Charting a Course for Success: A Neurodiverse Approach
Set your phasers to prioritize and boldly go where you want to be!
Life is chaotic, crazy, and fun! In this article I share my approach to attempting to balance it. I start off with a bit of my background on who I am and then go into the way I view mental health and my approach to life with insights I’ve learned through a road trip and turning 40 in 2022. Then I spend some time talking about the three methods I used to help set some organization in my life and develop my own framework; ABC Priority Buckets, Mind Mapping and Time Boxing/Buffering and how I combine those to help me achieve some Harmony in life. I believe in continuous self-improvement and creating a safe place to make mistakes. I encourage all to embrace neurodiversity and take time for freeform ideation. Remember to celebrate the small successes and share this with your friends. When we learn together we make the world a better place together.
Hey there! I’m Shai Perednik, Global Tech Leader for Web3/Blockchain at Amazon Web Services (AWS) and founder of the Perednik Foundation/PPE4PA. With over 20 years of experience in IT and a passion for pushing the boundaries of conventional technology, I’m all about transforming traditional enterprise IT thinking. But that’s not all there is to me.
I’m also an advocate for mental health awareness and wellness, having struggled with anxiety and depression. As a person on the autism spectrum, I also have first-hand experience with some of the challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals. I believe in sharing my personal journey and insights to help others who may be going through similar experiences.
Over my 28-year career in IT, I’ve experimented with many different coping mechanisms and frameworks to balance work and life. I’m excited to share some strategies that have worked for me.
When it comes to how I view the world, it is a place full of opportunities and challenges. Everyone can make a positive impact with their unique talents and passions. I value curiosity, creativity, empathy, and resilience as critical to building a growth mindset for personal and professional growth.
I live in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, with my wife and four kids. But enough about me — let’s dive into some tips and strategies for balancing life and work!
Today, I’m going to share how I look at life. I wanted to start by sharing some of my challenges with mental health and how I perceive them as superpowers and abilities, not disabilities. I like to think about mental health by looking at it positively through my symptoms.
To Start, when I think about my ADHD, I think about how I want to progress sometimes and don’t necessarily want to probe too deeply at times. This has led me to make prompt decisions and action taking in my career, which has been crucial in a fast-paced environment like AWS and Amazon. It’s “Bias for Action, “ balancing it with “Dive Deep.” When I think about my anxiety, it’s put me in a state of amplified awareness of potential dangers or problems that may lurk around, which has helped me anticipate and address customer needs before they become problems. That’s “Customer Obsession.” Thinking about my Depression, those bleak times have given me an intensified sense of self-awareness. It’s given me a greater acumen of my emotions and needs and others like my family, kids, and others around me. It’s helped me be more genuine and build empathy with others, which “Earns Trust.” When I think of my Psychosis, I think about all the times in my life, and throughout my whole career, when I’ve been told that something can’t be done or that I can’t do something, and somehow I’ve always found a way to do it. I’ve found a way to get it done because of that unique ability to see the world unconventionally and in a novel way, leading to me “Delivering Results.” It’s “Thinking Big” and so many more abilities.
Ultimately, when I put them all together with being on the Autism Spectrum, I realize this is who I am; these abilities make me who I am. I’ve always had this natural curiosity and desire for exploration. It’s led me to new discoveries and insights and explains why I’m in the role I am today. And there’s more to add, I have Celiac, Crohn’s, and, unfortunately, PTSD from childhood trauma and my time in the US Navy, when I was four deployed in Afghanistan, a couple months after 9/11, and then during “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in 2003. There’s a lot more, but I think you get the idea. And that kind of sets the stage for the rest of this article. You have many challenges in life. I have many challenges in life. It’s all about how we perceive them.
Making Contact: Connecting on a 75-Day Adventure
I spent three months of the summer driving around the country on a journey with my family. The road trip was about 75 days, 8000 miles, and ample time to think. As I looked out onto many roads of empty land, I contemplated what mental and emotional health meant for my kids, those around me, those at work. I used every moment on the road to let my thoughts wander off into what my life was and what I’ve done with my life.
I was driving on roads unknown, so I challenged myself to focus on what are my aspirations for the future of my life? All around in every part of my life. When looking back I focused on what I could learn and build upon. I asked myself what I had accomplished on this Earth and what I’ll leave behind? Living on the road forced me to channel that energy on impact and scaling out, because I had to adjust and adapt. That’s what I had to do being on the road with four kids in an RV for 75 days.
