This blog post arrived from Hero’s Journal (the product of whom, I love) about distraction. It seemed to infer that distraction was the result of anxiety. It’s not that I’ve not heard that before (it’s quite a common trope in the “How to destress” pop-culture circle), but perhaps it struck me as odd here because the it was making distraction the subject rather than anxiety. The other reason it raised my attention’s right eyebrow was because I was talking (aka info-dumping) with a work pal this morning about the difference between working in the office and working at home.
Anxiety is not the primary reason for me to be distracted. IN FACT anxiety is a great driver of focus. In the office I tend to hyper-focus a lot because the excessive noise and human electricity-pollution creates such a atmosphere of stimulus stress that I usually have little choice but to burrow into work. Similarly task urgency makes me push into hyper-focus easily.
Additionally I’m more inclined to daydream when I’m in my home office working with much lower distractions and sensory pain.
Look, I’m no stranger to Yerkes-Dodson curve. I know that pressure leads to performance to a point. BUT I’m much more likely to hyper-focus with higher stress even when that stress is damaging.
It’s an ADHD thing (I’m pretty sure). I get distracted at low stress points and highly attentive at high stress points (until I meltdown). Heck, I went into business mode for a week when I arrived in Cairo the morning of Arab-spring when liaising with Australian and Canadian Governments (and the beautiful people of Egypt) saved our lives.
There’s also the judgment call on what we call performance. Free associating is great innovation work. It’s essential to me making innovative ground on projects.
So “No.” Destressing is not a solution to my distractedness. In many cases it’s the exact opposite.
On the other hand do check out the Hero’s Journal. I love mine and I’m using it to my personal mental health project. More on that soon
How to ADHD has really been on the money lately with incredible work tips that have really sung to me.
Taking on too much work.
Ah YES! Over committing is a huge challenge for my life for a number of reasons. Living a life in line with your values seemed a bit like the title of a pop psych book from the 90s (and personal baggage for another time). However stepping back for a minute and looking at what life values I need to prioritise was really great. Instead of fitting in one more request for other people, I really need to hit pause and take time out for myself, and the things on the top of my value list that I’m ignoring. Things like personal health and relationships.
One way that I’m looking at that at the moment is by monitoring my emotional health using the Daylio app. It also tracks potentially related stuff like healthy eating, exercise and personal timeouts. Because the best way to get an over committed data junkie to take time out is with the lure of more data.
The other thing is Trello. I talk about this a lot. I have a personal Kanban for projects that I need to achieve and hard and soft deadlines for that. For other work requests I’m building in two times a day of 30 minutes where I clear &/or prioritise those requests. Of course I can’t ignore everyone (as much as that sounds like heaven) but it does mean that I can block out times to focus and on what task knowing that the alerts will get dealt with in their own space.
That’s a great segue into the other great vlog – Monotasking. It’s a great reminder about the illusion that multitasking is somehow good. I’ve known for a long time that my brand autistic neurotype deals with interruptions by crashing my brains hard drive. It’s no secret that changing my focus requires a good 5-10 seconds to shelve what I was doing and making the turn. Even then it takes a bunch of effort to do. But split focus is also a pain for other neurotypes.
Monotasking is a great way to do lots well. Blocking out slabs of time to get things done. It’s also good to block in slabs of time to do social or answer people’s questions. It’s an idea I want to try out more and see how it goes.
Here are the two quick YouTube eps that I’m talking about. Love to hear the ways you are hacking your work for your brain.
I get the message. I don’t belong. I know that people would be upset to know that their words say that, but it’s there.
A work conversation recently to a group of colleagues was along the lines of, “it’s so much better for you to go into the office and have those organic conversations; to be able to catch someone in the corridor and get an answer to a question. We were all in yesterday and it was so easy and we got so much cleared.”
I know what they mean and I know that they mean well, but what they are actively telling me (and people like me) is that your authentic self is not welcome and your personal health is not important. ie: you don’t belong.
That’s a pretty strong statement for me to make. But it’s necessary because it’s in direct contravention of disability equity and inclusion goals. The act of having to prove fundamental truths about ones experience, and having to prove the barriers for disability is part of the problem. Milton’s double empathy problem1 states “when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathise with each other.” The issue is the lack of equality in the relationship creates a paradigm that, as the autistic experience is not able to be felt by others, it is frequently questioned, dismissed or disbelieved, despite evidence to the contrary.
Conversely we understand and accept the needs for a large portion of neurotypical & allistic society to need spontaneous interaction to function at their peak. If you need that to be at your best we support it (if it could not be at our expense that would be great too). Many of the needs of the widest part of the neurotypical (and frequently white, cis-male, heteronormative etc) community are baked into the work culture. But often that is at the expense of the minority.
