My Totalitarian Impulse

Carsten Dominik from 2008:

What people miss when they are new to Org-mode is this:

Don’t try to set up the “final” task managing system from the start. Because you have no idea yet what your system should look like. Don’t set up many TODO states and logging initially, before you actually have a feeling for what you working flow is. Don’t define a context tag “@computer” just because David Allen has one, even though you are sitting at a computer all the time anyway! Start by creating and managing a small TODO list and then develop your own system as the needs arises. I wrote Org-mode to enable this development process.

Yeah. That’s a tough impulse to battle.

I’ve been working on an “o.k. to take a small sliver of my 40 hours a week, best worked on over the weekend” analytics project, so I’ve been doing all the coding for that in Textmate. I don’t have the time to get Emacs into shape as my development environment.

I also made one of my personal goals for the quarter to pick something from among OmniFocus, Things, TaskPaper, Evernote, note pads, notebooks etc. to manage todos, and then stick to it no matter how much something about it irked me, and no matter what cool automation thing for something I didn’t happen to be using turned up on Pinboard or Twitter.

So I stripped my .emacs.d down to the point that it’s pretty much just an org-mode delivery mechanism, and fiddled around just enough to get mobile org working. (Yes, that.) There’s just no time to worry about picking the One True Tool for all tasks. Consequently, Emacs for me is pretty much the world’s most overpowered todo list manager. That’s cool!

I’m still using Evernote for most capture and as a ‘net inbox, but I just can’t make its reminders/todo system work for me for checklists, and about two days ago it hardlocked on my iPad and hasn’t really recovered despite numerous force-quits and a complete iPad restart. I should just delete it from the iPad, but I’m feeling stubborn: I want it to work through whatever has it in a funk or, having failed to do so, signal to me that I really don’t want to put as much weight on it as I have.

Meanwhile, my org files live in Dropbox and I’ve been enjoying using it again, and slowly layering on the capabilities, just as that quote from Carsten Dominik suggests. This morning on my commute in it was nice to realize I hadn’t done a mobile org sync but was still be able to open my org files in the Dropbox app and read them (because they’re always human-readable plain text, even if Emacs makes the plain text behave magically.)

Making Evernote My Single Source of Truth

Restless today, but with no will to work on anything long, and with an abiding sense of frustration about all my little inboxes.

Spending some time observing how I do things when I’m not thinking about them much taught me that I go to Evernote pretty quickly for just about everything. It fills the space VoodooPad used to, before the iPhone came along and made “must do mobile” so much more important to me.

For instance, Evernote is where:

  • every expense receipt
  • every whiteboard session
  • every quick, ad-hoc note-taking session in front of a computer
  • every web receipt


Once something is in there, it’s searchable (including handwritten stuff). And like the old Emacs Remembrance Agent, it’s continually updating a list of notes related to what I’m looking at or writing in it.

Evernote has been getting smarter and smarter over time, too. Some time in the past several months I snapped a picture of a whiteboard during a meeting and noticed that Evernote had named the note for the title of the meeting I was in from my calendar.

It’s also got free clients for iOS, Mac and Windows (and the web interface doesn’t appear to be terrible, but I’ve never forced myself to use it for long).

It always feels a little risky trusting a company with something this important, but I kind of do. Evernote has definitely had a few screwups here and there, but the application itself continues to improve. It doesn’t feel like any worse a bet to me than many other applications, and it feels considerably more substantial to me than a lot of other cloud offerings. It’s also possible to get all the data kept in it back out should it ever prove to be headed in the wrong direction.

So I’m going to experiment with making it my single source of truth for a while, just to see how it goes.

Making It a Place for Actions

I’ve tried making general todos fit into Evernote, and it has a reasonable facility for making that work:

If you use cmd-shift-t in the text of a note, you get a checkbox. Then if you search Evernote for todo:true, you get a list of notes with unticked todo boxes. You can drag that search into the shortcuts in your sidebar, and you’ve suddenly got all your todo lists in one place.

That’s pretty good for when you’re sitting in front of Evernote specifically and you’re making a list. The thing it doesn’t really do for you is to turn things from the outside (e.g. bookmarks, email messages) into actions. You can sort of hack that in by editing a note created from an outside source and adding a single checkbox to it.

