Civilization and Wilderness

I was back in high school, aged at most 18. During that period my family lived on the outskirts of the city near the Outlets and there I was, unusually, walking home at night along a side street flanked by a swamp and an overgrown plot of land marked for development for at least five years. In front of me was a mile from any human settlement and behind me, a half-mile-and-a-turn from the main road. For being not that far from the main road where cacophonous traffic jams reigned eternal, the side street was surprisingly quiet, its silence bolstered by the sound of crickets. I say “unusually”, because my house was so far out from anything remotely populated that I’d just be driven home from wherever I was instead, so how I even ended up walking home is beyond me. But as in most dreams, the coherence of the situation is ultimately not the point.

A taxi driver pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. I kept walking. He didn’t let up.

“Your father called me and asked me to take you home.” He replied.

It should have struck me as peculiar, but I didn’t think about it too hard. In some ways this was just like dad. He was always doing things for me whether or not I had wanted it, and knowing that I was walking home, alone and a mile from home? That just might be what he would do. This habit of dad’s was in equal parts endearing and irritating and in that moment, I wasn’t going to complain. It was dinner time. It was cold. It was wet. I didn’t care that the whole shebang made no sense in a hundred different ways. I had  been an excessively lucky and well-loved child. Nothing truly sinister had ever happened to me. I was eager to get into the car, but something stopped me.

“I’ll call him and ask.” I told the driver, fishing for my phone.

“Here.” Getting out of his car, he offered his phone with the number already dialed and ringing. I took it and he leaned against the car next to me. I turned away from him for privacy. My dad called him, so of course he would have dad’s number, I reassured myself. But wait. Glancing at his phone, I saw that it was the wrong number. I knew both of my dad’s cell numbers backwards. This was neither of them.

“That’s not his number,” I told him, giving back his phone and hitting ‘dial’ on mine. “I’ll use my phone.”

“Sorry. That was stupid.” He fumbled for a bit and offered it. “Here you go.”

I don’t know how I didn’t run for my life right then, but I didn’t. My phone started ringing alongside his. With a bit more hesitation I took his phone back. I looked down. It was a different number from before, all right. Just not my dad’s. Worse, my dad was not picking up. My suspicions were confirmed. Of course my dad didn’t call this cab. How would he know where I was in the first place for the driver to be able to find me? I didn’t have the faintest memory of communicating with him beforehand. The jig was up. I had seen through it. If so, why had the driver played along? He could have kidnapped me whenever he wanted, as it now seemed clear he wanted to do; so why this game? How twisted was this man? The jig was up, and the only variable left was whether he knew that I knew it. If I could play dumb there was one-in-a-million chance I could gain an advantage. While I weighed my options, both phones continued to ring. He was humming. The crickets were chirping. The sky darkened even further and the moon disappeared.

Can I run for it? I looked down the side street to my house which stretched into pitch black. One mile in one direction, at least half a mile in another. At this hour, there wouldn’t be any pedestrians who could help me on the main road. And frankly, having seen my share of the bystander effect in action, I wasn’t sure anyone would help me. I ran an eight-and-a-half minute mile- not bad by any means, but not good enough to outrun a car. I didn’t stand a chance. As I was psychologically coming apart, he stopped humming. I couldn’t hear crickets anymore. The silence, aside from the ringing that now sounded demonic, chilled me to the bone.

If I had distrusted him from the beginning and ran for it, what would’ve been different about my current predicament? Nothing. It was the two of us alone in the dark and there was nothing I could have done to make a difference. Our proximity to civilization, the very proximity that made me think I was safe, was surprisingly meaningless. I was in the wilderness. I was the game and he was the predator toying with his prey. Sick images flooded into my mind. What was he going to do? Kill me? Rape me? Sell me into slavery? Panic bubbled in my throat.

I cobbled together a plan even though I couldn’t shake the feeling he knew that I knew. I would pretend to call my dad again, but this time call the cops and threaten him with it. What were the cops going to do? I was here and they were wherever they were. I was just far enough from human settlement that if I screamed no one would hear me. I was screwed. In a split second I had crossed the faint line from perfectly fine to screwed beyond belief. My past life was over even as I stood there, severed from the present moment by an unseen chasm as wide as any canyon. I was just prey without any past and not much of a future. Chances are I will never see my parents again, never go back to my much-despised high school or attend the college I had fought so hard to enter. I was physically outgunned and tactically outplayed in every conceivable way. This plan had a fat chance of working, but I had to take it. I had to read his face. I had to know what he was up to. With a creeping dread, I turned to look at him as if in slow motion.

