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Autism and the need to be busy all the time

In my previous blog I mentioned that in order to overcome my loneliness, I tend to make myself really busy in order to feel like I have a sense of purpose. I thought I’d unpick that a bit more.

Just to put things into context – A few weeks ago, I had a two hour exam, followed by a meeting with a charity I’m a youth campaigner, a two hour meeting for a peer research job I have followed by a meeting with an environmental group I’m part of. And then, after all that, I still had to log some hours of work. So, when I say I’m a busy person – I really am!

Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com

I just feel like I function well in chaos. Everything I need to do is constantly whizzing round in my head. I like it like the though. It’s like my head is constantly being pulled in all directions. I don’t so much get stressed but excited. I think the emotions are very similar and my body confuses the two meaning I am not so much effected by having so much on my plate but rather in a constant state of being happy and looking forward to things.

I’ve not seen much online about hyper productivity and autism but I’m sure it must be common. In society today, I think it is extremely easy to be pulled into the trap of trying to find purpose. We are generally taught that we are valued by how we contribute to society rather than the value we give to our own lives and those closest to us. There are pressures from all round to be productive and as an autistic person, prone to take things to the extreme in order to appear normal – hyper productivity occurs.

A while back, I tried to change. I tried to do less. It didn’t go very well. I figured out that the issue wasn’t in the things that I do, it was in the way I did them. I am very prone to attempt to multitask but I think what I’ve learnt is that it is better to give my attention to one thing only, rather than multiple things at once – whether it be with studying or spending time with friends. I find that the more busy I get, the more busy I want to be.

There are two sides to the coin of being really busy and motivated to do things. It can be a bad thing. When I first started Uni, I really struggled with prioritising the things I needed to prioritise. I was clinging onto the things that had kept me busy throughout lockdown when really I should have given them up. I think that it was my way of coping with the change of moving out because it gave me a sense of normality while distracting me. I always that because I hadn’t reached burnout yet that I was fine, however I wasn’t devoting energy to the things I needed to.

So why might Autistic people be more prone to this?

Desire to fit in

I think a lot of the narrative in society, especially since the pandemic, tells us that we have to be productive all the time. Volunteering for things, even when our plate is already full. Making promises and having to rush tasks just to make it work. Being consumed by work all day every day. And then once you’re technically done with a something, you feel guilty for not doing more. It’s a vicious cycle. You judge yourself for what you haven’t done, rather than looking at what you have done. Yet being hyper productive is a way to feel worthy, fulfilled, and in control. And so you become obsessed.

Obsessive nature

A really common theme in people with autism is the obsessive nature. Obsessions give stability, security and control. Sometimes however, with people who mask a lot, we can fall into the trap of becoming obsessed with whatever is socially acceptable, just taking it that extra bit too far. Social media is definitely a place where toxic productivity festers, for example through tweets about spending the pandemic learning new skills and utilising every second. Many people focused on productivity during the pandemic. Many people felt afraid and uncertain so tried to gain control. If you are busy, you are distracted from fears of the future. It was all over – free courses online, really amazing experiences being offered online and widening access to things that we’d never have imagined doing before. But – How do you know when to stop? For me, that’s where I struggle.

Executive function

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.  I’ve seen it described as having a role similar to a conductors in an orchestra. It manages and organises each musician. Tells them when to begin, how fast or slow, and when to stop playing. I struggle knowing when to stop things and when I’ve done enough. I get hyper focused and as a driven person, take on more and more.

 Hyperfocus

I think Hyperfocus is a less talked about autistic trait. It involves a person becoming fixated on a specific thing, topic or event. It’s more than just concentration. It can mean that we are extremely productive and get a lot done. I can go all day going from one important thing to the next, sending email after email that would take other people hours to write. It seems easy because I am just in this mindset of ‘go go go’. However all this does have its draw backs in that we have less energy for other things – often the important day to day things like admin tasks or keeping on top of washing.

Something that I have used to help me with this is time blocking – assigning certain times to certain things. I find it so easy to get lost in doing something that it gets to the end of the day and I realise I’ve spent far too long on one thing to the detriment of another.

Time blocking is a time management tool that divides your day into separate blocks of time. Specific tasks are allocated to each block. 

By setting reminders on my phone, I have to move on once the time is up. At first it was really hard to do because I hate leaving things unfinished and often my brain will keep looping back to the unfinished task but now, I just view notion (the app where I keep everything on my laptop) as a second brain so I can just tell myself that it’s okay because all the work I’ve done is still there, it’s not going anywhere and I can pick up from where I left off. Changing my view to this really helped me.

I think another reason I struggled with time blocking is the fact that I work best when I want to do something rather than when I’m being told I have to do it. What I tend to do to get round that is split all the tasks that I have to do up, and then give myself options that I can choose myself for each time block.

All of this has really helped me because before, I was consumed by my work and not balancing things very well at all. I was trying to just fill every minute with ‘finishing things off’. Now, I still fill every minute but I also have specific times for things like socialising, meeting people and running. And because I have specific times for certain things, I make sure to give my undivided attention to each thing I’m doing rather than trying to multitask.

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