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Being a developer with ADHD

I’m pretty open about having ADHD. It causes some challenges, but also gives me some superpowers.

A handful of developers who are just learning they have ADHD have asked me what tools and systems and approaches work for me, so today I wanted to talk about that a bit.

Let’s dig in!

tl;dr: I’ve learned to embrace my ADHD, and work with it instead of against it.

Some quick background

Standard caveat: I’m not a medical professional, and this is not medical advice. This is all stuff I’ve learned from reading, watching a ton of YouTube videos, and talking to other ADHDers about their lived experiences.

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a shitty name for what ADHD actually is. An ADHD doesn’t have a deficit of attention. It has trouble regulating it.

If something is boring, it can be tough to focus on it. “Easy” tasks can feel impossibly difficult to get through. If something is exciting, ADHD brains will often do something called hyperfocus, where you dive deep into it and ignore everything else.

It also impacts working memory.

In computer terms, think of that as RAM. You might have an amazing SSD in your brain that stores tons of information about stuff you find interesting, but can only keep one or two active thoughts in your head at a time.

ADHD affects emotional regulation. You might take criticism particularly personally, or be quick to anger, or feel rejection (real or perceived) very acutely. You might crave validation and positive feedback.

It can cause you to ramble when you talk and go on lots of tangents. ADHD can make it overwhelmingly hyperactive in crowds (like a puppy around new people), and crash hard after social interactions.

Everyone’s experience is a little different.

Some folks struggle with regulating attention, but don’t have the hyperactivity. Some folks don’t struggle with emotional regulation, while others feel it really strongly.

You have fucking super powers

A lot of literature on ADHD was written by old white dudes who don’t actually have ADHD and focus on easily measurable stuff.

As a result, a lot of medical information on ADHD is focused on its negative aspects, and on how to “fix” them. Fuck that. You have fucking super powers, and you’re amazing, and you should embrace that!

Folks with ADHD are often incredibly creative. You’ll have more ideas in a year than most people can implement in a lifetime.

And hyperfocus? That can give you (incredibly unpredictable) superhuman productivity.

I’m over trying to fit into a neurotypical world

Having ADHD can be hard. I’m not trying to sugarcoat it. And you still need to work at taking care of your basic needs and not annoying the people around you.

But I also expect people to meet me a bit closer to where I am, too. Relationships (of any kind) are about mutual respect. That goes in both directions.

Though I was diagnosed many years ago, it wasn’t until the last year or three that I’ve started to understand a lot of things about myself through the lens of ADHD.

Tools and systems I use as a developer with ADHD

I’m going to share some things that have worked for me, built-up over the years through lots of trial-and-error. They may work for you, and they may not.

I hope at the very least they provide a boilerplate you can adapt to your needs.

Todo Lists

I’ve tried so many different “productivity hacks” over the years, but the only one that’s really stuck for me is a simple, bulleted todo list.

If it’s not on my list, it just falls out of my brain.

Any thought, task, or idea I have goes onto my todo list immediately so I don’t forget it. I keep lists for various things: around the house, work, daily newsletter ideas, stuff I need to buy, and so on.

Every morning, I scan through my lists and add 3-7 things that I want to accomplish that day. I usually don’t get to them all!

A todo app or pen-and-paper?

I prefer paper, but never remember to keep it with me when I need it.

Today, I use MS Todo. It is, for me, the perfect todo app. And it’s free!

Todo does just enough, and doesn’t try to add in a ton of distracting features. You can create lists, and add items to them. Tasks can have sub-tasks. You can set due-dates and get reminders.

But the ultimate feature for me is “My Day.” You can add items from any of your lists to a special “My Day” view that includes just the stuff you want to do that day.

Working around hyperfocus

Some days or weeks, I’m wildly unproductive and get almost nothing done. Others, hyperfocus kicks in and I’m overproductive.

I tend to use the “unproductive” periods for brainstorming and letting the random out instead of trying to accomplish tasks. “Forcing” productivity when my brain isn’t there generally just leads to burnout for me.

I’ve gotten better at “kickstarting” my hyperfocus.

Often, that involves just doing the first small thing of a task until I end up deep in it. This really only works if it’s a thing I’m passionate about.

Green time

Taking walks helps me focus a lot.

There’s a lot of research on the importance of “green time” for ADHD folks. I’ve found this (and exercise) to be immensely helpful for me.

The Apple Watch

I fully recognize that this is absolutely a “privileged person” thing, but the Apple Watch is one of the best ADHD tools I’ve ever found.

Having my calendar on display right on my wrist, yelling at me 5 minutes before a meeting, is absurdly useful. I used to miss a lot of meetings before I got one!

I also use timers for everything. Started some laundry? Timer to switch it. Put food in the oven? Timer so I take it out.

A shitty short term memory means you forget that stuff easily, and little things become big hassles otherwise.

What about you?

If you’re a fellow ADHDer, I’d love to hear from you.

What works for you? What doesn’t? What do you struggle with the most? Is there anything I didn’t cover here that you’d like to learn more about?

Over the last year or two, I’ve found a huge community of ADHD folks on Twitter that have helped me understand myself better. I’m happy to talk about this!