A silver bullet? How a notebook changed my life

If like me, you’d never heard of Ryder Carroll, you’re not alone. It’s not like the Brooklyn-dwelling digital product designer is a household name. Until yesterday, I’d never heard of the guy either. But he changed my life and so many others when he invented a system of task organizing he dubbed bullet journaling.

I first learned about keeping a bullet journal during a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators meeting when author Janet Fox spoke about it. I was intrigued but felt like it was too complicated and free-form for me. How could I possibly keep my ADDled brain organized with something so seemingly random?

But a bullet journal can be complex or it can be fairly simple. The idea is basically to keep all your thoughts, ideas, to-do lists and calendars in one place – a notebook. Any notebook. That you WRITE in.

It starts with a few pages in the front of the book that will serve as your index or table of contents – this is key. Then numbering pages as you go along, for each topic you write about in your journal, you enter it the index so you can find it again later.

So, for example, you know all those scraps of paper you’ve collected over the years with suggestions for books to read – you can put all of those on one page in the journal with the heading “Books to Read.” Then when you are heading to the library or bookstore, you can scan the list (finding the page via your index) and pick which book to seek out.

OK, so maybe this seems counterintuitive with all our phone apps meant to keep us dialed in to our lives. But here’s the thing. How often do you actually go to your Goodreads list? Where do you keep your ideas for your next project or notes for that project? Have you lost them? Do you use multiple apps to keep track of all the things that pop into your head daily?

I used to do everything on my phone and kept a random notebook with thoughts. But I found all those apps overwhelming and the ideas would get lost in the ever-present notebook. Maybe that’s just me. I do still use Google Calendar for my appointments and the mundane tasks of life, but all my lists and ideas – they go in the bullet journal. The reason this works, at least for me, is because it keeps all my goals and lists organized and in one place so I CAN FIND THEM AGAIN.

Bonus: I’m not using digital media, so I don’t get distracted by something I see on the web or an email that’s popped into my inbox. In other words, I’m not tempted to “multitask.”

Yes, I put that in quotes.

McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Levitin wrote about the phenomenon of multitasking for The Guardian. Quoting Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist Earl Miller, he wrote, “‘When people think they are multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.’ So, we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.”

I love that. It sounds a lot like ADD and not exactly productive, right?

E.J. Masicampo, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University, studied something called the Zeigarnik effect whereby unfulfilled goals can linger in the mind … even hound us. Ever wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat realizing you’ve got a project due in a day that you haven’t even started? It’s like that.

Essentially, his team found that participants who planned out a goal were less likely to get distracted by another (easier?) task than those who had not thought about a plan.

“If you just take a moment to make a specific plan for a goal that was previously unresolved and worry-inducing, then it gets rid of that stickiness,” Masicampo told Nicola Davis of the Guardian.

Levitin noted using a blank notebook might also have a positive impact on productivity. Some people spend time creating gorgeous layouts in their journals – some may be daunting to see. On face value this may seem a waste of time, but Levitin thinks otherwise. “Research tells us that if you can take time off from your workflow and let your mind wander – maybe doodle, listen to music, draw pictures or even just stare out the window – those periods of inactivity are actually essential to having productive periods of activity,” he says. “When you’ve got a piece of paper in front of you, it sort of encourages you to expand your visual field and expand your imagination.”

A plethora of research has also shown how expressing one’s thoughts in writing can improve mental and physical health. By jotting down a thought as it pops into your brain, you can temporarily put it aside and stay focused on the task at hand. Can you say productivity?

So, there is science that illustrates why bullet journaling works for so many people. In fact, Carroll, the bullet journal’s creator has ADHD, but relishes the break from screen time (which has its own negative effects on the brain).

Writing on nice paper is soothing to me and there’s a certain gratification I get from checking off a finished task (which I will do as soon as I post this). My bullet journal keeps me accountable and organized – like any trusty sidekick should.

