Jordan McMahon


Wiring Your Tech to Fight ADHD: Your Second Brain

I spend more time questioning my intelligence than I care to admit.

Though there are many reasons I can justify this self-doubt to myself, I find myself in a constant battle with what I call the Research Rabbit Hole. At least once a week I find an interesting topic, ranging from what dogs dream about to the mechanics of airplanes, and spend hours finding out as much about it as possible. For those few hours I’m an expert on the topic, but by the next day at least half of the information is gone, and I realize I’ve wasted my time and set aside my responsibilities for something I can’t even recall.

This often makes me feel inferior to my friends and family because without ADHD and its inability to focus long enough to store information, they can commit important bits of information to memory and recall it when it’s relevant. I don’t have that luxury, and for years this held me back from my goals. It also led to a sense of guilt for succumbing to the trap of the Research Rabbit Hole and losing time that should have been spent on work. In those times, I feel like a failure.

Five years ago, while I was in undergrad, Thomas Houston wrote a piece for The Verge that gave me a glimmer of hope by presenting the concept that I could use software to overcome the struggle of never remembering that Totally Relevant Information.

Houston discusses how Evernote reflects the idea of Vannevar Bush’s Memex, a desk-like device that could store books, magazines, records, and communications in a way that made them easily accessible for research and work to provide an “enlarged intimate supplement to one’s memory.” He argued that Evernote served this purpose through its ability to store links, a web clipper to capture relevant parts of web pages, and store articles, ideas, and checklists.

My habits and ideas about information storage changed post-graduation, so I needed a new system. After extensive research I developed a three-tier system that provided all of the same functions of Evernote without the clutter. Each tier focuses on a different aspect of Bush’s initial system while still providing a simple and powerful workflow that enhances my productivity and recollection.

Through this system I’ve been able to back up my brain the way Houston described without falling victim to information overload and keep everything organized, ensuring that everything has a proper home.

Your Digital Filing Cabinet

My first step was to create a contingency plan against the Research Rabbit Hole. Too often I toss aside my work to dig into a new topic that feels more interesting than whatever my actual work is. This leads to missed deadlines, abandoned projects, and lost ideas. To avoid the loss of work time and the associated guilt, I had to find something that would allow me to store that research somewhere that’s easily accessible and suited for having tons of information dumped into it at once.

For that, Pinboard has served my purposes better than Evernote did, and it’s been crucial in how I store and organize the information I take in and seek out.

At its core Pinboard is a bookmarking service that syncs across all of your devices. Where it stands out from traditional bookmarking is its tagging and plugins with other services. These strengths allow me to prioritize my day’s work and save the trivial for another day.

Whenever I come across an article I’d like to read for research purposes, I send it straight to Pinboard and tag it with “to-research” so that when I have time I can come back to it.

It doesn’t end there, though. Pinboard acts as a digital archive of everything my brain can’t seem to hang onto. Tagging articles and links by topic and purpose helps me secure the tips and insights within each and switch back to what I was doing in just a few seconds.

By organizing everything I’ve read or would like to read to increase my skills and knowledge in one organized place, I’ve managed to work around the forgetfulness of ADHD by keeping all of the would-be-lost information in my pocket, ready to be pulled out and referenced with a moment’s notice.

Your Digital Newsstand

While Pinboard works well as a backup of my brain, it isn’t a great read it later service, something I’ve found to be a necessary tool in keeping me from distractions while I work.

Instead of pulling away from what I’m doing to read an interesting article, with one click I can save it to my Pocket queue where it lives until I have some free time to give it my full attention without ditching my responsibilities and hating myself for it later.

Pocket’s intent is to create a clean, attractive, distraction-free space for reading. Whenever you have a free moment, you can jump right into your personally-curated list of the best content the Internet has to offer.

In the spirit of making things easily accessible to save time, Pocket’s tagging system, which in many ways mirrors Pinboard’s, can help sort your articles to make what you’re looking for easy to find. If you’re looking for a long read, just search your longform tag and Pocket will show you everything you haven’t gotten to. If you’re looking for something written by a particular author, or need everything that mentions a specific topic, Pocket’s search has you covered.

Once I’ve finished reading an article, I archive it, at which point an IFTTTapplet triggers and sends the article to Pinboard. Once it’s properly stored and tagged in Pinboard, I can walk away knowing that even if I’ve forgotten what an article said and what part resonated with me, I can get back to it with a few taps and use the information as needed.

Your Everywhere Notepad

While Pocket and Pinboard work great for storing links, you need a home for everything else, such as quotes, ideas, outlines, lists, and anything that have once lived in a notebook. There are plenty of great text editors, word processors, and note-taking apps that do this well, but I’ve found Bear to be the most capable for both storing notes and getting work done.

Bear serves two purposes in my work: storing notes and other bits of text, and giving me a clean, distraction-free workspace for my writing. Bear excels at both.

With it I can input anything from a quote I’ll want to access later, my weekly shopping list, outlines, and early-stage ideas for articles, and organize them in a way that makes sorting a breeze. While many note-taking apps rely on folders or notebooks for organization, Bear uses a tagging system that is leagues ahead of anything I’ve seen from other apps.

This tagging system allows notes to exist in multiple locations, so your notes can always be in front of you whenever you need them. For large projects, this can’t be beat. I use it for planning out articles and mapping out my ADHD series. Each note associated with an article can be tagged as an idea, draft, completed article, and archived article. By doing this I can track the status of each article and see how much work is left on each one. When finding what you need to get work done is a constant struggle, this guidance is invaluable.

Another strength of Bear is that you can link notes together so if you need to reference one note while you’re working in another, a quick markdown link will give you easier access to that note without too much clicking around.

When I’m working on an ongoing series of articles, this allows me to create a master note with links to each installment that I can check off as they’re completed. Without the clutter of multiple windows or having to sift through long lists, tracking large projects becomes a stress-free process.

While Bear appears to be a minimal app for storing text, it’s packed with powerful features under the hood that make it the most versatile and effective text-based app I’ve found on iOS.

Its support of iOS’s x-callback-url schemes allows for streamlining the creation of notes and linking Bear to other apps. I’ve used this to create Launcher and Workflow sequences that allow me to access the articles I’m currently working on, use voice dictation to get my ideas recorded, and search specific tags and terms to find the notes I need without the hassle of tapping and scrolling. You can also create url schemes for apps like Drafts to create new notes and attach text to existing ones.

You may not need everything Bear has to offer, but if you struggle with organizing notes and staying on top of larger text-based projects, which many of us with ADHD do, no other app has come close to Bear in relieving me of that stress.

My current system isn’t perfect and it hasn’t completely absolved me of my struggles, but it’s helped support me where I’m weakest. By creating these purpose and function-driven hubs for storage, I can go into each app knowing what I’m looking for and maintain focus by removing all clutter.

By taking the time to organize my links, articles, and notes in a way that mirrors how my brain references them, I’ve cut down on the time I spend sifting through information and can spend more time focusing on my actual work rather than setting it up.

In a perfect world there would be a cure for my poor memory and lack of executive function, and maybe some day there will be. Until then I have to rely on the software at my disposal to work for the parts of my brain that suffer the most from ADHD. This means finding tools that are simple in presentation, powerful in their ability to work with you rather than against you, and thoughtful in how they present information to you. Once you’ve found these tools you can step into your work at a moment’s notice and nothing the outside world throws at you can get in your way.

Jordan McMahon