In one example, we were in Lake Mead, where I started working at 4 AM because it was 80 degrees out. Then I went inside the RV at 8 AM because it was 100 F degrees, and we left at 10 AM because it was 106 F degrees outside. We packed up and left quickly because, within an hour, it would have gotten to about 113F. We went to the Hoover Dam to explore inside a big concrete building for many hours that day. I enjoyed the day with my family and left work behind. We got to Las Vegas that evening and I finished my work the next day, working on my uncles’ desk, taking a break from the RV.
Returning home in September, I started with a clean desk and looked to apply all the techniques I had acquired on the road to my everyday activities. Specifically, how I could be versatile, impactful, and scale my efforts. I also turned 40 In December, which made me think about the importance of harmonizing life, what life means, and what I want to do with the rest of my life. It made me reassess how to maintain a healthy life and work balance because that’s the key to success in the workplace. Life comes first. You must set borders, manage pressure, and care for yourself. For the remainder of the article, I’ll share the techniques I’ve used to build these boundaries to manage stress and care for myself as best as possible. So let’s start off with my thoughts on time.
Balancing Time and Space
It’s not about being rigid but about having some system. Why is time so important? Because there are 24 hours in the day with eight gone for sleeping. Therefore, we’ll say we exist for 16 hours and must balance those 16 hours between family, work, hobbies, etc.
Ultimately, time is a perceived value of measurement, and everyone perceives their values based on their convictions. What’s 30 minutes to me might not be that to somebody else. So time management is about setting boundaries and rules based on your experiences and interpretations of those experiences. For example, take an average workweek. I don’t focus or think, “Did I work a 40 or 45 Hour work week this week?”. I focus on whether I have been effective this week or not? This month and/or this quarter? It’s about being effective and having a solid approach to time management because that will put you in a positive mindset at home and work. It’ll start that growth mindset. You won’t be worried about what you did in the last eight hours. Instead, you’ll think about what to do in the next eight hours.
Navigating the Cosmos of Our Mind
Let’s talk about how we organize ourselves to get to a growth mindset by digging into some of the strategies I’ve worked on that have worked for me over my career. My goal is that you learn that we all struggle, including myself, and no one has it easier than anybody else. We all have challenges. I certainly don’t have this all figured out, and I’m working on it. It’s just what’s working today in this season of my life.
I’ve tried many methods and took bits and pieces of those to build my framework. I’m still building this out and determining when I’ll be done. Share your feedback as I share my findings along this journey.
I believe the foundation starts with a focus on three commonly found critical pillars: mind mapping, the ABC method, and timeboxing/buffering.
Organizing Your Thoughts with Mind Maps
Mind maps help you break down complex projects into smaller, more manageable chunks. You can set specific goals for each task and build strategies to tackle each one of those chunks. Then, you can communicate and consult with your peers on either part of the mind map or the whole entire thing. Because each leaf and its clusters can stand on their own. This helps you stay focused on the more critical details of the project while be able to zoom out to visualize the end goal and where the pieces fit into the project.
Let’s start with some examples of how I use Mind Maps. In one case, I wanted to build up a presentation for a slideshow. I used the mind map to outline each individual slide of that slideshow presentation. What I wanted to communicate or get out of each slide and how it related to other initiatives I was working on then. It helped me zoom out and stay focused on the narrative.
In another example, I wanted to break down the flow of information. I need to dig in and better understand how all the things that I hear, read, and listen to could be processed. Because like others, I have a lot of information coming at me from all directions, all the time.
From there the goal was to create an output from the signals and turn them into something meaningful, filtering out the noise. So I used the mind map to outline the sequence:
Similarly, I wanted to sit back and plan out my content plan for the 4th quarter of 2022. I used a mind map, putting up ideas of different things I wanted to discuss. And as I did that, things started to cluster together, themes began to merge, and clarity on next steps started to form. Slowly, I could see how the different content I wanted to create related to the bigger picture. I had better, more impactful content; it wasn’t about more quantity.
So again, it’s about being more impactful with that time. Whether it’s a content plan, a podcast I want to develop, or digging into talk about blockchain and web3, the focus is on opportunities to impact.