I never got to see his face. Like so many nightmares, this one ended prematurely. Unlike most, it ended in a particularly strange place: nothing had happened yet. But from experience, I knew that my nightmares tend to end right before the most terrifying event; what are the chances that this one is an exception? What did his face look like that my dream had to end right there? Here am I, an hour after waking up, still wondering.

Bullet Journal: An ADHD Introduction


Why should you care?

You have a bunch of tasks/appointments/ideas in your life/mind (what’s the difference really? They all just end up being thoughts and stressors that float around your brain keeping you from focusing!). You would like to get them organized and even better, be able to temporarily forget about most of them so you can do one thing at a time. See the thing is, unless you know you can refer back to them later, have a place to dump them and process them so they’re still around, your mind will keep trying to remind you about them everywhere you go.

Say you have to do laundry in the afternoon. You wake up? Alright, gotta remember laundry. In a lecture? “… I’m bored. OH LAUNDRY. DON’T FORGET.” On the bus? “What station is- LAUNDRY!” If you relate to this, then I think you’re like the rest of us. If you don’t, well, teach me your secrets. Point is, unless you have a place for stuff like that you won’t feel confident that you’ll actually get to it, and if you don’t feel confident, your brain will nag you. So then you make to-do lists. If you’ve ever tried to get organized, that’s probably the first thing you make. And if that’s enough for you, then you’re on a waaaaay ahead of me and should probably be productivity-blogging for us laymen. If you’re here, it’s probably not everything you hoped it would be. This post is all about the system that claims to, and actually does a decent job at solving this exact problem.

If you’re wondering why I’m putting the cart before the horse and writing this first before you even know what it is, it’s because, that part’s complicated. But this part is simple. And enticing.

What is it?

There’s no better introduction than the creator’s very own, really. So I present to you, his YouTube video: 

And secondly, his website.

I know we have ADHD, so I’ll also do a short summary, to see if I can’t entice you into watching the video:

  • It’s a system to dump all your brain stuff. To-do’s, ideas, movies, schedules, etc.
  • It uses an easy shorthand, called “bullets” to signify what they are. Is it: A task? Random thought? Idea? Movie you want to watch? Appointment?
  • You have monthly and daily logs, where you dump all the relevant info and tasks you might want to associate with the day. Tasks, notes to self, reminders, whatever.
  • You also have a future log where you dump all your appointments.
  • That’s it! Then you can migrate, schedule or delete your tasks as you see fit.

Really, if you’re still interested after this list, please do check out the website. Ryder explains much better than I ever could.

Why this system?

That’s the million dollar question and I’ll summarize it thusly:

  • It’s cheap and easy to implement. I know there are very fancy journals out there, but to use it to achieve your goals, all you need is a notebook and a pen. It’s also simple and customizable.
  • I swear by it. I wouldn’t recommend it if I don’t. I’ve been using it for almost two years now, which is more than I can say for any productivity system I’ve ever used. And if you have ADHD, sticking by a system is probably not your strong suit.
  • It combines a lot of insights from other noted systems such as GTD and many experts (such as the esteemed Cal Newport) I admire use something to this effect.
  • I will go so far as to claim there’s science behind this method. Perhaps I will summarize the relevant results and studies in a separate post if there’s interest.

What are the drawbacks?

No system is perfect, so here are my difficulties with it:

  • As ADHD people, we struggle with routine. Using this system daily or nearly daily, then reviewing on a regular basis, say, a weekly or monthly basis, is crucial to getting the most out of it.
  • If you miss days, it will be obvious. The pages will obviously be blank. Your last entry will be a couple of days ago. It can be demoralizing. And if your ADHD experience is like mine, your whole life was sort of demoralizing at many points. This makes us want to give up. I will make a separate post addressing being demoralized.
  • Depending on the size of your journal, it can be hard to keep with you at all times. But if you use it heavily, it contains a lot of information you might want at your fingertips, such as your daily schedule or task list or brain dump. After all, I just advertised this method as a way to empty our brains so it can be used most efficiently, so it’s sort of a bummer if it’s not there when we need to brain dump. And believe me, I was very tempted to make scatological jokes, but I refrained. Be grateful.

How do I get started without needing to think?

Notebook: Leuchtturm1917 Dotted or the one closest to you

Pen: Any pen you don’t hate.

