So I have ADHD, and have had for a very, very long time. Much of my life, they tell me! I wasn’t one of the Ritalin kids of the 80s, but it’s definitely been a long and unyielding struggle to maintain function throughout the years.
School was extremely difficult, with the intensity of my boredom and disinterest in the material grinding any achievements I may have tried for into nothingness.
As an adult, I continue to find it really hard for me to focus on work. Tasks regularly fall out of the narrow band of hey this is interesting and start requiring focus and effort to engage with. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it ends up deeply unsustainable for me and I end up being unable to focus on anything and my mental reserves continually exhausted.
In short, it sucks.
But I’ve noticed that editing photos tends to fall into a different category than writing code, even within the context of having ADHD.
Mental State and Flow
One of the hardest parts of getting ready to code is the process of loading the project into my brain. There’s a lot of code that I have to read and program flow I have to trace before I get the beginning of a simulation of the program working inside my head. That simulation is vital to the act of changing the program, as without it I don’t have a working idea of what I need to change, or where.
As a result, getting into the space where I can write code and hit flow1 can take between half an hour and an hour, and this is not a time filled with ease or simplicity. It’s hard to get into code-brain and become productive writing code, and ADHD does not make that process any easier.
Since it takes mental energy to focus on reaching programming flow, things like Twitter or other web pages become immensely distracting, leaving me unable to reach a stage where I am productively able to work on code.
It’s not a matter of lack of willpower, it’s a known set of imbalances in my brain, and it’s just as frustrating to have it internal to my head as it is to watch me flail around.
Editing Photos and Metafocus
As I mentioned, editing photos seems to be a lot different. Instead of the significant time it takes to get into my mental coding space, getting started in Lightroom takes less than five minutes.
It’s still easy to distract me, but instead of those distractions pulling me out of Lightroom and into Twitter I am pulled to another picture and the edits it needs, or to a sequence of flow to construct. Instead of breaking the full focus of editing, I am breaking focus only on small pieces of the whole, shifting my vision and maintaining a broader metafocus on the artwork as a whole.
Even switching out of and back to Lightroom doesn’t incur the same penalty as programming would, as the mental stack required is much shallower and much less brittle.
By contrast, achieving that level of long-running focus in programming requires active mental hacks, such as travelling to a café and using my 3G iPad for limited, reference-only internet while my laptop remains offline. In such a state I can spend the half hour sipping a coffee and getting into my headspace, and the next five writing code and occasionally checking documentation. Unfortunately this also leaves me deeply isolated, which I find harmful to my overall self-esteem.
Programming in the Future
As time goes on I’m getting better at maintaining my focus, by using todo tracking and starting to explore timeboxing techniques, but it is and remains an uphill battle to get code written.
And that still, endlessly, sucks.