Headphones & Attention

When I worked in an office headphones were a requirement for me. I absolutely needed them to focus. I really don’t use headphones all that often anymore since I started working remote 2 1/2 years ago. Listening to music over decent speakers seemed to be enough. Lately I’m discovering I missed the power behind having the sound close to your head.

The past two weeks I’ve been using my headphones again to help with my attention & focus in the afternoons. My mornings start with using my treadmill under my desk to walk and work. Mid-day when I find my brain wandering, I stop working and do some sort of exercise. Now in the afternoons I’m finding putting on the noise-canceling headphones gives me the boost to wrap up the work for the day.

There’s something comforting with having the music close to your ears. I  usually mix between the New EDM station on Rdio, a couple electronic stations on DI.fm and sometimes BPM on SiriusXM. Most music that has too many words doesn’t work too well for focus.

I’m still amazed after 30 months of working on dealing with ADHD I am still finding things to tweak. 🙂

The Downside to Treadmill Desks

Just Published

The New York Times just published an article on their Well Blog entitled “The Downside of Treadmill Desks”. It’s an interesting read.

The article mentions a study performed by two groups at the Brigham Young University in Utah and published to the PLoS One Journal in April. After studying 75 individuals it was determined that while there is a significant positive health impact on using a treadmill desk, productivity and cognition decreased.

My Thoughts

As I’ve mentioned before I’ve been using a treadmill desk since February of this year. Personally I’ve seen a huge increase in concentration and cognition when using the treadmill.

I average about three hours of use today, sometimes up to five. I tend to use the treadmill in the morning the longest, then stand midday and revisit the treadmill at the end of the work day. I’ve found in the morning the treadmill boosts my concentration more than a cup of coffee would. I almost always forget I’m even walking on the treadmill.

My experiences may differ than the study because I have ADHD. The treadmill, it seems, busies the part of my brain that likes to derail my concentration. My original goal for using the treadmill desk was not for the exercise/calorie burn but rather the assist with concentration.

Observations & Realities

I think the reality of treadmill desks at a normal office job present the following limitations:

They’re Loud

You’re going to be walking on a machine. The machine can be loud and your hooves smashing down on it are going to be loud. You’re going to want to reduce the noise as much as possible (if you’re considerate) which means slower speeds and potentially an unnatural gate.

I’ve found speeds below 2mph aren’t effective for my needs. I need to be at 2.5mph or greater for me to see a real attention benefit – and then anything over 3.2mph usually causes too much sweat.

Humans Perspire

You’re going to sweat. I don’t care if you use a fan (which adds to the noise mentioned above) you’re still going to sweat even at 1mph. Those dress pants and undershirt are going to be really pretty after walking six miles.

You can try to keep cooler by using a fan, changing clothes, taking a shower. All of these things modify how you’re going to work and walk. Worrying about not sweating too much will ultimately reduce your speed which will keep you from hitting the right speed (if your speed is anything like mine).

If your office isn’t equipped with a shower or a place to change that’s convenient, your coworkers may not want an afternoon meeting with you.

You’re Vulnerable

When you’re on a treadmill desk, you’re vulnerable. How so? You’re walking, sweating, breathing hard and wearing workout clothes in front of your coworkers. I’m sure the whole office isn’t on treadmills (huzzah if they are!). This will unavoidably single you out. Until you really get comfortable with the treadmill and the way you’re integrated into your workplace you are going to feel like a weirdo.

Weirdos can’t concentrate well. You need to realize you’re not a weirdo.

It Takes Practice

The study specifically mentions typing ability deteriorates when using the treadmill desk. This is an obvious side effect of walking while typing. But like with most things in life, it takes practice.

I was a hot ass mess trying to type and walk the first couple of weeks using the treadmill desk. I couldn’t find the right height for the monitor, keyboard, speed to walk at. All of those things will eventually gel together and you’ll find the right combination. I’m typing at my normal rate of words per minute and my accuracy is just fine.

Believe What You Want

The huge flaw in this article and the abstract of the journal article is this – it doesn’t indicate how much time the participants were given. If you don’t give someone a chance to adapt to the new situation it’s obvious they’re not going to be productive!

