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Learning Code with ADHD: Lists

Things have been rather chaotic lately, and the stress of Covid and everything around it made things a little harder to keep track of lately. Let me start with my official diagnosis received last week, while in my fourth week of self-isolation. Because of this, I decided to share my experience with ADHD while I studied code at Juno College.Those who know me well, will recognize the signs as I go through the various ways I've experienced my ADHD over the next series of posts. Others will be surprised, because on a good day I tend to manage my more obvious symptoms well. In fact, because I managed them well, and because I am AFAB, and the symptoms in young girls can be very different from that of young boys when developing, the signs were missed by my family, most of my friends, and my doctors. 

It was often hard for me to focus, I learned patterns and behaviors that would help me skate by most days without notice. So I don't blame anyone around me for not knowing, and not noticing. Like many who aren't diagnosed or have more obvious symptoms, I got really good at pretending to be 'neurotypical'. When in fact, there was a near constant storm of thoughts and ideas demanding my attention inside my head. 
No one caught on that I was going through anything, beyond comments and complaints about how careless I was when I slipped and was 'forgetful', when friends complained that it seemed like I didn't care when my attention wandered mid conversation, or when I didn't realize that I had said something that seemed callous and uncaring. And because I lacked the knowledge, the language, and the support; I was often accused of being uncaring, mean, and a bad child/friend. I struggled in my mental space, resulting in a life-long ebb and flow of anxiety and depression. 

What most days are like for me, are most easily described as turbulent oceans of thoughts that crash up on the shores of my awareness. I could be watching television, and something would remind me about a time, somewhere else, and while my eyes would still be fixated on the screen; my mind would be wandering off somewhere else. Because of this, organizing my mental space was extremely difficult, and I learned in my late twenties that lists, the presence of a material document of items, whether written or typed, helped significantly to organize and put things into a more defined, solid and clear space. Something I could rely on as an anchor point when my mind was prone to set adrift with little warning. A dock to moor my boat to, so to speak. Without it, I'd start one task, only to find myself on a completely different task minutes later, moving through a mental Rolodex of tasks I suddenly remembered I had to do or complete while in the middle of another, and never getting anything done. What I did manage to get done, was shoddy at best in quality. And that I rarely if ever finished anything was an ever growing pit of despair. I don't know if you can relate, but it certainly crushed my self esteem, and hurt my belief in my ability to get anything done.

I'm writing about my experiences to maybe show people who experience the same or similar that they're not alone. Hopefully my story can help a little. Maybe knowing that I managed to get from where I was, to being a developer now, can give hope to those who doubt that they can. 

So how do I manage?

It seems cliche, but I made lists.

I've already expounded on the fact that my mental space is turbulent and sometimes unpredictable, and as a result a list of concrete itemized to-do things helps to act as a stabilizing center for me to return to when I'm lost. 
When I started working with lists, I was perhaps, a little over eager, and a bit over-enthusiastic. I had long 20-item-plus lists that I intended to complete over a week to a month. All I did was overwhelm myself with how much I 'needed' to complete. And because I already lacked the self-confidence to believe I could, looking at a list of more than 5 to 6 items felt insurmountable. So the trick for me, was first accepting and believing that I could complete things. My lists are built around attainable accomplishments towards small milestone achievements. I'll start with a few small tasks that would take a few minutes to finish and get out of the way. Even though these tasks were small, and for many, minuscule. It served to build up a degree of self confidence some days, and at minimum, removed smaller tasks and got them out of the way. And then, I will move up to a slightly heavier task that I know I can accomplish, before hitting at the task that presents the largest challenge. But lets start from how I set up the day for myself:

My days actually starts with the night before. I will make a short mental and sometimes written list of what did I need to do first thing in the morning to start the day. It's the same every morning, and in the beginning it used to live as a post-it note on my bathroom mirror. Today, I can remember it without too much challenge if nothing unpredictable happens to throw me off course. Usually it looked something like:

Do I have any appointments? If yes, what do I need to do to prep? If no…
Do I have any deadlines? If yes, am I on time? Do I need to catch up. Do I need to make time for more work to be done? If no…
What are my priorities? Tomorrow? The day after? Check my calendar.
Make my to-do list for the day.

In the morning, I'd run through that list, and then make my work to-do list with those things in mind for the day, which usually looked like:
Small tasks first, usually household necessities: 
Send off email to [person]
Call [business] and confirm information.
Pay [x] bill. Record for budget.

This may not seem like a big deal to some, but I had times where I forgot I had to pay a bill. Months, where I would remember and then forget in the next instant that I needed to pay my hydro bill, or my internet bill, or that I needed to book an appointment; any number of small detail. And then my lights would get cut, or I'd lose internet or get a service suspension letter. I once completely forgot I'd made an appointment to meet with a client on a Monday after a weekend, and didn't prepare, didn't remember until hours afterwards, and lost the client, and the potential for income. These 'forgetful' moments resulted in lost time, friends feeling like I didn't care enough, my credit being severely damaged, and so much more. So I make lists, calendar reminders, appointments for myself to help me remember. Because it wasn't just being distracted that was the issue for me, it was that when I realized that there was something I had to do, I couldn't remember what it was. 

Having these items crossed off also helped to reassure me that I did complete a task when I needed to, if I suddenly couldn't remember doing it later on in a panic.

It takes a lot of energy to pull myself out of frenzies, moment of anxiety ridden spirals over lost time, distracted wandering, and generally set adrift mentally. More than it takes to have a list handy, and check it, take a moment to breathe, do my best to settle my mind, and move to the next task.