Fountain Pen (if that’s your thing): Lamy Safari.


1. Turn on Ryder’s video

2. Pen. To paper. Now.


(I’m kidding about the miracle. You know that, right?) GOGOGOGOGO. Life is short. Time flies. Memento mori.

You know what this says? Ya gonna to die one day. Mark my words. It might happen to me, but it’ll definitely happen to you.


Should you still use the system now that you know the drawbacks? If you ask me, the answer is emphatically YES. For people whose medication is only moderately or slightly helpful, having a productivity system you trust can be your lifeline to sanity and escape from constant low grade anxiety. And as to the drawbacks I mentioned, I do not believe that any other productivity system is free from those problems as long as the user has ADHD, and even if the user is neurotypical. Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and all. And it really is outrageous. Come to think of it, has anyone ever told you life is hard? No? Well, then you learned it from me. 😀

Bad Days Happen, and That’s Okay: Part 1

We all have those days. We wake up late and having done that, realize that all our plans are shot. That run at 9 AM? Not going to happen, because it’s now 2 PM. And not only that, we instinctively know that everything that’s supposed to happen after 2 PM is now shot as well, To distract ourselves, we fire up YouTube. We manage to become engrossed and our troubles are temporarily forgotten. Then 10 PM rolls around and we haven’t had dinner. Holy shi*t. HOLY SH*T!! WHY DOES THIS ALWAYS HAPPEN TO ME? Now we’re freaking out from a combination of guilt and probably not having eaten anything all day, and because we’re freaking out and hating ourselves, we’re way too agitated to go to bed. Finally, after roundly freaking out for two hours, we go to McD’s for a quick dinner, surf the web some more, then finally get to sleep at 4 AM. Maybe tomorrow will be better, but considering how today ended, probably not gonna happen. The cycle continues.

Despite this, I posit that we really can salvage what’s left of our day, in spite of how badly it has gone thus far, and that the problem should be tackled both philosophically and pragmatically. In this post, I’m going to tackle the philosophical aspects of salvaging bad days. A lot of these ideas are taken from books I’ve read; I’ll cite them at the end if you want to find out more.

Mindsets for Salvaging Bad Days

You Are Not Your Emotions

Imagine you can read someone’s emotional states. Let’s call him Bob. And your only job is to identify his emotions as they emerge.

”Bob is agitated.”

”Bob is afraid.”

”Bob is pensive.”

”Bob is joyful.”

Rmemeber, you’re just a mind reader. You’re not to act on this knowledge; just name the phenomena as though you’re a scientist. And the cool thing is, you can be Bob, observing Bob! Humans are one of the only animals (maybe the only; don’t quote me) capable of something called metacognition, or thinking about thinking. It’s miraculous the way you calm down after you merely observe yourself. Meditation teacher Jeff Warren has a convenient acronym about exactly how to carry this out:

Recognize your emotions as they happen. “Bob feels angry.”

Accept your feelings. Don’t try to push them away or intensify them. Let them happen to you.

Investigate your feelings. What’s it like? Do you feel it in your body? If so, where and how?

Non-identification: Recognize that your feelings are not you and refrain from judging yourself for feeling- or not feeling something.

In short, RAIN.

One of the dangers of identifying and judging ourselves for our emotions is we enter a vicious cycle. Remember a time when you can’t sleep. Or you’re in pain. “It’s 3 AM. Tomorrow’s going to be awful. I knew it. I tried to sleep so early too! What’s wrong with me? ARGH! Great. Now I’m so stressed, I’m definitely not going to fall asleep in the next hour. Why do I always do this?” This is you using your metacognition for evil. You use your awareness of your emotions to insult yourself and rile yourself up even more. Ok. Maybe not evil. But at least it’s no good. Here’s why not judge your emotions:

“Trying to control the emotional self willingly by manipulative attempts is like trying to choose a number on a thrown die or pushing back the water of the Kamo river upstream. Certainly we end up aggravating our agony and feeling unbearable pain because of our failure in manipulating the emotions.”

– Shoma Morita, M.D. (Found in “The Art of Taking Action” by Gregg Krech)

In other words, you have zero control over your emotions. They’re not your fault. It makes no sense to judge yourself. They’re a force of nature. They happen to you. So how about this? When things go wrong, RAIN. Then RAIN some more, until you’re in this trance-like state of calm. Then you can wake up and get productive again.