But that hasn’t really satisfied, and I was trying to use Evernote as a system of notes within folders, and that didn’t feel quite right. So I’ve been hobbling along with either Things or OS X Reminders or legal pads. As much as I’m not a super big fan of GTD as a religious movement, though, I completely get the value of a single source of truth. Because I put so much stuff in Evernote already, I’d like it to be where things can not only become records — things I want to get at and read later —but also actions.

What’s keeping me from that? Not much. Evernote’s a pretty decent inbox. It just needs a few things to make it better, it comes with an awesome AppleScript dictionary, and it has decent integration with ifttt.

So here are some ways to mix all that up and make Evernote a fairly complete inbox/action list.

Working With Paper

I like working on paper, but I don’t like living in paper. I hoped for the longest time that I’d be able to use my iPad as a notebook, but until something better than “draw words with your finger” or “use a stylus the size of an end of a hotdog” comes along, it won’t feel quite right.

I also don’t like dragging my laptop all over the office for meetings where I can get by looking things up on the iPad or jotting notes on a legal pad. Evernote’s all about that: I just snap pictures of my notes in its special document mode and it captures them fine (and even labels them with the name of the meeting I’m in from my calendar).

Working From the Desktop

From the desktop, the Evernote Clipper provides a decent tool for getting things into Evernote.

The clipper can be invoked with ctrl-cmd-n for typing in a quick note. Much like Notational Velocity, the first line becomes the title of the new note. The clipper can also be used to capture files ( cmd-c to copy the file, ctrl-cmd-n to invoke the clipper, cmd-v to paste the file into the clipper).

So that’s as good a way as anything to capture todos and things you want to act on when you’re right in front of the computer.

Working With Email

Lots of actions start life as emails, so I’m always curious about the ways a new tool can capture email in a way that helps me keep the information, but also get back to the original message (for followups).

There are a few ways to deal with email and Evernote:

  • Set up an email address with Evernote to which you can send/forward email messages to turn them into notes. I don’t like the way the resulting notes look (they’re forwarded, so they’re a little harder to parse). That’s still an option if you’re mobile and want to make sure you’ve captured the message.
  • Set up a ifttt recipe that turns any starred email into a note. The formatting isn’t great (linebreaks are removed) and there’s no link back to the mail. Not recommended.
  • Select all the text in the message, copy it, then use the Evernote clipper. This is pretty good, and if you’re using Apple Mail you usually get a link back to the message in the Evernote URL field (making it possible to recall the original message within The one downside to this is that it takes a few keystrokes.
  • Recommended: Select the message itself from the message list, copy it with cmd-c, then paste it with the clipper (ctrl-cmd-v). This copies the message text into the note, nicely formatted, and you get a link back to the message in

If you’re a Mailplane user, by the way, you can also use its Evernote integration to capture messages. It provides a link back to the webpage version of the Gmail message (not, sadly, the Mailplane version).

Working With Bookmarks and RSS (especially when mobile)

So, a few years ago I wrote this thing called panopticon. It was meant to help tackle the problem of turning everything I liked, starred, flagged or saved into an actionable todo item for later review. It knew about:

  • flagged email messages
  • new Evernote notes
  • new delicious bookmarks
  • flagged NetNewsWire items

I’d run it at the end of each day, it’d turn all the stuff into Things todos (with a panopticon tag for easy review), and I’d get a handy tickler list full of stuff I’d seen or had been interested in that I could then either turn into a proper action (or get back to at a later time).

I wrote it in rb-appscript, which was a fine decision at the time: I could automate the interrogation of desktop apps for whatever I was interested in without having to write AppleScript. Apple has since deprecated the APIs rb-appscript depends on, so there’s no point in going back to it for anything I expect to be using in another three years.

However, Evernote has an API and it talks to ifttt just fine. ifttt is purpose-built for this sort of automation. So I don’t really need Panopticon anymore. I just need to use services supported by ifttt, and that’s not a problem at all: I moved to pinboard a while back, and I do my RSS reading with tools that use Feedly as the backend. So I can make ifttt recipes that turn pinboard bookmarks and favorited Feedly items into Evernote notes and dump them into a folder of their own for easy review.

