those people who actually are devoted to organization and successfully keep their lives in order, this is still the most pristine, painstakingly staged depiction of their lives, put together with the intention to inspire.

But for some of us (even those of us well aware of the care with which the image as cultivated), it intimidates.

I’ve always been a sucker for the allure of a new year; I love the symbolism of new beginnings, and the idea of having a fresh start, or a slate wiped clean.  But the problem for people like me when it comes to a clean slate is that, along with it, comes the overwhelming fear and anxiety of sullying that slate with anything other than absolute perfection.

One frustrating trait of mine that I’ve grappled with all my life – never realizing it was a common trait among people with ADHD – is a crippling need for things I try to be perfect, if I’m going to bother investing time and effort into it.  If I’m going to stay on a diet, it’s calorie-counting and going to the gym everyday, or I might as well just lay on the couch and stuff my face with pizza.  If I’m going to keep an orderly house, everything needs to be organized by color, size, and purpose, or I might as well just throw all my trash straight on the floor.  If I’m going to embark on a project, I need to be certain that every word, every line, every turn of phrase is Pulitzer worthy before I write it, or I might as well just, what the hell, sit and fart on my keyboard.

It’s very black and white thinking, and as you can imagine, is absolute hell come New Year., and it has not, in any way, been helped by Pinterest culture.

Even something as simple as committing to a planner is just a battle fought against this awful, existential, function-versus-aesthetic-versus-purpose mental backdrop.  Everywhere I turn (YouTube lifestyle vloggers especially are a big vice of mine), there are people talking about their planner layouts – their stencils, their stickers, their special pens and pencils and markers – and yes, they are absolutely gorgeous, and yes, they make me want to get organized, and yes, every year I go out and get a planner with all the bells and whistles, and yes – then I fail to really actually use it.

It’s the same with stationary, notebooks, canvases, sketchbooks, especially if they are of high-quality or aesthetically pleasing themselves.  I know some people are inspired to use items because they are drawn to or attracted to them, but for me, it actually holds me at bay.  It feels like nothing I could ever put into it would live up to the standard of the vessel.

I don’t need to tell you why this is warped thinking, but I also don’t know what to tell you about combating it long term.  It remains difficult for me – painful, even – to write in a planner or a notebook if my handwriting isn’t pristine, the quality of my words isn’t up to par, everything isn’t perfectly bulleted or color-coded, etc.  But I can tell you, this year, I opted for a much lower key planner.

Instead of a planner with day, week, and month views, inspiring quotes on every page, a dozen pages of stickers to decorate, a plush leather cover, etc.,my planner this year is bound in a heavyweight cardstock, features a simple monthly layout (and that’s it, no day or week views), and has back-to-back, a single dotted page (for bulleted lists, charts, habit trackers (what I’m using it for), etc.) and a page with four simple boxes: Goals, Tasks, Tracking, and Notes.  The habit tracker I drew has smudged lines, and the highlighter bleeds through the margins, and you know what?  I don’t love it… but it doesn’t kill me.

And it doesn’t overwhelm me.  I like my little planner, and it’s not ugly, but it’s not loaded down with unnecessary features and it doesn’t feel like a piece of art – it feels like a tool, which is what it should be.  I don’t care if the damn thing was gilded in gold and studded in diamonds, if it’s not helping me keep track of my crap, it’s worthless.

So if you’re like me, put down that leather-bound Moleskin journal, and stop Googling Pinterest spreads that give you heart palpitations from just considering their intricacy.  More, more, more doesn’t mean better, better, better.  Do you really need a 200 page planner with hour-by-hour time allotments on the daily pages??  Are you actually going to spend hours tracing stencils and positioning stickers to track your Girl’s Night!-s or Yoga Class-es?  Or do you just need a pre-constructed, pre-determined place to write down what you want to do, and cross off when you do them? Then take the stress of expectation (and perfection) off your shoulders and downgrade.  It’s ok, really.

Is staying away from “pretty things” a long term solution?  Of course not; expecially when, to me, a “pretty thing” can be as simple as a blank page.  But if I’m trying to build a habit and routine, then the tools that are supposed to help me do tht need to be something I can reliably and comfortably use, not something that (paradoxically) makes me feel like a hack when I use it, and like a failure when I don’t.

