ADHD hacks
October 16, 2011 7:04 PM   Subscribe

What is the single thing, aside from medication, that has helped you most with your ADHD/chronic disorganization?

Inspired by this question. What has helped you most? A book, a website, a system, an app, a lifestyle change? Preferably low-cost, but I'll consider anything. Responses from those with the primarily inattentive subtype (aka Attention Deficit Lethargy Disorder) especially appreciated.

(NB: I kindly request that suggestions be specific to addressing ADHD rather than something that helped you get more organized and focused when you were already pretty organized and focused.)

(NB 2: I exclude medication because I'm already taking it, and it helps a lot, but it's not a panacea. I would say it takes me from "severe ADHD" to "moderate ADHD." I've experimented with different medications and different doses and I think it's as good as it's going to get. Also, the recent Adderall shortage has motivated me to put together some sort of backup plan so that I don't completely fall apart if I have to go a few days without it.)

(NB 3: You are of course welcome to MeFi Mail me, but I might not get back to you. :-( )
posted by granted to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 204 users marked this as a favorite
Vitamin D/Calcium/Magnesium (I use GNC) supplement and a ton of Omega3. Also, anti-anxiety meds worked a bit better for me than the traditional ADHD stuff even though you say you don't want to go that route.
posted by Raichle at 7:34 PM on October 16, 2011

I use earplugs when I'm trying to read/work/concentrate on something. It's like I'm in a bubble. I've done this for a long school when I had roommates or even when I went to the library I'd go to an upper floor cubicle and put in the plugs. I live alone now but get easily distracted just by my cats walking around.
posted by fromageball at 7:35 PM on October 16, 2011 [11 favorites]

Exercise every morning helps.
posted by Not Supplied at 7:35 PM on October 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Put on a timer and do something for only 15 minutes. Practicing the starting and stopping is very useful. I try to practice with activities I avoid, and also activities that inspire hyperfocus.

My lapse in controlling my ADD tend to follow when I get over-absorbed in a project. By giving in to the tendency to hyperfocus, I stop worrying about all the other small things in life that creep up.
posted by politikitty at 7:37 PM on October 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

I realized things were a lot better when I wasn't constantly worried about what I was forgetting and/or overlooking, so the thing that helped me the most was writing down every single thing that I knew needed to get done that had a deadline, and forcing myself to update and review that list at regular intervals during the day (three times, now) (this is for work stuff, not for home stuff - so the list says 'return phone call to Ms. x' 'call client y" not more broad things like "paint the living room" - i have those lists too, but no one is going to fire me if I don't paint the living room, if that makes sense). I keep the list in a small notebook that I carry in my purse - I tired electronic lists and that didn't work; neither did leaving the list at work. I think the big impact is that now the fretting doesn't cause yet more interrupting.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:47 PM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Getting a professional declutterer in to sort out my flat, and accepting that I could ask for or buy in help for the stuff I really wasn't good at.
posted by Flitcraft at 7:47 PM on October 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Things (iPhone app)
posted by Eshkol at 7:48 PM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Making my lists in googledocs and emailing myself reminders of stuff I need to do to gmail. Putting as much in gdocs and gmail as I can, as it makes things keyword searchable and I can access both from my phone. Snapping photos of documents I'm bound to lose with my phone and also emailing myself the photos. Linking googlecalender to my phone so it alerts me for appointments.
Google + android phone = lots of help for my adhd organisation problems
posted by Flitcraft at 7:53 PM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Accepting that I'm functionally, disabled.

There is a bunch of stuff that I automatically assume I should be able to do, because I am smart.
And therefore I don't need to set an alarm (for everything), write it down (everything), ask an online service how long it will take to walk/get somewhere, keep a spare wallet, spare phone, and chain my wallet to my clothing, or pay someone not to clean, but to help me tidy. Because these are simple things, right?

No. Nonononono. Thinking I can do it, is what gets me into trouble.

It is a continual process, but it took (takes!) me years to accept that my problem is not the 'problem' (forgetting things, time, etc), the problem is that I keep assuming I should be able to do it, in direct contradiction to my actual experience.

