Teach kids productivity skills

This is a guest post from James Maher. (That’s his self-portrait, at the top of this post.) He’s a fine art and freelance photographer based in New York City. You can see his photography of New York City on his web site. 

I was on Adderall from my Sophomore year in high school until I was 27. I had significant ADD and lived in a family where everyone had ADD and so it was tough to ever get any peace and quiet or any structure. We had a television in our kitchen, living room and all of the bedrooms and they were always on.

Adderall was a blessing in my life. My grades rose instantly 15-18 percentage points because I started to do my homework and study. It continued into college where I got a mathematics and computer science degree. And Adderral helped me after college, through the gruntwork of starting a photography business in my early 20s.

I would not have been able to do these things without the drug.

However, the best thing that it ever did, was show me what being concentrated was like and helped me figure out ways on my own to stay concentrated. Adderall is great for helping you focus and it’s life-changing for many people, as it was for me during my developmental period.

That being said, Adderall should not be taken lightly. With the exception of a small percentage of people, I don’t think it’s a drug that should be taken throughout the course of a person’s life, especially in large doses. I became emotional, moody and stressed (and I’m one of the most relaxed people you’ll ever meet). It would keep me up half the night and then I would need it even more to offset the lack of sleep. Lack of adequate sleep is much more of a factor towards a person’s ADD symptoms than anything else.

I’m off it completely now, and while I have my moments, I think I am more concentrated than most people. This is not because I am cured but because I now know what being focused is like, and I am able to take steps to put myself in the best position to be this way. I get enough sleep, I eat regularly and healthy, I have many tricks to keep myself focused such as keeping daily task lists and blocking every distracting site on my work computer (and I work at home with no boss so I need these tricks desperately).

On this note, Adderall is great for adolescents with ADD problems, but targeted behavioral therapy could easily fix the ADD problem for a majority of these children (not the severe ones of course). We can’t just give these kids these pills and let them on their way. We need to teach them about creating focus and productivity and the factors that are important for those mental states. It’s amazing to me that there are not high school or even junior high classes based entirely on the issue of productivity.

If I had been taught these skills so much earlier in my life instead of needing to seek them out on my own, after college, my early life could have taken a much different course.


13 replies
  1. Adrian
    Adrian says:

    Great post James! Check this out:
    According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), although stimulant medications are an effective first-line treatment for ADHD, “concern persists regarding the possible side effects and long-term health outcomes associated with stimulant consumption.”
    As parents and educators search for options and alternatives, groundbreaking research is showing the effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation technique, a non-drug approach to ADHD.

  2. christy
    christy says:

    Thanks, James for your story. Thanks to Penelope as well for using her platform to distribute it.

    I’m one of those who has ADD, but was never medicated. I’m an Xer, so it wasn’t in vogue, but I also saw what happened to classmates who were on the early edge of the drugged generation. I didn’t like it.

    I have the fortune/misfortune of also being too intelligent for my own good (as is typical), and in this case I managed to use that power for good and not evil. :)

    I discovered – through long processes of trial and error – coping mechanisms that allowed me to be productive. They mostly worked and I am modestly successful as an adult.

    I still have difficult-to-do-anything-that-can-be-deemed-as-productive days, and I’m still trying to learn to have grace for myself on those days. In fact, I’ve been working hard the past few years to change my means of earning a living so that when I have one of those days (because they are relatively rare), I can give myself permission to go with it.

    So long as such days don’t increase in frequency, I think this is a reasonable approach to letting my inner chaos breathe now and again.

    Anyway, thanks again for giving air to this. I appreciate it.

  3. karelys.
    karelys. says:

    I like what you said about the drug showing you what focused is like.

    I am always weary of drugs. The side effects are too expensive for the bit of relief they provide.

    But it made me think that I can gain from it the ability to see what relax feels like and try to find it myself. One of the big issues I’ve had for all my teens and my 20s (I’m 24) is that I don’t know what being at peace is like. I am always onto doing something else something else. Mostly becuase I don’t know what it’s like to not be worried, not be in a hurry, not be stressed out.

    I can’t “calm down” becuase I don’t know how calm or unstressed feels like so I don’t know how to get there.

  4. Marie
    Marie says:

    Thanks for a great post, James. You are so spot on here. I’ve struggled with attention and focus all my life. My mother actually took me out of school in the first grade and taught me at home because I was constantly getting in trouble for talking in class and being generally unfocused. I vividly remember my mother teaching me phonics while I did cartwheels on our couch. ;) I was home schooled until I graduated high school and it worked out well for me, though I still always felt like I was struggling with productivity.

