Tell me if this sounds familiar: You have something due, and you put it off for days, maybe even weeks. It isn’t until the Saturday before you have to turn it in that you actually sit down to start working on it.
Of course, even that part’s easier said than done. Procrastination will kick in, and suddenly you’ll find yourself really busy with a million other pointless, non-time-sensitive tasks. You’ll find yourself doing anything you can to avoid sitting down and getting the work done, and whatever it is that needs completing will surely feel like the hardest thing in the world.
I know what this is like because I’ve done it — a lot. As someone who works for herself, alone and at home, procrastinating is an all-too tempting vice that beckons to me every day because I have nobody to hold me accountable for my work but myself. Add the fact that I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) into the mix, and it gets even more challenging.
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Fountains for Focusing
Since childhood, I’ve struggled with problems focusing, difficulties prioritizing and planning, an inability to do one thing for a prolonged period of time and feelings of confusion when I feel stressed. It’s a wonder I ever get any work done at all.
But I do (as this article proves!), and though I wish I could credit it to my willpower, there’s a different reason why I’m always eventually able to ignore the distractions and focus. It might be because of the Adderall I take or the coffee I drink. And it could be due to the nature sounds I play or the ginkgo biloba pills I swallow. But I believe that the real reason I’m able to be productive and get things done is because I turn on a small water fountain.
Imagine a 6-inch-tall ceramic tree trunk framed between fairytale-esque red toadstool mushrooms. Two bearded gnomes, each wearing pointy dunce-like caps, perch on the top. This is what my fountain looks like. With the aid of a tiny electric pump, water trickles down from the top, spilling over the sides of the tree trunk and into the base, where it is sucked back up and flushed out again, repeating the process in an endless, mesmerizing cycle.
When I bought the water fountain four years ago, it wasn’t because I thought it would help me be more productive. I just thought it was funny and liked the idea of having a piece of gnome kitsch in my living room.
But though I bought it for the laughs, I eventually realized that having gurgling sounds in the background helped me write. I’d find myself able to sit at my desk and think — deeply — about one topic for hours at a time. It was an exciting discovery.
The Soothing Sounds of Water
I’m not the only person who has discovered the effectiveness of water elements when writing. Cheryl Bond-Nelms, a video producer and certified holistic stress management coach, pens articles for her blog, Tranquility Is Yours, with fountains spewing water in the background. “They always help me, personally,” she says.
Bond-Nelms, a Maryland resident, owns a handful of indoor fountains that she’s placed around her house, particularly in the bedrooms and bathrooms. She said her daughter likes to tease her about her fountain-hoarding tendencies. In fact, a lot of people don’t really understand her connection to them.
“Nobody thinks of them as a tool,” Bond-Nelms says. “It’s just not the first thing that comes to mind. But when you’re around a fountain and you become aware of it and what it can do to a space, just that little thing, it can change your whole perspective.”
College students have also noted the mind-in-motion effects of water sounds. In 2002, an engineering professor at Clarkson University in New York had students in his junior honors seminar write essays, poems and music about water fountains. He published their unedited thoughts online (and I somehow found them 16 years later).
Much of their writing focused on the mental benefits of listening to a fountain. Students argued that running water can serve as a parable for life; that it can symbolize progress and moving past obstacles; and that its “awesome power” can give you perspective.
When listening to a fountain, wrote one student, “the visitor realizes that his or her problems really aren’t that big and they will eventually work out.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever had that exact thought, but there is an incessantness to a fountain, a sort of eternal, tireless energy to it that has likely encouraged me on a subconscious level to continue working even at times when my inclination was to give up.
Clearing the Clutter of the Mind
Water as a tool for centering and balancing the self is a common ideology behind Zen Buddhism as well. A well-known relaxation method that's often paired with meditation, moving water can help clear the mind of clutter and noise. For those with ADHD, the constant, steady sound likely helps us navigate our thoughts with more clarity and less frenzy. The trickling water slows down our often racing minds, reducing our anxiety and giving us more space to think.
Research backs a lot of this up. In scientific parlance, the sound of water (along with other natural sounds, like heartbeats) qualifies as “pink noise.” Our brains interpret such sounds as non-threatening, and they can have a soothing, heart-rate-lowering effect on our bodies. Pink noise can help us relax, which in turn reduces our stress levels. The less stressed you are, the more sleep you’re likely to get. And as studies have shown time and again, those who are the most well-rested tend to perform the best academically.
Unfortunately, these results have yet to be proven for individuals with ADHD, as Beth Krone, a clinical psychologist and research coordinator for the Division of ADHD, Learning Disabilities, and Related Disorders at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, points out. In other words, we can’t necessarily assume that pink noise would have the same effects on those who have focusing issues. And in Krone’s expert opinion, none of the studies performed on pink noise thus far “provide enough evidence to make big statements one way or another.”
Part of the reason why so little testing has been done on this topic, she explains, is because there are so many variables that would need to be taken into consideration. “We like to call ADHD a heterogeneous disorder because there are multiple tiny differences that make up the constellation of symptoms that become different ADHD presentations.”
But even though there’s a dearth of ADHD-specific data to back up my revelation about water fountains, Krone didn’t entirely dismiss my theory. She concedes that “reducing stress and improving sleep can make quality of life better for those with ADHD.” She also pointed out that any benefits pink noise can have on a person likely take place over time, not instantaneously.
I see her point. Even though I thought that turning on my fountain was the key to focusing and achievement, it’s likely it has a delayed power over my senses: By listening to the fountain, I become more relaxed. The more relaxed I am, the better I sleep. The more sleep I get, the easier it is to focus.
Peace of Mind
Still, part of me doesn’t want to give up my naive belief in the immediate healing powers of water fountains. There’s something comforting about knowing that if I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts, I can always plug in my fountain, and voila! The levees of confusion will break. Like a Band-aid or a dash of salt, my fountain will always be there to make things better — or at least fool me into thinking so.
And yes — for the record, my fountain was on the entire time I wrote this article.
Jessie Schiewe is the editor and creator of OK Whatever, an online publication dedicated to weird news and adventurous journalism. Previously, she was the music editor for SF Weekly and the editor-in-kief of SF Evergreen.
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