Another way to use mind maps is to visualize the flow. For example, I wanted to understand the podcast recording flow better, so I used the vertical layout of the mindmap to write up my flow. Now the wonderful thing is that the colors formed around the routines. What ends up happening in my head mentally is I start associating those habits with patterns, which become things I do naturally outside of my day-to-day life. Building these and adding colorization in a mindmap is hugely helpful in my head. By adding other visual aids like checkmarks and icons I’m able to commit more to memory by pegging them to imagery.
Other times I may need to zoom out a little bit more, I want to dig into more significant ideas and explore big ideas and loose thoughts. But there’s also key things I’m looking to explore and understand. It’s key that while I go down rabbit holes I do so with some guardrails and targets in mind. And while I’m going down those rabbit holes, I’m able to keep adjacent thoughts in mind to better understand how they relate to each other.
In an example of laying out a book on web3 on AWS, I dug into the chapters, what each of those chapters meant to me and why they were important to others. I needed to track what I was going to dig into for each chapter. Also, what diagrams were important for me to find or develop, and what technical details were prime to capture. Importantly the mind map format helped me step back and frame the overall narrative and make sure there’s a good story throughout the whole book.
Sometimes, my mind is a complete mess. I have so many thoughts in my head, and I need to figure out where to start. It’s okay that it happens, and I dedicate time specifically to open-ended thinking for that reason.
Sometimes, I just needed to sit and get stuff out of my head, so I would sit and start writing out what was in my head. The order, spelling, format, none of that matters. The goal is to dump the ideas out. Because as I dumped those thoughts and new patterns emerged, I started to link ideas and build on those creating new chapters. Because I was able to see relations to other projects or initiatives, I was able to develop strategies, documents, and details that would influence other projects and initiatives that were not my own. It allowed me to see the link between the two and understand how to bring them together in an inspirational way. Because I better understood why I was thinking about those things and was able to convey my conviction.
Those links and opportunities to inspire helped me recognized what I needed to prioritize. I could see the signals through the noise that was in my head. And that’s a challenge sometimes as I want to take on bigger things. In those cases its key that I’m able to step back and develop a plan to be the most impactful with the most efficient work I can. By working backwards and staying focused on that outcome.
Sometimes in my life I want to take on grandiose ideas and I need to keep myself focused on that impact. In those cases, I may not even know where to start. I use my examples above to keep learning and applying them. I’ll be doing that this year as I want to take on a TED fellowship application this year. I want to build on this idea of accountability with anonymity, and what does that mean for the future of society? It’s a big task to figure out where to start. The mind map helps me break down all the different scenarios, ideas, timelines, and timetables. It’ll help guide me like all the other examples, through the noise to develop a focus on changing the world.
Making Sense of Chaos with Prioritization
Life is chaotic. At times we feel as though we have a handle on things and then a few days later we don’t. Maybe it’s not days, maybe it’s years. It’s back to that principle of how you define time. Given we only have limited time in the day it’s essential to set time aside to prioritize yourself and what you want to do on your journey in life.
The way I like to think of life is that there are two buckets. There are the things you want to do, and there are the things that others want you to do. Your goal is so that the items you want to do are what other people want you to do, because this is when things are balanced. This is when you have harmony. When your life is out of balance, you fall over to chaos, ruckus, and disorganization, and that’s okay. It’s just like riding and falling off of a bicycle. You fall over, get up, start again, and reestablish that balance. Sometimes life gets off balance and that’s where prioritization comes in to help us.
The ABC Method
I like to use the ABC method to help me prioritize. For example, when I think about escalations and firefighting, it helps me cut through the noise and answer “must I rush to all these emergencies.” and “what is the real crisis in all this noise and chaos?” It helps me prioritize. Is it an A, do-or-die? Is it a B, something that should get done? Someone may depend on it, or it should get done if there’s a problem somewhere. Or is it a C? No one will die if it isn’t done.
So many things come onto our plate daily that are excellent and fantastic opportunities. But when you step back and compare them to your other opportunities, most are not “do or die.” Some of those are things that should get done. But some, are things that nobody’s gonna die if it doesn’t get done, and you can do later and push it off to the following period. That’s the way I like to think of it because otherwise I’d say yes to everything. There’s that yearning and curiosity I have to learn more. But I have to remind myself that I can’t do everything, and refocus where my time can be most inspirational to others.