Best ways to identify failure points are: Writing things down the whole sorry story when I experience a massive f'up (there are usually multiple points of failure), and pinpoint all the places where I could changed something to avoid it happening, and then brainstorm accommodations/system I can put in place to avoid this in future.

The other major problem of ADHD is, I realise don't fall into routines, routines are unstimulating so I unconsciously mix things up all the time (breakfast then clothing, or the other way round? Which variant route will I take today?) - other people are more productive because they stick with productive routines.
I'm working on making routines really explicit, stuck-up-on-a-wall explicit, and sticking with them, but I'm wondering if I should also try just rotating them regularly, to get around the routine-boredom.

* Time Management for System Administrators (9780596007836): Thomas A. Limoncelli
(Oddly full of simple tips that other people do ALL THE TIME - i.e. rather than evaluating in every given moment, whether I need to take my wallet, phone, journal & pen with me etc, you just take those things with you everywhere, which means you know you should have them with you at all times and notice faster if you lose them.)

* ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life (9781583913581): Judith Kolberg, Kathleen Nadeau
(Also full of simple things - eg fluorescent colors for things you lose often. Red wallet, yellow cellphone case, etc)

P.S. And in contrast to fromageball, I often find listening to an MP3 player helps. If something is not *quite* interesting enough to keep my full attention, my mind wanders and I get completely distracted. Music distracts just 'enough' of my attention, that I can stay focused on whatever it is that I'm doing (I wish I had a brain monitor, which would vary between music-no-vocals, vocal-music, unfamiliar-vocal-music, simple-podcast, hard-podcast, depending on how hard I'm focusing). I often have just one earbud in, so I can notice/respond if someone talks to me.
Same principle as doodling to help concentration.

P.P.S. Looking forward with interests to the results of this. And no, I am not on-task right now. ;P

P.P.P.S. This wasn't exactly 1 answer. More 1 answer, and feedback on different tactics, but hey - what do you expect with a question to this population? ;)
posted by Elysum at 8:09 PM on October 16, 2011 [48 favorites]

I have to stay ontop of stuff. Mostly paperwork but really everything, I get easily overwhelmed. Cortisol manager helps too( supplement )
posted by femmme at 8:30 PM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The one time I was really organized at home (able to keep up with cleaning chores and clutter) was when I moved into my own little apartment post-divorce and my possessions were minimal; and because I had little money to buy a bunch of crap all the time, they stayed minimal. All the books I owned fit into one box. All my laundry into one basket. A few basic toiletries, two towels, one set of sheets. A few dishes, a couple of pots and pans. Current paperwork only instead of mounds of filing.

I had a simple cleaning plan: I'd get up on Saturday, strip the bed, throw the sheets and towels in the laundry basket with my clothes. I'd dust my few pieces of furniture, run the sweeper, scrub down the bathroom, do up my few dishes. Go to the laundromat. Took me about 3 hours to do everything including laundry.

I'd make up a pot of something I could eat on most of the week... chili or spaghetti, something easy. Once a week I'd get Chinese for dinner. I'd eat cereal for dinner a couple of nights a week just for variety's sake.

It was just really simple and easy. I've never been that organized since, because somehow my husband and I have all this frigging stuff that we can't seem to keep in line. I'm working now on paring down our possessions in hopes that I can recreate a similar form of simplicity for the two of us to that which worked so well for me when I was single.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:55 PM on October 16, 2011 [14 favorites]

Exercise. (And up your dosage--if your meds are moving you only to moderate ADD, it's not enough.)

And check lists, to do lists, post-it notes on the laptop, signing up for or Mint.

But check your meds. I don't take any on weekends, which not only extends my Rx, it make them even more effective on Monday.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:24 PM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a "capture" -- a moleskin I carry around with me all the time. It has different sections labeled something like "Life," "Buy," "Someday," and "Work." I jot things down there anytime I think of them, no matter where I am. Getting stuff out of my brain is a huge help in not working my brain so hard to remember it later. (This comes from 42 Things or whatever the GTD system is.)
posted by bluedaisy at 9:26 PM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a useful book -- How to Get Organized Without Resorting to Arson -- that another ADD book I read recommended. It looks like Amazon is selling it for less than a dollar, but my library had it.