I’ll unpack all the other worrying issues with perfectionism and such later.

At least now I can pencil it in.

First the Forest, Now the Trees (an Update)

organizing my lifeI have trouble compartmentalizing my life.  I guess it makes some sense; in some ways, the different threads of my life weave together in a really obvious, organic way.  The state of my home, for instance, affects how stressed I feel, which affects my sleep, which affects my work performance, which affects my feelings of self-worth, etc. etc., but by the same token, struggling slightly or hitting a stumbling block in one area shouldn’t completely waylay my progress in any given other.

But it often does.  This is a continuing issue I need to work on – dusting myself off after a set back, moving forward, and forgiving myself for stumbling.  But it’s also very much an internal struggle that is not the focus of this entry, though I do imagine I will write about it, eventually and possibly extensively.

But right now, I’m still in the early stages of macro-organization: just establishing a routine for the most mundane, bare-bones, most-people-don’t-think-twice-about-these-things aspects of my life.  Checklists to make sure I take a shower, pick out my clothes, brush my teeth, get a good meal in, do my chores, and have a chance to have some creative/restorative time to myself.  As I’ve said before, having to lay out many of those things probably seems ridiculous to some people, but for me, I need to see it written down in black and white and be able to check it off to ensure it gets done.

I used my checklists for the first time today.  It was not a perfect first outing; my “wake up at 5:30” didn’t get checked off (I woke up at 6:05), but hey – I did morning pages.  Nothing, sadly, got checked off under Get Moving, but I glanced at the list – pinned to the fridge – as I prepped breakfast, and I downed a big glass of water to start the day.  And, I remembered everything I needed to bring to work, including earbuds and a book (which I always forget) that made the two hour-plus-long waits that bookend my work shift infinitely more enjoyable.

So, not perfect.  But without those lists?  So much worse.  I’d have been plagued with morning breath, dehydrated, stressed out, and bored, all before one pm.  I’d say Day One was a success, in that, the system works.  The system made my day objectively better.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a whole extensive history there – which, again, I will share eventually – that is not going to be suddenly resolved with schedules and checklists; internal struggles and issues that will take time and support to overcome.

But my usual pitfalls – not being able to “find time” to exercise, not having a plan for any given meal, not having healthy snacks on hand (whether I’m home or out and about), not looking at restaurant menus ahead of time to be informed of options – these are all things that can be, at the very least, helped with some thoughtful planning to create useful resources.

Wish me luck.  I’ve now got an indication that this system is effective, so I’m hopeful.

A Life in Checklists

organizing my lifeI sometimes wonder how well people really understand me when I tell them how easily I get overwhelmed by the day-to-day.

I feel like most of the people I know are sympathetic in a commiserative way; that they feel like they know what I mean, and maybe even feel the same way – the, “hey, we all have busy lives/work hard/have a lot going on!” mentality.

They probably don’t expect that I mean, if I don’t set an alarm to take a shower or brush my teeth, it might not get done that day.  Or that the accumulation of mess/clutter from daily activities will seem to sneak up on me, and then loom suddenly and overwhelmingly, making me feel incredibly anxious, but utterly incapacitated.  Or that performing a multi-step task – even a familiar one, like cooking – sometimes makes my heart race and my skill crawl with impatience and agitation.

Which is why, when considering how to go about bringing order to my life, I had to consider the most basic, most fundamental levels of organization – the checklist.

My friends are over here with cross-referenced planners, digital calendars and mobile apps, elaborate bullet journals with color-coded spreads – and I’m making simple, laminated checklists.  For things like “eat breakfast. Take a shower. Watch a movie.”  Things that apparently integrate seamlessly into other people’s lives.

But not mine.  And I have to accept that – that for whatever reason, this stuff does not come naturally to me.  But that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean I can’t do it.  It’s a massive waste of energy, feeling bad about how my brain is wired, instead of coming up with scaffolding I can build on to compensate for it’s limitations.

So, some people might think it’s a childish thing to have checklists for such basic stuff.

I’d say it’s a pretty damn mature thing, to go any length to ensure these tasks get done with any regularity.