You’re going to have to find out if a treadmill desk works for you. Don’t believe everything you read and don’t assume the variables apply to you. Don’t assume I’m right either. A lot of the reasons the treadmill desk works for me has to do with working remote at home and my brain’s specific issues with ADHD.

All I can suggest is give it a whirl!

 

My Signal-to-Noise Ratio

I’ve mentioned before on this site and other places that I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and that I’ve been doing a lot to manage it. I didn’t really connect the dots until I started working remote for Automattic almost two years ago. It’s a continual process for me and I’m continuing to make adjustments over time to combat it. I have good days and I have bad days.

Medication

After I got diagnosed with ADHD by an accredited counselor and my primary physician, I started on medication to help. It was my goal at that point to not be on the meds long term but rather use them to show me where I could be. It’s hard to see the destination without an idea of where you’re going or even why you’re going.

The medications worked pretty quickly. Within the first week I started seeing things in life I always ignored. I went to a museum in Houston with family and discovered myself reading the signs around exhibits and actually taking in what I was seeing. It was amazing. Within a couple months I realized I wasn’t eating food regularly any more (it’s a common side effect) and my personality was changing too. We also increased the medication a few levels to figure out what was the right level to be at. I ended up taking myself off of the medication a bit earlier than I had wanted to originally but I could see the longer I was on it the harder it would be to come off. I wasn’t addicted per se but the clarity I got from it was hard to give up. Really hard.

Post-Medication

Since I’ve been off the medication I’ve been using the tools my counselor and I came up with to help with concentration and focus. Primarily its a mix of the following:

  • Exercise
  • Note taking
  • Music
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness

Exercise

Being active is a huge part of the success with dealing with ADHD. Working at home gives me a ton of flexibility to include exercise in my daily routine. I’ll break up my day around noon with a bike ride, walk or step aerobics in my basement. Since February of this year I’ve been using a treadmill under my standing desk with some good results. I try to walk in the morning and afternoon and then stand in between. I find it gives me some different kind of focus than when just purely standing. I haven’t fully decided if I’m more successful with the treadmill desk but I am benefitting from the activity being more regular health-wise.

Note taking

Taking notes is a huge deal with ADHD. You have to leave yourself a reminder of where you left off on a task or else you will forget. Short notes are sometimes not even sufficient – a few words is sometimes not enough to remind you. It’s crazy how often I can forget to do something even hours later without a note. I haven’t found the perfect single place to leave notes so it’s a combination of sticky notes on my monitor, handwritten notes next to my keyboard and electronic notes in Evernote. I should boil it down to one place but I tire easily of a single solution and then stop using it.

Music

I’m not quite sure how I’d survive without music. I’ve been listening to electronic/trance/techno music since I was 12 years old when I discovered it allowed me to concentrate on tasks. Most electronic music (if there isn’t a lot of vocals) will busy the part of my brain that is trying to derail me. Working in a regular office environment you’d always find me with my headphones on. Working at home I’m using open speakers and I find that I don’t get the same effect. I actually don’t listen to music consistently throughout the day but when I find myself straining to finish a task, I find the right music to assist.

Meditation & Mindfulness

I should practice formal meditation more. Years ago I would set aside time to meditate and I enjoyed it. In the two years I’ve worked remote I’ve only done a full meditation exercise a handful of times. I tend to use short moments of meditation thought to help center myself when I feel like I’m going too many ways. Being mindful of yourself is a big help. Be aware of when you’re started to swerve off course and recognize the signs. Being on the treadmill desk is a little like meditation … it’s amazing how much around me sort of fades out when I’m walking and working.

The Noise

What it comes down to is you have to try to reduce or replace the noise in your head with something else. In radio engineering Signal to Noise Ratio is the amount of desired signal vs the background noise. You want more signal than noise otherwise your transmission isn’t effective. Signal is analogous to the task or idea you’re trying to focus on and the noise is everything else going on in your brain that’s trying to derail it. You have to find the ways that work for you to reduce the noise or improve the signal.

Much like radio engineers there are things you can do to improve signal and reduce noise – some of which I’ve mentioned. Everyone is different. For some the only thing that works is the medication – and it works well. Don’t be ashamed if you are on medication to help. There is such a negative stigma with taking medication for mental conditions which to me is crazy. Find what works for you! Don’t get discouraged if something doesn’t work down the road or if you fail with an experiment.