I like to start by using the ABC method for grouping and prioritizing tasks into buckets. And those buckets are usually in the context of a timeframe. Whether it’s a week, a month, a quarter, or a year. Ultimately, it’s how you perceive time and your perceived value of time.
Determining which tasks are categorized as A, B, or C is challenging. I use the Do or Die mindset, and it helps me know I’ll come back to reevaluate priorities regularly based on my timeframes. I like to lean on the leadership principles of “Bias for Action,” “Dive Deep,” and “Frugality.” It’s a great way to help me step back and think about whether I am focusing on the right things so I can question if I’m diving into the correct details?
Combining Mindmaps and The ABC Method
Now that we better understand how I prioritize and combine tasks let’s look at how I combine those with the mind maps. For example, in December last year, I needed to step back and prioritize the month with the holidays. There were lots of things that I had to get done. So those things were things that absolutely had to get done, no matter what! We had to buy Christmas gifts and I had to pay my accountant. Because if I didn’t pay my accountant, that’s not a good thing.
And then there’s things that while they’re important, when compared to other things, turn out matter less in the timeframe you’re looking at? For example, winterizing the RV. Thankfully, it turned out to be a C because it hadn’t held to freezing temperatures outside within that time period I was prioritizing. I used the weather forecast to compare the mind maps period to the weather, which kept “RV Winterizing” in the C bucket. Sometimes you don’t need to do those things in the C buckets. It only sometimes works out that way; coincidence or luck. It helps to plan things out as it helps me understand how I want to prioritize my life.
Sometimes though, I need to zoom in and do this. I will look at my month, break down the week, and try to understand how that week seems. I will usually do this on a Monday morning. Again, I’m not trying to be super rigid here. I’m trying to have some structure. In one example, I had to work on the weekend. I always say we don’t work on the weekend, but in this example, I took time off during the week to spend with the kids. We had some stuff going on in the house, probably towards Halloween.
So, I took time off with the kids during the week and wanted to make up that time during the weekend. However, I only wanted to work part of the weekend and have deep focus on the impactful items that weekend. So I can go back and spend that time with my family.
So I prioritized the week and weekend by the ABC method. Creating opportunities to play around with my kids and deepen my involvement in key work projects and hobbies.
In my head I didn’t need to stress about the hours I worked that week because I could answer “did I finish the things I absolutely had to.” And because I’ve been doing this in previous weeks and reevaluating my priorities, I had this view for the week, month, quarter, and on some accomplishments and influences, the year.
And when looking at the coming week I could continue to ask myself “are there things I can potentially put off until next week that don’t need to be done this week?” Continuing my impact and growth mindset as I had a grasp on what I knew was coming and how to navigate it.
Getting Time Back
So we talked about breaking down complex projects, prioritizing yourself, and getting some time back. Because it’s not about working more hours, it’s about being more efficient with those hours to have more time for yourself and your family.
The Pomodoro Technique
Many people like to use the Pomodoro Technique. Simply put, it’s 3 25 minute segments with five minutes in between for a break and then a 15-minute to 30-minute break. I simplify this to blocks of time.
I don’t like the Pomodoro Technique because it puts a lot of anxiety and stress on me, so I don’t use it. I’ve tried many times on and off and have a timer on my desk. It just doesn’t work for me. It brings me anxiety and stress to break down my tasks into those 25-minute blocks. Because in my head, because of the things I’ve talked about before, that’s what I must do. I have to break them down into those 25-minute boxes because that’s what the Pomodoro timer says. So the timer itself becomes the focus and challenge for me.
When I break down those tasks and am in that slot, I feel anxious and stressed. Am I going to finish that task in that 25 minutes? And if I don’t, what happens? Am I stepping on my break? Am I stepping on the next five-minute session then what happens? Then I spiral out of sorts there, so it doesn’t work for me. But what does work for me because I know that I need time to ramp up and down is time buckets, which is what the pomodoro technique is at its core.
Time Buckets and Buffers
I buffer my time like bumpers on a bowling alley. I over allocate my time to help me out. If I need 15 minutes, I buffer 30 minutes. If I need 30 minutes, I allocate one hour. This helps me deliver on impact and scale versus quantity. You only have so much time in the day; if you have extra time, You must use that time for a break or to dive deeper.
Block your time and respect your time blocks. Ask people to do the same. For example, keep people from booking over your bucket because what’s going to happen is it’ll create a domino effect of firefighting. Because ultimately, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to take a block, and now you have to move it somewhere else, and other things have to move as well. So what it does is it throws everything out of whack when you don’t respect your boundaries and don’t respect those times that you blocked.