Bigger tasks, and I'd try to keep these to 2–3 at the most:

  1. Review today's lesson, make notes. Did I not do this yesterday? Can I do more 2. today to catch up?
  2. Plan out goals for today's work.
  3. Work on project.

The amount of work I can do in a day varies, but I have a pretty good idea of how much energy I have at my disposal before the effort involved in a consistent state of elevated self-awareness and redirecting mental wanderings to focus and refocus becomes exhausting and I stop working for the day. I also take frequent breaks to help stretch out how much I can do in a day! So your mileage will vary if you're also someone with ADHD. You may be able to do more, you might be able to do less.

And here's something I had to learn to accept about that; it doesn't make you any lesser than, or better than the next person.

You do what you can, and each step forward, no matter how fast, or slow, is still progress.

Making lists also had the unintended effect of attaining personal achievements. Each time I was able to cross off an item, I felt better about myself. It meant that I did something productive, I achieved a goal. It's a stepping stone, no matter how big or small, and enough of those combined, consistently always brought me to my goal.

The hard part about learning to make these lists, was accepting that I needed them; and then staying disciplined to them. I hated myself for a long time for not being able to get things done, forgetting appointments, or getting distracted. And at first, lists made me feel infantalized, and to a degree, like I wasn't capable and therefore broken. I resisted accepting or adopting anything that could be seen and interpreted as evidence of my neurodivergence because I was afraid and ashamed. It took a long time for me to come to terms, and it turns out, that lists did the opposite for me. 

Over time, being able to witness my own accomplishments, experiencing daily achievements, being able to finish projects, and get results has done wonders over the last few years I've fully adopted what I now fondly call "structure" into my day to day life. My confidence has grown, and I believe in my ability to grow, learn and function. 

I am neurodivergent. I am very capable of learning, adapting, and functioning though my tools may be different. 

So how did this look during Boot-camp?

Clearing my life for boot-camp helped to simplify my life and day in significant ways. I put a pause on my real estate career, told friends and family I'd be gone for a few months because I was changing careers. Happily, everyone was supportive and encouraging.

While studying at Juno, my days started at 7am in the morning. 

Shower, Eat, Make Coffee, Get out the door. Usually, I was out the door by around 8:30–8:45am nearly every day. 

It took me an hour to drive into Toronto everyday, but I liked to try and arrive a half hour early before class started at 10am. It gave me time to settle in, get water, make another coffee, greet my class mates, and clear my head from the morning if I needed to.

10:00am - 11:30am was our first section of the class. 
11:55am - 1:00pm, where we'd break for lunch. 
2:00pm–3:30pm for another section of class learning, before another 10–20 minute break, 
and then from 3:55pm -6:00pm for the last section of the class.

I found the theory and instruction difficult to follow along unless I was able to find a way to gamify the lesson for myself.

By this I mean that if I had a programming challenge to consider while we learned that day. (For example: Can I make a to-do list into a chat application with React and Firebase? Or, What would it take to make a side scrolling game with JQuery?) I could focus on the lesson with a challenge in mind, something that I could unravel and solve along side the lesson we were learning that day. Finding ways to keep my attention span engaged like this, helped me to stay focused and attentive.; preventing my attention from wandering. Still, I would miss things and so in order to make sure I was able to stay on track, I usually set aside time at the end of the day to catch up with the notes provided by the course.

That said…

Thank goodness Juno prioritized breaks as much as they prioritized everything else. Breaks have been fundamental in the conservation of the mental energy needed to maintain focus for a longer period of time without burning out.

After class, I liked to stay anywhere from a half hour to two hours to work along side my classmates, to get help and give help wherever possible on complex lessons I didn't quite understand, or to work on a project we were assigned. The infectious energy of my cohort, was energizing and I was able to work longer and more efficiently. It's for this reason that I genuinely attribute a lot of my love for development to the energy of my cohort. While Juno itself stands on it's own as a large contributor towards my love of coding, and is very much a large part of my journey into being a developer, the people I took this journey with made each day a joy and pleasure. 

Leaving Juno between 8:00 and 8:30pm, I often reached home around 9pm when I would eat something light, and take notes and review the lessons we had covered that day. 

I preferring to write and jot down thoughts alongside the notes from the lesson instructions provided. Perhaps it's a fact of my generation being one of the last to have gone through a significant stretch of life without being attached at the hip to a phone or keyboard, but pen and paper still work the best to help me remember anything.

So I write.

I take notes of each lesson, pen and paper each block of code, so I notice each fine-text and line that I may have missed earlier.

When I finish that, I do my best to make sure I take a moment to relax, and mentally turn off before I head to bed. This happened usually around 1–2am though I tried to aim for midnight bedtime.

The next day I wake up at 7am to do it all over again.

My days are lists, of routines I can still be flexible and deviate from, but for the most part exist as a framework for what I need to get done on a daily basis.

In following my lists, I find that I can focus and stay on track to accomplish the best and most in my day to day.

This daily practice and schedule is what worked the best for me. I believe it was a combination of the people, my adherence to my own learning structure, as well as the resources made available via Juno's instructional framework, and the learning material that has come together to help me achieve what successes I've experienced thus far.

I said early on in my boot-camp that I liked structure. Perhaps this post will shed some light on why that is now. The experience of boot-camp left me feeling full and accomplished every day allowing for progress in quick and consistent bursts of understanding and application, and along side my understanding, my confidence grew with it.

Well this post is long enough, and if you made it this far, I thank you for sticking with me! I'd love to hear from you! If you are or aren't neurodivergent, or know someone who is, I invite you to share your experience!

(Cross Posted To my Medium Blog)

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