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Abbey Perini
Abbey Perini

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Coding and ADHD - Can't Start

I want to start the task. I know I need to start the task. Why can't I start the task?

ADHD Paralysis by Dani Donovon Looks like: a guy on his couch surrounded by clutter, playing switch, and thinking "whatever, I don't care if it's clean" Feels like: a guy on his couch surrounded by clutter, playing switch, thinking a ton of negative thoughts about his inability to clean

Shame

ADHD brains have received so much negative messaging about their ability to do tasks, that inability to start is often rooted in shame. Many of us struggle with perfectionism, and no one enjoys trying and failing at the same task repeatedly.

I highly recommend How to ADHD and Brendan Mahan's Wall of Awful explanation part 1 and part 2. A short book I found very helpful is How to Keep House While Drowning. Jesse J. Anderson also does a great job of explaining how ADHD brains are motivated and some tools to use in this video. Black Girl Lost Keys has tons of helpful resources. I tweet about my ADHD and follow many people who tweet about their ADHD because it is very helpful to know other people are struggling with these things too.

Overwhelm

ADHD people often find pairing/co-working/body doubling helpful, especially for starting a task. I have to find a balance because I will chat someone's ear off given the opportunity, to the detriment of getting my work done.

Throughout my life, the main thing that has worked for me when I encounter a large task I don't want to start is writing down all the steps. Often I find I'm overwhelmed by something because I'm thinking of it as one step when it's actually 20.

Next I break each of those steps down into its smallest steps. Then I find the smallest step in that list and try it. For code, sometimes this is as easy as making a blank file and importing something. Once I've done it, my brain declares the task started, and suddenly things are much less overwhelming.

This can be very difficult for people with ADHD, so never be afraid to ask for help breaking it down. This can be one area in which development work suits people with ADHD. It is normal to discuss the individual steps involved in a task in order to properly estimate and prioritize them. There is often a person whose job it is to help you do so, and if not, it could be a great thing to pair with another developer on. If there's not a developer like that within your company, you can ask a friend or join a networking group.

Trying to be productive by @mostlyADHD a pie chart with a tiny sliver labelled actually be productive, a large piece labelled think about being productive, a medium piece labelled watch cat videos, and a small piece labelled stress about not being productive

Just a Little Bit

Something I've learned recently is that committing to an amount of time trying the task or a small percent of the task really works for ADHD brains. "I'll do 15 minutes of dishes." or "I'll just do 5% of this refactor" is often enough to get us started. Once that 5% is complete, that momentum often gives enough motivation to start another 5% and so on.

At the end of the work day, I'll often ask myself if there are small tasks I can do right now to make it easier to start in the morning. For me, this is usually making sure my to do list for tomorrow has the first task I want to try in the morning and all my meetings/appointments/events on it. Sometimes it's picking up desk clutter to limit distractions or writing myself an encouraging note on a post it.

Before I sit on the couch to relax, I try to ask myself what small task I can do to help myself function tomorrow. For example, do I have breakfast I can prep in 3 steps or less? If not, I should prep some. I'm trying to find the smallest task I can do while I have some momentum, instead of hoping I have the motivation in the morning.

Conclusion

Did I miss a resource or tip you love? Leave a comment!

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Top comments (51)

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nikfp profile image
Nik F P

This is an awesome series to see, especially for someone with ADHD. What you've written so far is spot on!

I have a few things that I have found useful that might help others, and I thought I should share.

  1. I found that the biggest factor for me in managing my attention was understanding how my diet and activity level interplay with my ability to concentrate. I found that caffeine and refined sugars are both huge triggers to scatterbrain and inability start tasks and stay on them, so I cut them out. Also, more consistent meals of higher quality food allows me to maintain focus for longer periods than before. This kind of flies in the face of common business thinking though, since coffee is so pervasive in most office cultures and most people are too busy to focus on eating well, so they get what they can when they can and the food quality is usually lower than if they prepared it themselves. For activity, something as simple as a mid-day fast walk or bike ride, or anything else that gets my heart rate up, has a drastic effect on my productivity in the afternoon. something about letting out some of the nervous energy maybe? I have alarms set now to remind me to get up and move around.

  2. It took me years to understand this and others might not agree, but I have a certain time of day that I'll be the most productive and able to think deeply, and it's actually later in the day and into the evening. For me, this is when my brain starts to get tired and for some reason this also equates to less scattered. If I haven't fried my brain all day at work, I can write some awesome code in the hours just before bed.

Hopefully someone else finds this useful.

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Yes! Diet and exercise can be very helpful - maybe eventually I'll figure out how to consistently feed myself the way I want to and stick to an exercise schedule. 🙃

You'll be happy to see "lean into how your brain wants to focus" in the next blog in the series. 😉

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pcjmfranken profile image
Peter Franken • Edited

High severity ADHD combined type (aka super ADHD) approved 😎

Just read both posts in your series and not only is the information solid, the text flows really well which makes for an easy read. Great work!

