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The Trouble with Transitions: Task Switching and ADHD

It's the first in our series on transitions and we're taking on a plague of ADHD: Task Switching. The worst part? You might not even know you struggle with it!

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Changing gears is hard with ADHD. Moving from one thing to the next can feel like a chore and the range of emotions is wide. Distracted by too many options and moving too quickly? Stuck in hyperfocus and angry or frustrated that you’re being shocked into a transition too soon? That’s the point today. Moving from one state to the next, one activity to the next, is enough to throw the world into disarray. But this is the world we live in. So how can we learn to adapt?

Dr. Thomas Brown has some terrific insights when it comes to this subject and we talk about his work a bit as a framing device: Activation, Focus, and Effort. These are the three executive functions that help us understand why our transition skills might be lacking, and giving ourselves a bit more care and feeding in these areas can pay big dividends.

Pete does mention his love of big clocks that set themselves. He has La Crosse Technology Atomic Clocks all over his house.

From planning to setting the right expectations, if you have trouble with transitions, this show is for you.


Episode Transcript

Brought to you by The ADHD Podcast Community on Patreon

Pete Wright: Hello, everybody. And welcome to Taking Control: The ADHD podcast on TruStory FM. I’m Pete Wright and right over there is Nikki Kinzer.

Nikki Kinzer: Hello, everyone. Hello, Pete.

Pete Wright: Hi.

Nikki Kinzer: Hi.

Pete Wright: You feeling okay?

Nikki Kinzer: I’m feeling a little tired, but I’m standing up on my standing up desk. That’s good because I-

Pete Wright: I am the opposite because I am sitting on my wobbly stool, but also you can’t see this. I don’t know if you can. No, you can’t. I got a rug in-

Nikki Kinzer: Oh.

Pete Wright: … my office because it’s just been hard woods. I’ve had no floor covering-

Nikki Kinzer: Oh.

Pete Wright: … since we repainted and brought in the couch and everything. And it’s a disaster. It’s just super echoy and all this. And so now I got a rug. But the downside of the rug is it’s lovely and plush and it makes my office now cozy.

Nikki Kinzer: Cozy?

Pete Wright: And I do not use that word lightly.

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: Cozy is incredibly dangerous for a guy like me, because I don’t know if you know this, but we’ve known each other a long time. You might not know this about me. I’m a snuggler. I got a cozy blanket-

Nikki Kinzer: So cozy, yeah.

Pete Wright: … and a cozy rug and some good pillows and I snuggle right down-

Nikki Kinzer: And you’re going to sleep probably?

Pete Wright: … into hibernation. Yeah. Yeah. So it is really lovely in here now and also snuggle city.

Pete Wright: We’re not talking about that today. We’re talking about task switching and this is a perennial favorite beehive for me to poke. And so I’m glad we’re bringing this up. This is a good transition for us into our next theme. And so that’s-

Nikki Kinzer: So [inaudible 00:01:43] transition.

Pete Wright: I know. No, my goodness.

Nikki Kinzer: This is a transition into our series of transitions.

Pete Wright: I see what you did there.

Nikki Kinzer: Thank you.

Pete Wright: Okay. Before we do that, head over to takecontroladhd.com and get to know us a little bit better. You can listen to the show right there on the website or subscribe to the mailing list. We’ll send you an email each time a new episode is released. You can connect with us on Twitter or Facebook @takecontroladhd.

Pete Wright: And have I mentioned the membership program over at patreon.com/theadhdpodcast? Allow me to expand. If you have been touched by this show ever, then you need to check it out, patreon.com/theadhdpodcast. This show is subsidized by our members. They are subsidizing it for everybody to download and listen to this show around the world. And we could not be more grateful to them. In fact, we are so grateful that we’re only four, I think, members away from launching our new podcast. Four. That was our big goal when we hit-

Nikki Kinzer: Wow.

Pete Wright: … the next-

Nikki Kinzer: Four?

Pete Wright: When we get four or five, five more members, we were going to release a new Pete podcast. Oh, my goodness. And so, I’m pretty excited.

Nikki Kinzer: But the Pete podcast is only for Patreons?

Pete Wright: That’s right.

