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From Distracted to Decided

What do you value?


Consider the following story, which may already be familiar:

An expert was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, he used a demonstration those students never forgot.

As this man stood in front of the group, he said, “Okay, time for a quiz” and pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

He smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” Now the class was onto him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied. He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and shook the jar so that sand went into all the spaces left between the rocks and gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”

“No!” the class shouted. “Excellent!” he replied and produced a pitcher of water. He poured water in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, “So what have I demonstrated?”

One eager beaver raised his hand, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit more in!”

“NO!” the expert replied, “That’s not the point at all. The point is this: If you don’t put your big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

Everyday life involves frequent decision-making. What should you do, what shouldn’t you do, and when should you do it? For many ADHDers, making a decision and sticking to it is extra difficult. Distraction gets in the way: You decide to do one task, but another comes along and distracts you. You decide to do the new task, and never get back to the first one. Pretty soon you have left a lot undone, and then you may tell yourself you never have time to do anything.

This happens to everybody, but it’s more likely to happen to ADHDers. With ADHD, there are many things that the brain “sees” simultaneously and with the same strength. Since it tends to see multiple things as equally important at the same time, the ADHD brain is more likely to flit from one to another – in other words, it has a hard time prioritizing. When it comes to getting things done, this is not a good strategy — and the difficulty is magnified by lengthy or complex tasks.

ADHD medications work, at least in part, by helping the brain focus on one thing at a time – that is, they increase the “signal-to-noise ratio” of what’s important to what is not. This facilitates completing the most important task before moving on to the next item on your agenda. But medication is not the only way. A non-medication way to help your brain prioritize is to get into the habit of periodically reminding yourself of what is truly important to you.

Regularly reviewing what you value helps prioritize your “to do list” and direct your activity down the most productive avenue. At home you might value communicating with your partner and children more than baking bread and cleaning house. At work you might value maintaining a long-term business relationship over completing a specific short-term project. (Of course you must make sure this is also what your employer values; if not, you have a different problem.) At school, you may value getting As — but maybe you don’t: Maybe you’d rather get Bs and focus instead on athletics, or the theater arts…

Properly designed and executed goal-setting is central to success. Nobody has time to do everything and nobody can be everything to everybody. What matters to success and self-esteem is being good at something — and it’s easier to be good at something if it really matters to you. Successful people use some of their time and energy to consider what is most important to them and then set goals that facilitate achievement in line with their core values. What kind of goal facilitates achievement?

A mnemonic for the kind of goal that facilitates achievement is “S.M.A.R.T.” S.M.A.R.T. goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-defined. This may seem obvious, but setting S.M.A.R.T. goals is a skill that can be trained and improves with practice — we describe this at greater length in our book. We also discuss that once you have learned how to set S.M.A.R.T. goals, you can turn them into reality by using the “Super-S.T.A.R.” method we coined. “Super” stands for putting your most important goal(s) first. Just like the ‘big rocks' in the story that had to go into the jar first, your most important goals have to go into your life first; you must prioritize these ‘super’ goals over less important objectives that are there to distract you. “S.T.A.R.” stands for Slice the goal (into smaller achievable chunks), Take Action, and Review.

There isn’t enough room in this post to discuss each of these steps at length, so for now we just want to emphasize that periodic review is a critical but often overlooked step on the road to success. It is not enough to set S.M.A.R.T. goals and to strive for them. Even if you do everything right, sometimes you’ll get what you’re after and sometimes you won’t. When you fail—everybody does sometimes--you have to decide whether to try again in the same way, whether to try again using a different strategy, or whether it’s time to change your goal: Maybe you do just have to "get back up on that horse." Or, maybe your goal is correct but the methods you employed are “not for you” — in that case you have to change tactics. Or, maybe achieving that particular goal isn’t as important to you as you once thought it was. Maybe the reason why you didn’t succeed is partly because it was the wrong goal — it didn’t turn out to be your “big rock” after all.

At the end of the day it’s up to you to decide what your big rocks are. There will always be plenty of other people trying to fill up your jar with gravel or sand. But the jar will be too heavy if you try to carry everything for everybody. Be sure you put in what matters to you most first — and then remember to check regularly to make sure that’s still what’s in there.