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Abbey Perini
Abbey Perini

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Coding and ADHD - Can't Remember

Gabor Maté has described ADHD as "forgetting to remember the future." If it's not written down, I'm not getting it done.

Make an External Brain

I've seen a couple organizational/productivity systems out there that rely on the idea of an "external brain." Even neurotypical brains struggle to maintain a list of all the things that we're expected to do on a daily basis, let alone consistently work towards multiple goals at a time. An external brain is a system or systems that holds all of your to dos and helps you track your progress towards your goals.

For me, this term just formalized a feeling I had always had - my brain cannot be trusted to remember the details I need the moment I need them. As a result, every time a thought that requires future action passes through my brain, I write it down.

You can ask my coworkers - if we're in a meeting and it's not going to be written in a ticket, I'll ask them to give me a second so I can make a note. If it's a task, I write it down with a checkbox next to it. Then I ask clarifying questions about deadlines, goals, and expectations and make more notes. In the 14 years I've been in the workforce, no one has ever objected to me saying "wait, I need to write this down."

Spongebob holding a notepad and pencil, listening with his mouth open. He then closes his mouth with his tongue sticking out, and takes notes

This extends to interviews - I show up with notes from my research on the company, a list of questions I want to ask, and take notes during the interview. If an interviewer asks me multiple questions at once, I'll repeat them while writing them down before I start answering.

An external brain doesn't just have to be for tasks or work. All brains have a tendency to remember negative things better than good things. Writing down your accomplishments and positive memories may help you a lot. I maintain a "Today I celebrated" list so I have to give myself a pat on the back every day.

If I find I struggle with something I have to do regularly, I'll turn it into a log or checklist. If a goal requires doing something a little bit every day, I'm writing down that I have to do it every day. I have a packing list for trips, a habit tracker for things like watering the plants once a week, and a list of all the plants I need to water. When I was initially studying web development, I turned the pre-work list I struggled to read into a chart with boxes I could color.

DigitalCrafts Prework a flow chart with 3 columns - Required, Optional, and general categories like Command Line and JavaScript. The Required and Optional columns have learning resources like LabEx and Git-It. Boxes are colored in green as they are completed

If you're a web developer, you may enjoy creating a digital garden to record and visualize your learning.

Organizational Systems

Writing it down is one thing - how do I make sure I can find it when I need it? People with ADHD are often surrounded by lists and journals. We love starting organizational systems. The problem is maintaining one for any meaningful period of time. So I don't maintain one - I maintain many. I've found a few rules that keep me coming back:

  • I enjoy something about the method.
  • It lives in a place where I can't escape it.
  • It has to be something I can still maintain if I forget to look at it for a day or two.
  • I have to be able to shift tasks around between days easily.

For school and work, I have always maintained a daily to do list. At the end of each day, I start a brand new page, write the next day's date at the top, and list out the day's tasks with checkboxes. During school, all my notes went in one notebook. Now, the notes and the to do list live in the same notepad. To keep myself coming back, I find pens and paper that I enjoy using.

Now that I'm remote, my work to do list stays next to my work computer in my office. When I was commuting to school and work, I never unpacked my backpack. Everything I needed, including my lists and calendars, stayed in that bag unless I was actively using them.

Digital calendars make things a lot easier than they used to be, but I still maintain a physical calendar I draw as well. I find that I have to sit down and think about each week and month or I'll lose all sense of time. I maintain all my long-term personal to do lists, logs, checklists, and trackers in the same notebook as this calendar. I manage to keep coming back because I turn it into an art project and have found a few lazy ways to get it done when I'm really not feeling it.

What my ADHD brain sees, a to do list by the_mini_adhd_coach to do item: book doctor appointment arrow to the last medical assistant was very disagreeable, check schedule before, and find phone number on google, to do item: order cat food arrow to fish or chicken flavor, what's my password?, what if he doesn't like it?, and is this food even healthy for cats? to do item: change bed sheets arrow to no clean ones left, I need to wash some, and is there laundry detergent left?

