How do you work when you can't think?

Hi. I am autistic and am wondering what other autistic people or people with similar cognitive difficulties do when there are too many things going on at once.

I am a freelancer and often have times where all of my clients want things at once. The emails start pouring in and I get very overwhelmed to the point where I get so confused that I can not think at all. This results in me getting less work done than I could if my brain were cooperating.

There are things I can do to feel better at the moment, but it all happens again when I need to start working again. I use project management software which helps a lot, but not enough.

I am wondering if anyone has suggestions on how to run a business while having extreme difficulty with business/client management, concentration, focus, confusion, and other daily annoyances related to having a brain that does not cooperate.

I’m not on the spectrum (as far as I know) so I can’t speak from that perspective, but I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD several times throughout my life and have experienced a lot of what you describe. For me, it’s a complete inability to focus on any of the tasks that I need to get done regardless of whether I’m under pressure or not. I can sit down and make a todo list of 5 things and not accomplish a single one because my mind starts wandering to other tasks. Once I realize I’m not getting anything done, I start to get anxious and lose what little focus I had. It becomes paralytic.

For me, breaking my todo list into smaller chunks helps. I only put 3 items on my plate at a time. I wrote some software that would randomly select 3 things for me so I didn’t have to put much thought into it. To be perfectly honest sometimes seeing how many things were on the list was enough to make me uninterested in the list – 3 things is MUCH more realistic. Even if I know other things are lurking beneath the surface, 3 is manageable for me.

In the end, it probably takes more time to add “Reply to that person’s email” as a task on the list than it would take to just reply, but the process has been REALLY cathartic for me. I spend more time organizing work than doing work, but it results in less anxiety overall since it makes me feel like I have more control.

(Also, hi!)

Hi :slight_smile: That sounds very similar to what happens to me. I also do things like make smaller lists so there are less things to focus on at once. It works pretty well up to a point. There is a point where my brain stops working because there are too many things (work, lights, colors, sounds, etc.). At that point, the words on the lists don’t make sense anymore and even doing basic things is confusing. Logically, that would be a great time to take a break, but that is hard too if you can’t think. Do you ever get to a point where you can’t work or think at all?

I am diagnosed as having ASD/Aspergers (whatever you want to call it). I have very poor executive planning skills as well. I had originally gone to college for a career that pretty much required self-employment and I realized very quickly upon graduating that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the freelance life, as the lack of structure and stability would make me too anxious.

Even though I have a regular office job with structure, I still occasionally experience the “brain failure” phenomenon under stress.

One technique that others have touched upon is making a detailed To-Do list by order of priority. Then start working on the thing at the top of that list, not thinking about any of the other items on the list. Imagine that its the only task you have, that nothing else exists beyond that task that you are working on at that moment. Then, when that task is complete, move to the next one with the same approach. Its sortof a Zen method. I’ve read that astronauts do something similar to help them focus on mundane tasks under great fear and pressure.

Yeah, I get to that point regularly. It’s especially bad if I haven’t slept well and am burnt out (I travel a lot). For me, watching 5 minutes of something on Netflix can re-focus me. I also started getting up and eating something but I don’t know how healthy that is. It seems to help though.

My project management software is very good for prioritizing things and focusing lists so I can see what is most important and due the soonest. Even still, I sometimes need to have a computer sticky note that stays on top of other windows with a single task on it so that I can remember what I am trying to do.

That’s great that you can work an office job. I sometimes wish that I worked for a company so that I wouldn’t have to do everything myself and would get to interact with other humans on a regular basis. What do you do when your brain stops working while you are at work?

Worse for me too when tired or stressed. Eating can be a good way to get grounded. The thing that helps most is getting outside for a little while, but I am usually too confused to figure out how to manage that. For some reason I can always get to karate, but that is only twice a week.

Fortunately it doesn’t happen a lot in my current job. It was worse when I worked for a really big, fast-paced corporation. But, when it does happen, I usually go to a bathroom in the basement of our building where no one ever goes. Its cool and dark and completely silent and I sometimes stand in there, close my eyes and just take lots of deep breaths until my brain untangles itself. I usually have those brain freezes if I’m trying to fix a bug in production that people are freaking out over. I just try telling myself “Its ok. No one is going to die. Its not the end of the world”. And when my brain calms down I can usually visualize what the bug is and how to fix it. Then I go back upstairs.

Going for walks really helps too, for visualizing problems and solutions. But I don’t always have time to do that.

That’s great that there is a place to go to be alone. When I was working at a co-working space, there was nowhere private to go and there were lots of times when I would have to leave suddenly no matter what else was going on so that there wouldn’t be anyone around when my brain stopped working.

Hi Lori,

This is a really great topic, thank you for sharing your struggles with concentration and dealing with many different inputs of stress. I think it’s important for you to note the positive coping mechanisms you’ve written about: exercise (getting outside and karate).

I’m not on the spectrum, so I cannot speak to that, but I have been recently diagnosed with ADHD, depression, and GAD, and I work from home. So in some ways I think I can relate. Having a regimented schedule helps me minimize stress and anxiety. Also, I try hard to identify when I get into unproductive moods, and try to understand why & lean on my positive coping mechanisms in the meantime. I’ve realized it’s ok to say “I’m having a day in which I cannot work productively and I need to reprioritize self wellness right now.” Sometimes that’s not possible, and those times I put a mental bookmark to take extra care later when I can.

That is good that you can take a break when you can’t be productive. Even when I can’t work at all, I rarely take a break because there is so much work I need to get done and I think that taking a break will delay getting it done, even though it is not getting done anyway. Very illogical. Logic is usually my favorite thing, but for some reason I can’t apply it to stopping working when I can’t work. I end up wasting many hours and days that way.