Walking While Working – Another Step For Focus

Walking While You Work

I’m not going to link to any articles or research about the benefits of walking while you work. I’ve been standing at my desk since I started working at home and to me this is the next progression. I have ADHD and I’m always trying to find ways to hack my brain. I decided to get in on the treadmill desk game.

The First Steps

A couple months back I ended up buying a cheapie treadmill on Amazon to experiment with walking while working. I used it a couple of times with some success but I ultimately felt it didn’t provide much help for my focus. I kept doing research to determine what the issue was and spent time observing myself during a walking session with it. I was surprised it wasn’t obvious why I didn’t like this experiment.

Primarily the treadmill is too narrow for my clown-sized feet. Okay they’re not Krusty-sized but size 11 shoes are not terribly compatible with an 18″ belt. I frequently found myself walking off the belt and then getting jarred out of my concentration. The sides are also not raised up very much so there is no subtle guide for your feet to bump into if you’re not accurate.

I’m just under 230lb and while this is nearly 60lb less than when I started this journey for fitness, it’s apparently the edge for the treadmill at low speed. The motor needs to be a high torque type as slow walking is complete hell on a standard treadmill. I expected the thing to blow up and take my ankles with it in the process.

I didn’t want to spend a boatload of cash investing in a treadmill that I may or may not end up using. This was $200 with delivery and it served its purpose. The problem is I wanted to continue walking which meant I needed to find another larger treadmill or else I’d stop.

The Second Step

I’m sure you’ve noticed the step pun by now.

After some discussions with my coworkers and a bit of online research, I opted to get the LifeSpan TR1200-D3 unit. It’s the middle of the line and doesn’t come with the desk since I already have an UpDesk. My reasons behind picking this treadmill were:

LifeSpan Stats

  • The console unit has bluetooth and connects to my Mac to show the current steps. It also syncs with their online service which does suck but provides a record that’s usable enough.
  • It’s rated to be used for an average of six hours a day and is limited to 4mph or lower.
  • The unit comes with a shock absorbing frame to make my moobs the only thing that jiggle and bounce.

The one downside is that while it has wheels to move it around, it doesn’t have a safe way to lean it up against a wall. I’ve come up with a temporary solution using an old yoga mat but I want to make something a bit more secure.

Observances & Suggestions

After walking for a week I’ve already made a number of observations that I didn’t expect.

  • My original UpDesk tends to wobble when it’s fully raised up. I ended up buying 3″ casters for the feet a while back and those are barely high enough with the treadmill under it. Instead now I raised the keyboard up temporarily with a cardboard box. I find my wrists are now at the right angle for typing although with no wrist support my accuracy has taken a hit. Not leaning on the desk while I type does however have the benefit of not wiggling the screen. My monitor is on an arm and I have it tilted up while I’m on the treadmill.
  • I’m using Things to keep track of ideas/tasks I think of that I can’t do when walking. There are just some tasks that aren’t conducive while you’re walking (like testing apps on devices) and you need a reliable place to put those task reminders. I also like to stick with one task as a time while walking to prevent my brain from getting derailed. So far I’m happy with Things.
  • Don’t overwalk. When you get into something (like me typing up this post) it’s so easy to lose track of your steps. You will be sore the next day.
  • Get good shoes and don’t wear those anywhere except in your house or on the treadmill. Snow, dirt and dust will make your treadmill look ugly and harder to maintain.
  • Buy a good treadmill mat to go underneath if you’re on hardwood floors.
  • Even though LifeSpan tracks activity I’m still logging my walking activity with RunKeeper. I like the social component of RunKeeper and since it has all my exercise activity in it why not keep using it.

Next Steps

I’m just going to keep at this. I need to find the balance of walking time during the day vs productivity levels. Once I come up with a good solution to store the treadmill upright I believe finding this balance will be easier. I do not want to stop doing my normal exercise routine (step aerobics at home in the winter and also going to the gym) so I’ll have to be careful to not burn myself out. In the end I want this to be a good way to maintain focus and to help train my brain to be better at tasking.

I’ll keep posting about my experiences here!

Treadmill Walking