As I’ve written about before, I’m diagnosed ADHD. I’m not one of those “squirrel!” joking guys who is “sure” they have ADHD but have never been tested. I’ve been on meds and done a ton of reading over the years to develop coping strategies to deal with the challenges that are presented by the different way that my brain works to try and mitigate the drawbacks and take full advantage of all the gifts that come with ADHD.
So month ago, I wrote this first piece on ADHD and got an amazing amount of feedback. I also promised that I would put together a list of the tools that I use to help work with my predispositions rather than against them. ( I refuse to use the word handicap ).
So I started writing this piece, and then I got distracted. ( No surprises here, right? )
UPDATE: By Request, Here’s a quick video that goes through the actual workflow of how I use these three tools together.
An introduction to OPML
So the real unifier for everything I do is a little technology called OPML. When you break it down, t’s just a specific kind of XML, which at the end of the day makes it plain text with some headers.
As anyone who’s blessed with ADHD can tell you, it’s all about the flow. Not to get to philosophical, but for me, the biggest part of taking advantage of my ADHD is really about learning how to massage and direct the distractions into productivity. There’s no point in trying to stop water when it’s flowing down hill, but you can nudge it, direct it, and get it to go where you want by working with it. OPML allows me to do that.
In my previous role as a pre-sales engineer, and now as a technical marketing engineer, I have to do a LOT of presentations. Sometimes I’m presenting my own content. Sometimes I’m presenting others content. And now, I’m creating content for others to present. In the new role, I also find myself having to create a lot of documents. For me, the process is all about putting together the framework for the piece of content that I’m working on. Once I’ve got that down, it’s actually pretty easy to just fill out the sections as you’ll see below.
There are a lot of APPs that allow the import and export of OPML. The ones below are just the ones that I’ve really attached myself to. They might not be perfect for everyone, but they do work for me. If there’s interest in this ( comment below please! ) I can expand more on any of these tools. To be honest, I probably scratch the surface of the functionality in each of them. But I think that’s actually what I like the most about this combination.
They are easy to use.
The tools help me get my ideas out.
They don’t get in the way of it.
My work flow basically falls into the following
- Capture the idea
- Create the structure
- Finish the content
I purposely didn’t order these as a numbered list because sometimes it just doesn’t work out as a linear process. On some projects, I’m handed someone else’s content and I end up having to edit or rebuild it. The beauty about the process for me is that I can jump in the water anywhere I want and still end up where I want to be.
Capture the ideas
MindNode is a mind-mapping software. For a long time, I heard about mind-mapping, but I really didn’t see how, or why I could use it. It always felt to me like there wasn’t really a point in just putting things on (digital) paper. I’m in networking, so I have a VERY vidid imaginary world in my head. And if it’s clear in my head. Why put it on paper right?
So why the mind-map?
Because it gets all the ideas and sections out and let’s you start manipulating them. Turning them this way and that, and replacing them wherever it makes sense.
This chaos is actually how my brain processes normally. (I know – It’s kind of a scary place, right?) What I’ve found is that by simply putting all the information together on one place, I get to start using my visual processing skills and I start to use the ADHD superhuman ability to make intuitive jumps and I start to understand the relationships between all the items on the page.
And often, they are not what I would have thought when I had the picture in my mind. This is the coolest part. It’s funny how much you can see that you didn’t see when you use your mind’s eye.
The other thing that’ super cool about MindNode for me is that it’s available both for iOS and OSX – Complete with iCloud sync’ing capabilities. This means that I can work where I want, with whatever device I happen to have in front of me.
If I could ask for one more thing ( and I did ask the developer for this! ) it would be for the iOS version to have the ability to create hyperlinks on the nodes. This is invaluable for me on the OSX version as I can link out to other pieces of content that I want to use as reference or source material for whatever it is that I’m working on.
Oh well. Life can’t be perfect, right?
Once I’ve got everything in MindNode and all the chaos is on paper, it’s time to start pulling some structure out of the void. So at this point, I export from MindNode into OPML format and I’m good to move to the next step.