Edit: Getting diagnosed and starting on meds was the best thing that has ever happened to me. Whilst all tricks and strategies do help, there's only so much you can do to mitigate a chemical imbalance in your brain. Sometimes you need some external help which there's absolutely no shame in!

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Thanks! Agreed! In fact, I'm going to try to emphasize even more in the next blog that a lot of my strategy is accepting how my brain is rather than trying to force it to do things.

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pcjmfranken profile image
Peter Franken

I like that angle, looking forward to reading it (don't feel pressured by this though, seriously)!

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destynova profile image
Oisín

Sometimes I need to run build and test commands that can take a while, and I'll switch to the web browser and start reading while I'm waiting... Which often results in coming back 15 minutes later because I lost track of time.
One trick I've found that helps is to make a script that uses the system text-to-speech utility to speak out loud and tell me when the command fails or succeeds, so I don't have to keep checking the console. I call it "runsay".
You can also use notify-send to pop up a notification box but that's not as fun.

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Hey, I know you're probably coming from a good place and trying to normalize these challenges, but "everyone is a little ADHD" is a problematic myth. It's dismissive of the real, painful struggle to function we experience every day and the physical differences in our brains. If you're capable of forcing yourself to do the tasks you don't want to do in the morning, and forming habits, that's not the same struggle we're experiencing. Jesse J. Anderson covers this in the "eat the frog" portion of his video I linked in this blog.

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wsgac profile image
Wojciech S. Gac

Abbey, thanks for approaching this difficult topic in a warm, personal and relatable way. Though I should know better by now, I'm still frequently surprised that so many people out there experience problems and difficulties similar to mine. While I don't like the fact that so many of us struggle, it certainly makes one feel less lonely in this world.

I particularly like your "divide and conquer" strategy for dealing with tasks and have been trying various ways to trick my brain along these lines for some years now. Checklists work well, particularly when there's a nice visual gratification that the brain can't miss. Being mostly an Emacs person, I really love Org-mode with its low-friction style. But even pencil and paper do work, provided one can muster the discipline to have the same "paper" around at all times.

I also remember from university days that mild sleep deprivation actually helped me with exams, cause it hampered my natural tendency to scatter my thoughts all over the place. Well-balanced fatigue (but not overt exhaustion) worked miracles "tunneling" my attention to the one thing it was supposed to be focusing on.

Anyway, it was a funny coincidence today. I was thinking about avoiding distractions and checked my email. And a link to your blog popped up a moment later. Looking forward to the next part. Good luck!

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Oooh I'm being fairly cautious about naming any particular organization system or tool while writing the "Can't Remember" part of this series, but I should ask people to comment with ones they like! I hadn't heard of org-mode and it looks right up a developer's alley!

Hahaha Diet Coke and sleep deprivation helped me get through High School, for sure.

Thanks for reading!

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lukewestby profile image
Luke Westby • Edited

Great articles in this series. I will definitely share them with the other ADHD devs that I know. I’m really looking forward to “Can’t Stop”, it’s what I personally have the most trouble managing. Thank you!

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Saaaaame! Thanks for reading!

 
abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini • Edited

Ok then let me rephrase: there is no magic bullet for ADHD. ADHD people have to switch up their coping strategies as what works one day often does not work the next.

It is well known that ADHD is strongly correlated with substance abuse and substance abuse is strongly correlated with underlying mental health issues, among other things. In the first article, I discuss reward pathways, dopamine, and allude to addiction and hyperfocus with the "can't leave the buttons we like alone" analogy.

Brain disorders are complex and difficult to study, because the experience is subjective.

This is a conversation I have a lot. For perspective, if we compare psychiatry to medicine, it's still in the "your humors seem out of balance" phase. That being said, there have been scientific studies showing physical differences in ADHD brains. It would be more accurate to call it an executive function disorder. It is a cognitive disability. Like most disorders, it's still not researched enough, the research often has heavy biases, and the amount nature and nurture determine symptoms is still debated.

The brain is constantly not storing and erasing/changing stored information - memory is much more fallible than people think. Neural pathways can also easily be damaged physically through disease, injury, and substances. If you're talking about the fact that neural pathways are hard to change through behavior, then yes. Reward pathways are especially stubborn, which is important for both ADHD and substance abuse. However, ADHD reward pathways work very differently - to the point that forming habits takes years and the rewards we require look very different. That Jesse J. Anderson video also covers the difference in rewards we need.

Yes, if you add dopamine to the system of someone with ADHD, it will help them do the task. Any suggestion involving "just do it," "just do it a little every day," "just force yourself," "make it a habit," or "willpower" is still dismissive to say to someone with ADHD. I could not force myself to get in a tub full of ice every morning even with my Adderall. I wouldn't have the ice ready every morning, for sure.

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gwenshap profile image
Gwen (Chen) Shapira

This is great, even neurotypicals can benefit from those ideas.

