Book insight: FAST MINDS

FAST MINDS is a great book for people with ADHD/ADD that does not pathologize our diverse brains. The authors write:

Having FAST MINDS traits can mean there is a mismatch between the way the brain works and the demands of life. It’s a way of thinking and being that makes it harder to function in today’s world.

The is the single most pragmatic and actionable ADHD book I’ve read in the past few years. I found a lot of it extremely useful. Some of the tips I’d already implemented over the years, but even then they usually had good input. If you need to skip science and theory for now and start making changes in your life to make it more workable, start here.

It’s also got helpful information for partners and family members of people with ADD/ADHD or FAST MINDS (they’re used interchangeably in the book).

If you’re wondering what FAST MINDS stands for, here’s the list from the book, slightly abbreviated:

FORGETFUL: Do you forget what people have told you? Do you forget where you put things? Do you need reminders for every day things?

ACHIEVING BELOW POTENTIAL:Do you feel you should be getting better grades than you do at school, or should have made it further than you have in your career?

STUCK IN A RUT: Do you feel like you’re trapped trying to keep your head above water, playing catch-up instead of living how you want to?

TIME CHALLENGED: Do you often underestimate the amount of time that things take? Do you have trouble figuring out how long a task is “supposed” to take?

MOTIVATIONALLY CHALLENGED: Do you do things at the last minute or need the pressure of a deadline to get things done? Do you have a hard time getting started on tasks? Do you get partway done with many tasks but have trouble completing them?

IMPULSIVE: Do you do things without anticipating consequences (making decisions, shopping, driving, sex, drugs)? Do you blurt things out in conversation? Do you engage in risky sexual behavior? Do you make purchases without considering the cost or your budget?

NOVELTY SEEKING: Do you seek out new, stimulating experiences to avert boredom? Do you say yes to new obligations when you are already too busy?

DISTRACTIBLE: Do sights, sounds, thoughts, or lower-priority activities distract you from what you should be doing? Do you find yourself daydreaming on a daily basis?

SCATTERED: Are things messy in your personal space? Is there chaos on your desk, in your house, or in your car? Is it hard to stay on top of what you need to do, and when you need to do it?
The way their brain operates

A disorder of maintaining engagement

Many authors of ADD books have redefined the name of the disorder because it fits so poorly. These authors do a particularly good and interesting job with their redefinition:

As anyone who has ADHD—or interacts with someone who has it—knows, the name of the condition doesn’t fit well. It’s not that people with FAST MINDS can’t pay attention. They can spend hours playing video games or being incredibly successful at things they do well. But everyday tasks are often tripping hazards—the drive to work, laundry, time sheets, term papers, even simple conversations. We prefer to think of ADHD not as an attention disorder, but as a problem maintaining consistent engagement.

(Note: all the block quotes in this article are from FAST MINDS.)

A plan to thrive with ADHD

Because they love acronyms (and I have to say that after reading this book I started to as well — at least their acronyms), they made a handy system of steps based on the letters ADHD:

AWARE: Be aware of your emotions, behavior, and habits as the first step in changing them.

DECIDE: Choose your own priorities and figure out the steps you need to get there.

HELP: Provide yourself with tools that meet your needs and people who “get” you.

DESIGN: Build a life with structure and accountability that will help you thrive.

I love the way this book focuses on all the details of building a life that helps you thrive. There’s some look at brain structure and very little about causes. They acknowledge that medication can help, but without structure and communication, it’s not going to help that much.

You can go all the way through this book without feeling like there’s something significantly wrong with you. There are one or two books that are more empowering, but those are also less pragmatic.

The book is jam packed with things to try. Below I’m listing many of the tactics that I’ve found most helpful, but this is hardly a complete list of what they recommend. They  wisely suggest:

Build a personal set of strategies. Solutions must bubble up from personal experiences and creativity. They have to work organically, not because someone else says they should.

That’s so true! The only way I’ve figured out what really works for me is to try a whole bunch of stuff and see what really delivers results for me. FAST MINDS is a great place to start because there are so many techniques to try in this book, but don’t get discouraged if some of them don’t work for you.

Here are some neat places to start …

What can you do when more than half of your distractions are coming from inside your own head?

What can you do when more than half of your distractions are coming from inside your own head?

Capture popcorn thoughts

This comes from their section about managing internal distractions. They separate out external and internal because it’s useful to know that your thoughts can be as distracting (or more) than a noisy restaurant environment. If you have a lot of random thoughts, try their technique:

When a random thought pops into your head, quickly make a note of it and then get back to what you were doing. That way, you won’t need to take up any mental space remembering it, but you also won’t get distracted for too long.

