Just Don’t Make It Too Predictable: Structuring Academic Work with ADHD

Image: Patrick Tomasso

Thursday 14th December, 2017

Katta Spiel

In June 2016, I attended a comedy special after a conference. ADHDeclaration described one person’s experience of finding themselves after diagnosis and was intended to create empathy. I thought it would be a light evening of learning more about a condition I knew little about. But I left the event in tears. The person on stage had just described my own life, including childhood experiences. She had uttered my unspoken innermost fears. While I had always known people with ADHD, I had never considered I had the condition myself. Seeking clarity, I went to get diagnosed. Now, a year later, I look back and understand how many signs there were. One of them is how I work.

Academic work presents the challenge of complex projects. The hardest part about writing my dissertation is the expectation of focusing exclusively on, and being deeply engaged with, a single topic. My Master’s was a multitasking paradise, where I could switch between areas of computing and philosophy whenever I was feeling stuck. But I was warned that the PhD would be a multitasking nightmare in which deadlines and responsibilities descend with relentless mercy. I required a structured approach to prioritising tasks.

In this blog, I consider the structures I imposed on myself during my graduate studies. Based on my account of the effort involved in getting things done as an academic with ADHD, I hope that other neurodiverse academics feel inspired to reflect on their task management.

During my Master’s I had an elaborate system. While it looked like a simple to do list, it incorporated complex probability calculations, tied to the urgency of a task. For example, I didn’t want to clean the bathroom every day, but consistently about once a week. All tasks were equal: I needed a way to remind myself to contact friends, to clean my house, to finish assignments, to conduct analyses, to do political work, but also to relax and do something enjoyable like watching a movie, knitting, or playing a game. Appointments and deadlines helped structure my day (and occasionally informed the urgency with which things had to be done), but this was how I structured my home life. Without such a list, I was overwhelmed by the variety of stuff I could do at any given moment and was incapable of choosing between them. Additionally, my attention span is — unsurprisingly — relatively short. I have to break up tasks into feasible bits. This also meant that I did not finish an assignment in one go, but rather did one aspect of it, then did something else, and then whenever it reappeared on the list, I did another aspect. For it to come up again, I would put the task at the bottom of the list until it was completed. Because looking at a daunting task list is overwhelming, I focused on the first six items on the list and rolled a die to choose between them.

When I began working as a PhD student within a research project, I no longer conducted all this work at home, but rather in an office. So I digitised the existing list and filled it with work tasks, but in doing so, I lost my method of structuring tasks at home. I developed a simple scheme: I set up reminders and chose between doing something for fun, a university task or a domestic chore, again by rolling a die (or through the python command random.randint(1,6); I am, after all, also a computer scientist). This procedure became somewhat complicated. I had one list deciding between different crafting activities, one for games I wanted to play, and a scheme with which I choose between movies and TV series. I had tasks listed on a computer note, some in my reminders and others entirely in my head. This system was bound to collapse.

Image of a to do list

These days I use OmniFocus, an app which separates the task of establishing what to do and when from the actual doing of it. I check my daily list and occasionally use the die to choose a task. I impose flexible and fixed deadlines on myself, which gives me both a sense of urgency and satisfaction when I tick them off. Medications and therapy have also helped me recognise problems with my approaches to task management, which I am in the process of fixing. I also have the resources now to make choices and consciously decide which tasks I do. I still use a die to structure tasks at home, but more liberally, allowing myself to diverge from the die and to take time to choose between options. Still, I am thankful whenever a friend suggests doing something together or when family members indicate that I should stop working on my computer and pay attention to them.

These three methods of structuring my tasks have one thing in common: increasing non-predictability while getting things done on time. I am easily bored even when doing something that I care about and am interested in. Despite imposing them upon myself, I have a curious drive to dissect structures and to deconstruct them, questioning their influence on my work. Hence, creating a structure that is unpredictable enough while being designed to support the timely completion of tasks is a difficult feat. The structures I do impose on myself, therefore, are a careful balance of extrinsic choice and intrinsic motivation. I might have to change my procedure again, but I now know what to look for in a sound management tool.

Let me close with a short note on attention span. I indicated it as an issue for deep engagement, but that is not always the case. It can also be incredibly creative and academically rewarding. Switching from philosophical thoughts to technical design and back allows me to make connections others cannot necessarily make. This leads to novel work that is relevant for my research community. So while it is challenging to do something specific, doing several things in piecemeal fashion enables me to thrive as a researcher with unique qualities. And that’s the beautiful aspect of being an academic with ADHD.

Katta has a background in Cultural Studies and Computer Science. Their PhD at Vienna University of Technology centres around experiences of autistic children with technologies, including their first-hand perspectives. They tweet as @katta_spiel.

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