Nikki Kinzer: So that’s-

Pete Wright: It’s only for Patreons.

Nikki Kinzer: … a very important benefit of being-

Pete Wright: That’s it.

Nikki Kinzer: … part of our community.

Pete Wright: So if you’ve been holding on, if you’ve been thinking, "Yeah, one day, I’ll get to it." If you’ve been struggling to transition to this task, now would be a great time to do it. If you want to help launch this new members on the podcast, it would be effectively just for you. And we would really appreciate that. And I know our other members who are already members, would really appreciate that.

Pete Wright: So thank you everybody who has supported already. We deeply appreciate it. Learn more about the other fantastic perks at patreon.com/theadhdpodcast.

Nikki Kinzer: So the topic today is Task Switching with ADHD and it is going to be the first of a new series for us around transitions. And I thought this is a good time to be talking about this because we are going into fall. A lot of us are going back to school or some of us are going back into the workplace, actual buildings now and not just working from home. So there’s a lot of stuff going on in September and October.

Pete Wright: A lot of change.

Nikki Kinzer: Yeah, a lot of change. But this isn’t just for those changes. Task switching is also for … I’m going to do one podcast and I’m going to take a little break and then I’m going to go do another one. It can be difficult to make that transition. What do you think?

Pete Wright: Well, especially topical transitions. My brain has inertia. It has momentum and it is very difficult for me to be on one track and not have a break between one track and having to switch tracks and think about something conceptually different.

Pete Wright: So conceptual change is really hard but, for me, the even harder one is state change. And I’ve talked about my struggles with sleep before, and a lot of that is transitioning from sleep to wake and from wake to sleep, getting to sleep.

Nikki Kinzer: Oh, right.

Pete Wright: And if I wake up for some reason in the middle of the night, it’s because my brain’s on another track and it’s really hard for me to get back into a mode of sleep without some rather exhaustive accommodation.

Pete Wright: So I think this is a great conversation because it is so important to broaden our understanding of what it means to change gears.

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: And that’s a big deal I know, for me. I take it-

Nikki Kinzer: Absolutely.

Pete Wright: … very personally.

Nikki Kinzer: Yes. Yes. Well, and I think it’s also important to understand how your ADHD directly impacts your ability to shift gears. I mean, we know it does, but it also might be helpful to understand why.

Nikki Kinzer: And so I did a little bit of research. I put my scientist hat on, my doctor-

Pete Wright: [crosstalk 00:05:42].

Nikki Kinzer: … research hat on, and there’s three executive functions that are explained by Dr. Thomas Brown. No, there’s actually a whole set of executive functions, but there’s three in particular that have something to do with the ability to shift gears. That first one is activation. So activation is the ability for you to organize tasks and materials, estimate time and get started.

Pete Wright: Okay. Yeah. Right.

Nikki Kinzer: So-

Pete Wright: That’s right in the strike zone for me.

Nikki Kinzer: Right there, especially estimating time. Well, all of it. Organizing the tasks that you were working on, figuring out how long it’s going to take you and then, if you’re avoiding anything, it’s going to really be hard to get started. But focus is the other executive function, which is finding, sustaining and shifting attention as needed. I mean, that’s definitely right there, that’s shifting gears.

Pete Wright: Focus and the peril of hyper-focus.

Nikki Kinzer: Right, right.

Pete Wright: Either shifting gears too much or not being able to shift gears at all.

Nikki Kinzer: Yes. And we’ll talk about hyper-focus in just a second. And then effort: regulating alertness, sustaining motivation and processing speed. So those were the three that I found that really directly impact that shifting gears and being able to transition, like you said, either from one state to another or project A to project B, whatever it might be.

Pete Wright: Well, and enormous danger, a big red flag, when you’re talking about activation. And I know I’m not alone because I’ve had these conversations with our community members in the activation space. When you’re trying to get started, there is such ripe, fertile ground for distraction. As soon as you talk about estimating time, I’m, "Oh, maybe I need a new time estimation tool. I should start-

Nikki Kinzer: [crosstalk 00:07:32] it’s-

Pete Wright: … looking at new apps." Or "Maybe today’s the day I started investigating this new paper that is useful for taking notes." Those kinds of things, they’re non-trivial-

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: … in being able to do something. And I deal with it every single day.

