In 2011, my sophomore year of college, I was about to change my major for a third time and had just been put on academic probation. I had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) seven years prior, and was risking everything by letting my condition hinder my ability to study and get my work done on time. Things didn't get better until I let my iPhone take the wheel.
After a few late night drives filled with sad music and questions of how I got here, I turned to the internet for guidance. No matter how many times I googled, "How to get off academic probation," "going to college with ADHD," or "how to cope with ADHD," I found no miraculous cure for a condition I've struggled with throughout my life.
I was disappointed as I began to accept that I had failed and ADHD had won. I set my phone down and got ready for bed. Before closing my eyes I took one last look at my iPhone and began to think it could be the solution I was looking for.
By 2011, the iTunes App Store had solidified itself as the most robust app ecosystem on mobile, ripe with innovative games and productivity apps for any problem imaginable. We were at peak "there's an app for that," so I read every article recommending apps for college students and watched my home screen flood with new icons that I hoped would help me in my fight to stay productive. Once I found a lineup of apps that could pave the way to getting a degree, I realized that the solution wasn't to work harder or ignore my ADHD, but to work in a way that was compatible with it.
That was six years ago. Since then I've cycled through dozens of apps and services, all in the name of keeping myself focused. Thanks to the iPhone, I graduated college with a degree in journalism and a 3.4 GPA. It's taken several forms over the years and it's likely to change again soon, but the core idea is the same: Whatever my mind struggles with, my iPhone will take charge. Here are the apps that have helped me make this work.
Drafts is the glue that keeps my entire system together. I'd be lost without it. It presents itself as a simple notes app, but it works in a way that no other app in its category does. Rather than serve as a place to store your text, it acts as a telephone operator that takes whatever you type and sends it off to the app it's best suited for.
Drafts works on the principle that your ideas come first, so every time you launch it you're greeted with a blank screen that you can immediately start filling with text. Once you're done typing you can use its Actions system, which is built on iOS's x-callback URL system, to take that text send it to any supported app. I've set mine up to input events into Fantastical, direct to-do tasks to Things, send out tweets so I can avoid being sucked into my timeline, create new notes in Bear (more on these apps later), and store search queries for when I have time to actually read up on whatever I'm researching. With Drafts I'm able to quickly dump whatever is in my brain onto a document and send it to where it needs to go quickly without distractions.
Anyone with ADHD will tell you that it's nearly impossible to stay focused for more than a few minutes. No piece of software will cure that, but Due goes a long way in keeping that tendency in check. It's a simple app that lets you set custom timers for things like writing sessions, reading, checking emails, and anything that will take time out of your day. I check my to-do list for the day, then create timers based on my tasks and set aside as much time as I think I'll need for each one. I don't stop working on it until my timer goes off, then I move on to the next thing. These timers help me keep my momentum when I'm working and stop me from being overwhelmed by setting limits on how much time I spend on a given task.
If I don't get a thought jotted down right away, I'll spend the next 24 hours racking my brain trying to remember it, only to realize it's never coming back. I use Drafts to get these thoughts recorded quickly, but Bear is the place they call home. Bear's simple yet powerful structure makes it the best place for me to store information like quotes and text snippets, as well as get most of my writing done. Its web clipper lets me save noteworthy pieces of articles with source links for safe keeping, and its tag-based organization has allowed me to develop a laser-focused system that ensures I can always find the information I need.
Since my fast-paced mind is quick to move to something else, I need to make inputting information into my phone as fast as possible. Fantastical was built for this, tossing aside tickers for dates and times in the event planner for an input bar that takes phrases like "dinner with Chris tonight at 7" and immediately knows where that should go on my calendar. This makes time management a fast, seamless process that works as fast as my brain does to help me stick to my commitments.
ADHD is the antithesis to consistency, and consistency is the key to success. While there's no magic cure, a good habit-building app can help keep you on track to reach your goals. Productive is my favorite due to its elegant and simple design. It also has great statistics for data nerds to see how their habits have improved over time to keep you motivated. The key to Productive, though, is its reminders. ADHD makes remembering things an uphill battle so being nagged by the app every day to call your parents, work out, or write in your journal, can get you away from the Today's The Day I Finally Do That Thing I've Always Wanted To Do mentality and actually do that thing.
The web is one of the greatest innovations of our time, but it has also been one of the biggest inhibitors of getting work done. For those with ADHD, it's even worse, because it can make three hours on Reddit or Twitter feel like three minutes. Suddenly, you look up at the time and see you've got ten minutes before your essay is due and you haven't even started.
1Blocker is great if you're prone to wasting too much time on distracting websites. You can set it to prohibit you from viewing the websites that keep you from being productive. iOS allows this by default, but it's more finicky and requires changing too many settings. 1Blocker makes it simple and has the added benefit of creating a more pleasant web experience by blocking out intrusive and bad ads.
If I didn't have a way to keep track of everything on my plate, nothing else about this system would matter. I've tried nearly every to-do list app on the App Store, but over the past month I've fallen in love with Things 3. What sets Things apart from the competition is its ability to seamlessly blend simplicity and power in a way that no other app has been able to do.
Behind its minimal interface are a few key features that have helped my ADHD mind stay productive even in its weakest moments. It's the first productivity app that's managed to blend my calendar with my tasks in a way that makes it easy for me to get an idea of everything on my plate for the day in a digestible manner. Project management is also a breeze with Things because under each project you can create sub-headings to keep your tasks organized when working with long-term projects that have a lot of moving parts.
I need a task manager if I want to have any hope of getting my work done. Among the dozens of apps in its class, Things has taken the crown for me because it can scale to manage simple daily tasks like brushing my teeth to a five-month long plan to launch a podcast without making me feel overwhelmed or without guidance.
I used to avoid talking to people about my struggles with ADHD out of fear that I'd hear the discouraging response, "Nobody likes working, just try harder and stay focused." For years I tried this solution, always failing to get my head above water long enough to make any meaningful progress. When the iPhone became a major player in how I get work done, that fear subsided and my life became more manageable.
It's easy to let ADHD take hold of your aspirations and tear them apart, but it doesn't have to be that way. Thanks to the iPhone I've been able to take the handicaps ADHD has given me and thrive despite them.
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