Create the structure
Outliner is, as the name suggests, an outlining software. As opposed to MindNode which is sometimes just random semi-connected thoughts splattered on a page, Outliner forces me to work in a linear format. But not completely linear. 🙂
What I love about Outliner is it allows me to take entire sections, or nodes and their sub-nodes, and allows me to drag and drop it wherever I feel it belongs in the outline. I found this software about 3 years ago and I can tell you that my presentations instantly became better. By breaking out of powerpoint and just looking at the raw outline, I was able to see that there was often breaks in the flow of the presentation that were negatively affecting the audience’s ability to consume the message I was there to give.
A story is a series of connected events, but if you tell it in the wrong order, it doesn’t make sense as the audience doesn’t have the right background information to understand where you are in timeline. A presentation is the same way.
I can’t tell you the number of times that I grabbed a presentation that someone else created and then used outliner to make it flow in a much more logical sense.
So taking the OPML version of the mind map I created in MindNode above, I can now import it directly into Outliner and start to drag and drop the nodes around until the logical flow makes sense in terms of the content I’m creating. You can also add notes, not to mention hyperlinks, etc.. in here which is a nice touch.
Outliner is available only as an iOS application. But they have also provided a web app to be able to access your projects from a “real” computer. I have to admit, it would be nice to have a “full” OSX application for the downtime when I’m on a plane, but to be honest, the iPad version is really nice and been able to use the touch interface to drag and drop the nodes on the outline around is actually a big deal for me.
Having ADHD means that anything that lets me keep moving is a good thing. I can’t tell you the number of passengers who sat beside me that were very glad my fingers were flying around my iPad rather than my foot tapping the entire flight. They should all really be sending CarbonFin a donation I think.
Once I’ve got the the outline to the point where I’m happy with it, I export back into OPML again and then… on to the next step. The actual document creation.
Finish the content
Honestly at this point, I just start building based on the outline. There is a way to export the outline into word somehow, but I’ve never found it difficult enough to worry about it. If I had to reverse engineer the outline. I usually put the slide number in the node header and then just drag and drop whole sections around. Perhaps a little manual, but it works for me.
Scrivener is something I discovered just a few weeks ago and, although I’m still learning the in’s and out’s of the tool, it’s really amazing so far. It’s got SOOOO many possibilities for me that it’s now fully integrated into my workflow. Again, OPML is the key that makes this all work together.
Scrivener is really intended to be for writing long form documents, and it seems that it’s probably more aimed at writing novels and such. But I find it great for writing technical documentation. Most technical documents are split into sections anyways. If you are working on a documenting a solution, the ability to split everything into individual sections is invaluable.
Imagine writing a document on a user access control solution? You have at least the following sections
- Windows Active Directory Integration
- RADIUS Configuration
- Policy Configuration
- Device Configuration ( and each device type could have it’s own specific configuration)
- dot1x supplicant configuration
Scrivener: The Pros
There’s a few features that I really like about scrivener
- Drag and drop sections – scrivener allows you to treat a document more like a file system. You can put sections of the document in a folder. You can split the section into mini pieces which can be completed one by one. You can also move the sections, or individual pieces around if you decide that they don’t belong in the order you want them to anymore.
- Research Section – At the bottom of every scrivener project, there’s a reference section. This is a place where you can import all sorts of things. Like PDFs, other documents, etc.. I also find this a very useful place to keep pieces of text that I’m going to reuse over a longer period of time. The nice thing is any document can be converted into a scrivener template, along with all the reference material. So if you find yourself, like me, having to reuse pieces of material repeatedly, this is a really nice touch.
- Import – Scrivener allows you to import from a lot of different sources. OPML (obviously!), but also word, pdf, etc. If it’s OPML, then the folders and document-lets are automatically created for you. If it’s word, you can just click on a place in the document and then split the document where your cursor lies. This makes it very easy to grab an existing document and quickly reverse engineer the outline. Then I can export into OPML and move back to step 2 to see if the outline even makes sense. If it doesn’t, I can drag and drop the document-lets around into what makes more sense for me.
