Productivity for Adults with ADHD

Your ADHD Brain & Air Traffic Controllers

Can you take a page out of an air traffic controller’s book and control the chaos in your life a little better with a couple productivity tips?

If you have you ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder, you might be struggling with managing your day-to-day tasks, with your brain bouncing from one idea to the next. Sometimes being a human ping pong ball can be beneficial but at other times it’s just problematic. 

Stacey was a working mom who owned her own business and was raising two kids. Every minute of every day, it felt as though there were more and more demands being thrown at her. She wasn’t managing well. At the end of each day, she knew she had missed doing something important. She never seemed to remember what it was. It also seemed as though she and her husband were living in the back seat while someone else was driving their car, not having any control over where they were going.

One of Stacey’s top clients was furious as she had dropped the ball for a significant deadline. She tried to clean up her mess with apologies and concessions as she couldn’t afford to lose the client. In the end, the client stayed, but it cost her $5,000 in discounts on future sales. As a small business owner that was a very painful lesson to learn.

Dropping the Ball

Does Stacey’s story hit a little too close to home? Are you feeling that the world keeps throwing more and more at you while you are coping less and less well?

Interestingly, the situation you face is very similar to what air traffic controllers experience every day. They sit in a tower and watch as planes fly at them, hour after hour. During peak times across the U.S., there can be as many as 5,000 planes an hour and up to 50,000 planes a day in the air.

It occurred to me that air traffic controllers might have some strategies that can help you manage the challenges of daily life.

One day, I toured the air traffic control (ATC) tower at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (RMMA) located just outside Denver, Colorado. RMMA is a general aviation airport. It serves everything from student pilots in small propeller planes to sophisticated business jets. Even huge tanker planes that fight wildfires throughout the Rocky Mountains fly out of here.

The Best Office in Town

The view from the tower is incredible. High in the air with a backdrop of snow-capped peaks to the west and downtown Denver to the east, I thought to myself this had to be the best “office” in town.

I sat in awe as the controllers guided a variety of planes through their airspace to safe takeoffs and landings. It was like a finely choreographed ballet, with planes all over radar screens. Each plane received detailed instructions, one right after another. Being an air traffic controller is considered one of the top five most stressful jobs in the US. ATCs are responsible for remembering and recalling vast amounts of information, maintaining constant focus, and managing multiple tasks at once. On a busy day, the work is so physically and mentally exhausting that the controllers switch off every hour to stay sharp and even nap on breaks to recharge.

What are the three things you can learn from an Air Traffic Controller?

The ADHD brain does not see the world as everyone else. So how can you develop your own customized radar to manage daily tasks that are always coming at you? Let’s take a look at my three takeaways from my tour at RMMA.

#1 Give your brain the chance to recharge 

For adults with attention and learning deficits, going to work and sorting through information is like being an air traffic controller on a super busy day. You will have worked hard to focus and complete tasks and will be tired, frustrated and even cranky when you come home. Just keeping up can be exhausting as you are likely putting in two to three times the effort of your peers. 

Take the time to discover the best way for you to recharge

What helps you relax? Is it going for a walk around the block, exploring your creative side by drawing, or simply kicking back and daydreaming? Being out in nature, taking the dog for a walk, playing with the kids? How about time at the driving range or calling a friend? Whatever it is, make sure you build time into your day to recharge. It’s often the first thing we cut when we feel busy and overwhelmed, but it’s critical to staying sharp and productive throughout the day.

Just one caveat; if you like to recharge by watching YouTube, perusing Facebook, etc., beware of the constant stimulation of screen time can drain your brain further.

#2 Use clear expectations & better communication

The day I toured the tower, there were three air traffic controllers and a supervisor. Each ATC had a specific job with set expectations. They were continuously talking to each other, using a continuous stream of communication. There wasn’t just one pair of eyes watching and protecting the friendly skies, there were four.

How do you communicate with your tribe and family? How does everyone know what is expected? There are a ton of great collaborative apps that can significantly reduce the frustration.

Even a whiteboard on the fridge might be enough. Just make sure everyone is on the same page. No one is a mind reader.

#3 Get it out of your head!

When you are inundated with information, it starts to whirl around in your brain. Then the anxiety and stress flags start to fly as you begin to worry that you will forget something. Overwhelm taps you on the shoulder because you cannot make heads or tails of everything you’re supposed to know. To cope with this stress, we often hide behind social media, surf the web, or binge-watch a TV show.

It’s time to get the information out of your head and externalize it. Find a system that works for you. For example, to manage all the planes that are taking off and landing, an ATC has a system to track information about each plane. They have to know and recall specific information about each flight. They track the type of plane, destination, and any other special details related to the pilot’s flight. To do this they use a block system. The ATC writes the relevant information on a block. They then stack the blocks based on their position in line for takeoff. Once the plane has taken off, the plane is transferred to the air route traffic controller, then that block is removed from the stack. Each ATC can also be seen writing notes on a scratch pad.

When you are inundated with extensive information it is unrealistic to think you can hold all of that in mind at once while switching from one task to the other. Writing it down, whether on paper, in an App, or on a block helps offload information that gets in the way of focusing on the task at hand.

Where to start – Keep it super simple

Here’s a great place to start if you are mentally running on a hamster wheel and the idea of writing things down seems too big a leap. If you are a talker, ask a friend or your spouse to write down all the things you mentioned that are bouncing in your head. Or simply talk into your phone. (This is one of my strategies especially when I take the dog for a walk.) Take a break and after a while come back to the list.

Ask yourself what’s in and out of your control? Cross items that are out of your control off your list. (This can be quite cathartic) 

Put these tasks into a productivity app like Wunderlist, ToDoist, Reminder, or your google calendar with a deadline attached. If you don’t do the task by the deadline, carry it forward up to three times. After that, ask yourself:

  • Is it really important for me to do?

If it is and you are just procrastinating, do you need to find external motivators like:

  • Body double, someone else keeping you company while you complete the task. For example, your friend talks to you while you clean out your closet.
  • Different work environment such as a coffee shop, where other people are working, so you feel obligated to work, too.
  • Can you outsource it or ask for help? It’s amazing how much time you can save by asking for guidance and assistance.

A whole new appreciation for Air Traffic Controllers

When I met the controllers at RMMA, it was clear they were passionate about what they did. They took great pride in keeping pilots, passengers, and their planes safe.

They were given the training, community, and rest necessary to stay at the top of their game. Are you supported in the same way — with compassion and space to achieve success at your own pace? If so, you will be able to marvel as you keep the dots on your radar screen from colliding!

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