Flying with Focus

One of the more interesting and destabilizing parts of the past six months is that I'm learning a lot about myself since I was diagnosed with ADD. I have read a lot of the books out there on adult ADD, and it's extremely disconcerting to pick up a book and have a complete stranger identify in print so many of the fears, uncertainties, and traits I've struggled with all of my life.

I've learned enough about myself by now that I better understand why I find air travel to be so challenging. I'm in the middle of a four-city, two-week road trip for work, so now is as good a time as any to write about what it's like for me to travel with ADD.

Booking Air Travel

Trying to book an itinerary feels like walking into an open bazaar, with vendors everywhere shouting different prices at me for goods that are all slightly different. If it weren’t for travel search sites like Travelocity, Orbitz, Kayak and Hipmunk, I'd be a complete wreck trying to figure out timing for connections, finding the best prices, comparing itineraries and focusing on one airline rewards program. As it is, even with all the powerful search sites at my disposal, I find it incredibly time consuming and exhausting to book anything but the simplest itinerary. It took me more than half a day to book my current trip - between the complexities of a 4-city flight itinerary, hotels, car rentals and airport shuttles, all of which had to be within the per-city travel budget. It's a good thing I'm such a geek and have gotten pretty good at using the filters built into those search sites, otherwise I'd never get anywhere.

Packing

I hate packing. I’ve developed a ridiculous ritual every time I travel: the night before any trip, I usually end up pulling an all-nighter to do laundry and pack my bags. I used to attribute it solely to trying to do too much with too little time (which is true, but more on that in a future post), leaving no time to pack during regular waking hours like a responsible grown-up. I now recognize that there’s another factor: packing for a trip is exactly the kind of activity that taxes my ability to stay focused simultaneously on a number of small sub-tasks.

The process usually starts out well enough. I grab the appropriate luggage, and start gathering my clothes and other stuff. Then, I'll be unable to find a shirt I want to bring, and when I find it in the hamper, I think, "I'll just put in a load of laundry while I pack." That's usually the beginning of the end for my good start. What follows is... well, remember those Benny Hill cutaway scenes that were played back at high speed with crazy saxophone music, showing Benny and a whole gang of characters running around, bumping into one another helter-skelter? It's kind of like a one-man version of that, without any of Benny's scantily clad co-stars. I usually end up with things I didn't really need, like the book I've been meaning to read for four years, and missing things that I do need, like the charger for my phone.

The real problem is, because I'm at home with all of my stuff, I have a lot of trouble filtering out the universe of things I might need (umbrella, poncho, first aid kit, emergency zombie apocalypse supply bag) from all the things I actually do need (socks, toothbrush, glasses).

You might ask why, knowing full-well now that I'm not good at holding so many unrelated small tasks in my active working memory, I don't just create a list of things to pack. I've tried. Maybe I need to work on my list-making, but I start packing using the list, and inevitably I start thinking of things that aren't on my list and my trust in my past-self disappears because I see how unreliable I was in creating the list.

Anyway, I've gotten a little better at this. At least now I'm better at forgiving myself for forgetting things, and reminding myself that buying a tube of toothpaste or a bottle of contact lens solution at my destination is not the end of the world.

Flight

I'm blessed with the ability to sleep on planes. I sleep through takeoff, through landings, and often through most of the flight. If I couldn't do this, I'd probably go crazy. Flights are full of the kinds of distractions that rip my attention away from anything I try to do that requires focus, such as reading or writing. Put me anywhere within seven rows of a loud talker, and I want to rip my hair out in frustration (if I had hair to rip out), because I can't tune out the conversation, and I'm trapped for several hours. The constant drone of jet engines also, for some reason, pulls at me in a way that random noise in an office or in a car does not. And when the flight crew uses the overly-loud PA to sell their special credit card program, it takes a great deal of willpower not to scream in rage, especially if I've just barely managed to get into a groove and actually read my book.

I started using ear plugs recently, and it has completely changed my relationship to flying. I haven't found any that can block out as much sound as I would like, but the ear plugs I use now dampen noise so much that it really helps quiet my mind. I also use headphones - and I'm thinking very seriously about investing in a pair of good noise-canceling headphones - but I also worry about trying to block out noise with other noise and what that might do to my hearing. When I don't have ear plugs with me, I use in-ear earbuds with an app on my phone that generates white noise.

I'm happy to say that using ear-plugs and headphones, combined with better mindfulness about, well, my mind, have drastically improved my ability to concentrate while flying. I used to shift from reading a few sentences of a book, to flipping through a magazine, to glaring at the obnoxiously loud person three rows away to perusing the Sky Mall catalog, to playing a game on my phone, all within about three minutes, on a repeating cycle for the entire flight. I used to also try to actually do something productive on flights, but inevitably, I would take out my laptop and just stare at it in quiet frustration, unable to muster enough concentration to do more than write a few sentences.

Things haven't completely changed. I'm still very likely to wish a bad case of laryngitis upon fellow travelers who, like Austin Powers coming out of his cryogenic state, can't CONTROL THE VOLUME OF THEIR VOICE. But I'm a much happier and productive traveller now. I know this, because this post was written entirely in-flight, within earshot of two people who must be related to Sam Kinison.