Finally, each morning (or afternoon) I look at my work to do list and personal calendar and pick all the personal tasks I want to accomplish that day. This way, I'm not constantly referencing a giant, long-term to do list I can never finish. I'm only looking at the things I need to attempt in the next 12 hours or so.

I have an app on my phone that has my daily to do list and allows me to share a to do list with my husband. A shared to do list turns "do the thing" and "talk to him about doing the thing" into one item. We are sharing our digital calendars with each other for the same reason. I used to keep my personal to do list on a post it note on my water bottle. These work because I have trained myself to keep my phone and water bottle on me. Back in high school and college, I used to have to write it directly on my hand.


Do not think this means I have a pristine set of lists that are perfectly maintained and monitored. I have plenty of abandoned Google Drive folders, a shelf of journals too pretty to use, a gardening journal I find and lose once a year, and a hodgepodge of yoga journals and papers shoved under my meditation altar. I have piles of uncompleted projects and many abandoned goals, as well.

Kind of keeping up with the things I need to do and events I need to attend is an exercise in self-forgiveness. Once I start a new to do list, the old to do list is dead to me and any uncompleted tasks are treated like brand new to do items. Any time I achieve a long-term goal, I celebrate the heck out of it.

Did I miss a resource or tip you love? Do you really love an organizational tool or system? Leave a comment!

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Discussion (10)

maxfindel profile image
Max F. Findel

I totally agree that the goal is not finding the best organizational system in the world, but the set of tools and systems that work best for you. As they say, "the imperfect plan that you do implement is always better that the perfect plan you never stick to"

abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini Author

I was a big fan of using a legal pad for my work notes until I bought my Supernote. I've been Bullet Journaling for 5 or 6 years now. I've only been using Notion for a few months, and my personal to do list lives there now... with many other lists in varying states of use. @wsgac recommends Org-mode, and I know a lot of people love Obsidian and other Markdown note taking tools.

mittell profile image
Chris Mittell

I absolutely love the idea of a work list that you can colour in. Though I'd spend too long working out which colours I'd want to use for each topic... XD

I've never heard of a Digital Garden before, I feel like this might be a rabbit hole which will take up the rest of my day if I'm not careful.

I currently have Trello to organise my learning "to do" list, with colourful thumbnails and generous estimates to log time against. I guess the initial idea is to "physically" move an item into an active state, record my time, and maybe notes against it, and then place it back into an inactive state. Focusing only on active state tasks each day when I can afford the time.

It's still a work-in-progress, but you've given me some ideas to consider alongside what I have.

noahpyn profile image
Noah Payne(he/him) • Edited on

Truly needed this to spontaneously appear on my time line! I'm finding things extremely difficult to navigate around studying computer science, catching up with late assiand adhd!! Thanks for helping! Taking notes and creating lists even if it's for menial things like taking meds and remembering to shower that day is really helping bring some order to the inside of my chaotic brain😋

lukewestby profile image
Luke Westby

I really like Getting Things Done. For me it’s not as hard to stick with as other things I’ve tried, and it’s easy to restart after wandering off for a while. It also works with pretty much any todo list or note-taking medium so I can try all of the different apps without having to change the system.

basharabdullah profile image
Bashar Abdullah

Love the way your organized your list in notebook. Very tidy and easy to look at.

izaaries profile image
Aiza B

I sooo needed this.... I'm going to try everything
Thank You!

thibaultjanbeyer profile image
Thibault Jan Beyer

This was great, thank you, all very relatable!

dnasedkina profile image
Info Comment hidden by post author - thread only accessible via permalink

Very interesting series! Can relate to some parts.. And in general, it confirms that you never know what battles one is fighting, especially when it comes to those whose success you might be trying to replicate.

However, the best part for me is the vidget at the top about articles in the series, didn't encounter this before and will definitely research how to use it :)

andboson profile image
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Andrew Bosonchenko

Love this series!

Now I can get rid of guilty - and call it ADHD )

thanks a lot!

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