Systems Aren’t Scary

On this Halloween and the last day of ADHD Awareness Month, I’m here to make a case for systems, structure, and routines.

CW: suicide, death, trauma

Last week, on a slightly less scary version of Twitter, I shared a post about the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. I recognize that many would shelve it under “business-bro” and pro-productivity late-stage capitalism propaganda. And, it was recommended by one of my recovery meeting leaders, the honest to God antithesis of that shelf. A kind, wise soul in long-term recovery who teaches mindfulness and who rings a bell for us after a particularly courageous share.

cover of Atomic Habits book by James Clear

My meeting leader had shared this line from AH: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

Before I go forward here, a disclaimer. I’m going to write today about ADHD. I’m going to write about it from the experience of someone who’s lived with it her whole life and who was diagnosed later in life. I’m going to write about it as someone who studied, practiced, and taught mind, brain, and education science for fifteen years before that diagnosis. And, all that said, I’m one person. ADHDers are not a monolith.

Anyhoo, I loved that line from Clear, and I trust my meeting leader, so I started the book. Yeah, there’s stuff in there that I can filter out, and, the point about focusing on systems over goals landed for me. I can hold space for both.

Some conversations bubbled up in my tweets, though, from folks who seemed to argue that the book and its ideas are trash, and that any discussion of goals and time management, routines and structures? Also trash. Honestly, I stuffed it for a few days. It’s the constant, relentless casual ableism for me, you know?

This weekend, it bubbled up again after I spent some time re-organizing my Google Calendar. I added structure to it. I built in strong, clear routines. I realized that having my G-Cal hidden in one of many tabs on my computer was a huge problem for me because of my object impermanence (for many with ADHD, if we don’t see it, it doesn’t exist). I set up a tablet next to my desktop with my G-Cal open. That I’m able to write this piece at all is a testament to how it’s already working to keep me on track with my Monday schedule.

As I put all these strategies in place over the weekend, I felt a huge weight lifting off of me. Instead of my brain trying to do this heavy lifting of moving me through my day, I can lean on the system that I’ve created. Such a relief. And as that relief washed over me, I thought again of the folks who were critical of the AH book. I thought again about some concerns I’ve had over the past few years about Ungrading.

Which brings me here. A little less ranty than I was feeling yesterday, and a little more clear about my goal here: to educate folks about ADHD, especially folks whose job it is to teach their fellow humans.

Tough Stuff

I want to pause here to reiterate a content warning about some heavy stuff related to life outcomes for those with untreated ADHD. If you aren’t up to processing that today, take a rain check and take care of yourself.

I get the sense through my daily interactions with people that most neurotypical people and a lot of undiagnosed (whether by self or others) ADHDers perceive ADHD as this thing where it’s tough for you to pay attention sometimes. And hey, you think, I have a tough time with that too. Eye roll, perhaps. What’s the big deal?

Untreated ADHD is a life-threatening condition.

two people sit together against a cloudy night sky

Here are some statistics from the book ADHD 2.0 by doctors, authors, and fellow ADHDers Ned Hallowell and Jon Ratey. I’ve also woven in statistics from Russell Barkley, an ADHD researcher. Again, these statistics are based around untreated and unsupported ADHD. Treatment and support are available.

Untreated ADHD results in:

  • A significant decrease in life expectancy of up to 21 years, more than the top 5 killers in the U.S. combined.
  • A greater risk of accidental death and suicide including suicidal ideation and attempted and completed suicide.
  • A greater risk of motor vehicle accidents.
  • A greater risk of self-inflicted injuries.
  • Decreased participation in preventative health activities such as going to the dentist and receiving appropriate dental care.
  • Being 5–10x more likely to experience a substance addiction

There’s more, but I’ll end there for brevity’s sake. You get the idea, I hope. Untreated ADHD is a life-threatening condition. This is not about the time that you couldn’t find your debit card and had to order a new one, cause geez, what an inconvenience, but really, again, what’s the big deal? ADHD is much bigger and more complex. While ADHDers are beautiful, bright, charismatic, fun, kind humans with a multitude of strengths to offer our world, the struggle of living with this condition is immense. Immense. Ignorance of its realities pours salt on the wound.

The Glitchy Switch

A quick brain science lesson that might help folks understand the why behind all those tough outcomes. Why do ADHDers face higher rates of all the bad stuff and lower rates of the protective factors that could prevent bad stuff?

Current research is zoning in on the relationship between two networks in the brain.

The first is the DMN or Default Mode Network. These parts of the brain are connected to reflection, daydreaming, and rumination. Cool. So far, so good. Nothing wrong with a little daydreaming, right?

The second network at play in ADHD is the TPN or Task Positive Network. These parts of the brain activate when we are focused on something. It’s what lets us write articles, read books, have a conversation with a loved one or colleague, or purchase tickets to a concert. Also cool.

In the brains of neurotypical (NT) folks, generally speaking, these networks coexist quite nicely, taking turns throughout the day. Time to write that article? The TPN steps up. Taking a break? Time for the DMN to take over. In the NT brain, there is a cohesiveness between these two systems.

light switch on white wall

Here’s where things get interesting. Research into the brains of people with ADHD has shown that our DMNs and TPNs are a bit like two toddlers fighting over a toy. MINE. NO MINE. For a neurotypical, when the TPN activates (when they focus on something), the DMN deactivates. They stop ruminating and daydreaming so they can complete a task, whether that task is related to work, family, or play. But in the brains of ADHDers, that doesn’t happen. The DMN remains active at the same time as the TPN.