Too many times in the past when I’ve come up against group pep talks (or group reprimand) I’ve approached the speaker to clarify what I’m doing wrong or explain the difficulty in doing what was asked. Every time I’ve been told “Oh I wasn’t talking to you”. What that DOES tell me is that I’m rarely, if ever, talked to. Like the opening speech. Hence my problem. What has been said in those moments are a general statement establishing general expectations, ie: the status quo. I exist outside of that ie: I am siloed.
So why is the office environment a problem?
Inherently it’s not, but a couple of issues are2:
Autistic folks keep a lot of information in conscious memory. On top of that we are asked to performatively mask in order to fit into the work culture taking up additional resources. Screening out background noise, smells and UV lighting takes even more resources. As a consequence there is not a lot of conscious processing left to focus on what we need to do. Therefore social interruptions and “can I just grab you a moment” can be crippling.
Masking leads to suicidality and burnout3. Reason being is that if you succeed then you have just proved that a persona is more valid than your authentic self. If you fail then you let slip your authentic self to your detriment. Additionally the effort to maintain that persona takes energy and focus that you need for your basic work and self.
Multiple conversations at the same time like in a lunch room, or corridor, require screening out of background noise and stimulus. That takes effort. That’s not even starting on eye contact and body language.
Not having time to prepare information for a conversation means that a lot of processing power will have to go into dragging that information into conscious memory, and shelving the task that you were on.
Often the spontaneous conversation will require an answer that hasn’t been scripted. Yet again this increases the amount of conscious thinking to
a) parse the information and formulate a response,
b) judge the position and personal status of the one you are talking to in case they need a specific tone or level of detail,
c) edit that response for generally socially acceptable norms,
d) keep looking for facial and/or body language cues from the person you are talking too. NB/ I have to do this in conscious memory.
We are expected to do all the above AND not rock the boat.
By existing outside of that I am excluded. So isn’t existing outside of the rules a positive accommodation? No. I’ll explain.
To fit into the work environment I’ll need to subject myself to exhaustion and pain OR not be in the room where decisions are being made. Not being in the place where the organic conversations were being had means being excluded from the decision making process (bad for me) and having ones knowledge, skill and experience removed from the decision (bad for the business).
Because I am rarely in the room when these decisions are being made I am frequently coming up against last minute deadlines. These scrambling for deadlines and approvals further impact mental health as well as business outcomes and can lead me to working 12+ hour days.
People don’t want to deal with disability and so they work around it and create a silo. This leads to more forceful insistence and begging, which in turn leads to more alienation.
So there’s got to be a solution right?
Sure, I’m not going to just complain and run (that’s no good for my own mental health at the very least). The solution is to be prepared. Set meetings with an agenda (or create them in the moment) and write stuff down. Designate someone to take minutes. Follow up and inform. Plan. Respect boundaries.
But there are other things as well. Celebrating team wins need to be done in a way that everyone can participate in. Staff x-mas parties are excluding, and if I attend I do so at my own health cost. Team building activities are the same.
So keep in mind that (despite what pop-organisational psychology might suggest) we are not all the same. You have a diversity of colleagues and reports. Treat them with equity (not just equality) and find the way to come together. They alternative is loss of talent and headaches – but also depression and burnout.
I work a lot I’m told. I’ve often been accused of having a Martyr Complex and frankly I’m a bit over it. This is something that a lot of neurodivergent and autistic folks I’ve talked to have experienced as well and I think I understand the reasons.
Hyperfocus and special interests are things things that are very central to the way neurodivergent people experience the world. Being focused on a single topic for a long period of time is very common to me. Hyperfocus is a state of being where I can keep attending to a single thing for hours and/or days on end. In the work environment it can mean working on a single problem for a week until I finish it.
Breaking out of that is aggravating to the point of painful. Having that done for me by people banging my desk or waving in front of my face for attention, is frankly aggressive and violent. Saying that “but they were only trying to be friendly” is no more a reasonable statement than it was in the 80s when it was used by grabassing men. It needs to stop. Ashlea McKay has been incredibly eloquent in here covering of that hereand here when she says “Good intentions do not negate not-so-good impacts. They didn’t mean any harm, but they caused harm and that harm has an impact.”
So let’s talk about the Martyr Complex.
I know my limits. I know how much I can take and when to back off, and I build those into what I can take. Most ND adults are the same. We’re good. Believe us. It’s part of negotiating our spoons budget. Hyperfocusing a task for me is a low cost way of working. I can do a lot of focused work and spend less energy. Let’s say it’s like getting on the freeway – I can zoom away without having to stop and start. But everytime someone interrupts to save me from working to hard I have to get off the freeway and stop – and it costs me more energy. And starting again to get back on the freeway is intense. What it effectively does is blow out our energy budget and can lead to burnout, frustration and meltdowns. All because someone wanted to save me from overwork with their funny tiktok dance.