A Mobile Digression

That probably seems a little roundabout, and it is. But it helps with the mobile use case: Moving content around in iOS still completely blows. The built-in share tools involve email or social media, and you have to context switch for everything else. With pinboard and Feedly, however, bookmarks and starred items are usually just a tap away from Mobile Safari, Mr. Reader or Reeder, so ifttt makes it a breeze to capture things from those apps into Evernote on a mobile device.

Probably the real answer here is to start using Android devices. I read the ridiculous workarounds Apple enthusiasts come up with to make it easier to share/act on content in iOS using apps like Drafts, then I think about how unique and completely awesome OS X’s services API is, and I feel very sad. Android completely kills iOS in this area.

Special URL schemes aren’t really an answer here, either. Apps should be able to register as receivers with a global service broker, then be available to every other app that can share the kind of data they’re set up to process. The current system of “hope that the developer of app A agrees that app B is pretty cool and deserves a space on the share menu, or else that they provide a way to peck in a special URL scheme in their configuration tool” is stupid and broken.

Anyhow, ifttt makes it pretty painless to work around all that: Just set up a recipe and accept that the results won’t be instantaneous, but that if you star something on the train, it’ll be in Evernote by the time you finish the walk from Union Station to the office.

And From the Command Line

I recently found Geeknote, which provides a command line interface to Evernote. You can designate the editor you prefer to use (e.g. vim or Emacs) and create notes from the shell. Alternately, you can pipe output into Geeknote and turn it into Evernote notes.

My current use case is weekly analytics reporting: I built an analytics framework in Padrino that I currently use most via the command line and Ruby scripts. It’s dead simple to do this when I need to generate a new report:

ruby recent_posts.rb|geeknote --title 'Recent Posts - 2013-10-12'

and get a new Evernote note with the last 30 days worth of stats.

But What About the Action-ness of This Stuff?

So, that’s all toward getting things into Evernote in a readable format for later review. And I briefly noted that there are ways to make todo lists in Evernote. That doesn’t quite get us to the actionability of these things.

Earlier this year, Evernote introduced reminders. With reminders, you can take a note, append a reminder to it, and optionally assign a due date to it. At that point, it becomes sort of special: It appears in the reminders list for a given notebook where it can be marked as completed. If it gets a due date, you can get alerts via Evernote itself or email.

The UX on this isn’t really ideal yet. Evernote hasn’t yet wired up a keyboard shortcut to turn a note into a reminder, so you have to manually click a link in the UI, then click another link to add a date. It’s a little better in the mobile app, where you can bring up a dedicated reminder view and then create new reminders from there.

Still, you can do some good things with reminders. For instance, if you select more than one reminder in the special list Evernote provides at the top of each notebook, Evernote presents an option to “Create a Table of Contents Note.” Click that, and the resulting list of reminders appear in a new note with links to each reminder. Change the title of the note to something like “Todo:” then press cmd-shift-d to auto-insert the date into the title, and you’ve got an action list for the day.

It would be nice, though, to be able to make notes into reminders without having to reach for the mouse, or do several clicks, so I wrote a quick AppleScript to help with that:

I bound the script to a keyboard shortcut in FastScripts, and now it’s possible to select a batch of notes, press ctrl-cmd-r, and turn them all into reminders with a due date of one day from now.


So, all that goes toward getting things into the inbox. There are a few ways to think about organizing it all beyond that.

I’m leaning toward tagging items with project names, then dragging project tags in and out of the shortcut bar as I work on them/complete them.

The reminder list at the top of any list of notes always reflects the organization of the main note list, whether it’s based on a tag, a folder or search results. So putting the “freelancers” tag in the shortcut bar means that when I click on that link, I’ll get a list of every actionable note tagged that way at the top of the window, then all the not-necessarily-actionable notes (research material, for instance) also tagged that way at the bottom.