It's based on the idea that people process, remember, and retrieve information differently, so they need a system of organization that works with the way they already think. The book has several tests to help you figure out where you fall on various spectrums and then design something that's customized for you.

This helped me a LOT. Turned out that traditional organizing -- things nicely put away in labeled containers -- is a really bad fit for me. My new system is less aesthetically appealing, but way more effective for my individual brain.

Also echoing a love for Mint, Google Docs, Gmail, taking pictures of / scanning loseable documents... and adding Google Calendar, particularly with added value from Yahoo! Pipes.

I try to group tasks so I have to remember them as few times as possible. For example, I get paid once a month, and the minute that money's in my account, I pay all my bills regardless of due date. That way, I can't forget, I can't run out of money, and I can stop thinking about it until next month.

Oh, and timers - lots of timers. I am terrible about forgetting that I'm doing something... burning dinner, leaving laundry to rot in the washer, etc. If I'm making dinner and the phone rings, I'll punch five minutes into the oven timer before I answer the phone so that I don't completely forget that I'm cooking. (I often forget to set the timer, though, so there you go...)
posted by Gianna at 10:08 PM on October 16, 2011 [11 favorites]

Like someone up thread mentioned, background noise in the form of music that's not too intrusive (aka no words!) and doesn't follow a pattern can really aid in concentration, especially when you're doing problems of some kind. I have a big playlist of movie scores that's been getting me through chemistry and physics problems.

I wear ear plugs if I'm studying in public though. Most of the time I have to study in public because I have to be around people or else I'll get lonely and lost in my own thoughts. Just being around people even if I'm not hearing them or looking at them really helps me to focus. Definitely find a room with a good "vibe" to do your work in if it's possible.

I actually let myself hyperfocus for long periods (4-6 hours, sometimes entire days) if I'm really excited about something I'm learning. As a student, I find it helps to ride the waves of productivity. Then again, I don't have a ton of responsibilities to attend to on a daily basis outside of academic life (or at least I can put off most of 'em), so I'm able to be a hermit for longer than some people.

Phone apps are amazing. I have a Samsung smart phone and plunking down the couple hundred bucks was the best investment ever. It wakes me up with math problems to solve so I can't just keep slamming the snooze button, provides background music, is less distracting than a computer for when I wanna do homework problems online, has my to-do list and datebook on the main screen, and generally serves as the only planner that hasn't been too much of a hassle to use. A Swype keyboard saves so much time and effort!

Definitely exercise if you can make time. Someone mentioned it upthread - huuge 2nd. It can really calm down my brain and tire me out enough to sleep, which I have trouble with 'cause of my racing thoughts. It can also help you channel your focus on more mundane material right afterwards.

This might seem strange, but if you ever don't shower 'cause you're caught up in doing something or feeling overwhelmed by things... just do it. Showers can totally reset my mood. Not sure if that's ADD related or not. It's certainly not related to depression in many cases. Sticking with a daily routine can be REALLY difficult for ADD sufferers. It might seem like a hassle to keep up with monotonous hygiene tasks, but I've found that in addition to smelling like shower (yummy clean smell!) it can help you to "feel" reenergized, and can boost your mood.

Final secret weapon: Caffeine. The bad rap it's gotten isn't deserved according to many studies that have come out over the past few years. I drink 1-2 cups a day... definitely a second one if I haven't gotten my necessary 7 hours of shut eye, or have a ton of logic/math problems to do.
posted by sunnychef88 at 11:25 PM on October 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Not sure how you feel about routines. I'm a fan.

For that check out GTD. Take the time to set up the system and make that your one goal for every day: stick to the system. The point of the whole thing is to get you out of your head.

One tip for now: put an index card and a pen in your pocket everyday. Write down whatever comes to mind--obligations, ideas, etc. Before you go to bed, make sure you've filed the stuff accordingly, into your calendar or wherever.

I'm also a big fan of Mefi's own Habit Judo for smaller changes (e.g. exercise, flossing).