I left myself a cautionary note in my eReader that many of these popcorn thoughts that feel like great ideas for things to do actually turn out to be impulsive and should not be done. It is very possible for me to look at my list of thoughts and ideas and completely overwhelm myself. If you are recording thoughts that crop up, don’t later make the fact that they’re written down give them more importance than they deserve. Just because I wrote down a great idea for an X-Files-style mystery novel doesn’t mean that it fits with what I write and that I should pursue it.

Peripheral brains

If you are not good at something—memory, managing time, planning transitions—the good news is that you can “outsource” aspects of these tasks. … Perhaps because of self-esteem issues, people with FAST MINDS sometimes feel guilty or bad about themselves when they need an assist from someone or something else to be organized. If they stopped to look around, they’d realize that everyone’s mail piles up on the dining room table if they don’t have an effective system for dealing with it, or that most couples divide household chores to play to their strengths and preferences.
We like to call these external supports peripheral brains. Many types of peripheral brains can help improve executive functions. Peripheral brains can be systems or other people who help balance your weaknesses.

First, I adore my peripheral brains. I started making them a few years ago and each year and I slough off more of the (ridiculous) shame around mental health issues, I make more of them! (Also, dear co-workers, you are by far my most intricate and helpful peripheral brain.)

You have to come up with the peripheral brains you’ll use, not the ones you think your should have or that ones that embody some ideal you’re supposed to live up to. An example of a bad peripheral brain for me: every intricate time management system I have every tried to implement. An example of a good peripheral brain for me: my top priorities for the day on a post-it note.

A great way to find some peripheral brains for yourself is to look at books and websites about organizing solutions. Also think of the people who are very empowering in your life and consider asking for more of their support. I have a short list of people I can talk to before I make a decision so they can double-check my thinking and stop me if I’m going to over-commit.

Spend your time and energy creating good systems that require minimal steps and keep you ahead of crises. We also appreciate that people with FAST MINDS traits may need to regularly reinvent their systems to keep each one interesting.

They have a list for what makes a good system, basically:

  1. Easy to use and simple
  2. Plays to your strengths
  3. Includes built-in reason you’ll stick to it.

My own list for workable systems is:

  1. It’s in my face/unavoidable when I need it to be
  2. It’s fun, playful or lighthearted
  3. It’s so easy I can use it even when I feel extremely foggy

The more I can offload to my peripheral brains, the less stress I feel and the more creative space I have.

Emotions and impulsivity

I love that this is one of the books that’s up to date on the role of emotional dysregulation in ADHD:

 … at least half of all children and adults with ADHD have weaker control over their emotions.Those they studied were quick to anger and got easily upset or excited.”

They also do a great job of linking emotions and impulsivity, noting how the two can fuel each other:

When we talk with people with FAST MINDS about how their days go, we often hear about an internal struggle to stick with one thing at a time in the face of distracting alternatives. People talk about heading for the fridge to put the milk away, only to see something else on the counter that should go in a cupboard and start to put that away, but then see their cell phone and remember a phone call they have to make. They may have to work hard to remember and complete their first intention of putting the milk away. The same pattern often rules on the desktops of people with impulsive traits—they have multiple browsers open, leave e-mails partially written, and abandon other items midtask. Their workflow is scattered with impulsive choices.

Trying to stay on track and control impulses is exhausting and can lead into even more emotional dysregulation, particularly frustration. This is why planning and having strong peripheral brains is so key.

Critical moments

A critical moment is the moment before you might make a bad choice.

Me? Make bad choices? Nevah!!

Kidding. I used to have a schedule more than half full of bad choices. Because …

Some people with FAST MINDS are also too quick to say yes to something new or shiny—and accumulate a to-do list that exceeds human capacity.

Plus with the struggles we have with emotions that include excitement, and with impulsivity, it’s super easy to get excited about a huge project and say yes, only to realize there’s no way you’ve got space in your schedule for it.

They recommend that we identify critical moments — like right before you’re going to commit to anything new that will require your energy and attention — and make it super easy to have better habits and stronger choices in those moments. Also they say, “The people around you may recognize those moments better than you do, so enlist their help.”

I cannot recommend this enough. Granted, you need someone who cares about you and generally gives decent advice, and who you trust.

Here’s how it works in my life now:

  1. I get an amazing idea! Or I’m invited to do a Cool New Thing. This is the Best Thing Ever! I’m super excited and want to do it right away.
  2. I go to someone I trust and describe what I’m thinking about doing.
  3. 90% of the time, they say “don’t do it.”
  4. I say either “I’m going to need more information about why not” or “but here’s why I think I should.”
  5. We have a conversation about the pros and cons.
  6. 90% of the time I realize they’re right and about 10% of the time the conversation uncovers more information or gives me a tweak to the idea so that I say yes, but usually to something different than what was asked.

Result: I am a much calmer, healthier person. Plus I don’t have to back out of things as often, which I’m sure is less annoying to the people around me.

Take control of your environment

They don’t just do the obvious: earplugs or music. They also include smells and textures. That last can include wearing comfortable clothing when you want to focus and having textures or objects to manipulate if you’re feeling restless.