Elephant Graveyard

Here are some things I’ve thought about and/or tried and/or even used for a while, and why I don’t care to use them:

  • OmniFocus: Way too heavy, and its sense of “notes” is too bolted on for my tastes. There are ways to improve the way action item notes present, but I prefer Evernote’s rich text editor. Also, Omni Group is going to be holding its hand out for OmniFocus 2 and OmniFocus 2 for iPad shortly.
  • Things: Slow development (goes toward not really trusting the developers), and it has been crashy recently.
  • TaskPaper: Too simple, and a little crabby when it comes to tabs/whitespace. Also not great for capture of anything more than simple text. I’m also not fond of the author’s meandering development pace.
  • Notational Velocity (or whatever that Markdown-centric fork is): Seems fine, but I don’t get the impression you can leave it open on one machine then open it on another without risking some confusion or corruption. Don’t think it’s good for much more than simple text, doubt it’s good for capture.
  • org mode: I think I’ve been clear on this.
  • VoodooPad: Capture isn’t quite right on the desktop, and it doesn’t have a super useful mobile app.


Which isn’t to say Evernote is perfect. Here are some things I wish it could do:

  • Use Markdown for notes or …
  • at least use styles on top of structured text. I’d like to be able to designate a level 2 heading or a level 3 heading instead of fiddling with physical styles
  • Provide an outline mode inside notes. It doesn’t have to be much, but being able to collapse or expose lines in an outliner would be pretty handy
  • Provide wiki-style linking (you can link to notes now, but it’s a drag and drop operation)

Panopticon 0.1

So, panopticon 0.1 is very simple and it handles:

  • recently flagged e-mail in several accounts

  • recently flagged/starred items in my RSS reader (NetNewsWire, in sync with Google Reader)

  • recently created notes in my Evernote account

  • recently added Instapaper items

It executes in a few seconds and adds everything it finds from each of those inboxes to my “Today” list, tagged with “panopticon” and the name of the source, with a due date of 5 p.m.

Things To-Dos created by Panopticon

I described the point yesterday. Restated:

If you’re one of those people who needs to stop at the end of the day and turn out your pockets, making sure you put your keys in the key place, and your change in a little bowl, and loose receipts wherever you put those, that’s what panopticon is doing for me: Helping me put everything I’ve accumulated from the ‘net over the past day in a little glass bowl. That way it won’t get run through the wash or carelessly emptied into the trash.

It’s really not done at all, but I’ve learned that it’s best for me to do the bare minimum to make a thing work before I lose interest in a project. I can always fiddle with it later. So some things I’ve left out for now:

  • passing e-mail and RSS items through the summarize service (described here last February) to populate the to-do body

  • Things adding the ability to create live links to web pages and messages using the message:// URL handler built into OS X in to-do bodies, but that’s on them.

  • Checking the Things Logbook list to make sure there’s not a recent item of the same title and source that’s been completed and so is not on the list.

  • exception handling. I mean, why not create a to-do out of “something’s going wrong with this script” when something goes wrong with the script?

To change:

  • The whole “what’s been seen, what’s been completed?” thing is due for some more thought, really.

  • Figuring out how I can do more of this outside of rb-appscript. The big advantage of using appscript instead of consuming a bunch of services and feeds is that you don’t have to go around either finding gems that talk to assorted APIs or parsing the JSON, etc. that they send back on their own, ask for API keys, etc. You just talk to the apps you use to consume those services. The problem with that approach is that it only works on a Mac. If the giant Mac-eating space robots turn up and enslave us all, ushering in an era where no computer more robust than an Ubuntu netbook is permitted to function on the surface of the planet, I’m screwed.

I’d file it under “secret software,” but it’s not because it’s posted here. But it’s at about that level: Won’t blow anything up, even when it doesn’t work it will help me a lot more than if it weren’t running at all.

What continues to be awesome to me about it all: 81 lines of code. The magic is all in the eight ‘require’ lines at the top, where much more talented people provide me with the tools I need to say things in such a simple, forgiving way. I mean …

 notes = @evernote.notebooks["Inbox"].notes[ - 2.days)].get

That’s just neat.

