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Tech | 11/14/2023

Hacking ADHD – Strategies for the Modern Developer

Introduction

After struggling a lot with my mental health (anxiety, depressive condition) for several years, I was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD, at the age of 44. This diagnosis shocked me a lot: I wasn’t a wild child, in fact, I was even a good pupil. With the help of my therapist, I was able to understand that ADHD can take multiple forms and that it can go undiagnosed until adulthood. Since then, I’ve been trying many technics to overcome it and make the best of it in my professional life. This article sums up what I learned so far.

What is ADHD?

Disclaimer: I’m not a psychiatrist nor a neurologist, so this description is surely incomplete

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects both children and adults. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), ADHD is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

ADHD manifests differently in individuals:

  • Some people mainly have symptoms of inattention. 
  • Others mostly have symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity. 
  • Some have a combination of both. 

While everybody can occasionally experience some inattention, unfocused motor activity, and impulsivity, people with ADHD endure more severe and frequent occurrences of these behaviors. These manifestations can interfere with or reduce the quality of how they function socially, at school, or in a job.

Not diagnosing and managing ADHD can lead to a range of complications, including anxiety, burn-out or depression.

It’s not uncommon for ADHD to go undiagnosed until adulthood, as my experience shows. Many adults discover they have ADHD only after their children are diagnosed, leading them to recognize similar patterns in their own behavior.

Several factors contribute to late diagnosis:

  • Coping Mechanisms: Over the years, adults develop various coping strategies that can mask ADHD symptoms. For instance, someone might excessively rely on calendars, to-do lists, or alarms to compensate for forgetfulness.
  • Different Environment: The transition from structured educational settings to less structured work environments can reveal hidden ADHD symptoms. In school, frequent tests and immediate deadlines can actually serve as scaffolding for people with ADHD. In contrast, long-term projects and self-management in a work environment can expose challenges in planning and sustained focus.
  • Less Oversight: Unlike children, who are constantly observed by teachers and parents, adults generally have less oversight. This means symptoms can go unnoticed, especially if they don’t manifest as disruptive behavior.
  • Societal Stigma: The stigma surrounding ADHD can discourage people from seeking diagnosis and treatment. There’s a common misconception that ADHD is a “childhood disorder,” or merely a lack of willpower, which can make adults hesitate to consult healthcare professionals.
  • Common Misdiagnoses: ADHD symptoms can sometimes be misinterpreted as signs of depression or anxiety disorders. The restlessness and difficulty in focusing associated with ADHD may result in a misdiagnosis, especially if other symptoms like impulsivity are less evident. A thorough evaluation is crucial for an accurate diagnosis.
ADHD as a Double-Edged Sword for Developers

ADHD is often viewed through a negative lens, yet it’s important to acknowledge that the disorder brings not only challenges but also its own set of benefits.

Benefits
  • Hyperfocus: One of the paradoxical advantages of ADHD is the ability to hyperfocus on tasks that you find genuinely interesting or rewarding. This can be especially beneficial in coding, where being “in the zone” can lead to high levels of productivity.
  • Creative Problem-Solving: The ADHD brain is often highly creative and capable of out-of-the-box thinking, which can be invaluable in software development where novel solutions are often needed.
  • Quick Adaptation: Many people with ADHD thrive in dynamic environments that would overwhelm others. The rapidly changing nature of technology can therefore be an ideal playground for developers with ADHD.
Challenges
  • Time Management: ADHD can make it difficult to gauge how long a task will take, leading to procrastination and last-minute rushes. This can be particularly challenging in development projects with tight deadlines.
  • Organizational Skills: Keeping track of multiple codebases, debugging, and even remembering to comment code can be more challenging when you have ADHD.
  • Consistency: While you may excel at certain tasks, the variability in performance can be a concern. Some days might be incredibly productive, while others are marred by distractions and a lack of focus.

Understanding the complexities of ADHD is crucial for adapting your work environment and strategies to leverage its strengths while mitigating its weaknesses.

