Illustration by Tori Corkum

A Million Thoughts

Confronting my ADD while working from home at the height of the pandemic.

Written by Jordan Olson

In March 2021, I received a phone call from my close friend and boss telling me that I no longer had a job. My heart dropped and my throat swelled up. That’s when it really hit me — this pandemic is real, and it’s changing the course of my life.

Even as I watched the world devolve into paralysis from the screen of my phone, I never quite accepted the reality of the situation until that moment. I told my boss there were no hard feelings and hung up the phone.

Jobless, I decided to move from Bellingham back to Colorado to stay with my parents. Weeks of constantly checking the news and monitoring my social media feed had left me feeling anxious, afraid and utterly exhausted. The world felt heavier than ever before. I missed my family and I missed my home.

I had just started a full-time remote internship the week before, and I was enrolled for a 15-credit summer quarter at Western Washington University, which would be held online. In other words, I would be spending upwards of 45 hours a week on my laptop.

These circumstances might be daunting to anyone, but they were highly problematic for me. I’ve been struggling with Attention Deficit Disorder for most of my life, so moving to an autonomous work life meant that I’d have to manage my disorder more than ever before.

Over the course of the following months, I struggled immensely with my work-life balance. My mental health was fully compromised, and I had to redesign how I worked. The good news is I picked up some valuable lessons along the way.

It all started with my workspace. Most mornings, I would sit up in bed and immediately grab my laptop.

“Just check your email and then you can go make some coffee,” I would tell myself.

A few hours later, I’d still be there in bed working on some random project. My head would be pounding and I would realize that it was almost noon and I hadn’t even had a sip of water.

Other days, I would make it out of bed only to spend my workday on the living room couch or at the kitchen table.

At first, it was amazing. I could attend class while I was cozy under the covers, or I could work while I had a movie on in the background. I could take a break whenever I felt like it. I was on top of the world.

However, things quickly took a turn for the worse. My ADD started ramping up more than it had in years. Personal thoughts began to blend with work thoughts until my entire state of mind became a scattered haze, regardless of whether I was clocked in or not.

One evening, I was laying on my couch, margarita in hand, tucked into a new fuzzy blanket I had just purchased from Target. One would think I was comfortable, but I wasn’t. Half of my brain was still clocked in. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t turn it off.

As I sat there and thought about how crazy that was, I realized I had been feeling this way for quite some time.

Just days before, my mom told me that she was worried about me.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but your light just seems dimmer. You don’t seem happy,” she said.

I told my girlfriend, Madison, what my mom had told me, and she agreed. “In the past few weeks it feels like you haven’t been present in general,” she told me.

This was the first time in my life that my loved ones had come to me with genuine concerns about my happiness. That scared me, because deep down I knew they were right.

The first step I took to redesign my work life from home was to define one single space as my place of work. In my case, it was the rickety wooden desk my parents had bought at a garage sale years ago in the spare bedroom downstairs. The frail velvet cushioning on the seat of the chair paled in comparison to my memory foam mattress or the recliner couch upstairs, but it had to be done.

The only place I would allow myself to work was at that desk. If I wanted to do anything else, I had to get up and leave the room to do it.

Reassembling my workspace downstairs was a small change, but to me, it felt monumental. I was finally acknowledging that my ADD was an issue, and I was doing something about it. I was taking control.

Sadly, old habits die hard. After a short time working at that desk, my mind would start trying to find any excuse it could to leave it. A quick trip upstairs would turn into a 20-minute ordeal chock-full of procrastination. When I’d return downstairs, I would slump back into that old chair with a heavy weight of shame for avoiding my work.

So, I took another step in the right direction. I started looking into work sprints — an extensively researched workflow technique that’s linked to productivity. I followed the methodology and started working in 30-minute sprints followed by a 10-minute break. This routine unlocked my productivity, which made me feel like I could breathe again.

Slowly but surely, I started to get more work done and my anxiety felt manageable again. I was chatting with a good friend of mine, Morgan, over FaceTime and she noticed the difference.

“You seem way happier lately,” she told me.

“I remember talking to you last month, and you seemed like you had a million things hanging over your head.”

At this point, I was controlling my ADD to the same extent as I did before the pandemic, but I wanted to keep the ball rolling. That’s when I began to meditate.

I started out with just five minutes in the morning and five at night. I would go to the quietest room in the house and sit on the floor with my legs crossed. When I felt ready, I would start focusing on my breathing. When any other thought popped into my head, I would calmly pull my mind back to my breathing.

I did this thousands of times over the following months, and it took me a while to notice any sort of a difference. But slowly I began to realize a change in my attention. I was able to hold my focus longer. Even when my mind would trail off, I could pull it back to reality quicker.

Looking back on my struggle now, I realize that I had built up so much guilt for mishandling working from home and for letting my ADD get out of control. Making the smallest change meant confronting that guilt. However, when I took the first step in a better direction, I was happier for it. My problems hadn’t gone anywhere, but I still felt happier knowing that I was doing something about them.

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