Find Recently Flagged Messages in With Appscript

How to find all the recently flagged messages in a collection of inboxes using rb-appscript:

Feedback Loop


I remember an article from eleven or so years ago that explained how to use Perl to spider the Web and collect links to new pages from my favorite sites. I don’t remember all the details, except that it was written from a perspective that seems very alien now, because there are just so many ways to have things delivered now. I’m sure some folks still find some benefit automating the retrieval of some things in that fashion, but for general-purpose “keeping up with daily stuff,” you can get an awful lot done with a custom section on your favorite news site and a healthy collection of RSS feeds to the right aggregator sites.

I’m thinking about the problems that lump of Perl solved right now because it’s become so easy to have so much just arrive on my computer’s doorstep that the volume of information I might receive and want or need to deal with over the Web or wider ‘net is beginning to feel like a deluge in its own right.

Here’s a list of electronic inboxes I put things in each day:

  • flagged/starred items in my mail

  • delicious bookmarks

  • Evernote notes

  • flagged/starred RSS articles

  • Instapaper items

  • Things todos

A list of collection points:

  • iPhone

  • iPad

  • Mac

  • MacBook (targeted for removal from the inventory, but still here for now, even if it isn’t seeing a lot of use)

I gather a lot of information in a lot of apps or services, and I usually pick the apps or services based on how frictionless it is to capture something into it along with how portable it is. I love Evernote’s Web clipper, for instance, because it’s just sitting there waiting to be used and it takes very little effort to clip a new note and go on with what I’m doing, and I can then get at that note from anywhere I’m connected to the ‘net. In fact, the collection process is so frictionless with a lot of these tools that the real challenge is keeping track of all the things that I come across and can’t do something with right now.

When I think about what I’m doing with each of those tools I use to gather collections of things, I’ve made the mistake of thinking of those things very narrowly: “This is a bookmark,” “this is an interesting article,” “this is an e-mail message with an article I need to edit.” But that’s way too narrow, because what they all really are is things I need to do, whether the “doing” is reading them, passing them along to someone else.

While I’ve got a nice todo program that runs on every computer or device I own (Things), it’s not easy or practical to turn all those things I gather into todos at the time they’re created—that’s a second step— and it’s not really easy to circle back and sweep all those things up because they live a bunch of places. Even though Things runs on everything I own, it’s sort of uneven in terms of what it can capture where. On an iPhone or iPad, for instance, Things requires a whole context switch to get something saved to it. It’s more fluid and adaptable on my desktop or laptop.

Because the central point of my computing life is my desktop computer (an iMac), and because all the apps I use to deal with all these inboxes offer an AppleScript dictionary of some kind, the act of gathering up all the stuff in each of those inboxes can be automated based on finding items based on their creation date (the last couple of days) and their uniqueness (don’t already have a to-do with identical title, comments and source service).

Some sample gathering queries from two that I knocked off this morning, just to show how easy it is to find stuff using /rb:

en = app("Evernote")

notes = en.notebooks["Inbox"].notes[ - 2.days)].get

nnw = app("NetNewsWire")

flagged_rss = nnw.subscriptions[its.display_name.eq('Flagged Items')].first.get

And all the code you need to make a new todo in Things:

things = app("Things")

task = things.make(:at => app.lists["Today"].beginning, 

    :new => :to_do, 

    :with_properties => {:name => my_title, 

    :tag_names => "panopticon", :notes => my_note, 

    :due_date => + 8.hours


I’ve got a skeleton of something I’m tagging as “panopticon” that uses those two basic ideas as a script I can run now and then (though always first thing in the morning) to sweep up all those inboxes into the one inbox best equipped to get me to act on them: Things’ “Today” list.

Once everything is gathered up and turned into todos, Things provides a nice interface for going down through them and either adding them to a project, doing something with them on the spot, deferring action on them, remembering to refile them, or deciding they weren’t that important after all. It’s only one thing to remember (“look in Things each morning”), and I don’t have to go visit each service each day to make sure there’s not something in there I need to be doing.

I also get to keep using each service for what it’s good for. I’m not so much transmuting a bit of information into a bundle of potential action as I am cloning it into a bundle of potential action while the original runs around wherever it’s happiest, in a format where it’s most useful as a form of long-term recall.