Nikki Kinzer: Yes. How often do you deal with hyper-focus?

Pete Wright: It’s less rare than it was. Wait a minute. Did I say that? It’s rarer than it used to be? I feel when I’m dealing with hyper-focus, it’s usually as a result of letting other systems fall apart. When I’m on my best behavior and I have all my alarms and I’m being tapped by my watch and it’s telling me when to change gears, then I’m, generally, able to remain fluid. But by the end of the day, by three/four o’clock, that becomes less reliable.

Pete Wright: And so that’s when I end up in the zone of I’m working on a task and my brain is telling me, "You’ve just found your flow. You’re in the zone now." But really what it is, is I don’t know how to change gears anymore because I’m tired.

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: My brain’s tired. I’m not doing my best work. I’m just going through dinner. I’m agitated. When people tell me, "Hey, dinner’s ready. You got to come in now," I’m angry, I’m frustrated. And all of that, I think, is a result of ineffective task switching when I am fatigued.

Nikki Kinzer: Right, yeah.

Pete Wright: And it allows me to be more susceptible to falling into hyper-focus.

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: Does that make sense?

Nikki Kinzer: It does. And it’s a really great awareness on your part to know that that’s what’s happening. So because-

Pete Wright: Well. It was funny because as I started talking and I said, "It’s rarer than it used to be," I realized I am right now lying to myself. It happens almost every day that I have this feeling.

Nikki Kinzer: Every day in the afternoon.

Pete Wright: Yeah. Right. Yeah.

Nikki Kinzer: Yeah. But that’s really good though. I mean, I think that that’s where self-awareness really becomes important in how you manage your ADHD or how you manage your hyper-focus because you know that the afternoons are going to be like that, you’re going to be more tired and you’re going to be … You can plan a little bit better then when you know that about yourself.

Pete Wright: Sure.

Nikki Kinzer: So I think that’s good.

Nikki Kinzer: So hyper-focus can definitely be a time where it’s particularly difficult to switch tasks. And so just to be clear, hyper-focus, it is a symptom of ADHD. It’s the ability to focus intensely on an interesting project or activity for hours at a time. So it could be video games, it could be Netflix. Whoever invented, "The next episode starts in 10 seconds."

Pete Wright: [inaudible 00:10:31].

Nikki Kinzer: Who is that person?

Pete Wright: That’s … I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s worth celebrating them or reviling them.

Nikki Kinzer: I know. I know.

Pete Wright: They are there as brilliant as the guy who invented the diagram that tells you which way to put batteries in things-

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: … and as frustrating as the person who invented telemarketing. You know what I mean?

Nikki Kinzer: Exactly. Yeah.

Nikki Kinzer: Yeah. It is. It’s so true. But that’s definitely going to not help us. Social media, for sure. You could think that you’re just going to be on there for a couple of minutes and then an hour goes by.

Nikki Kinzer: There’s a lot of different things that you can hyper-focus on, but not even just fun things, but it can also be when you are in that good flow that we’ve talked about before and you’re working really well and you just don’t want to stop that.

Nikki Kinzer: But what happens, and you mentioned this a little bit, when you go into hyper-focus mode, the time blindness is going to be stronger. You’re going to be more blind because time goes by really fast. And so you may forget to eat, you may forget to go to the bathroom. You may forget an appointment or decide that it’s not important anymore and just bail on it. The world, it stops around you for those moments in time.

Pete Wright: Right.

Nikki Kinzer: And it can be frustrating. It can be frustrating for the person that’s in it. It can be frustrating for the people that are waiting for that person or relying on them for something. Family can be irritating to family. You’re irritated that it’s time for dinner, but your wife might be irritated that you’re not there.

Pete Wright: Right. Oh, totally. And it’s every day, it’s a surprise.

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: Every day at dinnertime, it’s a surprise that dinner is here. This is super eye-opening.

Nikki Kinzer: Right, right. Ooh. I’m going to give you lots of self-awareness in this episode.

Pete Wright: That’s exactly where we are.