In other words, when our brains try to shift into focus mode, they also continue to ruminate and daydream. Speaking of toddlers, have you ever had the experience of your kid grabbing onto your leg as you walked away? When our TPN turns on, the DMN hangs on. Go ahead, it says to the TPN. Drag me. See if I care. I’m not going anywhere. It’s like trying to swim across a pool with a bucket tied to our waist dragging behind us.

In short, our brains struggle to focus because of an internal distraction, a persistently active Default Mode Network. Hallowell and Ratey have coined the term “The Glitchy Switch” to explain the relationship between the DMN and TPN in the brains of folks with ADHD.

Why the Glitchy Switch Hurts

Here’s the thing about my brain, and why knee-jerk negative reactions to anything arguing for systems, structures, and routines sucks:

If it weren’t for systems, structures, and routines, I would be dead.

I would eat cereal or pasta for three meals a day, if I remembered to eat.

I would stay up too late doing God only knows what, and I’d be constantly sleep-deprived, flaring my chronic illness and opening me up to a host of other physical ailments.

I wouldn’t clean my home or do my laundry. I would live in a state of chaos.

I would lose my jobs and livelihood.

My personal relationships would disintegrate.

I would not spend time doing anything joyful or playful. I would have no creative practice.

My personal hygiene would suffer. I would forget to brush my teeth and shower.

I would stop making and attending dentist and doctor’s appointments.

Pretty quickly, anxiety and depression would show up to the party, joined by their friend shame. That would inevitably be followed by self-medicating, probably via alcohol. My nearly six years of sobriety would be gone baby gone.

Your neurotypical brain can move you through your day because it has internal systems built-in that work pretty well most of the time. Of course you have off days, but again, most of the time, those internal systems work well.

My ADHD brain works differently. Because the DMN is constantly active and because of other ADHD-related differences, I need external systems, routines, and nudges to help me do anything, whether it be work, rest, or play. This is not about being a good little capitalist worker bee. I need these support systems TO LIVE.

What Loving Systems Look Like

Of course systems can be crappy. Of course toxic rigor exists. Of course you can use a routine to do harm to yourself or others.

And, the systems and routines that I have put in place to live and thrive with ADHD aren’t that.

I spend a lot of time planning. I have to externalize the steps in a process, and I can’t do this in my head. I have to write things down. I have to write everything down. Seeing it outside of my head provides additional structures that my brain can’t provide on its own. As I mentioned before, I rely heavily on Google Calendar and have recently gotten better at using Google Tasks. Again, this is not just about work or production. Those systems also help me to shower, eat, move my body, spend time with my family, rest, play, create, and take care of myself and others in countless ways.

I need to know when things are happening. I need deadlines. I need lists. I need timers. I need all of the external structures, and I am still constantly distracted, constantly struggling, and constantly frustrated with limitations. Without them, well…

Setting goals, building systems, using deadlines, and relying on external structures are not ableist strategies (though they can be). They’re not toxic (though they can be). These strategies are not capitalism’s minions (though they can be). For many people, they are a matter of life and death.

Supporting All Learners

I don’t know what it’s like to be neurotypical. I imagine that the level of structure that I have built into my daily life would feel restrictive for some NT folks. I mean, it feels restrictive for me. And, it’s the medicine that I need to take to be well. If you don’t want or need these systems, don’t use them.

Many ADHDers need more structure, not less. We need more deadlines, not less. Those deadlines, of course, can be no-stakes or low-stakes. They can coexist with fun and support. They can be self-determined! They can be built into a supportive educator-student relationship and classroom community where learners know that deadlines are there to help, not to harm, and that if they are missed, that’s an opportunity for more support, not less. For example, extended deadlines without additional supports can actually work against ADHDers. They need help “landing the plane.”

I worry about Ungrading approaches, and, it gives me hope that there’s such a powerful grassroots effort to reimagine some of the fundamental aspects of formal education. Both are true. I worry that there’s not enough structure in some Ungrading classrooms for our ADHD learners. I also know that structure and openness can coexist. The latter can be built atop the former.

I was thinking this weekend about how in my formal education career, I’ve dropped out twice. The first time was an undergrad religion course. The professor wrote “God” and “Dog” on the chalkboard the first day of class, and then lectured for the rest of the day and for every class after. No students spoke in class. Ever. The final grade was based on two assignments: a mid-term paper and a final paper, with 50% assigned to each. No instructions were given for what these papers could be about or how they’d be graded. I guess we were supposed to write about gods and dogs? I didn’t stick around long enough to figure it out. I withdrew from the class, the only “W” on my undergrad transcript.

The second one still stings. I enrolled in a doctoral program to study educational leadership. I flew through the coursework, loved it, and did well. I thrived within the high structure of the courses with clear expectations and deadlines. I started the doctoral thesis portion of the program in 2011. I dropped out a year later. There was very little structure and way too much flexibility. I circled the drain. It was an awful feeling, and it still hurts me to think that I missed out on this life goal because I didn’t have the support systems in place to meet my needs. There’s no doubt in my mind I would’ve completed that doctorate if I had been taught how to build systems and routines, if I’d had more loving deadlines, and if I’d had a better balance between flexibility and structure from my institution and advisor.

I hope folks will take this to heart and recognize that these ignorant takes on systems and time management are actually really ableist. I hope that you’ll sit with my take on the ADHD experience and also learn from many more ADHDers who will likely have a mix of similar experiences and vastly different takes. I hope that you will reflect on how you might be building your pedagogy around your brain, instead of the brains of all of your learners, and start to get more curious about how systems, structure, and routines might help many of your learners succeed and make the world a better place.

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Karen Costa

I write about higher education. Here for my work through 100 Faculty, LLC, supporting faculty, staff, and student success.