Predominantly Inattentive

So, the purpose of the whole NetNewsWire feed graphing thing was to give me a handle on something that claims a lot of my attentional resources. Having information like that is important to me because I’m, as my old boss at the high school might have said, “ADHD as hell.”

Before going much further, and so the terms are established, when I say “ADHD” I’m going by the DSM-IV’s definition, which does not distinguish between “ADHD,” “ADD,” and “Adult ADD,” but rather puts everything under “ADHD” then breaks that down into three classes:

  1. Combined Type: symptoms related to both inattention and impulsivity are present

  2. Predominantly Inattentive Type

  3. Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type

I’ve never manifested symptoms of hyperactivity, I’ve periodically manifested impulsivity, and I’ve always–for as long as I can remember–consistently displayed most of the nine symptoms of inattentiveness. I’m clarifying terms because people have conflicting ideas about ADHD, who can have it and what people who have ADHD act like. It’s entirely possible to be externally placid and have ADHD. It’s also entirely possible to demonstrate a capacity for extended periods of intense concentration and have ADHD. I also think it’s worth noting that I don’t look at ADHD as some sort of sickness I need to “cure.” It does create its share of issues which have to be addressed, but it also confers some advantages I wouldn’t trade away. My experiences with ADHD medication helped me realize the ways in which I’ve benefitted from being out on my end of the attentional spectrum.

That’s my way of hinting that I don’t need to be encouraged or reassured, thanks.


People with ADHD learn all sorts of ways to cope with their inattentiveness or impulsivity.

Depending on the type of impulsivity you’re talking about, I’ve been pretty successful in cultivating habits to curb that. They aren’t always the most socially adaptive, because they involve a sort of delaying check loop that can come off as reticence. They can also be sort of off-putting, because I tend to hold my fire in impersonal communications–e-mail, IM, bulletin boards, talkbacks–until I feel like I’ve checked my initial assumptions adequately. That can result in a barrage of fact-checked data out of proportion to the rest of the conversation. nerdmeyr once referred to me fixing my “Sauron-like gaze” on problems I’m out to solve, and I think she was picking up on a combination of that check loop and hyperfocus–another adaptation people with ADHD tend to come up with. An imperative to make sure I’m about to say or do the right thing in combination with a need to turn off big chunks of my external awareness to get through the process of thinking something through can make for some seemingly monomaniacal excess sometimes.

Another way to cope is, of course, medication, which I tried for a while. The meds I was on were spiking my blood pressure, ruining my sleep and making me feel depressed. I don’t want better focus because it’ll make me a better worker … I want better focus because the quality of what happens in my head matters to me, and I want it to continue to matter to me until I’m dead. I do not, however, want to drag a hand-written prescription down to the pharmacist once a month until I am dead, and I suspect that something that pushes my systolic blood pressure from its unmedicated 95-100 up to 135-140 will probably make me dead that much faster. (If you’re curious, the medication in question was Adderall, which is tightly regulated because it’s a time-release amphetamine.)

The thing is, if I’ve cultivated habits of thought and behavior that have helped me curb the impulsive elements of ADHD, it stands to reason that I can curb the inattentive elements, too. In the absence of medication, personal research and professional opinion suggest a few categories I can improve on to rein in my brain:

  • Diet: Studies have shown improvement in people with ADHD who avoid carbohyrdates and take in more protein.

  • Supplements: Fish oil and iron are supposed to help. There are a number of other recommended vitamin supplements, depending on the type of ADHD one has.

  • Sleep: Consistent and adequate

  • Exercise: Vigorous and often

Life coaches who work with people who have ADHD also recommend establishing a routine for all sorts of things, ranging from when the work day starts and stops to where keys, watch and wallet are deposited at the end of the day. But because I’ve spent years approaching most activity as a matter of spontaneous interest, the focus on diet, exercise and routine changes the way time works.