Understanding the ADHD brain

When it comes to ADHD, understanding the neurological factors at play can offer valuable insights into managing the condition effectively. One neurotransmitter that plays a significant role in ADHD is dopamine. This chemical is responsible for regulating mood, focus, and attention. In the ADHD brain, dopamine levels are often lower than average, which can result in a constant search for stimulation.

Dopamine and Motivation

“I have motivation issues until I have deadline ones,” is how I often describe my relationship with tasks. Dopamine acts as a motivator, urging us to achieve goals and complete tasks. However, its scarcity in the ADHD brain means that the urgency often kicks in only when a deadline approaches. This leads to last-minute rushes that can be either extremely productive or terribly stressful.

Hyperfocus

Another common phenomenon among people with ADHD is hyperfocus. While it may seem counterintuitive, those with ADHD can sometimes focus so intensely on a task that they lose all track of time. I’ve found myself immersed in tasks, aiming for perfection, to the extent that hours fly by unnoticed. While this can be an asset in tasks requiring deep concentration, hyperfocus can also become a liability when you neglect other important tasks.

Perfectionism

In my experience, things must either be perfect or not done at all. This perfectionism can be attributed, in part, to how the ADHD brain is wired. We crave the dopamine hit that comes from completing a task perfectly, which often leads us to spend more time on a project than initially planned, fine-tuning every detail.

By recognizing these traits and their underlying neurochemical causes, we can develop strategies and choose the right tools to help us manage our symptoms more effectively.

Creating and navigating an ADHD-friendly work environment

In a field like software development, where focus and attention to detail are critical, the work environment can either make or break your productivity. When you have ADHD, crafting an environment that suits your unique cognitive profile is not just beneficial but essential.

Setting up a Stimulating Workspace

The ideal workspace for someone with ADHD is not necessarily minimalist or clutter-free. It’s a space that provides stimulation without becoming distracting. For me, having multiple monitors has been a game-changer; it allows me to spread out my tasks visibly and switch between them as needed without losing track.

Open Office vs. Remote Work: The ADHD Perspective

While the open office layout is often praised for fostering collaboration, it can be a minefield of distractions for someone with ADHD. Remote work offers the freedom to tailor your environment to your needs but comes with its own set of challenges like isolation.

Enter the Hybrid Setup: The Best of Both Worlds

A hybrid work setup can be the golden mean, allowing you the flexibility to work remotely when you need to hunker down and focus, while also offering the option to come into an office for teamwork and social interaction. For someone like me, who thrives in different settings depending on the task at hand, this is ideal.

  • Focus Days: Choose remote work on days when you need to dive deep into code or take on tasks requiring sustained attention.
  • Collaboration Days: Opt for the office environment when the agenda involves brainstorming sessions, team meetings, or project kick-offs.

By actively selecting your work environment based on your daily or weekly needs, you take control of your productivity without sacrificing collaboration or focus.

Asynchronous Communication

Immediate, synchronous communication might be efficient for quick decision-making, but can be a nightmare when you’re trying to focus. Consider these asynchronous communication methods that give you the time and space to concentrate without constant interruption:

  • Scheduled Updates: Replace frequent status meetings with scheduled written updates through platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams.
  • Documentation: Use wikis, shared documents, or tools like Confluence to keep easily accessible and up-to-date information without requiring immediate attention.
  • Discussion Threads: Platforms allowing threaded conversations, like Slack threads or forum posts, can let you engage in discussions at your own pace.
  • Issue Trackers: Tools like JIRA or GitHub Issues can keep everyone updated without needing a meeting to discuss progress or blockers.
  • Video Messages: Recorded video updates are an underrated method for delivering complex information. Tools like Loom allow you to create quick videos that team members can watch when it best suits them.
  • Amazon’s Silent Meeting Technique: Amazon has popularized the “Silent Meeting” approach, where participants read a six-page memo at the start of the meeting in complete silence. This allows for deep, focused thought before moving on to a discussion. It’s an excellent way to ensure everyone is on the same page (literally and figuratively) and it respects individual attention spans.

