How I used technology to turn my ADHD into an asset

My first memory of feeling truly deficient was a high school math class. My grades had been mediocre. My teacher at the time was explaining something so simple that anyone could understand it: How tally marks work. Comically, he turned to me and said “Ed, your family still uses this for you, right?”

I stormed out of the classroom and cried in the hallway. I’d faced a few years of being told I was lazy and stupid. Peers called me a “retard.” It had been drilled into me that I was “an average student at best.” A teacher once intimated my future was in flipping burgers.

I had been evaluated as having Dyspraxia, a developmental disorder. I covered ideational (multi-step tasks and organization), oromotor (muscle-movement and pronunciation), and constructional (spatial awareness) dyspraxia. I was—to the government and the school system, a disabled person.

“Man, you shouldn’t even have a job. How the hell did you even fill in the form?” 

But if I liked something, my brain locked onto it and thing made sense at an impossibly fast rate. If wasn’t interested though, my brain gave me the equivalent of a Costco employee’s “not my lane” speech.

A decade later, I was sitting in a neuropsychologist’s office, after four hours of testing. I had at that time a fairly successful PR career (I’d found a niche, media relations; essentially, I wrote good emails). My PR career was going well because I could simply use the computer all day, every day, something I liked.

“So, we knew you had Dyspraxia or whatever you brits called it. But you’ve also got aggravated depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and ADHD inattentive,” the neuropsychologist told me. I sighed and held my head in my hands; having ADHD in England is like wearing a scarlet letter. He shook his head and laughed. “Man, you shouldn’t even have a job. How the hell did you even fill in the form? I’m not kidding. How did you do that?”

“Because I could do it on the computer.”

That’s what it’s always come down to: The computer. When I can focus on one object at a time, my brain is somehow superhuman. But otherwise, I’m distracted. That means using a phone and a computer at once completely hinders me.

Why the computer? Because it’s one object. One object that can do a million things.

“OK. What you’re doing is sublimation. Or what you have been doing, at least. How much do you use the computer?”

“10 hours a day,” I answered.

My anxiety and ADHD were working as a divining rod, finding the most important task at hand. As long as they were all contained within a screen, I could pinpoint and take no prisoners.

But my technological success weren’t totally brain-based. My disability had actually helped me create a few strange pinball bumper-like habits that spurred my productivity.

Tabs, the willful distraction, and “boxing”

ADHD is a stupidly misunderstood disorder. Inattentive specifically refers to the distractibility of our brains. When I first discovered tabs, my productivity shot through the roof.  Why? Because I had begun to realize that my brain wasn’t bored—it was craving distraction. One task or browser window was like a tiny cage for it. Being able to alt-tab through things meant that, yes, if I had a hilarious YouTube video in an entirely other window my brain was going there. But tabs meant it could be two places at once. To compliment this, I created a technique I call “boxing.”

If I’m working, I open as many tabs as I see fit, but make sure to keep at least a 70 percent balance between work things and non-work things. Am I working on a collaboration client? Then I’ll probably open up five or six random articles about it, and keep an eye on Twitter. This means that if I need to hit that release valve, to release the ADHD-pressure willfully, I can and will do so via meaningful distraction.

When you have ADHD and anxiety, little things can bother and break you. 

Twitter: The perfect ADHD release

ADHD means I am inherently distractible and talk too much. As a result I have over 70,000 inane tweets. The very nature of my brain is that it has too many thoughts to sift through. I oftentimes am asked “why are you on Twitter so much, how do you get work done?” and the answer is that I have turned Twitter into a form of work. While at times it may seem I am simply bothering reporters with asinine jokes, I am actually talking to them because I find technology interesting and I am, in the end, learning in the same way someone else might do by reading an article or a book.

For my personal version of ADHD, I’ve found this is actually the best way to get work done without giving into the demons of true distraction (re: a new video game, my dog, a room that needs organizing).

Anxiety + Google = GPS

The world of PR pitching is essentially having a bucket of clients and finding a way to get them press. With a list of clients and a running knowledge of who has had enough coverage or not enough, my anxiety spikes in wild directions. In my general life my anxiety is a bane—it staggers me and makes me paranoid. In my professional life my anxiety is a weird compass—a somewhat weighted GPS that says “go here, there’s a problem.”

I don’t use Google docs, but I use Gmail and Calendar as an ultra-connected hub of “go here, do this, worry about this.” Google Keep collects my dissonant thoughts with relevant links, all of this saved into calendar invites so that I know what thoughts to think during meetings.

I rely on the cross-device-ness of the Google gods; it’s all that saves me from the ADHD-Dyspraxic nightmare that I would exist in otherwise. Knowing that if I put something on Google that it exists on every device I own makes me feel like a “normal”—you know, people who remember what they need to do, and where and when they need to do it.

Yosemite, Continuity, and why I ditched the PC

Disclaimer: This is going to sound promotional. I use Macs for everything. I also have until recently faced a very strange problem of missing phone calls, even when my phone is sitting directly aside of me.

Continuity is touted as primarily connecting your documents to each other like Google docs. And thank God for it. 

I’ll classically miss texts because of  iMessage issues—which have always had cross-parity issues. If someone texted me, it’d appear on my silenced phone, and I would ignore it for hours. That’s no longer an issue. Bizarrely, the most amazing thing is that I no longer miss incoming calls, because my phone pings my PC to say “hey, idiot, your phone is ringing.”

A lot of what you’re reading here seems remarkably easy and simple; small hacks that make things minutely better. But when you have my brain, these are life-savers.

When you have ADHD and anxiety, little things can bother and break you. The fact that you have to pick up your phone to send a text to someone who doesn’t use an iPhone is mentally exhausting—it’s an extra action when your brain can barely focus on what it’s already struggling to do. The need to transfer files between computers using a USB stick—or even multiple email accounts—would mean that I could lose countless files, which would send me into mental overload accounting for.

Don’t even ask what things were like for me before Dropbox or Spotlight existed.

Technology is making real life possible for people with massive damage, but I see myself as a smaller victory. I’m the first to call out the vapidity of startups, the myth of the meritocracy, and the cult of founder personality. But I am grateful to technology at large because these simple changes to unify data for the everyday consumer has made me able to operate as a human.

Without technology, I’d be a failure. At least that’s what my neuropsychologist would tell you. 

Photo via Wiertz Sébastien/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Ed Zitron

Ed Zitron

Ed Zitron is a journalist and the founder of EZPR, a national media relations firm focused on consumer-tech startups. He's also the author of 'Fire Your Publicist: The PR and PUblicity Secrets That Will Make You and Your Business Famous.'