Time Is Different in Here

ADHD can manifest as serious procrastination–islands of intense activity in a sea of unstructured, unmarked time. Procrastination is o.k. in some contexts and for some people, but it becomes less adaptive as complexity is introduced. If all you do is get up at the last minute, rush through the morning, sprint off to work then sit around reading MetaFilter until 3 p.m. then guiltily sprint through work before calling it quits and going home to do whatever seems shiniest until you’re too tired to stay awake, procrastination works. Add exercise first thing in the morning, adequate time to prepare good meals, planning to get the groceries and supplements, care to go to bed early enough to rest well before getting up in time to exercise, and procrastination becomes problematic. Especially if you’re inattentive enough to miss details as you rush through whatever.

To people who do not have ADHD, all of that must seem like the commonest of common sense, but to someone used to living in a kind of time flow that’s not reflective or regulated–where there’s a seemingly limitless pool of unstructured time–it requires some shifts in thinking and behavior. Time has to become finite and each activity has to evaluated in the context of a matrix of activities. These patterns of thinking have to be learned by everybody, but some people are cognitively equipped to learn them passively, while some of us have to learn them actively, and maybe after years of frustration that we don’t share some common understanding other people have.

The process of evaluating how time gets spent looms large in a lot of ADHD literature. ADHD coaches encourage their charges to make sure they keep lists, engage in daily planning sessions, be more mindful of the passage of time and find ways to break out of extended periods of hyperfocus before a single task consumes all their time. Having dabbled with self-hypnosis and having been through a course of cognitive behavioral therapy, I perceive two levels of purpose with all that time tracking and focus marshaling:

  1. People with ADHD need the help timers, lists and reminders provide on a practical level.

  2. There’s value in constant, syllogistic repetition of a goal.

My experience with ADHD medication showed me that the issue isn’t one of a “medicine” somehow “curing” a condition. What it did do was provide a way to hold a thought just a bit longer. When my thoughts centered around ways to self-organize, the medication was beneficial. When they didn’t, the medication generally seemed to intensify the sort of hyperfocus ADHD people cultivate. So a big part of dealing with ADHD’s harmful symptoms involves cultivation of a second, persistent level of awareness; a soundtrack that more or less continuously says things like “I’m putting this off because I want to move on to something else, but that’s something I do because I have ADHD. I should stop putting it off or I won’t have time to do it well,” or “I know I promised to do that chore, but I’m rationalizing not doing it for a while longer. I know I don’t often make very realistic estimates of how I use my time, so I should stop and reassess my estimate in this case,” and on and on.

I don’t think about this stuff because I’m desperate to fit in with all the monochrons, but because there are only so many hours in the day, and unwise use of them leads to lots of things being done poorly instead of perhaps fewer things being done well. As I noted earlier, this isn’t just about housework or chores. It’s about sustaining all sorts of endeavors — creative, interpersonal, cognitive, physical and spiritual endeavors.


On the workaday level, I’ve used a small inventory of things to help me rein in my attention:


I have a digital egg timer, but I’ve been using the Mac application Minuteur for several years. It used to be free, but it now costs 8€, Its advantage over an egg timer is that it can be set to blank the display when it goes off, providing +5 or +10 snooze buttons. It can also save a list of common time periods, so it’s easy to set up labeled time lists.

Another timer app I own and use sporadically is Red Sweater’s FlexTime, which makes it easy to create timed routines. Each block of a routine can start or end by playing a sound, displaying a message on screen or running a script. I’ve set up routines for things like “an hour of work,” so I can get prompts to do ten or fifteen minute bursts before cooling down for a few minutes. My initial temptation was to program my entire workday routine, but that sort of rigidity makes it hard to get back on track when the inevitable disruption comes along, and then the whole thing falls apart.

I use timers for a few things:

  • to break up time during the work day. It’s easier to stop procrastination when work is broken up into chunks then interrupted by design for small periods of time.

  • if I absolutely cannot abide the thought of keeping at what I’m doing, a timer helps me put limits on off-task time.

  • to remind me of things I’d otherwise forget about: stuff like the time my tea has been steeping or my coffee has been sitting in the french press. I also set timers for the tea pot, even though my tea pot whistles. Sometimes its whistle doesn’t get through the perceptual wall.

Right now my most used fixed time alarm is one I’ve set for 10:15 each night. It reminds me to wrap up what I’m doing and start winding down. I use my iPhone for alarms, since it allows me to save alarms for repeat use.