You have to hold others accountable to respect your boundaries as well. Explain this to people when they double-book you. Explain to them that these are your boundaries you’ve established and ask that they respect your boundaries. Articulate that these boundaries help you succeed at life and work and how it will help your mutual goals in the long run. You’ll be surprised as most people will learn from you and start implementing their boundaries because they’ll feel empowered to say no too! In a neurodivergent mind, saying no is a powerful tool!
Building Your Mental Health Toolkit
So how do we put it all together, and where do we start? It’s essential to start with one method at a time and refrain from overloading yourself with too many methods. As you go along the journey testing what works and doesn’t, seek advice and feedback from your peers. Check in with yourself and others regularly. Did that one new thing you introduced this period work? It’s okay to tell your peers you were struggling and ask, “Did you notice if I was anxious? I was moving around during that session. Did it look like I was uncomfortable or did it look like I wasn’t paying attention? Did it look like I was disengaged?” I generally get the answer of no, which is excellent because it means my coping techniques and the methods I built are working.
Remember that feedback is a gift, and it’s rewarding to take the time to ask for it.
Combine the methods. The ABC, mind mapping, and time boxing and buffering work for me, and you will find the ones that work for you. It takes time. Remember, this isn’t a one-and-done thing either. What worked today may not anymore in the future and you’ll need to pivot and adapt. You’ll learn along the way, and if you ask for feedback, likely inspire others as well.
Invest in Yourself
It’s about continuous self-improvement. Because that’s what will help you achieve success in the long run and ultimately enjoy your life. You want to develop the strategies for you. Develop a plan to drive positive change and attend workshops and training sessions. Seek feedback from your colleagues and use that to improve just one process at a time. Find one thing you can do slightly better today than yesterday, and do it! Understand and accept that there’s not only one solution. It may not work, and that’s okay. You’ll just try the next one tomorrow. That’s fine.
Accelerate Each Other
I talked about the different methods to help balance life and work. But, let’s focus on the last equally essential and bring it back to where I started this article; neurodiversity. I talked about my background, methods, and what worked for me. But how do you know when to help others that may be neurodiverse like me?
Look for signs of struggles with task switching, like difficulty getting started. Then, create a safe place to make mistakes. How about dedicated time to sharing those mistakes in the regular team meeting? It’s okay not to have a positive spin on your mistakes or to have an answer. Instead, set an example, lead compassionately, and share your failures and mistakes. And when you see somebody struggling, offer an ear or voice and ask them, “Do you want me to listen? Or would you like a suggestion?”
Our lives and the world around us have become so noisy and distracting. It’s imperative that we encourage “Think Big” deep thinking time, free from boundaries and that noise. Allow freeform ideation, both personal and at work. It’s okay not to know what you want to do with that time. And it’s okay not to know what you want to get out of that time. Whether it’s an hour, two hours, or four hours. It’s free form time.
With that, we must recognize that there are unique strengths and abilities that our neurodiverse peers bring. Therefore, we must create an inclusive environment, provide accommodations, and be there to accelerate each other. Doing so will positively impact the workplace and the world and set each other up for growth and success so we can all thrive together and build a better world.
Resources: From Words to Music
Some final thoughts and resources around books. I’m reading “Deep Work” by Cal Cal Newport and have been digging into his YouTube and podcasting sessions. I love the “Emotions Reveal” book because it helps you understand people’s feelings and see beyond your initial reaction. And then “Atomic Habits” for building good habits and routines.
The last thing I’ll leave with is music. I really enjoy music as it has a deep meaning in my heart. I’ve spent the last two and a half years doing a lot of self-exploration being home from COVID because of my autoimmune disorders. The “Dirty Heads” lyrics have helped me through a lot in my life and make sense of the challenges and struggles I’ve overcome. As well as those I still have to figure out.
I will end this with a nod to my favorite dirty head songs and Mr. Belvedere from “Saved by The Bell”. Thank you for reading all the way through!
Life’s a vacation — Go live your life and enjoy it! I urge you to find that thing that inspires you and chase it!
I’ll be adding additional resources and links to this section:
Appendix A — Mind Map Tools
I use SimpleMind for the mind mapping tool. It’s a great tool that runs locally and everything.