Has this gotten worse since my brain injuries? Well, duh! My mind wanders, I get easily distracted, but most of all, I get easily overwhelmed…a feeling to which I usually respond by putting EVERYTHING off. “It’s too much, I’ll come back to this later…”
Why do you think it took eleven years to get my memoir completed? That was WAAAAY too much to deal with, so I just kept putting it off.
The other day I started thinking about ways I could help people recovering from their own brain injuries and the many after-effects, and it dawned on me that somewhere I had my handouts from my stress management group in the TIRR Challenge Program.
That is a wonderful program that gets people ready to go back to school or work after a brain injury. It gets you back in the habit of going somewhere all day, having a schedule and things to do, and most beneficial of all: interacting with people. I had stress management, meditation, and I believe anger management groups, as well as physical and occupational therapy. I benefitted immensely from the program, made progress quickly, and was soon ready to return to college.
However, I know not everyone is lucky enough to live near a place like TIRR that has such a program. Hell, not even everyone in Texas will be lucky enough to get into the TIRR Challenge Program. DARS won’t pay for you to participate in the program (on the “returning to school” route) unless you have a “traumatic brain injury,” which they define as a brain injury which happened externally. Well pardon the hell out of me for not getting hit in the head by a 2x4, but it was PRETTY DAMN TRAUMATIC when my brain was attacked from the INSIDE!!!
This is something I address in my book which frustrated me, and something I vowed to change when I heard about that stupid rule and definition, but that’s a post for another day.
Since not everyone who’s dealing with the repercussions of a brain injury (“traumatic” or otherwise) will be able to benefit from a program like TIRR Challenge, I thought I would devote a couple posts to sharing some of the notes I saved from my groups.
These notes come from a handout with advice for compensating for attentional difficulties at home and work:
1. Use a “white noise” or environmental sound machine to mask outside sounds.
I don’t know about you, but my go-to homework CDs in high school were Eric Clapton Unplugged, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra, and I still use them when I need something to soothe my thoughts and chill me out, or some good “background music.” I don’t know if your “white noise” will consist of acoustic versions of Layla and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out (my favorites), but find what works for you.
2. Use a private office or room in the house to complete tasks that take a high degree of concentration. This helps cut down on noise and distractions. If you can’t find a private space in your house (like many of you parents), they recommend going to the library to complete important tasks such as paying bills or meal planning.
3. Keep your workspaces at home and work clutter-free. Clutter is visually distracting. Everything should have a place and BE IN its proper place. The only things out should be tasks in progress. They also recommend that only one or two tasks should be in progress at any time. And be sure things are put away at the end of a work day or at-home work session.
HAH!! If you could see my desk right now you’d be laughing at my advice, especially considering I’m someone for whom clutter is very stressful! Since we’ve moved, all the paperwork needing to be filed, shredded, or otherwise dealt with has landed on my desk. I keep saying “I’ll do it eventually,” and eventually has to come sometime, right? Maybe tomorrow…
All I know is, for the first time in five years of living together, Scott’s desk actually looks cleaner than mine.
4. Create routines. They create less demand on memory, making it less likely you’ll forget important things because you were distracted by the dog with the fluffy tail. Pay your bills at the same time every month, do your grocery shopping the same time every week, return phone calls, exercise, and pick up the house at the same time every day, etc. Even spending quality time with the family can be “scheduled” to a certain extent with a routine.
Okay, so that’s the positive side of routines. Then there’s the part where routines put anyone watching you at the advantage. Until I have kids who need routines, I enjoy keeping potential stalkers guessing. Staying in most of the time and coming and going at random hours gives me the advantage over bad guys and snatchers. Also, going most places with my husband helps…he’d kill anyone trying to grab or hurt me.
It’s probably a good thing I can’t watch my “crime stories” anymore (a.k.a. “Murder Porn”) …except for what Netflix has to offer…
5. Plan uninterrupted “work time” – a time where no intrusions are allowed by coworkers or family members. YOU must enforce this. Close your door and let others know they are not to disturb you.
For me, this was always my “meditation time.” Nothing negates the peaceful serenity that meditation brings you like your mom opening the door, letting the cat in, and SEVERELY PISSING YOU OFF! So, I started putting a note on my closed door while I meditated, warning that even knocking could likely get you killed if you interrupted my attempts at tranquility. Try me again later when I’m calm…er.