10 Reasons You Can Be Happy You Have ADD

AD:HD Highway to white black

  1. You notice things – lots of things, many of which others miss. And your friends are tickled when you point out the eccentric guy walking down the street with the perfect symbol for peace and harmony: a dog balancing a cat on its back who is balancing a rat on its back (that really happens – or used to anyway – in Bisbee, Arizona).
  2. Alternately, you have the ability to hyperfocus – spending many undistracted hours working on a problem or project often without taking a break to eat or sleep. Maybe Attention Deficit Disorder is a misnomer. I think we should rename it Attention Difference Disorder, or as my mosaic-artist friend Lisa Lord calls it, Attention-to-Detail Disorder.
  3. Speaking of details … some people with ADHD are nothing if not detail-oriented — known for relentless curiosity and vision, meticulous work and seemingly boundless energy. Just don’t get caught up in the endless, mind-numbing pursuit of perfection. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t exist.
  4. You can be ultra-sensitive to sound, aroma, touch, pain, flavors and emotions. But noting fine detail is fodder for great descriptive writing and inspiration for a variety of creative pursuits.
  5. Similarly, many of you feel deeply – OK, so maybe being a drama queen isn’t your thing. BUT, how about being able to read people’s emotions and feel compassion? As a writer and reporter, this trait enables me to get people to speak honestly about difficult personal things. Or to get typically close-mouthed sources (can you say sheriff’s deputies in northern Maine?) to give up information they may not otherwise share. People trust people who exhibit compassion.
  6. Your passion and enthusiasm can be contagious. This can go both ways, of course, but I prefer to think of this as part of our charm. People react to and appreciate the enthusiasm you exhibit for things you are passionate about. This makes you a persuasive influencer and an inspiring motivator.
  7. Creativity is your muse. You may see solutions to problems others miss. You astound bosses, coworkers and others with your ability to think beyond the obvious.
  8. You aren’t necessarily organized, but with the right tools, you can be. Learning how to use time wisely, setting up reminders and organizing your life doesn’t necessarily feel like a chore – that perfectionist in you loves structure and structure keeps you on task. You just have to get there (this is a subject for another day – but I’ll get to it, promise).
  9. For some, drinking caffeinated drinks makes them sleepy, happy or more focused. So, go ahead, have that late-night cappuccino (just don’t go overboard).
  10. You are more apt to take risks, are stimulated by adventure and are typically more resilient when things don’t work out. According to Psychology Today, people with ADHD are 300% more likely to start their own business. So, hey, you are in amazingly successful company including Sir Richard Branson, Michael Phelps, Jim Carrey, Justin Timberlake, Jamie Oliver, Howie Mandel, Charles Schwab, Terry Bradshaw, Pete Rose, Simone Biles, Ed Hallowell (one of my favorite people with the so-called disorder), Greg LeMond, David Neeleman and Paul Orfalea. (Check out the links for inspiration).

And if perfectionism weren’t one of my issues, I’d have finished this post a week ago … just saying.

 

My ADDled Brain’s ADDiction

“There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.”

                –Deepak Chopra

I admit it. I have an addiction.

I also have mild depression and anxiety — conditions not uncommon to people with ADD or women going through perimenopause, of which I have both.

Yay for me!

Though it’s not destined to destroy my physical health like alcohol or drug addiction, mine does feel self-destructive. It affects my ability to pursue my career and creative goals.

My addiction? Puzzles.

When I’m feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed and want to avoid work, I turn to online jigsaw puzzles, word games, crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

Side note: Nearly 1 in 5 American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Now substance addiction is a different animal than say, gambling or puzzle playing, I don’t deny that. Using alcohol, drugs or even tobacco has true physiological effects. But in terms of brain chemistry, I wonder how different those addictions and mine really are.

For me, I think doing puzzles calms my overwhelmed and sometimes anxious brain, much like a heroin addict who soothes his anxiety or pain by shooting up. OK, I admit, that’s probably a stretch given the physical ramifications of not taking a highly addictive substance, as in withdrawal, which is a serious health concern in and of itself. But either way, both addictions result from a lack of impulse control (as embarrassing as that is for me to admit about myself).

Self-proclaimed Puzzlecrossword addict Dean Olsher is ambivalent about crossword puzzles. In a 2009 interview with Melissa Block on NPR, Dean Olsher spoke about his book, “From Square One: A Meditation, With Digressions, On Crosswords.”

Olsher confirms my thinking about puzzle addiction. Reading from his book on NPR,  he says, “Entering a crossword is like stepping into the clean, white cube of an art gallery or into a church or a Japanese rock garden. There are days when solving puzzles feels like a practice — the next best thing to seated meditation … It is more honest, though, to think of crosswords as a habit, like smoking. It’s just something to do every day because it’s there.”

Soothing, right?

However, Olsher also asserts that puzzles “have an addictive, immersive quality that keeps people coming back for more.” Part Zen and part addiction, he likens them to their own form of mental illness.

Yiiiiiiiiikes!!!

According to an October article by National Institutes of Health, researchers found that “addiction’s power lies in its ability to hijack and even destroy key brain regions that are meant to help us survive.”

Healthy brains reward healthy behaviors, it says. Exercising and eating healthy foods switches on brain circuits that makes us feel good, so we’re motivated to repeat those behaviors.

When a healthy brain senses danger, it elicits a chemical release that prompts the body to react quickly — the so-called fight-or-flight response. According to a  Harvard Medical School article on depression, “Every real or perceived threat to your body triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produces physiological changes. We all know the sensations: your heart pounds, muscles tense, breathing quickens, and beads of sweat appear.”