- Export – Scrivener allows you to export into a TON of different formats. From classics like Microsoft Word or RTF, to MultiMarkdown, or even directly to ePUB or kindle. The ability to export to all these different formats is going to be really really useful in my current role. I can’t tell you how easy it was to create a ePUB version of the document I was working on and see it minutes later on my iPad. Very cool.
- Export – The export is so powerful it requires two mentions. Remember the different folders and individual mini pieces I mentioned above? During the export, there are a TON of options, many of which I haven’t begin to explore yet. But one of the great ones is the ability to select only the folder or mini document-lets that I want and export only those. This is really cool in that it let’s me produce three or four different pieces of material out of the same base-content. No crazy editing, cutting and pasting around between different Microsoft word documents for me anymore. And the fact that I can export the same way into MultiMarkdown means that I can then apply the style anyway I want.
Scrivener: The Cons
Now scrivener isn’t perfect. Here’s the short list of the issues that I have with it so far. Obviously, there’s nothing here that breaks it for me, but it is some things that you are going to have to deal with if you join me on this path.
- Table of Contents: The application needs a TON of work on the table of contents functionality. It might be there somewhere, but it’s no intuitive. I also searched the forums, which are very well monitored by experts BTW, and it also seemed to be a point of contention for others.
- Export: The export is awesome. But the one thing which it doesn’t do is export the style. I’m not talking about the fonts and the colours. That’s all great. I’m talking about the document metadata that classifies different text as a Title, heading 1, heading 2, heading 3, body, etc. You know, the stuff that word uses to make the auto table of contents? The nice thing is that there’s a fairly easy way to deal with this as long as you keep your formatting consistent throughout your work.
There’s a lot of people in the world who are struggling to fight their ADHD. Like many people out there, I struggled for years before I was diagnosed. My report cards read like a page out of a Psychiatric Diagnostics book. Can’t sit still. Easily Distracted. Distracts others. Lack of Focus. Talks to much. Constant outburst in class. I had a lot of anger and I definitely had adrenaline addiction issues. Then I was faced with a diagnosis of ADHD and I made a decision to learn as much as I could about the condition. It’s not a disease. It’s not a issue, or problem. It’s just a different way of being.
Like almost everything in life, there’s a good side and a bad side. In my reading, I found a lot of examples of people who not only got by, but excelled BECAUSE of their ADHD, it was just a matter of finding the right perspective, and then creating a framework that allows us to mitigate our weaknesses, and that applies force multipliers to our strengths. The work flow that I’ve put into place does just that for me.
I tried for years to get organized like everyone else. It didn’t work. Now, I use what works for me. I found a process that works with my flow, and not against it. And that’s a good thing.
So I’ve got a reputation of been a productive guy. I’ve heard through the grape vine that some of the people in my company think I don’t sleep. I work constantly. I have no life. It’s funny the things that are said out there.
So in an effort to dispel the myths, and to possibly inspire others, I’m going to dish out some of my secrets.
I suspect that a lot of IT Professionals can relate to a lot of the ADHD traits. In fact, I think that our industry attracts a lot of AD/H/D’res because of this industries requirement for a fractured attention span and the ability to shift focus on the fly. I’m sure we can all relate to the ” I’m in the middle of working on this OSPF problem and I’ve got the solution right now, just let me write this down… where is that pen… hmm… what was I saying again… … Squirrel!”
One of the common misconceptions about ADD is that people with it are unable to concentrate. The truth is, that the pendulum swings both ways. We can be hyper or hypo attentive. In plain english, we are either unable to focus at all, or unable to shift focus. In our industry, the ability to sustain high focus for long periods of time can be a blessing when trying to troubleshoot a difficult problem. As well, the ability to shift focus on a dime and concentrate for short bursts on a new problem is also extremely useful when you are in a firefight and things are coming at you from all sides.
It’s sad to me how our school systems and parents today treat ADD as a disease that needs to be “treated” with medication. Especially when this is the very “disability” that I attribute a large part of my success to.
How do I use ADHD to my advantage?
Living with ADHD does require putting some tools, habits, and processes in place so that you don’t fall into the traps. Like so many things in life, I think that most important part is just accepting it for what it is. I don’t fight how I am, I flow with it.
Don’t fight the days when I can’t concentrate.