The point with all of these is to eliminate the decisions, keep you on a set track, and basically give you one goal every day: stick to the plan.
posted by vecchio at 11:47 PM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm following this thread closely because I could have written this question!

One thing that I've noticed:

Once I organize something following that "everything has a place" saying it usually stays organized. For example, I have a little metal basket that keeps all my computer cords and laptop attachments. It lives in the top drawer of my desk. It holds all my charging cables for my Kindle, iPod, and my camera. It's also where I keep my laptop mouse and my webcam. For some reason having it specifically assigned and easily accessible makes me more likely to keep my cords there. I have to remember to put the things away when I'm done with them, but now it's much easier.

There are a few other instances where this has worked really well for me. The problem is that I have to find the perfect container and the perfect place to keep it. If I don't have the right balance it just won't work.
posted by TooFewShoes at 2:59 AM on October 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

Google Tasks (I "live" in my e-mail window, so my task list is always visible). For whatever reason, this has worked better than more calendar-y solutions.
Site blocking software (leachblock, stayfocusd)
Phone alarms
the MeFi Health Month team :-) Over the past 8 months I've put together a list of "good" habits that I can turn to when I need a mental break from work rather than turning to the mental time suck of the Internet. This has also helped with exercise routines and other small routines that are less a matter of time commitment, but of just doing it (taking medication, vitamin, etc.)
posted by drlith at 3:28 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

As with others in the thread (and with the others who'll discover this later on, in the midst of getting distracted from their work), I can relate. In fact, I have a tumblr-level blog focused (merp) on attention management. You might find some of the excerpts, quotes, and links to be relevant. The Attention Management Blog. (On preview, there are a lot of links there that I wanted to pull from to answer this, but my answer was already too-long.) So, yeah. I'd encourage you to check it out.

I'm also ADHD-inattentive, on Welbutrin for about a year now. I've found that the medication only really works for me in concert with behavioral change. (I imagine that's how it's supposed to be.)

Behavioral things that have worked for me ...

• Using a (totally free) "tool" I built (really, just a webpage), "Right Now" ... it lets you jot down the thing you're supposed to be working on, so when you inevitably get distracted, you come back to it and it reminds you of the one thing you're supposed to be doing. It's dumb, but it works.

Disconnecting from the internet when being online isn't absolutely necessary (or using a tool like Freedom / Self Control). The tool that works best for me in this area is the one that I've built and am about to release as an online service. It's called Monotask. If you're interested in it, you can probably guess / Google the domain and sign up to be notified of the launch.

Wearing earphones, even when music isn't playing. I usually do have a Pandora station going (I seeded it with the Tron soundtrack, and it now cycles through dramatic, soaring, mostly instrumental, movie scores (a lot of John Williams, Hans Zimmer, etc.)). Having music that's familiar enough that I'm not pulled out of my flow is important, and the station only has 30 or 40 tracks, so it works well. But wearing the headphones even when the music isn't on is a trigger/signal of sorts, both to me and to people around me. "I'm working now."

Working at an optimal time for my brain. I've found that I do much better work early in the morning. So I often get up early (5-ish when I've gotten to bed early; 6 or so when I haven't). Every minute of before-6:30 time I can squeeze in is equivalent to about 1.5 minutes in the morning, and about 3 minutes of post-lunch time. Doing this, though, means I need to deliberately ...

Go to bed early. It's possible you work well late at night. But if morning time is valuable to you, you need to go to bed early, even if that means making sacrifices. For example, setting a "rule" that you turn the internet off at 9:30 pm, and the computer off at 10.

• In the same vein as "working at an optimal time" is "working on the right thing at the right time". Everyone has busywork they need to do. E-mails to reply to, etc. It's important, then, to work on higher-order tasks when you're fresher, and to not get sidetracked by "urgent" things, like e-mails in your inbox (when those things can usually be dealt with when you're more tired, or otherwise sub-optimal).

Develop rituals. A lot of the things I've mentioned here (working early, etc.) are all sub-points under this one. A good, short piece on this is by Tony Schwartz at the HBR blog: The Only Way to Get Important Things Done.