6. Divide large tasks into smaller tasks and steps, that way you only have to maintain attention long enough to complete smaller subtasks.
This helps me when I’m cleaning. If I divide it into bathrooms, the kitchen and living area, and the bedroom, it seems easier to handle and I can divide it over a couple days. Although, one thing I love about our new, smaller apartment is that it’s possible to clean this whole sucker in one day…with breaks in between, of course.
7. Make daily lists of prioritized tasks. Put the list somewhere you are likely to see it throughout the day, and refer to it often. This way you can be sure you are attending to the most important things. If you find you’ve gotten distracted by a less crucial task, you can return your attention to something more crucial after referring to your list.
I don’t do this nearly often enough, and when I do, the list is often on my phone, where I don’t see it enough to remind me of things.
8. Carry a small notepad or tape recorder with you and use it to record thoughts you have that need to be attended to later. This way, you can finish what you’re working on, but know you’ll remember what else you thought of later. Take only enough time away from your current task to create a reminder message, then return to what you were doing.
This is where the “Notes” app on my iPhone helps me out. If I think of something I need at the store or have a random idea I want to remember later, I jot it down in a note. I’ve been walking around for years with an idea for a present for Jaena in a note, just trying to find the best way to make it! No, Jaena, I will not tell you what it is!
9. Take frequent but brief breaks to improve concentration. Take a quick walk around the block or the house to energize yourself before returning to your task.
10. Try to focus your attention on only one important task at a time. If you must do two things at the same time, make sure at least one of those activities requires little cognitive energy or sustained concentration.
HAH! Multitasking was for Past Jessica.
11. Use a timer to keep track of items started that need to be attended at a later time (for instance, moving clothes from the washer to the dryer, putting something in the oven that needs to be taken out later, putting a large job in the Xerox machine that needs to be removed in 10 minutes, etc.). They recommend getting a cheap digital timer with a clip, so you can carry it around with you. Forgive them…this was before iPhones. Just use the timer on your phone.
12. Shift your work hours at the office or “work” hours at home in order to increase distraction-free time. For example, go into work early before anyone else gets there who could interrupt you, or take care of your work before your children or spouse get home.
13. Use foam earplugs, or use earphones with soft soothing music (like light classical…no vocals, as they tend to be distracting). This can help screen out distracting sounds.
14. Face your desk away from the door or line of traffic at home or work. Create a workspace that is as far away from well-trafficked areas as possible.
15. Work reduced hours until your cognitive stamina is improved. Delegate tasks to others at home or work, so you can focus on what is most important.
There’s no shame in admitting you can no longer handle what you could before. 11 years after my brain injuries, the most school I can handle at one time is three classes, and that’s with Scott talking me down from anxiety attacks at least once or twice in the semester. That being said, I often only do two at a time.
If all else fails, and you’ve had a frustrating, distraction-filled day at the office, home, or everywhere, I recommend meditation. I bought the CD that we used in the meditation group at TIRR Challenge. Led by a Scottish Buddhist named Bodhipaksa, it’s hard not to be soothed by his lovely accent. “Bodhi,” so you know, means “enlightenment,” and “paksa,” (with a dot under the s, so it’s a “sh” sound) means “wings,” so his name means “Wings of Enlightenment.” He says he was given the name when he joined the Triratna Buddhist Order. The CD I use (all of his are available on iTunes, and I highly recommend them) is by Bodhipaksa, and called “Guided Meditations: For Calmness, Awareness, and Love. It’s great for beginners.
Just take my advice, and warn your husband, or whomever you’re living with, that you’re meditating, so this scene doesn’t play out in your house:
- Husband finds wife sitting in the dark, with headphones in.
- “Babe, are you ok?”
- Wife gives thumbs up.
- “Babe…what are you doing?”
- Wife waves him off with her hand, desperately trying not to break the calmness she’s developing.
- “I’M MEDITATING!!! GO AWAY!!”
- Husband walks off with feelings hurt, wondering why Wife is so friggin’ weird.
OH LOOK, A SQUIRREL!!!