I don’t work for the same reason as neurotypicals. I don’t do it to earn credit or as a badge of station (sorry Vu). I do it because it is a task that has to get done and it holds my interest. Of course I deserve acknowledgement and I deserve to be respected, but that has nothing to do with a Martyr Complex. Mainly because as an outsider to the social hierarchy there is nothing to gain there. The work gets done because the work needs to get done.
Burnout looks like Martyrdom. So ND folk tend to work different hours to NTs. We work when the flow demands it but hyperfocus doesn’t discriminate. When you are on you are ON. We don’t get halfway through a task and go off to work with the team and pick it up later. HOWEVER we also feel an incredible pressure to conform to what the status quo demands. This is called masking, and many an autistic has written articles about the dangers of masking. So you’ll often find us showing up 9-5 (or in my case 7:30-6 to avoid the public transport peak hour sensory overload) and then also working till midnight while I hyperfocus on a task. In fact working outside of the hours of NTs in open office environments is less energy due to the interruptions and sensory overload being absent. All this masking and extended hours lead to burnout.
Autistic superpowers. Ugh this is hard. The toxic positivity and the need for us to prove ourselves leads to overwork. There is a burden for us to appear infallible as a reaction to the tragedy narrative, and it’s a pressure that leads to overwork and burnout. Dr Nancy Doyle puts it better than I here.
Our Spikey Skill Profiles. A friend reminded me that we get resentment often (and sometimes irrelevant praise) for being great at stuff. Riffing off Nancy Doyle again “Whilst everyone has strengths and difficulties, for neurodiverse people the difference between them is significant.” Of course that depends on what you attribute to the normal that you are different from, what does occur is that we can really shine at some things. This is the superpowers at work. In this case though they can create a friction with colleagues when this is looked at as competition. Us being good at something, and sacrificing ourselves to be good at it, can leave them feeling inadequate. They don’t understand we’re not competing with them, we’re competing with ourselves.
Work social functions are a nightmare! I get panic attacks at staff BBQs and social functions. There are too many conversations to focus on, incredible amounts of sensory overload and social games that I’ll never be able to understand. The amount of focus that requires is incredible and I hate it. But not attending these functions can have serious implications on promotion and advancement, as has been documented by the feminist and BIPOC movements in detail. Also not attending tends to attract Martyr labels.
Personal time. What I do with it is my business. What neurodivergent people do with their time is their own business. If I have a special interest in (for example) organising mental health forums for in arts and culture and that gives me energy and satisfaction then that is great. I’ve been told that I’m hopeless and that I can’t help myself [being a work addict] because I follow my special interests rather than “go out with friends”. This is just gaslighting. One might not understand a person’s interests but there is no need to minimise them because one doesn’t get it.
So can we agree not to do this? Using the Martyr slur against neurodivergent and autistic folk is gaslighting. No one is wanting you to feel bad. By and large that wouldn’t even occur to us. The more you can help us shake off masking and stop gaslighting the easier it’ll be for us all.
Special thanks to Carrie Beesley and Mel Granchi for their input
So that was a year! New job and career change for me and a BIG change of strategy for my new work. It was a great upgrade in my work life but a massive responsibility. We came through it fantastically but at 65 hours a week plus travel I’ve been exhausted.
The good thing is that my second job is related but in the coal face; something I’m really good and confident at. I’m in a big organisation there which gives me a place to look at best work practice. And I’m great at that stuff which helps with the confidence and planning.
To be honest I was dreading coming back to work after the break. It seemed like though I’d put a mountain behind me there was a mountain range stretched out in front. A couple of things though helped me get back on track. The first was sitting down on the first day back and working on a Trello board. Trello is an online Project Management tool that I’d been introduced to during the planning for the business ticketing/website launch. I set up columns for each department that had me in their sights and listed every think I could think of with a reasonable delivery day attached. Inside each of these columns I put Job “cards” that hold the deadlines, Checklists of things to do, and comments. Truth is I actually I set this this online during job 2, in the quiet moments before I got back. Once i had that done the panic dropped a bit.
Just something that I’ve said before. I find that my panic levels drop when I chunk out the work. Then it’s just putting one foot in front of the other. My partner does this with backs of envelopes to great effect.
Anyway back to the mountaineering. Try Trello if you get the chance. I’ve used it to even organise my Dungeons and Dragons game so it can’t be too nerdy right?!