How to be productive as a programmer with ADHD

Being productive while having ADHD can sometimes feel like a colossal task. When I was rediagnosed with ADHD as an adult, I began to research ways to be more productive that are inattentive friendly.

To my surprise, there was not much content for adults with it. So I compiled a list of methods that will help you stay focused as a programmer.

Inspiring digital art illustration of exhausted man in front of a computer, with his head down on a desk with subtle colors including coral and blush.
Created by Supriya Bhonsle

To set up your work environment for success, you need to reduce distractions.

  • Close Apps you are not using. I use an app called Quitter by Marco Arment. It lets you set up rules to close your apps after a set amount of time of it being inactive.
  • Organize your files and folders. It’s a good idea to try to keep projects isolated to their own folder so they are easier to find. I plan to write more about this one in a later article.
  • Tweak your notifications. If you can get away with turning on Do Not Disturb on your computer, this will be the most effective. But if you are expected to be prompt to slack messages and emails this may be a bit more tricky.
  • Block distracting websites. Taking a 5-minute break on reddit can lead to you looking at cats that like loafs of bread an hour later. For Mac, there is a great app called Self Control that lets you block certain websites for a set amount of time. The best part is that it’s very hard to get around this filer.
  • Buy a good pair of noise-canceling headphones and find some music that helps you get into a flow state. I have a pair of ATH-M50x that have been my loyal choice for over 5 years (Not Sponsored yet). Music is one of the most underrated tools for programmers.

For organizing tasks, it's useful to stick to analog. Yes, analog. I bet you thought this was going to be about cool apps huh? Nope, let me introduce you to this cool little thing called Bullet Journaling.

Bullet Journaling

At first, I was skeptical of this system but the more I have used it, the more I have fallen in love with it.

The best approach for bullet journaling is using good ‘ol pencil and paper. Digital apps have the flaw of being in an environment that is full of distractions.

Bullet Journal
Unsplash photo by Isaac Smith

All you need to get started is:

  • A blank or dotted journal 📓
  • A pen 🖋
  • A passion to get things done. ✍️

It all starts with an index page. This page will keep your journal organized. Then you create a Future Log, A monthly log, and a daily log. The reason why this system works so well for developers with ADHD is that it's easy to tweak. If you want to have a page for your doodles of Triforces, go for it. If you want to create an elaborate health and fitness tracker, you can do it.

If you need inspiration, there is no shortage of creative posts on Pintrest and Instagram.

For more info on Bullet Journaling, I recommend reading the official website.

I also recommend watching How To ADHD’s video on bullet journaling.

Exercise has proven time and time again to be an excellent tool for just about everything.

On the mornings where I am not hitting the snooze button until the last moment, I try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise. I notice improvements in my mood and the ability to solve problems quicker.

It doesn’t need to be intense if you are starting your fitness journey, A walk around the park can do a lot for the mind. Proper exercise is shown to reduce most symptoms of ADHD.

Pomodoro Timers

Pomodora timer is a system to make sure you stay focused on a task followed by a short break.

This is an easy way to ensure that you are giving your mind time to relax and not hyper-focus for too long. Every 25 minutes or so, you take a 5-minute break. Then after 3 “Pomodoras”, you take a 15-minute break. This system forces you to stick to a task with a promised reward of time you can do whatever you want without feeling guilty. That’s the beauty of this system. I’m using one right now while I write this.

Forest app on iOS
I’m going to plant so many trees!

Here are some great apps that use Pomodoro:

Allow yourself time to actually read documentation.

If your brain is anything like mine, you probably skim the documentation until you find a code snippet you can use and ignore everything else. Good news, you’re not alone in this. Our brains are wired to find solutions in the most efficient way.

Statistically speaking, most people are skimming this article right now.

Jakob Nielsen’s eye-tracking study from 2008 indicated that less than 20% of the text content is actually read on an average web page.

👋 Hello to the people skimming this post

While this behavior is effective at getting results, we can find ourselves in a loop of not understanding the why behind certain code. Allow your self to slow down next time you are looking up something. Read the descriptions of the functions and API you are using. You will probably learn something new!

Okay, this one might stir up controversy, that’s why I saved it for last. Let me preface this with I am not a doctor and you should talk to yours if you are thinking about medication.

Medication is not for everyone, many people with ADHD live successful lives without it. But you should know that it’s an option.

You can be a programmer with ADHD and live a productive life. I shared the tools I have used to keep myself accountable and productive. Every one of them I have used myself. While these may or may not work for you I encourage you to try them. I also recommended finding a community to talk about ADHD without judgment.

Here are a couple good ones:

One last thing, Embrace ADHD. Don’t be too hard on yourself when a system doesn’t work for you. Your brain is different. We are programmed to notice small details and think outside of the box. Change is hard and the worst thing you can do is think you are defective.

I live by this quote from BJ Fogg, the author of Tiny Habits.

People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.

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