One thing I found critical when working with ADHD engineers is to invest in great developer tools and smooth CI/CD.

The moment someone loses focus, it is so hard to get it back. If your tests take over a minute to run, they may forget the code they were working on while the tests are running. Or if they push a PR to Github and then they need to follow up later on whether the build failed, they may forget to follow up. Your CI/CD really needs a good reminder system and hopefully as few manual steps as possible.

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Thanks, Gwen!

This is a really good tip! I know I've said before that if I ever learn how to maintain focus when a development server takes longer than a minute to load, I'll be unstoppable. 😃 I hadn't even thought about how much keeping Github email notifications on for CircleCI was helping me. 😅

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codedivajs profile image
CodeDiva

Thank you for writing this encouraging article. It means a lot to know that there are people who are neurodivergent and are devs. I am trying and have been trying for years to become a full time developer. However, it has taken me years to realize that I have ADD (recently diagnosed) and that has had a huge impact on my ability to stay focused on this goal. I’m able to complete classes and have done some small projects. But the overwhelm and the shame are huge factors that have impeded my progress. The job interviews that include technical interviews are intimidating and I have never done that well on such tests. Talking about subjects are my strong point. And I have excellent people skills. I’m a senior QA at this point. And understand quite a bit. But getting through that barrier is elusive to me. It’s not going to deter me from continuing to learn and achieve this goal.

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Thank you for reading! Once you get that job, you'll be in great company. Many of the best developers I know have ADHD.

I never passed a leetcode-type interview, in fact, I cried every single time I tried one. I can do ok on the rapid-fire technical question type interviews. I do well in pairing-style whiteboard interviews and interviews where they ask me questions about projects on my portfolio.

I still got a job, and I have an admin background. I would definitely think of your QA experience as a boon and you've clearly been putting in the work, so hopefully you find an interview process that's right for you soon! 🤞

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rip21 profile image
Andrii Los

Great series.

I never got diagnosed but I have 100% some sort of ADHD. So many things mentioned here are what I have troubles with.
Hard to start, but then it goes. If I like something I'm super into it until I'm not. And so on and so forth. Many things I learned along the way to get back myself some hobbies. But it made me worse coder as I now have other sources of joy, while when I had a complete ban on entertainment aside from socializing, I've been workaholic and I've been progressing with my career like crazy. Now I still do progress, but much slower and I'm extremely disappointed with myself most of the time. I can do so much more... I can be so helpful, but my focus on work is very bad, only strict deadlines and nice planning helps, otherwise if I don't excited about the task it will take me a while to get to do it and then it will be done but not as perfect as I would want it to be so I'll be annoyed once again.

Continue this, please.

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

I'm so sorry to hear about your struggles! You're not alone and you've made it this far with undiagnosed ADHD, so you're doing amazing! 💙

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rip21 profile image
Andrii Los

Yeah, I'm sure that in current world that is full of distractions people even without ADHD of any sorts may struggle with similar issues. But I think mine are a bit more dramatic :) So prob I have one (unsure if it makes sense to diagnose).

Anyway, it's annoying, but I'm still doing great, just hope I'll get a reliable method of fighting it so I'll be doing not great, but freaking amazing :)
Some methods provided here are fresh to me, so let's hope some of these will work out :)

Thanks!

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Yeah, the wall of awful is pretty impactful. I think I've sent it to every friend whose spouse has ADHD, and it's really helped them understand and meet their spouses halfway. Most people, ADHD or not, don't realize how much negative internal and external messaging people with ADHD live with.

There are certainly times when everything seems impossible - I wish you the best of luck acclimating in your new home!

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sebbdk profile image
Sebastian Vargr

I cannot find the time to read this series right now, but i just wanna add' i think this is a great initiative.

I was undiagnosed for ~12 years of my working years, getting diagnosed and learning how work around rather than through my problems made me genuinely a happier and less worried person.

Knowledge is power! :)

 
abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Cool. To anyone with ADHD reading this - it's not in your head. There are real statistics from real statisticians. I tried the "just force yourself" way for 28 years, and the result was burn out and pain, not productivity. Accepting my brain and tackling the shame has been more helpful to me than any productivity tip from someone who doesn't struggle with ADHD.

Psychiatric medications, side effects, and the research on them are another topic. Don't listen to anyone trying to shame you for taking your meds. Do discuss side effects and the effects of long term use with your doctor.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Thanks for getting going with this series

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Thanks for reading!

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mohitbilala profile image
MOHITBILALA

As well as adhd, I cannot focus and give my full attention in a javascript project I have failed a few times after failing multiple times I try harder and when I write down what I'm doing, I cannot accomplish quicker or why I'm facing this problem. Can you please tell me what I am struggling with?

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini

Hi! Unfortunately, I am not a mental health professional and can only tell you to talk to a mental health professional. For people in the U.S., I have a Twitter thread on finding a therapist. If you're already seeing a psychiatrist, they're really just there to help you with your medication, not coping strategies.

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