Note Cards & Sticky Notes, Lists

Keeping a pad of these handy helps me deal with external interruptions. Stuff that happens when I’m absorbed in a task is easy to forget despite my best intentions. I’ve found myself using the Mac’s “Stickies” app the most, just because it’s right there and it’s persistent between restarts. Paper often disappears in the clutter or stacks up.

I also keep beginning- and end-of-the-day inventories: Keeping a simple log or journal that’s distinct from my calendar or main to-do list helps me reinforce what I hope to accomplish or need to remember for the day.

Observation and Reflection

Which brings me partially back to the matter of charting what I’m reading.

Before I started reflecting on what it meant to have ADHD, my feed reader was pretty busy. At the peak of things, I was tracking close to 200 feeds along with a few mailing lists, whatever books I was reading at the moment and a pretty healthy movie-watching jones. A lot of factors combined to slow me down–having a kid makes for less ambivalence about holding a job, or willingness to suck at it. I still wasn’t being very selective. I had a giant pool of inputs, and even if I couldn’t absorb quite as much of it I was still approaching it as an undifferentiated mass of interesting things.

Medicated, I still didn’t do much thinking about what I was taking in. My thinking wasn’t really centered on behavioral optimization so much as it was about doing everything I was supposed to then luxuriating in unstructured time as I earned it.

A few months ago I made it a point to drastically scale back commitments so I could free up the space to contemplate what I was doing and why I was doing it. The whole apple run-in was sort of helpful, because it further wrecked my routine and caused me to forget about my medication for a few days, which is how I learned just how high my blood pressure was running.

I was pretty nervous going into the holidays. All the things that must be done combined with a lot of socializing makes for a pretty enervating time of year. I dropped the medication, though, and decided to see what happened.

Curiously, my mood got a lot better. I was half-fearing some sort of Flowers for Algernon-like descent into fog, but that isn’t the first thing I noticed. Rather, I noticed it was easier to get to sleep at night and I felt a lot more loose in social contexts. It was noticing that the medication had seemingly buttoned me down further than I was comfortable with that encouraged me to think about adaptive behaviors I’d already cultivated before medication, and how if I had self-corrected issues of impulsivity, it was probably in my power to self-correct issues of inattentiveness.

It’s Not an Affliction: It’s an Excuse to Hack

As I noted earlier, a big part of dealing with the bad parts of ADHD involves cultivating a habit of thinking about having ADHD. The lists and timers help with that, but they don’t deal with the quality of activity … they just act as reminders to do activities at appropriate times. Part of the reason I hate drifting off on tangents is the way I leave a trail of half-finished projects and ideas in my attentional wake because I’m wasting time on things I realize I will not, ultimately, be happy I bothered with.

Last week I noticed a piece of software that gave me a few notions:

Optimism seems to be aimed at people who suffer from depression, providing a daily log of things like how well one ate, how much sleep one got, negative behaviors one might have engaged in that exacerbate depressive symptoms, etc. etc. It got me to thinking about how useful it would be to track attentional demands.

This evening I scaffolded a Rails app to help me do that. Right now, it’s built around tables for:

  • interests

  • Web domains:

    • Web pages visited

    • feeds read

  • projects

I’m using habtm relationships between the tables to reflect the way projects can involve multiple interests.

The core functionality will involve:

  1. Listing interests — things I want to learn about, think about, read about

  2. Listing projects — the practical manifestation of my interests

  3. Tracking reading — the raw material I feed my attentional resources

I’ve got the code to track my reading both on Safari and in NetNewsWire, with Safari history going into a sqlite database for processing … it just needs to be plugged into Rails. There’s also Google’s search history RSS, which provides an overview of topics searched as well as links from results visited. Considering the bulk of time I spend somewhere in Google:

Top 15 Domains in Safari History

… it seems like something worth keeping an eye on.

“1.0” functionality will involve setting priorities on my interests and projects, then making tools to easily compare how those interests stack up against my reading habits. I’ll keep it in the domain of online activity initially, but I can see eventually adding logging for reading away from the computer.

That’s what I’ve got for now.

© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.