Nikki Kinzer: So I don’t want to talk about focus or hyper-focus without giving you a few tips of maybe how to help you with hyper-focus. And you know what, Pete, you already did one of the tips without me even having to write it down here. And that’s that knowing what your patterns are of energy. So you know that if you’re really tired, you’re going to be more having that tendency to be in hyper-focus, it’s going to be easier for you.

Nikki Kinzer: So I think having that self-awareness is a great thing to have, but also identifying what things you, typically, hyper-focus on. So if you know there’s a particular thing like TV, a certain video game or a certain project that you could go into this hyper-focus mode, identify that and avoid those activities before you’re going to bed or if you’re avoiding a task.

Nikki Kinzer: So the reason I think it’s so important to identify what these things are before you go to bed is because sleep is such an issue for so many ADHD-ers, and one of the reasons that sleep is so difficult is because you’re getting stuck into watching the other show, one more show.

Pete Wright: Sure.

Nikki Kinzer: You’re getting stuck into watching … Or not watching, but scrolling down social media thinking you’re going to go to bed, but then an hour later you’re still going through it. So I think just really being aware that maybe these aren’t the best activities to do before bed.

Nikki Kinzer: But then also avoiding a task. This is a recipe for procrastination at its finest.

Pete Wright: Talk more about that. What do you mean? If I’m avoiding, what task? Or if I’m in task avoidance mode, you’re saying that’s a recipe for hyper-focus on something else? Because if you’re not, you should because that’s still … I just described myself. Okay.

Nikki Kinzer: Well, right, right.

Pete Wright: Okay.

Nikki Kinzer: Because what is the ADHD mind want to do? It wants to be engaged and-

Pete Wright: Yeah, right.

Nikki Kinzer: … wants to have a high level of dopamine. Well, if you are doing something that you enjoy, which is part of why we get into hyper-focus, then it is going to be easier to avoid what you’re needing to do.

Pete Wright: Sure.

Nikki Kinzer: So, I think, again, it goes back to self-awareness. How important is the task that you’re avoiding? What is it? How really putting it into a context that makes sense to you to see maybe it is okay that you don’t do it, but then maybe it’s not. So it’s just really being more aware of what you’re doing and what is the consequence of that, if there is one?

Nikki Kinzer: One of the things that I tell people, too, especially around bedtime and TV, is set boundaries for yourself. So use alarms, use timers if you need to, to keep you aware of the time. I always ask people, "How many clocks do you have in your house? Are they analog clocks?" If you don’t have a clock in every room, I suggest you get one.

Pete Wright: Every room.

Nikki Kinzer: Every room should have a clock because the time blindness isn’t going to go away. It’s very easy to ignore it when there’s not a clock in front of you. So at least-

Pete Wright: Well,-

Nikki Kinzer: … you’re one step closer.

Pete Wright: Totally. And I would add, get clocks that they’re, I think, marginally more expensive than a regular wall clock, but you can get these clocks that have a little satellite, not satellite, but a little radio in them that are pinging us time service. So you don’t have to change the time when daylight savings changes.

Nikki Kinzer: Oh, that’s nice.

Pete Wright: It’s really nice. And if you start stocking your walls with those clocks, then all you have to do is notice when the battery runs out-

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: … and it’ll set itself again once it picks up that signal. We have a couple of them throughout the house and it is such a relief to take that tiny, stupid thing off my list of things to think about every season, is to have a clock that sets itself.

Nikki Kinzer: Right. Yeah. That’s really good. I didn’t know that that existed.

Nikki Kinzer: Okay. So then there’s this other thing you can do around setting a boundary, and this does take a little bit of self discipline, so take it or leave it. If you have some rule that you set for yourself with what is the time limit of when you’re going to start a new show? So if you’re watching a half hour show and you want to watch the next one but you want to be in bed by, let’s say, 10:15, you don’t want to start a show, that half hour show, any later than 9:45 or, actually, probably really, 9:30, right?

Pete Wright: Right.

Nikki Kinzer: Because then it would go from 9:30 to 10 and then you would have some time to go and get ready for bed. If you start that show at 10, then you’re not going to bed at 10:30 and you’re probably not really falling asleep until 10:45, maybe even 11. So it’s actually just really setting a rule of what is the time limit or timeframe of when I can start a show and when I can’t. And it’s a rule that’s for you. And I know that that’s sometimes hard because we don’t want to feel we have to do something or … But it is for you. And it can really help if you’re trying to have more of a bedtime routine.

