Decades before I was diagnosed with ADHD, I realized I had an Inertia Problem. I didn’t take so long to get moving/started on something because I was lazy, because once I got moving, I couldn’t seem to stop, either. Hence, inertia. It turns out I’m not the only one who’s described the ADHD brain in this way.
The ironic thing about ADHD is that you normally think about it working the other way: constant distraction, making you unable to focus on what you’re working on, flitting from project to project without completing anything. That is usually what happens. So what’s with the inertia, then? Well, when your brain has trouble prioritizing, organizing itself, and slowing down long enough for you to act on a thought before you’ve gone onto the next thought and forgotten the first, you tend to forget what you’re doing in the middle of doing it, and suddenly you’re staring off into space, because you can’t figure out what your first step even is. In fact I’m not even sure that sentence had an order to it. All those things just happen at once. You get stuck. You can’t start because you can’t even find the starting line.
But once you start to roll, what’s going to stop you? Your brain doesn’t have to bother with prioritizing anymore: it knows what’s most important, it’s whatever is happening right now. Now that you’re in the process of doing, you can catch up to your brain a bit—just a bit, just close enough to keep you chasing it. You are moving. And if anything is going to stop you or make you change direction, well, it’s certainly not going to be your own brain, because that requires those executive functions that don’t work right. A brain that has trouble prioritizing isn’t going to prioritize something else above what’s right in front of you. Too difficult!
One of the reasons schedules are necessary for ADHD brains is that it saves us having to use our faulty executive functions to decide what to do. The schedule decides for us. Now is the time for homework, so we will do homework. Hah. I mean, that’s the general idea— homework may be an exception.
A better example is going to work. Pre-pandemic, I worked twenty hours a week at the library. Sometimes—remember the inertia bit?—I’d be on a roll working on an article or a fanfic or a sewing project at home, and suddenly I’d notice the time—or, if I’d been smart and set one, an alarm would go off so I’d notice the time—and I’d have to drop what I was doing and get to the library. Aw, but I was in the middle of this! Maybe if it’s slow at work I’ll write some, there.
But inevitably, once at the library, I would get sucked up into a library project and completely forget about the project I’d been working on at home. If I worked until closing time, my coworkers would get annoyed with me because I would keep doing “just one more thing” when everyone else wanted to close up and go home, until I did have to set a recurring fifteen-minute-warning alarm on my work computer. For the next few minutes I’d feel so antsy, annoyed at closing time for existing when I wasn’t done yet. But I’d go home, and move on again.
At the beginning of lockdown, I reveled in the lack of schedule. It was freedom for my imagination! But then, outside pressures returned. School started back up, and I had to herd a 7th and 5th grader with ADHD onto their Schoology sites and somehow get them to stay there. And I became a digital librarian. Storytimes went online, and eventually we determined pre-recording those stories worked much better than wrestling with Facebook Live. Looking for other ways to offer programming while the library building was closed, my director pitched digital escape rooms—and assigned me to create three, for various age ranges, over the next month. I could still read reviews, browse catalogs, and otherwise manage my wish list of books to order for the collection from home, too.
We needed to return to SCHEDULES. But we could set our own schedule. We could sleep in, the kids wouldn’t start school until 11. How about, I suggested at first, I would do my library work during school time? The three of us would sit at the table with our computers together and focus.
Uh, first of all? There was no focusing for me. I was too busy constantly refocusing my tweens. That, or feeding them. Here’s where the can’t-get-started inertia comes in. I couldn’t focus on my work, because every time I would start, the kids would distract me, and then I’d have to find my train of thought all over again. So by the time they finished their work for the day, mine had not gotten started. So I’d spend as much of the rest of the day on it as I could (interrupted, later, by dinner).
The frustration of not being able to work while the kids were working lent a new sense of urgency to my work the rest of the day. Urgency is good for my prioritizing-deficient brain! I knew exactly what to focus on! And, regarding the other needs-of-focusing referenced in that last link, I was definitely interested in the tasks: sharing stories is my vocation, the thing I love most in all the world! I couldn’t wait to bring stories to people in these new ways! Which ties in the novelty need: these were projects without precedent. As soon as I realized that pre-recording storytimes allowed for editing, I had to record multiple takes, vary my locations, search up quiet repetitive Creative Commons music to run in the background. My director loved those additions, so she got excited: let’s make these storytimes a thing, advertise widely, maybe create some sort of tie-in character as a brand, could I make some sort of cartoon avatar? “Or a puppet?” my inner Jim Henson acolyte put in before I could stop myself. “I didn’t want to speak for you, you’re craftier than me,” she responded. “Do you think you could make a puppet?” “I could totally make a puppet!” I promised, because now I wanted to make a puppet! Who cared that I had no idea exactly when I was going to accomplish all these things!
In short, my online storytime became a much more intricate production than it was originally imagined to be. And I still had the digital escape rooms yet. Those were, as you might expect, even more complex. I had to come up with a variety of puzzles. I had to tie them into themes that preferably would teach some sort of literacy as well. I had to write a framing story for each. I had to find public domain images to use to make the things actually look good. I think my director underestimated the effort I would put in. After I turned in my first one, she had to warn me not to spend TOO much time researching themes…but what was I going to do? Turn in something inaccurate? Something boring and unoriginal? Something that didn’t work right? Once I get started, I have to follow my ideas as far as they’ll go, and I keep getting ideas.
“Keep track of the time you spend working from home,” the assistant director told us in a meeting a month or so ago. “If you find you’re going over your normal hours, we’ll do our best to reimburse you!” But I didn’t keep track, because I hadn’t worked for several weeks before when I was sick, so I figured any time I worked over would just make up for that. Besides, how did I count the bits and pieces that did get accomplished while the kids did schoolwork? How did I keep track of distractions to check email or make food or satisfy family members who wanted me to say something? And how could I be expected to even notice the time when I was so bad at that, anyway?
When I don’t have coworkers yelling at me to go home, why should I stop working at any particular time? Work was the priority: it had deadlines, it had outside expectations, so if I had time to work, that’s what my brain had to be working on—until any particular project was finished. Then I would take the rest of the day to recover. Or unless the weather was beautiful, then I’d have to take advantage and garden. The end result is I know I’ve worked much longer hours than I normally would, just because I don’t have that schedule telling me to stop.
I can’t make myself split various aspects of my life into separate times of day. My inertia won’t let me shift directions without being acted upon by an outside force. So I’ve found myself working, to the neglect of many other things.
And that, Your Honor, is why this is my first GeekMom article in over a month and a half.
5 thoughts on “Inertia and Working From Home”
Thank you for this. So much. I’ve been describing myself as having a problem with inertia for years and only in the past year have I considered that maybe the serious ADHD my dad has might also be found in me. It’s really affirming to hear someone else describe the mindset this way. Thank you.
You’re so welcome! It’s likewise affirming to hear that other people get what I’m saying!
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