• I wouldn't have thought to mention it, but since someone mentioned it upthread, I'll +1 it: coffee helps. But I don't know what "1 or 2 cups" is all about. I drink between .5 and 1.5 pots of coffee every morning. I'm guessing you already have some sense of whether coffee helps you or not.

Jotting down what I work on as I go through the day. While Right Now is for "what I'm working on ... right now", I also keep a log on my computer where I can quickly jot down my process, thoughts, code snippets, links, and whatnot. It's technically a Programmer's Notebook. I've been surprised at how helpful this has been for me, but that's probably, in part, because I have a terrible memory. I don't know how often forgetfulness is comorbid with ADHD-i, but if that's something you struggle with, some sort of log is really helpful. It acts like "an IM thread with yourself". I've heard this called a "to-done" list, but that's way too precious for my tastes. You could maybe use 37signals' Backpack for this, but I don't think it's ideal. I'll be putting a free version of the app I built up online at some point, but it's not quite ready for public consumption. MeFimail me if you want me to let you know when it's up, and I'll be sure to hold onto your e-mail until just before I launch the app, and then lose your contact info. But I'll be sure to lose yours last. :)

The most important thing, though, is probably what Merlin Mann says: First, Care. All the "lifehacks" in the world won't help you if you don't care enough about the projects in front of you. Merlin: "In my experience (yes, as I said, hard-won experience), obsessing over the slipperiness of focus, bemoaning the volume of those devil "distractions," and constantly reassessing which shiny new "system" might make your life suddenly seem more sensible—these are all terrifically useful warning flares that you may be suffering from a deeper, more fundamental problem." I think Merlin sometimes holds the "you can't prioritize things; either they're a priority or not" banner a little too high, but his general points stand, and his particular point in this essay is absolutely true.

• Finally, a rule that holds for me — regarding attention management, but also to everything else in life — is You Get Good At What You Practice. If you practice being distracted, you'll be really good at it. If you already are distracted (and I know you are), you'll get really really good at it. It's difficult, but working on staying focused pays off.

I'm sure I've left off a thing or two, but this probably covers 90% of it.

Good luck with it.
posted by Alt F4 at 7:23 AM on October 17, 2011 [43 favorites]

Cribbing some from the above:

1- Stick to your checklists! Whatever method you design to keep yourself organized, stick to it. I've noticed that ADHD people seem to want to thrown their systems out the window when they get busy, which leads to being overwhelmed. Train yourself (if you have this tendency) to WANT organization when things get nuts.

2- What works for me, when I do it, is to consciously have different "modes" of operation. Executive mode and work mode. People with ADHD tend to have problems tearing themselves away from whatever they are doing (even if it is procrastinating) and entering executive mode to plan their work. The common scenario is this: you have a project due. You've ignored it long enough that you have the adrenalin going such that you can finally get to work on the project, and you are making good progress. Someone interrupts you to say "don't forget your timesheet is due early today!" and you say "yeah, I remember, leave me alone." But you don't actually write it down, and because you are hyper-focused on the project, that reminder goes in one ear and out the other. You miss the deadline, and it's another personal disappointment... (Or you do the timesheet immediately, and forget the original project you were working on because you got another interruption, and just followed the chain of interruptions until the 5 o'clock bell rings. OMG, now you have to work late to finish the project, and can't do the laundry you have stacked up at home, and on and on...)

One "how to run an effective meeting" tip that I thought was great was to have a "parking lot" for those interruptions/ideas that crop up while working on some other agenda. It allows everyone to acknowledge the interruption without getting derailed. So have one for yourself. If you have a desk that you work at, have a legal pad or steno book that's always in the same place on your desk, that you use for writing things like that down. Maybe it's just me, but the act of writing something down solidifies it in my memory a bit better. I remember, at least, that I've written something important down, and know where to look.

In addition to that, make time for executive-only functions. Make the list, plan your time, don't DO any work, just organize it. If a thing pops into your mind, put it on the list, no matter how small. The idea isn't just to be more efficient when it comes time to work the plan, but to also be more comfortable with working in executive mode, and getting into the habit of managing distractions rather than reacting to them.

