I’ve written about having ADHD before. I recently tried to link back to an Ask Metafilter I wrote a while back, but an URL shortener killed the anchor link and that was sort of a drag, so I’m expanding that and making it a blog post.
At the time I first wrote all this down, I’d been working from home for close to 10 years, and I’d taken the time to get an ADHD diagnosis and medication. Having had to move back to working from home to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found myself thinking back to strategies that have helped in the past, and figuring out ways to adapt them to the kind of technology and tools I have now.
This may also be useful for neurotypical people who are struggling to focus on work in an environment they’re not used to “being at work” in, while keeping up with everything going on out there.
As I’ve noted in the past, I’m one of the “primarily inattentive” types, so I don’t have much insight into what it’s like for people with the more physical symptoms: You won’t see me jiggling my legs (but I may be rolling a pen, wrench socket, or something else between my fingers). I’m not so much at risk for doing something counterproductive as I am to get distracted, or fall into a state of deep focus on the wrong thing.
Journals have been very helpful for me when it comes to keeping focus:
Morning entries are for the day’s game plan: I write a rough todo list that helps me get a sense of what it was important to accomplish above all else, and include notes about things that represent bad attentional triggers and how I plan to deal with them. For instance:
I used to edit web publications, so one of my triggers proved to be Ruby hacking. I’d come across some odd piece of idiosyncratic HTML from one of my authors, or I’d stumble upon some task that would benefit from automation, and I’d get lost in hacking up something to make it all better. Three hours later, the morning was gone and I knew a ton more about some HTML scraping library or how to code up a quick Twitter bot, but nothing actually got done. So I’d note in my journal that no matter how badly something cried out for a bit of scripting, I’d aim to not succumb to the temptation to do that until a given point in the day. I came to look forward to hack time, and it eventually blossomed into an actual programming competency.
Lately, I’ve made a page template that includes a list of things I like to get done first thing over a cup of tea:
- Check the inbox and flag things that need a response
- Review my Things Inbox and Today list
- Review the day’s calendar to make sure I can fit everything
- Fire off any early emails or Slacks and make calendar adjustments
- Record my top three priorities
And I’ve got an expanded journal template I’ve borrowed from a few approaches:
- What are you most happy about?
- What are you most nervous about?
- What is today’s biggest challenge?
In the past, my morning journals also documented any attentional aids I was trying out–egg timers and assorted digital variations on them, for instance–and how I planned to use them. From that period, I learned that the Pomodoro technique is pretty helpful for people who are living in a maker’s schedule. You can adapt it for managers, too, but I’ve found that the 30-minute slices tend to be gaps between meetings, which mainly means you’re sort of living inside a giant pomodoro.
With the morning journal done, I start working, checking things off the list as I go. I like to check in on myself at noon. Years ago, when I rated an EA, a friendly one permabooked my lunches for me. Sometimes I work through them, but having them booked reminds me to pause and reset and take some time to recharge mid-day.
My checklist pages include some end-of-day activities, too:
- Check Concur to clear invoices, purchase requests, etc.
- Tidy my inbox: If I jotted actions down in written notes, make them digital in Things.
- Review the calendar for the next day.
- Do my daily retrospective: A section of my daily journal that includes:
- What went well?
- What can you improve tomorrow?
It has helped me to keep everything in that journal form, including todo capture. The thing I noticed most during the time I was using medication to control my ADHD was that reminding myself of the condition went a long way to letting the medication help. Having the journal entry open for consultation during the day helps keep me aware of the context that makes the journal necessary.
I’ve got some more thoughts on why the journal/list format has helped:
First, it offers very little to fiddle with. I’ve set up some custom templates but they’re strictly optional and there’s enough friction involved that it’s not something I care to play around with a lot. I’ll get to those templates below.
Second, it has helped give me an insight into how I perceive time.
The journal represents an investment in a future self I’d never really considered very carefully before I started writing him notes each morning and night. The journal has helped me think about that future self. That was something of a breakthrough, when I first landed on it years ago, because as much as I’d learned over the years to control my more severe flights of impulsivity–the kinds of things where consequences arrive in the span of minutes or hours, a month at the most–I’d never really figured out why I couldn’t handle the stuff that involved consequences that arrived in a year, or five years.
The journal also connects me to a past self. I write to myself in the second person, so going back and re-reading entries has a very personal edge to it, as if to say “this is you from last night, really hoping you don’t screw this up” instead of my usual dealings with a “me” that never really managed to escape a continuously unfolding present of failure and frustration.
Had I spent my time documenting my progress in a more checklist-y way, I don’t know if I would have managed to connect something I once thought of as a problem with short-term behavior to something with much more life-altering ramifications.
Templating and Tools
I alluded to templates for my journals and lists. I’ve used a couple of approaches:
First, I like writing notes down. I think it may be a way to do something physical that looks “normal” and “productive” to the neurotypicals in the room, but I also buy the idea that writing things down helps commit them to memory. It also keeps me out of my laptop or other things that are potential distractions.
Currently, I have a Remarkable e-ink tablet, which allows (but doesn’t really support) custom templates. I made a set in Affinity Publisher (which is pretty nice for $25) and exported them to PNGs for upload into the Remarkable. I experimented with importing PDF versions into Notability on an iPad and they worked well enough. You can find the PNGs and Affinity files here.
For item capture, I seem to have settled on Things. It has a few limitations, but I love the way it flexes all the way down to “here’s an inbox you can sync across devices” and all the way up to “here’s a simple project tracker.” I appreciate the calendar integration, since it provides a way to reconcile my ambition for the day with my preexisting meeting load, and I like the quick-capture window I can invoke from any app:
ctrl-space and I’ve got a window to capture a todo into.
It has been tempting to try out org-mode right now, because I have one machine to manage it on instead of trying to sync between a work laptop and a home system plus whatever mobile app is available for it. The way org-mode switches between task capture and prose is really compelling, and a little work with snippets or some other capture template would make for a pretty effective daily tool. I just hate my options for sync of org files: Dropbox/iCloud, with whatever they’re doing if there’s a conflict; or consistent git usage, which doesn’t fit the way I live my days.
It doesn’t really matter what you use, though. The most powerful part of all of it is to figure out what works well enough and make a habit of it, even if it’s not perfect.