Have you ever noticed how some people seem to have it all together? They are always on time, they never miss an appointment and they just seem to be able to fit it all in. And then there are those who are the completely opposite. What is the difference between these two groups of people? Is there a genetic component to being organised or are some of us using some amazing organisational tools to help us stay on track?
I recently discussed this question with Vanessa Victor from Remarkable Minds and this
is a summary of that interview. You can watch the full interview here. Vanessa is a facilitator with the Davis Dyslexia Program and helps people who are diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD and autism, as well as those who are undiagnosed.
Vanesa explains that there is indeed a genetic component to how our brain processes information, and whether an individual is neurodivergent or neurotypical. Neurodiverse diagnoses include dyslexia, autism, ADHD, aspergers dyspraxia and dyscalculia.
“Individuals who are neurodiverse are predominantly right brained, with a tendency to be creative, intuitive, outside of the box thinkers”
Vanessa’s discovery that she was neurodivergent (“I’m dyslexic with a bit of ADHD”) came when she was seeking support for her son who is dyslexic. When her son was diagnosed, she recognised in herself many of the characteristics and suddenly she could see the reason why she struggled with certain tasks. Up until then, Vanessa had no idea that she was neurodivergent. She didn't struggle at school so it was never picked up but she used to look at people who were naturally organised and thought “what do they do that I don’t?” Discovering that there was a neurological reason that she struggled with organisation changed her mindset from the idea that she wasn’t clever or that she should be better, to “this is just who I am”.
“Once you take away the embarrassment and shame away from the things you don’t do well, you can feel more relaxed, and feel better being you”
As it happens, the neurodivergency apple doesn't fall far from the tree. The understanding that we have today, while still in its infancy, did not exist 20 years ago (in NZ, dyslexia was not officially recognised as a diagnosis until 2007) so as a result there are a number of neurodivergent adults who have come to the realisation about themselves after seeking support for their children.
So what does neurodivergency look like for an adult? There is huge variation within the parameters, with a lot of crossover between the formal constructs of diagnostic terminology. As Vanessa explains, you can be a little bit of everything, a lot of something, or just a pinch; everyone is different.
While no two neurodivergent individuals are the same, a common challenge is with time management. In Vanessa’s experience, she had no idea why she had struggled in this area for so long. It is a long-standing family joke that Vanessa’s day has 32 hours with all of the tasks that she tries to cram in! But what is it about neurodivergency that makes it more difficult to manage time and organisation?
To answer this question we need to look at the way that the brain processes information. When information is being processed with the front right-hand side of your brain, it is more visual in nature which means we see the big picture. We see everything that needs to be done all at once, rather than relating individual tasks to individual components of time.
Time is a linear, structured concept and it always moves at the same pace. The neurodivergent brain has a propensity to drift off into the imagination while carrying out other tasks. Once in this imaginative state of thought, the passage of time is skewed which means it is very difficult to have a good handle on how long things take or on how much time has passed.
In our imagination, we can do things really fast. When we visualise a picture we can process around 32 images per second vs processing around 5 words per second. This means that for visual thinkers, the brain is working around 6 times faster than what is happening around us and this can feel really overwhelming.
Differences also exist in the working memory, with neurodivergent individuals remembering pictures, images and feelings rather than recalling a to-do list. Because the working memory is not sequential for neurodiverget individuals, it can be extremely difficult to organise thoughts or to prioritise because we see everything that needs to be done all at once.
So if neurodivergency is our modality, are the cards stacked against us such that we have no hope of getting organised? Thankfully this is not the case as there are some tried and tested strategies, such as those recommended by Vanessa below, that can be used to get a better handle on time and organisation.
Time everyday tasks like marking a cup of coffee or putting on the washing. Because of big-picture thinking, the neurodivergent mind will visualize the end result, with the process somewhat forgotten.
When you time an activity, you can determine the exact time that it takes to complete the task; it is absolute, accurate information that can be relied upon when scheduling a task, or determining whether there is enough time to complete
Use a visual timer - With a traditional alarm clock, the concept of time can be manipulated when we convince ourselves that 20 minutes will be sufficient time to complete x,y and z. When we can actually SEE the time moving, we are more realistic about what can be achieved in a clearly defined time frame. Vanessa recommends the “time timer” app which uses a red line to show the passing of time.