Pete Wright: We try. And I think, for me, I have the added benefit of a partner that doesn’t have ADHD. And so when we sit down, we pick a show, we have a show, we’ll put it on the iPad, we’ll watch an episode of a show. And she’s usually the one who says, "Okay. That was it. We watched that. And now we’re going to turn it off."

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: So there’s no scrolling. We don’t have a TV in the bedroom and a lot of that is so that we don’t have the remote where we can just-

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: … watch whatever comes next of whatever show, because I think that’s too engaging. The challenge on the flip side of that is we do often want to know what happens next. So that’s a conditioning thing that I know I take for granted when she’s there, being more conservative about what’s next.

Nikki Kinzer: But do you, when you do that, do you just figure out what’s next and then after 10 minutes of it, you stop? Or do you find yourself … Do you continue to watch?

Pete Wright: Oh, I have to watch the end.

Nikki Kinzer: You watch the end?

Pete Wright: If we start another episode, we will be finishing-

Nikki Kinzer: You’re going to watch the end?

Pete Wright: … the episode. Hugely important.

Nikki Kinzer: So you see, sometimes I can actually just figure out what happened and then I can shut it down, but I can see how it would be easy not to do that.

Pete Wright: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a special muscle you have.

Nikki Kinzer: It is.

Pete Wright: I want to say that.

Nikki Kinzer: Yeah. Super power, I guess.

Nikki Kinzer: All right. So I have a couple of other tips that I want to talk about that are outside of just hyper-focus, and that’s just making task shifting easier during the day or whenever you need to do these things.

Nikki Kinzer: The first one is to plan your day. So we want to be really intentional of when you do certain tasks, for how long, and when you’re going to be doing them? Set timers to keep you on track because we want to have those clocks because the time blindness is not going to go away. So we want to have a little bit more intention on planning our day.

Nikki Kinzer: And the second tip I have is adding buffer time around these transitions. So it’s really important that you’re not overbooking yourself and that you leave some time in between tasks. And what do you think you should do in between tasks, Pete?

Pete Wright: I think we should expect to prepare for the next task.

Nikki Kinzer: Prepare? In what way?

Pete Wright: Well, okay. For example, I use this service Calendly. Calendly, a lot of people use Calendly. It allows people to schedule time on your calendar. I think you use Calendly, too, right?

Nikki Kinzer: Yes, I do.

Pete Wright: Don’t you use Calendly?

Nikki Kinzer: Yeah.

Pete Wright: So we’re all Calendly fans. And one of the things that I have adopted in Calendly is I do not … All of my default … I change all the default appointment lengths and I subtract five to 10 minutes off of the default. So you cannot book an appointment with me for 30 minutes. It’s 25 minutes because I know that at the end of 25 minutes, I’m going to have to switch gears to get into-

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: … whatever comes next. If somebody’s booking something at 10:30, I need from 10:25 to 10:30 to get ready. You can’t book an hour with me. It’s 50 minutes. I need that 10 minutes after an hour appointment to change to whatever is next.

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: And so that’s how … I think that goes into both planning your day and planning for transitions, right?

Nikki Kinzer: Right. And having that bumper time.

Pete Wright: Is that what you’re going for?

Nikki Kinzer: For sure.

Pete Wright: That’s an example.

Nikki Kinzer: And you did it today because I was ready to do this podcast earlier than what we planned. And I just said, "Hey, whenever you’re ready." And you’re, "Wait a minute. We have this top of the hour.

Pete Wright: I can’t do that.

Nikki Kinzer: Just got done with a show. I need some minutes." So you know yourself very, very well. If we walk away from anything on this show, Pete is very self-aware.

Pete Wright: Oh. It only took 48 years.

Nikki Kinzer: For you to do that, yeah.

Nikki Kinzer: But, yes, absolutely. That’s a great example of putting in that buffer time and getting ready for the next thing.

