In a weird twist of fortune, I actually spent the last few months before everyone got serious about coronavirus getting extensive practice at being cut off from people.
My most recent job – the one I had right up until everything went into lockdown – involved involved living and working by myself in a national park for ten days each fortnight. I wasn’t alone – it was literally part of my job to chat with the park visitors and overnight campers (nature nerd heaven!) – but my bosses were based in town, and it wasn’t unusual for me to not see another staff member the entire time I was there.
I absolutely loved being in the park, but that doesn’t change the fact that I struggles with working alone. My ADHD brain is not well set-up to stay on-task, let alone on time, when left to its own devices.
Fortunately, my job also came with something that turned out to be vital to managing those challenges: scheduled, external check-ins.
Checking in, not checking out
Even though I didn’t see other staff members much in the park, I still talked to them. Twice a day, to be specific: at 8.30 every morning and 4.45 every afternoon I was expected to get on the radio and check in with the office, even if everything was going fine.
Those twice-daily check-ins weren’t my idea, but they turned out to be amazing for keeping my ADHD brain on track.
The morning call made sure I was up and moving at a reasonable time every morning (look, I’m not a morning person). More importantly, it made sure I had a plan for the day before the day even started.
It’s easy for me to prioritise (and focus on) a job that needs doing ASAP or else! – but many of my work tasks were non-urgent, “do this when you get a chance” type things. Present me with a bunch of optional activities with no deadline, and I can waste way too much time trying to find a good reason to choose one task over another.
Knowing I would have someone asking me “what are you doing today?” every morning lent some much-needed urgency to the business of having an answer to that question. By giving me a reason to just hurry up and pick something, calling in helped me… just hurry up and pick something.
Shaping my day
Then there’s the positive effect those scheduled morning and afternoon calls had on my sense of time.
It’s pretty well-recorded that ADHD brains don’t process time the way neurotypical brains do. I’ve got a whole blog post in me about what time feels like (or doesn’t) to me; for now, suffice to say that I can understand and focus on a period of a few hours, but a whole day is just too big for me to keep track of. If you’re ever surprised to find yourself having dinner at 9pm or going to bed at 2am, you might know what I’m talking about.
Having check-ins at the same time every day, as determined by external clocks rather than the vagaries of my internal time-sense, gave me reliable, fixed points to build my day around.
Mind you, eight hours is still a pretty big break chunk of time for an ADHD brain to handle – but fortunately, working in the park allowed me to set my own hours. Since I work much better in short spurts throughout the day than in a single, eight-hour chunk, I ended up shaping my working day around four (fairly) fixed-time checkpoints: the morning call, lunch break (the most nebulous of the four, defined as when I get hungry and want to stop), the afternoon call, and checking the bookings of the overnight campers (which was best done around dinnertime, and had its own external deadline – if I left it too late, the light would start going and some campers would be in bed).
Those four checkpoints turned the shapeless mass of a whole day into individual time chunks I could comprehend and plan around:
I think I can manage job A before lunch, and jobs B and C between lunch and the afternoon call, but if I run out of time I can still finish C before I do bookings.
Oh shoot, it’s nearly afternoon call-in time, I’d better get a move on to get this finished!
OK, I had my afternoon call and I’ve only just finished job B – I should leave job C for tomorrow or I won’t get it finished. What’s a smaller task I can knock out quickly instead?
Writing it out this way makes it look like having timed checkpoints was simply about better planning, and it certainly helped me plan, but there’s more to it for an ADHD brain. Defining smaller chunks of time kept me from getting overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of an entire, empty day stretching out in front of me, to the point where I couldn’t focus enough on right now to actually start anything.
Having checkpoints shaped my day into fixed time periods I could make sense of, and helped me keep my focus on the time – and task – immediately in front of me.
DIY external checkpoints
So, having external check-ins at fixed times is super helpful for my motivation, my task planning, and my not getting overwhelmed by all this “free” time. But what do I do now that I’m in self-isolation and the office isn’t calling twice a day?
I have an accountability buddy.
By reaching out on social media, I found a friend who also wanted someone to check in with regularly. We video chat at the same time every morning and afternoon (except weekends) – in the morning telling each other what we want to achieve that day, in the afternoon reporting on how we went and offering congratulations/commiserations as appropriate.
For my lunchtime checkpoint I still have, well, lunchtime. And for the evening checkpoint, I have my WFH beloved finishing work and starting to think about dinner. <3
On top of all the other benefits, just having a friend whose face I see and voice I hear reliably most days is doing a great deal to lift my spirits in these strange times.
Bring some outside into your inside
That’s how I’m keeping in regular touch with the outside world and its twenty-four hour clock. But what if you can’t find (or don’t want to ask) a friend or family member to help?
If you’re working, you could ask a workmate for regular check-ins, or even ask your boss to schedule daily progress reporting sessions with you. Or you could ask around within any groups you’re a part of – whether it’s a writing group or a mothers’ group, there are probably other people in it who could use some extra motivation and accountability, not to mention personal contact. There’s even a forum on Reddit specifically for people seeking accountability buddies.
Or if it’s the “accountability buddy” part you’re not keen on, you could set up some external, fixed-time checkpoints that aren’t explicitly about accountability: regular, scheduled phone chats, gaming sessions, or Netflix parties with friends or family. Even without making it about motivation, you can still benefit from having some extra shape to your day.
Let me know in the comments if you have other ideas for activities you could schedule with someone else at a regular time each day.
If you really don’t want to involve other people in this, there are other external, fixed time points you could shape your day around – for instance regularly-scheduled lectures, exercise classes, or other activities (online, of course), or a TV or radio show you like that still only airs at a particular time. Potentially you could even set regular alarms and shape your day around those (though I know for me, alarms are far too easy to turn off and ignore).
But, look – we could all use more human contact right now. If it’s true of you, it’s true of the people around you, too. Don’t be afraid to reach out.