So, I made some freakin’ checklists.

These are the easiest, most basic things I could think of to start with: routines to give me enough options to not feel trapped, yet not so many to incite choice paralysis, with a focus on developing habit and balance.

I’m still working on my lists for the deep clean I intend to do this month, and from there a more detailed daily/weekly chore chart to keep things in order.  I may do one for meal options as well, since outside of dinner, I’m not currently planning my meals, and always find myself either out of food options, eating utter junk, or simply not eating, and none of those are acceptable options if I’m trying to be healthier.

This is an incredibly busy week, but I’m hoping to eek out time tomorrow and Thursday to write the remaining lists.  I plan to start using these beginning Saturday – I’ll be printing out multiple copies and leaving one in my bedroom, and one in the kitchen (that’s one on each floor of the house, where I start and end my days).

Fingers crossed that these help.  They certainly can’t hurt, right?

Organizing the Chaotic Mind

organizing my lifeI’ve spent the last two and a half hours trying to clean the house.  I can’t say it hasn’t been successful – my living room and kitchen are looking pretty spiffy right now – but it’s taken longer than it would likely have taken most other people, because in the midst of completing one task, I have these intense compulsions to stop whatever I’m doing and start something – anything – else.

While I’m tidying up the kitchen:

I should organize Bear’s busy bins for summer.
Did I ever download that preschool curriculum?
I need to touch up the paint along the baseboards.
I should go out and buy organizers for the cabinets.
I still have to make those worksheets for Bear’s binder.
I have to look up home remedies for carpet stains.
I’ve got to scrub down these walls, I haven’t done that in ages.
When was the last time I washed windows?

While I’m vacuuming the living room:

I should steam clean the upstairs shower.
I need to look up those picture frames I found at WalMart.  Ooh, I should see if RetailMeNot has coupons for them.
Maybe I should order the materials to make those sconces for the wall.
I still need to find floral foam and fake succulents.  I wonder if I can order in bulk from Dollar Tree?
I should get new bins for Bear’s clothes.

And those are at least semi-on task.  A ton of them aren’t even cleaning related:

I should do a shopping haul video.  I think most of my stuff from this week is still in shopping bags.
I’ve gotta start doing mail exchanges again.
I should totally start a bullet journal.
I have a great idea for an art piece I could vlog.
I need to go make more headers for my blog.
I’ve gotta update my social media links.

…and on.  And on.  And the amazing (and frustrating) thing is, after thirty-six years, I still don’t know how to just not listen to those compulsions.  I can, for the most part, resist – but it comes at the cost of temporarily stalling out.  Like the act of pulling myself away from the temptation of distraction is, itself, an act that unbalances me,  knocks me just a little bit off-track, and requires a few moments to re-rail.  Usually this looks like me, sitting on whatever surface my butt settles on, and just staring around the room, trying to remember what I was doing, or what I could do next.  Sometimes it’s grabbing a snack.  Today, it was jumping on here.

The problem is, I don’t have a system for dealing with these intrusive thoughts, and it’s not like they don’t all have some merit.  But I have no system worked out that allows me to address them all – if I think of something and don’t do it immediately, I will put off (or forget) doing it indefinitely.  If I have the motivation and the energy for something one day and don’t jump on it, I will lose momentum and that unfinished task will gnaw at me and drain my mental energy for days or weeks, until I manage to pull myself up again.  I’m not proud of my limitations, but I know them.  I know them very well.  This is living with executive dysfunction.

But, I thought, maybe turning to this blog while I’m trying to recoup isn’t the worst thing to do.  After all, this blog is all about navigating parenthood with a chaotic mind, and the first step to navigating chaos is to impose some sort of order.

And no, it won’t be perfect.  But it’ll give me a structure to work within.

So, while I try to reorder my thoughts and get back to the task at hand, I just want to welcome you to what will be an ongoing series of posts about imposing structure and organization on my life – checklists, schedules, journals, organizational tools – what works, and what doesn’t. 

I might as well utilize what would otherwise be a distraction as a tool, right?  Make it public, hold myself accountable.

It’s a work in progress.  It always is, isn’t it?

Back to the tasks at hand.  One at a time.