Nikki Kinzer: But I also want to just add that sometimes it can help if you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed to take some time in between the tasks just recenter yourself. So go outside, take five deep breaths before moving onto the next activity. Just even one deep breath can make a difference because it just keeps you centered. So definitely want to be looking for those things that will help you feel more calm going into the next task.

Pete Wright: Right. Right.

Nikki Kinzer: All right. So I’m going to put my coach hat on.

Pete Wright: Oh good. So this is my favorite part of the show.

Nikki Kinzer: Right? So in closing, I have a few questions to our listeners.

Pete Wright: Okay.

Nikki Kinzer: We know, as we have said, transitions are hard. Did we say that? We said that transitions are hard?

Pete Wright: Oh, I think that point has been made.

Nikki Kinzer: Okay. Good. I want to just make sure we understand that. But what I want our listeners to do is I hope that they can take something tangible, a real thing here, and practice it. So I’ve got a few questions for you.

Pete Wright: Okay.

Nikki Kinzer: What activities, listener, whoever’s listening, what activities do you, typically, have a hard time, either transitioning to or from? So if you’re driving in your car or you’re listening to this while you’re doing housework or whatever, think about what are the activities that are hard for you to transition? So now that we’ve identified that, what do we do with that? I’m going to get to that in a second.

Nikki Kinzer: I also want you to think about what are the activities where you may hyper-focus?

Pete Wright: Okay.

Nikki Kinzer: Identify what those things are.

Nikki Kinzer: And then I want you to be thinking about what have you done in the past to help you transition?

Nikki Kinzer: So transitions are hard, but we all have been doing them. We all have practice. We all have experience in transitioning. So we want to think about what works? What makes a smooth transition? And, Pete, you said, "Giving yourself even just that five minutes can make a difference." So we want to be thinking about that.

Nikki Kinzer: And then with all of these things that you’re identifying, what are you willing to try after hearing this podcast? So we have given you some strategies, some thoughts, some tips. What are you willing to try? And focus on that this week. Practice one of these things that you learned today, and I would love to hear about it. I would love to know how this worked for you. If you needed to tweak it or if you found something that we didn’t talk about, whatever it might be? But that’s my ask of the day.

Pete Wright: I like it. Jump into, either the Patreon conversation if you want to reply to the post in Patreon on the show. Or if you are a member, jump into Discord. If you’re not a member, jump into Discord, too, into the ADHD community channel and let us know what you are doing.

Pete Wright: I think, for me, the biggest and hardest lesson to learn was that of creating stronger boundaries around my time because once I realized I have a problem, once I was no longer in denial that I have a problem with transitions, then I was able to say, "Okay. I have to assert myself in a way that I have never done before." And that is extraordinarily difficult when you have expectations coming at you from partners, from kids, from teammates, team members, managers that expect you to do certain things at certain times, and to be able to say, "I can’t do that to the best of my ability without setting up some constraints, is really hard."

Pete Wright: So when you ask, "What would I be willing to try after this podcast?" I think that would be lesson number one, for me, is focus on the areas. I’m speaking personally here, where my boundaries have got flimsy.

Nikki Kinzer: Right.

Pete Wright: And really document those and think, "What can I do to make those stronger?" And I think we should continue this conversation because I know I’m going to have more to report on next week.

Nikki Kinzer: Great. Yeah. Let’s do that.

Pete Wright: Nice. Hey.

Nikki Kinzer: All right.

Pete Wright: Thanks, Nikki.

Nikki Kinzer: Thank you.

Pete Wright: Fancy.

Nikki Kinzer: Thank you everybody for listening.

Pete Wright: Thank you so much. We sure appreciate you downloading and listening to this show. Thank you for your time and your attention. And don’t forget if you have something to contribute to the conversation, head over to the ShowTalk channel in the Discord server and you can join us right there by becoming a supporting member at the deluxe level.

Pete Wright: On behalf of Nikki Kinzer, I’m Pete Wright. We’ll see you right back here next week on Taking Control: The ADHD podcast.

Through Taking Control: The ADHD Podcast, Nikki Kinzer and Pete Wright strive to help listeners with support, life management strategies, and time and technology tips, dedicated to anyone looking to take control of their lives in the face ADHD.