As everyone’s brain works differently (whether ADHD or not), people differ tremendously in what their ideal organizational systems are. For me, I am much less productive if I have a less than ideal system – the stakes are very high. But even for people who can be productive on any system, I think that tailoring their system to their brain, their lifestyle, their job and schedule and hobbies, can have amazing results.
In this post, I want to go more into detail about that. Specifically, I’d like to demonstrate the point by looking at organizational systems and techniques that have not worked for me personally, in approximate chronological order of my life.
The first one is the one I noticed the earliest, before anyone expected any organization out of me: I am not very good at handwriting. I don’t have the best coordination, it makes my hand hurt, and I can’t really get myself to do it in a sustained way.
I have a number of reasons or excuses for this, but the biggest one is probably how slow it is. I get impatient. I get distracted by the effort, and I forget what I was going to write next. Even if I don’t, I get frustrated with the lack of speed: I can type at 110 WPM or so, whereas my handwriting is probably more like 15.
I basically don’t use handwriting at all in my present life – which means I’m unpracticed and makes it even less of an appealing option. Many people recommend handwritten TODO lists and reminders as a way of organizing, or handwritten journals as a way of meditating and logging life, and I’ve come to realize that as appealing as it may sound, and as relaxing as it can be to not be at a screen, these techniques are not for me – but can be for me if modified to be on a computer (or phone).
Homework and Note-Taking#
My handwriting problems led soon to note-taking problems. Note-taking was a bust for me in school, and even in university.
I have heard that writing notes is supposed to help you pay attention. Maybe this works for people who don’t struggle as much with handwriting as I do – I do have some smatterings of experiences doing better note-taking with a computer. However, for whatever reasons, in school I simply could not pay attention to the teacher and write notes at the same time, or honestly get myself to write any notes even if I was not simultaneously trying to pay attention to the teacher. When the teacher was finished teaching, or took a break, I never took that opportunity to write anything down either, because that would get me maybe 10% of the actual notes that I could theoretically get out of the class, and that wasn’t enough to actually be useful.
This, perhaps surprisingly, didn’t really cause me problems for tests. I was usually actually paying really good attention to the teacher (whether the teacher could tell from my body language or not), and as I said before, I had a really good retrospective memory. Generally, as long as I remembered and understood everything the teacher had explained, I would do well on the tests, which almost always, in practice, tested retrospective memory.
See, tests always remind you what the question is about, and very rarely contain a gotcha where you have to remember to do something. Generally, even in math tests, you can’t leave out a step, because otherwise you simply don’t arrive at the answer. When leaving out a step was possible (e.g. doing a separate “units check” after answering the question), I often would forget to do it. But in such situations, there was at least usually a reminder in the text of the exam. All in all, school tests privilege retrospective memory over prospective memory, biasing them towards people who think like me, and (especially due to my deficits in prospective memory) giving an inflated view of my skill-sets.
But even though this didn’t affect my test-taking, this complete lack of note-taking had some other negative effects. I remember in middle school you used to have to write your homework down in a little planner they gave you called an “agenda book,” which also contained hall passes in the back for teachers to initial. I never remembered to write down the homework. Basically every day I had to call a very tedious hotline (from the landline phone in my parents' bedroom), a hotline on which teachers usually (but not completely reliably) used to make voice recordings of their daily homework. It was called “info connect,” and it always played ads for the local bank, a service offered to all students and very helpful for my ADHD – a good example of a universal accommodation and one that I desperately needed because that homework was not getting written down, even if it was so tedious.
By the time I got to university, homework was usually listed as part of a syllabus you got at the beginning of class, or else posted on the course website, perhaps both. It’s sort of implied university will be harder than middle school, but in this particular way, it wasn’t. The syllabus is great organizational technology – it was way easier than calling a hotline and listening for your homework. All you had to do was look at the syllabus, which you would have saved from your first day of class in a known location in your room… or who am I kidding? It was available for regular consultation on the course website.
There have been a few other occasions over the years where note-taking was essential, and they made me nervous. In our high school debate team, note-taking was necessary because you were judged on whether you’d replied to everything your opponent said. Leaving something out rendered you vulnerable to your opponent reiterating it and claiming that you dropped it because you had no counterargument. Therefore, it was actually more prospective rather than retrospective memory, and my natural memory, which had covered for my lack of note-taking ability in so many classes, was not able to help me as much.
However, though I was nervous about it, I was ultimately able to do fine in Debate, because note-taking actually was the primary activity. I did not have to pay full attention to the speaker, as I often automatically did in class, because I already understood most of the relevant concepts to the topic and didn’t need to pay full attention to the concepts, just which ones they invoked in what structure. Furthermore, the requirements of the note taking was minimal: It was more an outline of my rebuttal than an actual record of what was said. All in all, debating was like being a stereotypical bad listener: You’re barely paying attention, focusing the entire time on what you’re going to say next.
But mostly, note-taking was problematic for me when prospective memory was called for, and I was expected to amplify it with writing. I would more often fail than succeed in that situation. When retrospective memory was called for and other students amplified it with writing, I simply defaulted to my non-amplified skills, and that was enough.