    A few years ago I was really struggling at work and got put on a performance plan for letting things slip through the cracks and not performing to my manager’s expectations (I later realized this was bad management and not my fault, but that’s a story for another day). I felt paralyzed by procrastination and distraction, and I went to my doctor in desperation and asked if I could get tested for ADHD and if she could prescribe me Adderall or something else to help me focus.

    She immediately dismissed the idea of prescribing me medication and had a stern talk with me. “You don’t want to have an ADHD diagnosis on your medical record,” she chided. “Not only that, you seem like a very capable person to me and it appears you are living a relatively successful life as you currently are. It’s not as though you are about to lose your job and have trouble accomplishing day-to-day tasks. Try behavioral therapy instead and see how it works.”

    I am so thankful she gave me that advice. I’m still far from perfect and struggle with attention every day, but I’ve made many positive changes to my life that have helped immensely. Regular exercise has been a big one, along with eating healthfully and avoiding multitasking. I also listen to guided imagery, which helps calm me down and relax enough to focus my energy. I’m a freelancer now and my clients always comment about how on top of things I am. I do a good job of fooling them. I still have those down periods where I waste hours on stupid things, but I would so much rather have those highs and lows than be on prescription medication with all the side effects.

  5. James M
    James M says:

    Thanks Adrian, Christy, Karelys! Yeah the side effects of Adderall really suck.

    Christy I have that same problem with off days. What I have found though is that those days aren’t random. There’s usually underlying factors that make you feel this way. For me, physical exhaustion or lack of sleep is a main culprit. But mostly I feel this way when I have something hanging over my head that I really don’t want to do. I just get paralyzed from doing anything, even the things I want to do. For me at least, the best way to combat this is to pick the thing that I least want to do during the day, shut off everything else and just get it done as fast as possible. It’s hard and I’m not great at it by any means, but the times I’ve been able to do this have made that unfocused and lethargic feeling go away, almost instantly.

    Karelys I’d be really interested to hear how that works for you. It’s a very interesting thought.

    • christy
      christy says:

      James, that’s an intriguing idea … that there’s an underlying cause to the off days. Next time one comes around, I will be mindful of that and perhaps sort out where it comes from. If I can do that, perhaps I can manage it better too.


  6. James M
    James M says:

    Marie that’s really interesting and it’s refreshing to hear that you got that advice! I wish I knew more about the behavioral therapy to be honest. None of my psychiatrists ever told me about that.

  7. Phil
    Phil says:

    For children I would recommend Attachment-based therapy rather than behavioral therapy.
    which is in my experience best explained by Dr Gordon Neufeld, in Vancouver, BC. http://www.gordonneufeld.com
    Stimulants work, Adderall being one, but as you say, they aren’t needed forever as you leave school and can begin to control you environment and choose your activities.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    James, good post about your personal experience with Adderall and your ability to use it on a temporary basis. You mention “targeted behavioral therapy” for children. Unfortunately, I think the medical community views ADD as a chronic condition. A chronic condition is easier and less expensive to treat with drug therapy. It’s a short term business/economic decision on our health that ultimately costs society more in the long term. Ideally, medications are available when you need them and there are no side effects. Of course, at present that’s a fantasy world. But I will say that the trend is improving which is a good thing.
    I got a kick out of reading – “It’s amazing to me that there are not high school or even junior high classes based entirely on the issue of productivity.” – on a homeschool blog. I wonder the same thing for a lot of other knowledge areas that could be included in high school.
    Also, back to behavioral therapy, your journey from ADD in high school to now makes me think you were able to “make it happen” by using guided imagery. Guided imagery has many uses including relaxation and increased focus.

    • James M
      James M says:

      If that’s true Mark then it’s unfortunate. I forget the percentages but if I recall correctly I believe that symptoms get better with age for a majority of people with ADD.

      Also, there is a thing called Pseudo-ADD, which is ADD caused by societal factors. I remember reading that the average attention span used to be 8 minutes because that was the average amount of time in between commercials. Now, with the internet it’s gotta be a lot less than that. You think back 100 years with no computers or television. There was so much less distraction that I’d assume that most people with ADD would probably be able to function much easier in society.

  9. redrock
    redrock says:

    I realize that ADD is very different from being distracted once in a while, but I am beginning to wonder, whether we are expecting too much focus. Nobody can be focused and on top of their game all the time, this is not how our brain actually works. Having off days is normal, and I find they are very important for creativity. If I always focus my brain on tasks and to do lists and and and… creativity falls by the wayside. I might get a lot done, but I rarely have the great ideas.

  10. James M
    James M says:

    Completely agree redrock. I actually enjoy my ADD and wouldn’t want to not have it. I think it helps significantly with my creativity and seeing the big picture. ADD helps me connect two unrelated ideas in very unique ways – which is the basis of creativity.

    Also, off days are normal for everyone, but they can be particularly tough for people with bad ADD. It can be tough to get anything done at all.

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