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Balancing Side Projects and ADHD

ADHD, ADD and similar neuro-behavioural disorders are often seen as the kryptonite of folks completing things. The stereotype for years was the naughty kid at school who could never concentrate, would never finish anything and constantly disrupts everyone else. There’s a balance though, because while some ADHD traits make getting anything done almost impossible, others can be harnessed as superpowers to get shit done. Luke is going to share their experiences of attempting to identify, manage and manipulate these traits, and how this has manifested in successful (and many unsuccessful) side projects through the years. This talk is for folks who have ADHD, suspect they might have ADHD, or are just interested in how different people think and achieve the things they do.

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Let's get cracking. I'm Luke. My pronouns are he/they. So, by day, I'm a designer advocate at Zeroheight where I get to enthuse about wonderful world of design systems and ops as a job but by night, I'm a beer pod caster, musical theatre wannabe, Etsy illustrator, and occasional parent.

From that list of side projects, I wear a lot of different hats in my professional and personal lives. I have a serious side project addiction and have ever since I was at uni. It's manifested in lots and lots different ways as a musical theatre director, actor and lighting designer, a cabaret company, theatre critic, indie club night, vinyl subscription company, amateur brewer, Post-it illustrator, ghost Walker, and various other things I've forgotten about by now. Some have lasted six months, some six years, some of them more mildly successful, some were really, really not successful at all.

A similar thing has happened in my professional life, so since I've been in full-time employment post-university, I have had roles in marketing PR, social media, design, front-end engineering, and advocacy. So this is not me standing here and asking you to acknowledge how great and varied my life has been, this is more I can stand here in disbelief and wonder how it took until 2020 before I realised I had ADHD.

So what is ADHD? So you probably know this but it stands for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder a neurodevelopmental disorder often marked by excessive amounts of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. In 1987, people knew probably about ADD and ADHD, but it was in 1987 that they got bundled together into ADHD officially, and in 1994 revised the categorisation to include different sub sites which are attention deficit, hyperactivity, predominantly inattentive type, there is predominantly hyperactive type, and the combined type. That's me.

And ADHD springs from an executive dysfunction. And in adults, according to the NHS website, this results in things like these lovely things. So lots of things from lack of attention to detail, poor organisational skills, to forgetfulness, to difficulty keeping quiet or constantly interrupting people and finishing their sentences, to impulsive risk-taking behaviour. I know that when I first saw this list, I just was like, wow, it's a laundry list for my personality.

If you think you've been seeing ADHD a lot more recently, it's not surprising. Between 2007 and 2016, diagnosis of adult ADHD in the US shot up 123%. We don't have more recent stats than that but I reckon it's gotten hirer, and not because of people hearing about it and jumping on the bandwagon, or a generation of defective people, it's more because there's a lot more education around it, mostly in formal education, thank you to the internet, especially TikTok in the last few years, it's been great.

And also the fact that we are slowly shredding a lot of stigma that revolves around ADHD and neurodivergence in general which is a very good thing. There is a whole bunch of interesting facts that I could go into about ADHD like the fact that it is twice as likely to be diagnosed in men than women, mostly because women are very, very good at masking. How it is often misdiagnosed as depression and anxiety as they share a lot of the same markers, or how research suggests like other neurodiversions, it exists on a spectrum. It is not clear cut that you have it or don't have it. But that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

Instead, I want to share some of the traits that help or hinder my ability to do lots and lots of side projects but just to kind of live my life generally. And it is worth pointing out right now that this is my experience and it is not going to be a catch-all. There might be things that work here for everyone, some specifically effective for hey, but sharing is caring, right? Let's get into it.

First up, lack of organisation and forgetting things. This one is a massive one for me and one I've only really started to nail in the last three years. So, so many projects that my brain is neatly organised, list of things to do? Kind of like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, but in reality, it's more of a Tornado, chaos, with random things flying around me at inopportune times vying for my attention.

One of the ways I've learned to manage this is via lists, or more specifically, my own version of bullet journalling. I'm notifications going to go in depth on bullet journalling. There is lots of great stuff in the book. There is a little bit of crap too, with but you can filter it out and see what works for you. I wouldn't advise going down the rabbit hole of bullet journalling on YouTube because you will see beautiful-looking bullet journals but it may distract you from what you're trying to achieve. For me, creating monthly, weekly, and daily to do-lists allows me to pull the soup out of my head and gets it on to paper.

Another one for me on this is low-friction reminders. So, if there is something that you need to do by a certain time, or something that you need to remember, I really love using Siri, Google Alexa, to remind me. Fact that I have Apple Watch and can click a button to say remind me to do this. Slash reminders is my favourite thing to do in Slack. It allows me not to drop everything to complete the task there and then because that is a compulsion that happens in ADHD. It also lets it not fall into that forgotten pit of forgotten tasks forever, so that I might get a chance of doing it at some point. Basically, if your phone alarms look like this. It is totally okay and you should embrace it, because that is what works for you.

And finally, try to embrace letting things go and forgetting them in the hopes that they will come back later. It's a bit of a weird one. One of my favourite things to do when I worked in an agency was when I got back from holiday, I delete all my emails with the knowledge that if someone really needed to get in touch with me, they would email me again. I didn't get fired, and generally it worked. Basically will be FOMO doesn't exist, and we can all banish it to the bin.