By applying these asynchronous methods, you can keep the team in the loop without disrupting your or anyone else’s flow state.

Managing Interruptions in Team Settings

Interruptions can wreak havoc on anyone’s focus, but they are especially detrimental for people with ADHD. In my team, we take a flexible approach that allows each individual to manage their own focus time. Team members are encouraged to block off periods in their calendars, switch off notifications, or do whatever else is necessary to maintain focus during work hours.

To balance the need for individual focus with the benefits of team interaction, we have a standing “Virtual Coffee” appointment every day at 4PM. Attendance isn’t mandatory, but it’s an open invitation to pause, catch up, and discuss anything from work progress to the latest Netflix series. This approach fosters a sense of community without imposing on anyone’s focused work time.

By adopting this strategy, we ensure that everyone has the latitude to work in a way that suits their attention span and cognitive style, while still maintaining the benefits of team cohesion.

Self-Management Strategies and Tools: Addressing ADHD Symptoms

Navigating ADHD’s unique challenges and benefits has led me to rely on an assortment of tools and strategies that make up my personal tech stack and self-management techniques. Let’s dive in:

Obsidian: The Command Center for My Day

Obsidian isn’t just a note-taking app for me; it’s the cornerstone of my daily organization. Here’s how I utilize its capabilities:

  • Daily Notes: Every morning, I start my day by planning it out in a custom template that displays my Google Calendar events and Todoist task list.
  • Jira Integration: Notes are auto-generated for each Jira ticket I work on, simplifying the process of logging work details.
  • Google Calendar Integration: Meeting notes are created automatically for every meeting I attend, keeping me organized.
  • Readwise & Pocket: I keep track of book comments and articles-to-read via Readwise and Pocket integrations.
  • Google Contact: I can link people I work with in my notes, helping me make connections between tasks and stakeholders.
  • Other Subjects: I also make notes on a myriad of other topics (like drafts for this blog post) and link them to my daily note.
  • End-of-Day Review: At day’s end, I revisit my daily notes, shifting unfinished tasks and adding any overlooked items.
Time Management: Powering Through with Reclaim.ai

I swear by Reclaim.ai for managing my time. It automatically schedules focus time for me—some sessions are ‘protected,’ meaning they can’t be deleted or moved, while others offer more flexibility. It even blocks out time for lunch and short “decompression” breaks after meetings.

Communication: Mastering Slack

I make the most of Slack’s “remind me later” feature. If I’m in the middle of something and get interrupted by a Slack message, I simply set a reminder to revisit it later.

Focus Aid: Tuning in with Brain.fm

When it’s time to hunker down, I turn on Brain.fm. I’m even using it right now. I particularly love the “interval timer” feature, which uses the Pomodoro Technique to alternate between focus time and short breaks.

By employing this tech stack and these strategies, I’ve been able to not just manage, but leverage my ADHD. Each piece of this puzzle addresses specific symptoms, transforming what some might see as challenges into opportunities for productivity and success.

Conclusion: Turning ADHD Challenges into Strengths in Software Development

As someone who was diagnosed with ADHD at 44, I’ve come to appreciate both the struggles and the advantages it brings to my professional life. By understanding the underlying neurology of ADHD and adopting a targeted set of tools and strategies, I’ve managed to turn what many perceive as a setback into a unique toolkit for success. From customized planning and asynchronous communication to harnessing focus and hyperfocus, my journey might resonate with many developers facing similar challenges.

The Importance of Mental Health

It’s essential to underline the critical role of mental health care. ADHD can often coexist with other mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, and the toll it takes can be considerable. Therefore, never hesitate to seek professional help from psychiatrists, psychologists, or therapists. Your mental well-being is crucial, and experts can provide a structured approach to managing ADHD symptoms.

ADHD isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” condition, but the strategies and tools discussed here can offer a good starting point for software engineers looking to make the most out of their workdays. Remember, with the right approach and environment, ADHD can be a strength, not just a challenge.

Credits: Images generated by OpenAI‘s DALL-E.

Raphael LEMAITRE

Senior staff Engineer

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