But drugs and alcohol mask those chemical responses by hijacking the brain’s pleasure/reward circuits, the NIH says. Addiction sets danger-sensing circuits of the brain into overdrive, making an addict anxious and stressed when not under the influence, leading them to want more and more.

For substance abusers, it becomes a vicious cycle that has them using drugs or alcohol to avoid feeling bad rather than to feel good.

And those stress hormones? They are produced as a result of increased activity in the frontal cortex of the brain — lo and behold, one of the areas of the brain affected by ADD and depression!

If you’re tempted by something questionable—like eating candy instead of a healthy dinner or buying things you can’t afford—the frontal regions of your brain can help you decide if the consequences are worth the actions. But if your frontal cortex isn’t totally functional, as is the case with addiction, ADD and depression, you may not have the ability to rationally stop yourself from doing something you know won’t be good for you. I feel that. It becomes an intense struggle to control impulses. And, like any addiction, it gets in the way of living life.

But I can report now that I have cut down on my puzzle-playing over the last few months during which time, this post sat in my draft folder. Maybe I felt the need for some good news before I came clean to you.

I’m far from cured. I still take an occasional trip to my favorite online puzzles. But I’ve deleted games from my phone and I often stop myself when I feel the urge, so I’m getting there. So does PA exist — a support group for puzzle addicts?

Run For Your Life: Coming Out From Under the Covers

“You initially become funny as a kid because you’re looking for attention and love. Psychologists think that’s all to do with mother abandonment. I think John Cleese has his depressions, and Terry Gilliam’s the same. All of us together make one completely insane person.”

                                                                         –Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame)

Last weekend, I ran the second 5k race in a matter of two months benefitting mental health treatment and suicide prevention.

The first one was in Gardiner, Montana, within view of the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Last week’s race was right here in Bozeman and raised more than $15,000 for our local crisis help center.

Roosevelt Arch -- entrance to Yellowstone National Park

Roosevelt Arch — entrance to Yellowstone National Park

Yes, of course that’s a great thing.

But I can’t help thinking how sad it is that we haven’t found suitable treatment for depression to prevent suicides. The Rocky Mountain West, and Montana in particular, historically has had the highest suicide rate in the nation for many — too many — years.

In 2013, once again, Montana topped the list with nearly 24 deaths per 100,000 people. Not exactly a proud moment for us.

According to the World Health Organization:

  • An estimated 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression worldwide.
  • Over 800,000 people die due to suicide every year.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15- to 29-year-olds.
  • Depression affects women more often than men.

Last week’s race was held on Halloween and aptly called “Run For Your Life.” Complete with “real” trailside zombies it was good fun. Costumes were strongly encouraged. So I rehabilitated an old wizard costume from 2008. It was just easy.

Photo: Paul Bussi-www.idealphotography.com

What I didn’t recall until I was off and running in my moon-star-sequined-adorned graduation gown, was that this was the same costume I wore the day a friend decided to end her life. I have a picture of that day on my desk — a good friend and I in costume mugging for the camera, arms around each others’ shoulders. A fun day as our friend’s struggle and final decision wasn’t revealed until the following day.

It is impossible to describe what it feels like to learn someone you know and care about took their own life. Unfortunately, too many of us DO know that feeling.

Equally saddening is the fact that way too many of us know what it feels like to have no hope.

At the Big Bear Stampede race in Gardiner, my friend, physical therapist and world-renowned ultra-marathoner Nikki Kimball brought tears to my eyes as she spoke of her own struggle with depression. She says suicide doesn’t kill people, depression kills people.

She’s right, you know.

And in addition to successfully treating my achilles tendonitis (YAY!), she’s taught me that we all need to be brave, come out from under our down comforters and talk openly about depression!

So I’m here to tell you right now that, yes, I have struggled with depression on and off since puberty, I think.

It’s a complicated thing and just because I sometimes have this gnawing feeling that I’m not good enough … deep down inside, I know that not only am I good enough, but I’m actually better than good.

That’s one thing that keeps me going.

But it is fairly common for people with ADDled brains to have co-occurring depression. We are so often misunderstood and it is frustrating to live in a world that doesn’t support our creative talents or accept and accommodate our oft-distracted ways.

Lucky me, I have the trifecta of ADD, depression and perimenopause (that time in a woman’s life when her hormones are dissipating, if you will — another condition also often associated with depression. I wrote more about perimenopause and what it does to some women’s brains (me included) in an earlier post.

All that being said, there’s hope. Yes, there really is.