Next up, hyperfocus and hyperfixation. This is not one I was aware of until I started reading up on ADHD. It isn't just about an inability to focus, it is about having trouble regulating focus. This means there are times when I get into a blinkered hole of focus and nothing can distract me for hours on end. It's led people close to me in my life insisting I need to get my hearing checked because of my lack of ability to filter. It shapes itself at a more macro level with becoming fixated on an idea or a topic for days or weeks. New hobbies, interests, and ideas can seem like they're core to my being for a short period of time and be forgotten almost instantly.

Side note, it is why people with ADHD are more susceptible to addiction, but that's that's another talk. This can be handy, the focus and fixation bit, not the addiction bit, especially when you think about starting projects that all -consuming focusing can help you start things, get them off the ground and put in the hours required to make it successful.

On the flip side, it can also blind you to the downsides of whatever it is you're starting, so it can mean that when that fixation is over, you're left with a project that you don't particularly want to do any more as well.

So one of the ways that I've managed this particular problem is to be honest, it's kind of like self-awareness. It was something that I picked up in cognitive behavioural therapy of labelling and analysing thought patterns helping me realise when I'm hyperfixating. When I realise I'm really into something new, I stop and I kind of write it down, and I have a look at the trait of it, and label it. And labelling it takes some of that power away, and then even though it is hard and not always easy, I can choose whether I want to focus or not on it, and whether it is worth focusing on for a time. It doesn't always work but can help judge whether something is worth fixating from.

Let's swing the other way to inattention. One of the markers that has dominated my life is I'm top tier at not being able to multitask, or not multitask well, because more accurately, I will likely have 20 different tabs open, trying to write a talk, book a hotel, respond to an email, update a website, organise the time to chat with my mum at the weekend, and by 20 different tabs, I mean 120 different tabs. The bullet journalling has helped quite a lot with this as it helps to bring order to the tasks that need doing.

Another thing that has helped is radical focus. When I really need to get something done, of just forcing myself to shut everything else down and do one task at a time. It's very uncomfortable, but it is sometimes needed. And you just set a timer for 25 minutes or however long of that radical focus time.

The other side of hyperfixation is that things can sometimes feel a bit faddy if you look back at the interests that you have had. There's a good chance that the thing that you're investing loads of time into becomes uninteresting or a bit of a burden after a while. These are two things that I've tried to keep in mind with this. And sort of like two not toes with any of -- mottos. One, everything is an MVP, and two quit when it feels like work. Or bad work.

Story time: back in 2012, a friend and I birthed an early doors disco, starting with a rush of excitement with a problem to solve kind of a real problem to solve in that we wanted to dance to trashy indie music and nowhere was open early enough for our old souls to do it before our last train home. So we had two major problems standing in the way of doing this. One we had never DJ'ed before, and never put on a club night so had no pedigree with venues at all. We took an MVP approach. We figured we needed gear that would allow us to do it, we needed to Google how to use the gear, and then we needed a venue to give a space.

So we went the route of lowest for example. Chose a deliberately quiet night, a Wednesday, we chose a ridiculously early start time of 6.00pm, looked up how to do it, and gave it a go. Figured what is the worst that could happen? Luckily for us, by month two, we had 150 people in a sweaty tiny club in London on a Wednesday night dancing to Vampire Night at 8 pm.

We had two rules: if it took longer than a couple of days to plan, it probably wasn't worth it, and if it ever felt like work, we would stop doing it. It took us five years, a podcast, festival slots around the country and Europe, ill-advised gig promoting which is a bad idea, four different club themes, for the interest to properly peter out and for us to call it a day. We now DJ a small indie pop festival in the fjords in Norway each year as part of this, but that's the only thing that is left. Knowing when to quit is really, really important.

And I think the knowing when to quit is probably the biggest challenges for me with side projects. When I have nothing on, I feel restless and bored, like I need to be creating and doing something, and when I have loads on, I feel overwhelmed and find it hard to complete anything. It is a constant balance to keep this in check, and, to be honest, partner of this is I keep an eye out for the signs of usually the latter of being overwhelmed by too much.

A big one for me with this is stimming. It is like repetitive actions that sort of self-soothing and comfort that are markers of neurodivergence, so ADHD, it is common in Autism Spectrum Disorder as well. Repetitive behaviours start happening when I'm uncomfortable, stressed, overwhelmed, so rubbing the ends of my fingers against each other, shaking the leg, scratching my head which I notice I was doing quite a lot backstage, usually a sign that something is a bit off balance and I'm heading, it could be a sign that I'm heading to burn out for panic attacks and recognising these can help to head it off.

So, have I nailed it? No. Is it getting more and more manageable with time? Yes. And I hope that something in here is mildly interesting, or provide some comfort, or help if you recognise any of it, or at least provide awareness for some folks of how some other folks' minds work. I look forward to coming back and sharing more techniques as I continue to learn about it. It's only been a few years now. First, I have to clear a couple of things off my to-do list. Thank you very much.

I wanted to give a shout out as well. I've put that talk which I will tweet, basically what I just said as a blog post as a train of thought. And also a massive shout out to Nicole who did all of the cute illustrations in there as well. Thank you.