Interestingly enough, the same problem doesn’t really apply to me often today. Nowadays, it’s actually easier to extract TODO items out of a meeting than it was when I was in high school or in college. For one thing, I basically always get to have my computer with me now to type up notes – a non-starter in high school, and commonly forbidden in college classes for disrupting the class. For another thing, though, if a meeting creates TODO items for me, I can write them down towards the end, while simultaneously clarifying – out loud! – what exactly the tasks are.
Often, these tasks are the result of a convoluted discussion, and so people appreciate taking the time to hear me summarize my take-aways out-loud, and it gives everybody an opportunity to sanity-check whatever plan we’ve come up with. Meanwhile, I can talk while I write, and write it directly into my work TODO list (to be re-triaged afterwords into more finely-grained tasks, as I’ll discuss later).
Work Ticketing Systems#
Sometimes, the programming jobs I’ve had have required me to use ticketing systems as a job requirement. These ticketing systems are often both organizational systems and collaboration systems, and while I have to use them as collaboration systems, they don’t do much for me as organizational systems – in fact, often, they increase my organizational burden rather than decreasing it.
Take JIRA, for example. JIRA is a system for tracking work tasks. I’ve used it at several different jobs, and when I worked at a software consultancy, I’ve used it interacting with several different clients.
With JIRA, your work is structured into tickets, which move across a board based on their level of completion. And when those tickets are well-specified and manageable in size, if you’re consuming these tickets, it can actually be quite nice. And because you often need to ask other people to do things, or because there’s often a lot of work to do on a team, but where anyone on the team can do it, some sort of collaborative system is absolutely necessary.
But creating a JIRA ticket takes a lot of work. There’s no way to write a note and postpone to a later meeting or later time how to turn it into a fully-fledged ticket. Often, creating a ticket requires answering a lot of questions, mandatory questions, like what version does it apply for, or similar things – which if you’re making a ticket for another team to work on, or for a new project, or just for a new kind of problem, you might not even know the answers to without asking your colleagues. If you have to create multiple tickets, or side-track yourself from your work to create a ticket, it’s basically impossible to keep track of it all without writing a list of tickets to create, as creating a ticket can take a very long time.
Not even to mention the fact that to write a JIRA ticket, or look at JIRA tickets, I need to de-immerse myself from the land of command lines and text editors, and return to my web browser screen – which is intrinsically more distracting, even if I’m only doing work things with my web browser like following up Slack messages or work e-mails.
So even though it’s tempting to use JIRA directly as an organizational system, especially as that’s how it’s seemingly designed to be used, I can’t. I have to keep my own TODO lists, and when collaboration renders it necessary to make a ticket so someone else on the team can work on it, or so managers have insight into my work, my own TODO list has to contain the tickets.
Furthermore, as I’ve learned, and will go into detail about later, doing my job well requires breaking down tickets far more than JIRA will normally encourage you to do.
And so, in both directions, I look at JIRA more as a communication tool than as a tool for organizing my own work, and from my perspective, it’s actually one more burden, one more thing to organize.
Now, I think there are other ticketing systems that work better, whether in being able to be used directly (in some ways) as an organizational system, or at least in being a more efficient and effective communication system that’s not as much of a burden. But that, I think, is a topic for a potential future post specifically on programming ticketing systems.
In any case, my personal organizational needs are unique enough that I would always have my own system running parallel to it, even if a ticketing system were better than JIRA. I’m sure, however, there’s someone out there using JIRA for their personal life, and I wish them all the best.
For a while, I used Remember The Milk as an app. I ultimately ended up not continuing because it felt too inflexible to reorganize. My lists simply got too long, and ended up being intimidating, and I ended up not looking at them again.
To be clear, this happens to all my TODO lists: They get longer, I spend some time not removing things from them, I have bursts of many ideas for what to put on them, and eventually they become too long to even dare to look at, as anxiety expands and explodes in my brain. The difference is, if I can take a few items off of the TODO list sometimes, and put them on another list, from which I can’t see the larger list, of things to do on a per-day basis, then I’m much calmer and happier. This is a very specific set of requirements, and most TODO apps don’t work exactly that way.
Even if they did, I always am changing up how my TODO lists are structured, and how they relate to each other. Apps are by nature opinionated about such things. Most of them don’t have support for hierarchies – whereas my TODO lists often are bullet points within bullet points within bullet points, a tree-shaped outline of the task rather than a literal flat list.
And even if it’s possible to move things around between lists freely enough to impose new structures, and to protect myself from the long lists I don’t always want to see, TODO apps are still not the most natural interface for me. Moving things around has to be easy for me, and in an app normally there’s simply too many steps to it, especially too many clicks of the mouse. I’m used to doing things in a more keyboard-driven fashion rather than a mouse-driven fashion, and I’m used to using a traditional computer interface over a phone or web interface. This makes me a weirdo, but it also makes most TODO apps a poor match for me.
My Answer: Developing my own system#
So I’ve developed my very own, very bespoke, very complicated system. I’m extremely happy with it, but it’s for me, not for you, so I’m not going to share it.
Just kidding, I’m going to explain it in the next post! But I’ll warn you ahead of time, it might not work for you. It might work just as poorly for you as keeping a hand-written planner is for me, and a hand-written planner might work perfectly for you. But hopefully my experience will give you insight into how brains work and how they differ, and help you understand the diversity of what makes different people tick.