The hyperawareness of the sensory environment that is common among people with ADHD suggests that their brains have trouble filtering the importance of the sensations everyone takes in—trouble telling the foreground from the background. … This same hyperawareness of surroundings can also be an advantage at least some of the time. People with ADHD may notice more of what is going on around them, from things they see in passing on the street to what a co-worker is working on. A salesperson may make a connection with a client by noticing the kinds of photos on their wall; a parent may find a teachable moment when passing a construction site. This heads-up way of going through the world can make someone a great explorer, and in some people it seems to contribute to a broad knowledge of their environments and the world.

(P.S. Hyperawareness of your sensory environment can be a great gift for a writer or artist.)

Because we have this hyperawareness, anything we can do to have more control over our external and internal environment is beneficial. They include a ton of suggestions, which I’m not going to repeat here because some of you should run out and buy this book!

Planning and working memory

People with ADHD or FAST MINDS traits often have problems with attention and working memory but rarely with long-term memory.

That means I know some cool stuff, but I can’t always manipulate it in my mind the way I want to. Working memory is how many things you can hold in your mind at the same time. FAST MINDS have trouble with their working memory, which means we often forget what we were doing or about to do. That can make work feel extra difficult.

The book includes a lot of great tips about creating structures that make it so that you aren’t hampered by a porous working memory (one that easily drops and adds things), such as: “Breaking down action items into steps you can do in a reasonable space of time and focus on. Remember that it is easier to engage in something that can be easily held in mind.”

Much like using peripheral brains, learning how to plan and work with a porous working memory relieves a ton of stress and makes work much more fun. This can include:

  • Setting aside dedicated time to plan
  • Not planning too much or too strictly, as the authors point out: “many people with FAST MINDS find they are more productive if they allow themselves periods of flexible time where they can choose among their to-do list priorities.”
  • Writing down project steps in smaller increments than you think you need (my smallest increment is “find and open the document”)
  • If you’re about to take a break, writing a quick note to yourself about what you were going to do next when you get back
How much planning time do I need to make sense of all of this? More than you think. Good planning can take a few hours a week. You'll know it's working because you'll feel happier and less panicky.

How much planning time do I need to make sense of all of this? More than you think. Good planning can take a few hours a week. You’ll know it’s working because you’ll feel happier and less panicky.

Practice social skills but spend more time with people who get you and love you

Many people with ADHD tell us that in larger social groups, they find the Ping-Pong of conversations impossible to follow, making it hard to know when to speak. … They may be deep and thoughtful yet unable to handle the small talk at parties. They may seem committed to you one minute and out the door the next. They may be intense when you want peace; talkative when you crave silence. They can be impassioned and also quite irritable.

It’s invaluable to learn how to translate yourself for neurotypical people. (I want to say SLOW MINDS here, but I don’t have a good acronym worked out.) It can feel like learning to speak another language.

But don’t spend all your time translating and adapting. Find people who love the way your brain works:

It’s truly a relief to have some people around whom you can drop your guard—people who will overlook the FAST MINDS habits of not filtering comments, going for the emotionally intense topic, or seeming restless.

Here are some of their strategies for productive communication:

  • Imagine you are in a CNN interview. Speak in sound bites: two to three sentences and stop.
  • Try listening more than talking—make a game out of it, if that helps.
  • Before speaking, check whether what you are about to say is truly a reply to their last comment or to a tangential idea.
  • Write down what you want to say to make it more concrete.
  • Match their level of emotional and personal content.
  • Set a mutual agenda for the conversation from the outset.

My enhancement to that would be that if you’re in an open setting like a party, match the level of emotional and personal content of the other speaker for a few minutes and then move to where you’re more comfortable (probably a greater intensity level) and see if they’ll come with you. If they don’t, find another conversation partner. You don’t need to stay stuck with people make it even harder for you to stay engaged and attentive.

What now?

Find, create and build a world where you thrive and are valued and loved. I’ll leave you with an anecdote from the book:

Carlo went through his whole childhood and early adulthood wondering why he was such an oddball. He seemed wired faster than everyone else, talked with his hands, couldn’t sit still, showed all his emotions. Like his father, he worked from the minute he woke up in the morning until his head hit the pillow at night.

Then, a few years ago, Carlo decided to visit the tiny Italian village—“population: negative three”—where his father had been born and raised. The first day was a revelation. Instead of being an oddball in this town, he found that everyone he met was just like him.

“I realized there are thousands of me. It was wild. It was unbelievable,” he says.

The trip made him realize how much his “weirdness” was just about context. In straitlaced North America, he is unusual, labeled with a disorder. But if he lived in his ancestral home in Sicily, he’d be an oddball if he weren’t the way he is.

The trip has made him think differently about his ADHD: “A disorder? Sure. A defect? No.”