Embrace Discomfort. Accept Pain.

The idea that half your day is gone, and that you’re probably somewhat at fault is painful. I know. But don’t let that get to you. Don’t try to escape pain or negative emotions. Don’t go on YouTube. Don’t give up. Feel the pain and do it anyway. This is not just for when times are hard, like today. This is for everyday. But especially for today, here’s a tip. You’re in pain. Let yourself be in pain. Do nothing. Do not pick up your phone or your computer. And don’t ask why bad things happen to good people. That’s none of your business for now. Maybe when you’re feeling scholarly. Simply sit and feel the pain. It goes away faster than you think, if you don’t judge it. Then when the pain has passed, read your schedule and pick up where appropriate.

I like to read. I read voraciously, especially on subjects such as philosophy and self help. A common theme I come across can be summarized thus: Life is suffering. There’s no escape from suffering. Embrace discomfort and face suffering with courage. This is not just a Zen Buddhist mantra; this idea is found in books with titles ranging from “The Science of Self Discipline” to “Deep Work” to “Meditations” (by Marcus Aurelius).

Discipline is never easy. At best, it’s like wearing wet socks over a long period of time. You know it’s unpleasant and you don’t prefer it, but you’re so used to it that you don’t necessarily mind so long as it doesn’t get much worse.

– Peter Hollins, “The Science of Self Discipline”

Yes, discipline is worth having. Pain is worth overcoming. Just don’t expect it to be cakewalk.

We’re Always Going To Have Bad Days

I think this serves as a compelling argument for why we should accept pain: It’s always coming. Now, I’m sure I’ve read a lot of philosophy to this effect, that life is suffering and so forth, but the following way of phrasing things is (probably) uniquely mine. It occurred to me after I had one particular bad day and was complaining on some ADHD chatroom: Bad days are always going to happen. Looking back at my own life, I realized that bad days happen quite regularly, almost like clockwork. I can be sure that once a week, I’m going to have a bad day; it used to be once every three days, but I got it down to once a week. That realization made me laugh out loud. I found it quite absurd how upset I’ve gotten every time it happened. Think about it. Film my life. Put it on fast forward. Add a laugh track and watch the same pattern repeat over and over and over ad nauseam. Something unexpected happens. I have a bad day. I get upset. I rage. I rant. I shake my fist at the heavens, sometimes literally. I don’t get any sleep. The next day is bad. Then the next. Then I get better for a few days. Ad infinitem. Come on. Laugh with me. It’s so predictable! It’s funny! It’s tragic! It’s a tragicomedy!

No matter how perfect our system, how disciplined we get, there’s no way we can prevent them from happening from time to time. Reducing their frequency? Doable. Eliminating them? Hah. As ADHDers we’re not the only one with bad days. Everyone has them. Bad days are a force of nature; they happen to everyone, and they’re going to happen again, mark my words. To everyone. Maybe it happens more often to us, but the principle remains the same. Are we going to have a breakdown over something that is definitely going to happen? If I’m the oracle at Delphi and I tell you that once a week, some random stranger will punch you in the face, how upset are you going to get, really, when it happens? Ok. You might be upset for the first couple of times. But since you know it’s going to happen, the more sensible thing is probably to grit your teeth and think: “Great. Here’s the weekly punch. Crap. This hurts. Well, that’s over. Moving on.”

So when we have bad days, it’s not necessary to think: I’m having a bad day. I failed. Okay. Maybe you did. But who doesn’t fail from time to time? Or maybe you didn’t even fail. Maybe you ate something bad, and subsequently you feel queasy, which makes everyone’s ADHD worse. Maybe having a bad day is a statistical certainty and given enough time, it will happen. It’s our weekly punch in the face. It’s not evidence that no effort you make is working, or that you’re not becoming more productive overall due to your efforts. There’s no reason to take this personally. Does this set back your plans some? Sure. Do earthquakes set back your plans as well? Definitely. So treat it like an earthquake. Not your fault, but you’re still responsible for salvaging what you have left and making the best for it.

Recommended Reading

Here are the books explicitly quoted this post:

”The Art of Taking Action” by Gregg Krech

”The Science of Self Discipline” by Peter Hollins- this is one of my clear favorites. If you read nothing else, read this!

”Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” by Dan Harris (and Jeff Warren)

As for all the books that inspired the ideas in this post, well, there are too many.

In Part 2 we’ll discuss tricks to short circuit the downward spiral caused by our bad days.