I’m happy to say that there are throngs of people who are coming out from under the covers and sharing their experiences with mental illness on blogs, in books and support groups. Here are some good examples on the web:

  • Kat Kinsman — an editor at CNN wrote and was interviewed about her experience with depression. I highly recommend checking out her piece as she also has a list of other resources at the bottom of her article.
  • Author William Styron, author of “Sophie’s Choice” and a brilliant man well ahead of his time, wrote “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.”
  • Pick the Brain is a website “dedicated to self-improvement with a focus on personal productivity, motivation, and self-education” and includes articles on psychological topics.
  • Daisies and Bruises: The Art of Living with Depression.
  • Bring Change 2 Mind is a nonprofit started by actress Glenn Close with her sister, Jessie Close, and nephew, Calen Pick, (mother and son, both of whom have mental illness). Its aim is to remove the misconceptions and stigma surrounding mental illness. I had the privilege of interviewing and writing about Jessie and her son before their speaking engagement here in Bozeman a few years ago.  BC2M’s website has an excellent blog featuring a variety of writers with equally varied diagnoses.
  • Jessie Close also wrote a book about her experience with bipolar disorder called, “Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness.”
  • Smart Girls with ADHD
  • ADDitude Magazine
  • Dr. Ned Hallowell and Dr. John Ratey (co-authors of many books on ADHD).
  • I found some of these blogs on Healthline that posted a slide show of the best depression health blogs of 2015.

This is a short list, for sure. There’s many others. If you have a great one that you’d like to recommend, I’d love to see it in the comments.

Here’s to throwing off the blankets, feeling the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair …

An artist’s discovery

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“ — so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

                            From “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll.

Like many with ADD, what I lack in focus I make up for in creativity. In other words, ideas are abundant, action is not. It’s the bane of many an ADDled brain.

But recently, I had a revelation about writing.

I’m just beginning to surge into the world of fiction writing which is so new to me and I’m learning that unless one is unnaturally gifted, it’s hard.

Really hard.

But it’s also fun.cheshire cat

The fun part is when your mind wanders into places it wouldn’t ordinarily go. The problem for a non-fiction writer like me is getting to that place. Dreams are perfect venues to discover that space. At least it seems that’s working for me lately.

Julia Cameron, in her book, “The Artist’s Way,” tells her students of creativity to write “morning pages” every day.

EVERY DAY.

Write 3 pages longhand every morning in a flow of consciousness with no concern about what is coming out. No crossing out, no editing … The idea is to shut Mr. Internal Editor down — Cameron calls it one’s “Censor.”

“Let your Censor rattle on. (And it will.),” she writes. “Just keep your hand moving across the page. Write down the Censor’s thoughts if you want to … The morning pages teach logic brain to stand aside and let artist brain play.”

I love that.

So one recent morning, I’d woken up after a really strange and amusing dream. The dream fit the genre of a fiction project I am working on so I felt compelled to write it down.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to do that before I had to run off to an appointment.

I usually write my blog posts on my computer. As a journalist, I like to support at least some of what I write here with research, so it’s helpful to have the Internet handy for that purpose. Also, I’m just used to writing non-fiction in this manner.

The problem with writing on the computer, especially if one can type without looking at the computer, is that unrelenting internal editor. I could disregard my typos, but tactile feedback signals me that my dyslexic mind determined to type a “d” instead of the “k” using the wrong middle finger. I know the minute it happens even if I am not looking.

Enter the internal editor who says, “Fix that!” So I do and this backspacing and correcting disturbs my creative flow.

It’s not a big deal when I’m writing non-fiction. But fiction happens on its own terms and stopping the flow often results in a disjointed and unsatisfactory writing experience.

So I learned something about my writing process. I’ve always suspected that writing by hand on paper resulted in better writing, but I never knew quite why.

As I waited in the doctor’s waiting area, I pulled out my, red “decomposition” book (which is an actual thing, by the way).

Decomposition Book

I was either too lazy or in too much of a rush to get the dream down on paper before getting interrupted or both. So I didn’t bother to pull out my glasses and just wrote. By the way, I intentionally chose an unlined notebook with the idea that it might enhance my flow – I think it does.

Three pages later and in just a few minutes – the craziness of my unconscious dream brain was recorded.

Here’s an excerpt.

The scene: I was looking at greeting cards in a college campus bookstore.

“There was this long-haired orange tabby [on the cover of a card] that when you pet it, its eyes changed color. I was petting it and thinking it seemed so real …”

Suffice to say the cat was real and, well, it wasn’t like the Cheshire Cat in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (if only I were as good as Lewis Carroll).

In any case, I found a freedom and flow that I’d never felt before by writing without the aid of my glasses. It’s not that I couldn’t see, it was just so blurry that Mr. Internal Editor couldn’t tell if I was misspelling something or using the wrong word, so the story just flowed out.

More on flow in a future post. Until then, know that we artists are windows to understanding the world in which we live. Keep yours open.