“That’s a lot of books, you must like to read,” a stranger said to me while we waited for the bus, pointing to the couple of books I was holding. “I’m a librarian, reading’s a big part of me, I suppose,” I replied lightheartedly.
Little did this person know that I had actually been struggling immensely to get through any sort of reading, as I was in the middle of a new cycle of un-focus (or a “S.P.I.N. cycle,” as one doctor puts it), part of my ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This cycle sometimes threatens my performance and roadblocks my attention and productivity in such an information- and distraction-saturated profession and world, and this current instance prompted a new, desperate search for ways that will help find my focus.
Two years ago, I learned I have this condition (as I refuse to think of it as a disorder).. Being so used to constant busyness, from college (where I held four jobs while taking up to eight classes a semester and managing student clubs) to the beginnings of library school (where I’ve worked seven days a week between three jobs in three cities), my constant movement masked anything suspect… until the pandemic halted everything. Without the confines of an (over)work schedule, I found myself with more time on my hands, revealing troubles with my thinking, reading, and work processes. At the time, I realized I was going to my library job and my head spun for hours without an ability to focus. As I read for my library program courses, I found myself either zoning out, entirely distracted and fidgety, or reaching the end of a page and realizing my memory hadn’t absorbed a single thing. Yet, other times I could hyper-focus, like when I studied for the bar exam or when just last summer I barreled through 3 books in 4 days. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem until a mentor suggested getting an ADHD examination.
When the examiner diagnosed me, I was a bit dumbstruck and questioned a lot. I was 29, had finished law school and passed the bar.I completed rigorous academic programs in college, and I seemingly never exhibited the hyperactive ADHD tendencies. I made it through all of that. How was I going to get through this now? And if I can’t even remember, let alone make it through, an article, could I even be a productive librarian? Will I have to re-learn how to learn again, as I did for college and law school?
After intense reorganization, retrospection, and medication, my life, habits, and quirks – from childhood to present – all came into a new perspective. While I achieved a lot, the struggles with learning and focus were there all along: low self-confidence and being too hard on myself were there all along; the poor working memory and the consistent fidgeting and pacing were there all along; my sense of time (or lack thereof) and random spurts of hyper focus were there all along; the persistent, uncontrolled mind-racing and impulsivity were there all along. It became very clear that this was not something new and, given how easily it can interact with my anxiety and depression, it became a new priority to manage in both my personal and professional lives. To start, I found a few meager Reddit threads about ADHD and librarianship but nothing so specific as to give me concrete actions outside the standard “keep to-do lists,” “use a bullet journal,” and “make a routine,” all of which don’t work for me. I found some solace in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (albeit not specifically about ADHD), which encouraged me to better understand some of my distractions, and I learned more about how to present the condition to colleagues from a LinkedIn Learning course.
In this current cycle, I took to the internet again to see if any librarians had written in-depth about this before and, if so, what actions they found helpful in the workplace. Given our library work environments, having endless amounts of information and technology for exploring and learning (or for distracting), in-person and online patron questions, and the endless shifting from one project, reference question, or emergency to the next, it seemed ripe for discussion. But, with the internet surprisingly lacking any insights, I decided I needed to simply overhaul my status quo, try my own changes, and share what worked – if not for other librarians with ADHD, but also for the supportive colleagues, who might not fully understand the condition, and for our neurodiverse students who we can better connect with and teach when they’re facing similar obstacles. Here are some of my current solutions; but, for my librarian colleagues, whether neurodiverse or not, how do you find your focus?
Set intentions and checkpoints towards them. While this might easily take the shape of a “to-do” list for some, I’ve tried to broaden it to a more intentional mindset. This isn’t simply a list of chores or tasks, but an organized roadmap encompassing bigger visions, project pipelines, and actions. Not only has this structure helped me make progress with smaller tasks, but it also helps inhibit my impulsive behavior, which can include starting too many projects and getting bored before finishing any of them.
Make an organized office or workspace. Space is notoriously limited in San Francisco. So, I’ve adopted an overall minimalistic approach to “stuff.” But, as an added bonus, it has made me act more deliberately about what items are around me and how they’re organized, providing fewer distractions, fewer moments spent looking for things, and creating a more welcoming, relaxed space for stressed students to visit. I’ve moved my desk, added lamps, and removed binders, article printouts, and other clutter. Similarly, while I have multiple computer monitors and they’re helpful in certain situations, turning some of them off provides me with more incentive to just keep and focus on one open window at a time.
Finding technology that works with you. I toyed with PC and Android software like Evernote, Notion, Confluence, and OneNote to help organize my thoughts as I read and research. Given that memory is a pain-point, keeping better annotations about my thoughts helps me connect more personally to my reading and stimulates my memory, though this also takes more time to finish reading. Being quite analog, I’m typically a fan of good Tombow pens and some paper, but in minimizing my office “stuff” and removing binders of papers from my office, I wanted some technology that kept it all together out of sight. I found that Zotero’s Version 6.0 finally offers everything I need to mark-up articles, write annotations, and create reports of my notes and thoughts.
Mind your distractions. Not being active on many social media outlets has certainly helped remove doom-scrolling and click-bait headlines from being distractors, and most of my phone notifications are turned off. Music with lyrics, sudden noises, and even innocent interruptions can make my focusing difficult. So, I’ve made signs for my office door so that, when it’s shut, others know when I might be in focus-mode or when it’s totally ok to knock and come in. Similarly, having adopted a one-day work-from-home schedule allows me to stay put and get right to the workday, instead of coming into the office with a commute’s worth of stress and distractions. This reminded me of my difficulties in grade school, where transitioning through the traditional eight-period day inhibited my ability to settle and focus on class.
Communicate your needs with colleagues. This should be important regardless of ADHD, but as I’ve learned what helps me function best in meetings and projects, communicating those needs to the team has helped overcome obstacles. For example, asking for agendas or slideshows ahead of time and asking for breaks built into long meetings helps me know what to expect from the appointment, keep me on track, and control when my mind shifts gears; and, asking to have a zoom meeting with cameras off can allow me to fidget without being a distraction to others. Among other accommodations, these can also be collaborative, creative compromises that benefit others on the team.
Be patient with yourself. Obviously, finding your focus may be neither easy, nor quick. When things aren’t working as they had or should be, it can be easy to relapse into a funk. Sometimes, simply taking a ten to fifteen-minute meditation, where I rock in my office chair and let my mind purposely wander, can give my attention span the space it needs to let loose for a moment, before coming back into focus. Other times, you may need to overhaul systems that just aren’t working any more. In either case, giving yourself some time to recalibrate can pay dividends later.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.