Please don’t tell my boss this, but there are some days that I’m sure I don’t get anything done at all. These are the days when I just can’t focus on anything no matter what I do. They happen. So what do I do? I water my social networks and I catch up on podcasts.
What do I mean by this? I pick up the phone and I call people I haven’t talked to in awhile. I tweet. I blog. I log into linked in and see if there are any suggestions for contacts who are not in my network. I call people I talk to all the time and argue over frame types, whether or not programatic nms’s qualify as SDN, whether or not VxLAN are complimentary or in competition. Whether or not network professionals will have a place in the world in 5 years. We argue about anything and everything. I ask about their families.
You get the picture. Basically. I pick up the phone and reach out and touch the people who have helped me grow professionally, intellectually, and emotionally over the years.
This might seem like I’m wasting time, but I promise you that when I have a problem that’s outside of my areas of expertise. I know who’s working in what areas, who’s got what special skills and who I can leverage for help. I know who I can call just to bounce a crazy idea of off, and most importantly, I get into an environment where I’m supposed to shift from one subject to another which helps me feel sane on a day when I just can’t stay focused.
On these days, I’ve been known to go to the gym. Go for walks and catch up on industry news and technical content. Whether this is the packet pushers podcasts, something from iTunes U, the audio tracks from the http://www.INE.com CCIE written videos that I ripped. ( Yes… I paid for them! ), or sometimes even just pulling up the Khan Academy app and learning how to calculate net present value. Anything is up for grabs and I just go with what I’m inspired with on that particular day. Sometimes, I just unplug from tech and listen to an audiobook ( currently game of thrones A storm of swords ) and let something that’s been causing me trouble muddle around in my head. You would be surprised how often I come up with a solution by the time I get back from my walk.
I’ve found that on these kinds of days, I am usually the most creative. Ironically, these are also the days when I am totally unable to act on that creativity.
So I write things down. I used to use post-its, but I have recently switched to mostly electronic formats. I would love to say I’ve settled on one tool, but to be honest, I use apples notes app ( nice that I can synch these to outlook, to my Mac, or to my iPad/iPhone combo. ). I use Evernote, and occasionally, I still use post its.
admission of guilt: I would love to say it’s because I’m getting more ecologicaly aware, but to be honest, it’s because I kept losing the post its.
Make Hay while the Sunshines
When I have one of those days that I am hyper focused. I work. hard. non-stop. through lunch. I produce documentation. I lab up problems that I’m having issues with, and I keep at it until I get it done. Sometimes my wife has to come into my office at 6:00pm to let me know that I missed dinner because I’m so focused.
On these kinds I open up my notes, I pick whatever is the most pressing, or often just what I feel like doing that day, and I do it. Until it’s done. no matter how late.
The other thing I do is to look at my upcoming project work and see if there’s anything I can prepare in advance. Many people with ADHD are habitual procrastinators. One of the best things I’ve had to learn how to do is to become aware of my ADHD mood and to tackle things which are not due for a couple of weeks far in advance.
This is tough. It’s really tough. But I’ve found that when I’m hyper-focused, all I have to do is to jump in and after 5 minutes or so, I don’t have worry about it anymore. My ADHD takes over and I get the task finished.
Finding your Balance
ADHD is just a different way of thinking. It’s funny to me that people have focused so much on suppressing the symptoms when they should be focused more on simply ridding the waves. To be honest, I usually go through waves where I will be either hyper-focused, or hypo-focused for about a week at a time. So it actually works out pretty well.
Sometimes, I end up with a project deadline when I’m in a hypo-focused cycle and I’ll admit, it’s tough. But life is tough and I don’t believe in using the “I’m sorry I have a disability” is an excuse for not getting your job done. The trick is just pushing through, planning ahead and finding ways to use your ADHD to your advantage.
I think I’ll save the tools subject for a future post. There are quite a few things I’ve put in place as far as software utilities, processes, etc.. to try and work with my ADHD instead of against it. Hopefully, sharing some of my coping mechanisms might help to inspire someone else.
To me, ADHD is like so many other things in life. It is a blessing or a curse. Which one it is to you depends completely on how you perceive it and how you react to it.