3- Minimizing distractions is always good for everyone, but it is even more important to teach yourself how to deal gracefully with them when they inevitably occur. Using to tools people here have suggested will allow you to get out of your ADHD (dis)comfort zone and start to work in a more efficient manner. Eliminating distraction is a bit of a fool's errand for someone with ADHD, because ANYTHING can be a distraction. The mind can't focus right, and the less stimulation there is in the environment, paradoxically, the more the mind wanders looking for it.
posted by gjc at 7:24 AM on October 17, 2011 [9 favorites]

Smart phone, slavish adherence to the calendar. Everything goes in the calendar, with reminders as needed. If I have an unusual appt, like going out after work, and needing a change of clothes, a reminder goes in my calendar the evening before, the morning of, and maybe an hour before. I have to put a reminder in the phone to turn the ringer on after a concert, or I will miss calls for days.

I try to keep to a routine of getting up at the same time & going to bed at the same time. I find it quite difficult, but when I manage it, life works better.

Coffee actually has health benefits, and helps me with attention and focus.

This is a terrific thread, thanks.
posted by theora55 at 7:58 AM on October 17, 2011

One of the things that helps me the most is similar to Serene Empress Dork's post: paring way way way back on the stuff I allow into my life. The more little things there are piling up in my house, the more paralyzed I become by having to deal with them. This book needs to go back upstairs to the bookshelf. That foam sword that I bought for a dollar will be perfect for a Halloween costume... someday. The more of these little things there are, the more my house feels like a big pile of obligations. "I can't vacuum up all the cat hair because I need to figure out where to put all these things first. But I can't figure out where to put them unless I decide how I'm going to reorganize that upstairs room..." So what helps a lot for me is figuring out what my absolute MOST important things (in the sense of both physical objects AND activities) are and getting rid of the rest.
posted by MsMolly at 10:38 AM on October 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

In the area of behavioral change, the book Journeys Through ADDulthood seems to have some good information and useful suggestions.
posted by Lexica at 2:12 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

If I have to pick just one thing, it's timers and alarms. I do the burning dinner thing a LOT without them. Also the "wait I should have left three hours ago" and "I meant to get that done" and "is it really 2am already" and "I didn't mean to take an hour-long shower" and similar losing-track things. Timers alone easily buy me back two hours a day. When, uh, I remember to use them.

I'm ADHD-combined, so the timers also help me with the impatience/need to get out of here thing as well. And the timers help me stay somewhat motivated when the depression gets really bad. But they're mostly good for spaciness.

I also like CBT and talk therapy for reframing (I tend to go straight from "I should have left three hours ago" to "I am a complete and utter failure who gets nowhere on time ever") and for helping me sort out which of the many, many, many methods out there (an overwhelming mess of options, gah) will actually help me in particular.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 4:53 PM on October 17, 2011 [7 favorites]

A regular schedule, *especially* regular sleep; same hours every night.

A regular place for everything, and not adding anything to my stuff that doesn't have a place.
posted by talldean at 7:51 AM on October 24, 2011

"Recognizing that I am, functionally, disabled."

This, A THOUSAND TIMES THIS. Thank you. So well said. About the time I think I'm "cured" is about the time my life goes straight to hell. (Also, that bit about deciding whether or not to take your wallet/journal/etc? Simply grabbing them and going has saved me an hour in the last week alone, so thanks for that as well.)

The one thing that has helped me most: wearing an analog watch. I love being able to see the passage of time as the second hand goes around. I'm obsessed with checking it every five minutes. Keeps me more aware and attentive, and goes a long way towards addressing the famously dysfunctional relationship with time that is so characteristic of ADH/LD brain chemistry. ("Oh, it actually takes more than five seconds to shower? And I can't tell someone I'll 'be there in five minutes' when I know it will take me half an hour? I see.")
posted by aarwenn at 11:57 AM on November 9, 2011 [11 favorites]

When I reread my emails, I often discover that the last paragraph really needs to be moved to the beginning. So I do that a lot and I think it has improved my emails a fair bit.
posted by lover at 3:42 PM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

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