Do a brain dump - challenges with structuring thoughts and prioritising tasks mean that there can be a huge amount of information swirling around which makes a brain dump of all that stuff a great way to clear the mind. Write it all down as often as you need to (first thing in the morning can be helpful), either with words or images, and feel the weight being lifted as you clear your mind.
Visualize a bullseye - when you need to prioritise a task, visualise a bulls eye and think about three tasks that you need to complete. Put the most important task in the middle of the bulls eye, this is the one thing if you threw a dart that you would want to hit so you could move it off the list. Visualise 2 other tasks around the bullseye which you can move on to when the bullseye has been hit. This technique works particularly well because it relies on the visual talent that can predominate in neurodivergent individuals.
Use visual charts and checklists - Visual cues are key to staying focussed and on track when in a mental sea of distraction. Vanessa recommends Hello Better Day charts and planners which are specifically designed to help with organising time.
Multitask - say what? Vanessa’s shares an awesome analogy of experiencing ADHD with either laser beam of focus or a disco ball. When in a laser beam state of hyperfocus, it can be extremely challenging to break attention to pursue another task, however when in a disco ball state, having 2-3 activities to move between can be helpful because it does not force a state of focus at a time when it is not naturally there.
- 25,5 minute rule. To stay on task and avoid distraction it can be useful to follow this sequence whereby you work for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break and repeat 3 times before having a 25 minute break and repeating the cycle again. Using a visual timer as described above will notify you that there is only a certain number of minutes left before the next break which can make the focus period feel less overwhelming.
While part of the journey of being neurodivergent is in figuring out which strategies will make a difference to everyday tasks, another big part of the journey is understanding and acceptance.
Neurodivergent individuals have amazing talents but are often really hard on themselves and feel that they have failed because they haven’t completed the one thing that they set out to complete, such as going into the supermarket for milk and coming out with everything but! The empathy, intuition, energy and ability to inspire others can often be overshadowed, in their own eyes, by perceived failures to conform in a world that favours left brained thinkers.
While awareness is changing, there is still a stigma around neurodivergent diagnoses, with a common perception of this being a disability rather than a different ability or a different way of experiencing the world.
With specific reference to ADHD, the name itself is misleading because attention is not in deficit. As explained in the laser beam/disco ball analogy, it can either be so engrossed that it can feel nearly impossible to stop a task, even when you know you need to pick up the kids or go to the PTA meeting. Alternatively, it can feel really difficult to latch on to and stick with a task, so ADHD is not so much a lack of attention as it is an inability to regulate attention.
For many who learn that they are neurodivergent in adulthood, the realization can bring a transformative sense of relief and understanding; “so that is why I struggle with xyz!” Feelings of guilt, frustration and lack of self-worth can be replaced with an appreciation of skill sets and attributes that may have been hiding in the background. As Vanessa says:
“Once you understand what your struggles are, you can accept them”.
With my own unique combination of neurodivergent traits (a decent sprinkling of ADHD and dyslexia) I feel hugely empowered by learning that I am neurodivergent. I feel privileged to be in a minority of people who think outside of the box, with a vivid imagination to propel my dreams and aspirations, combined with the wisdom of intuition to keep me grounded. I feel immense solidarity knowing that there are others who see the world through a lens that is similar to mine and hope that by discussing neurodivergency with others, more shades and colours will be revealed.
Moana Bywater is a Forensic Scientist turned Entrepreneur with ADDributes that she spent decades accommodating before discovering that she is neurodivergent. She is on a quest to remove the stigma of neurodiversity through learning, discovery, education and communication. Through her company Hello Better Day she is committed to helping those without an affinity for organisation to structure their day so that they can get through the to-do list faster, creating more time for things that bring joy.
Links and resources
Vanessa Victor can be found at https://www.remarkableminds.co.nz
Recommended books: The Gift of Dyslexia and The Gift of Learning by Ron Davis