Ethical Software and ADHD

October 20, 2023

Hey Internet.

Just the other day, Katy and I were watching a YouTube video about a cleaning method called "Junebugging" which can be helpful for people with ADHD. While this post isn't really about that video, it did kind of trigger a weird domino effect in my brain that has resulted in this blog post. I was diagnosed with ADHD in the 90s, and have been learning to deal with it (to varying degrees of success) ever since. That said, I should probably lead with the following disclaimer: I am not an expert on this subject, and this post merely represents my own experiences. Others may vary, and that's okay.

I've heard many analogies about what it's like to live with ADHD. Some are better than others, and to be fair, it's difficult for me to describe how my mind differs from that of a neurotypical person simply because I've never experienced any other way of... well... being. Nevertheless, the analogy I've heard that I think best describes the experience is that of watching a television where you have little to no control over when, or to what, the channel changes. My train of thought is constantly derailed by stray thoughts, sometimes making it difficult to get anything done. Medication can be helpful in mitigating this, but as far as I know, there is no magic bullet here, so I've also had to rely on external mechanisms to keep me on task... especially if that task isn't something that I particularly enjoy.

Two of my best friends in this struggle are lists and alarms. Basically, lists keep me from forgetting things, and alarms remind me to check the lists. These tools are old-school, but effective. They require nothing more than pen, paper, and a cheap watch. Also, I find that when dealing with an ADHD brain, the simplest solution is often the best.

As useful as these analog solutions are, however, they're not without their limitations. A list is only helpful to me if I have it in my possession, and while I could just keep a pen and small notebook/calendar in my pocket, I seldom do. It wouldn't be particularly practical for the level of detail I need to keep on top of my day-to-day tasks anyway. It's much more useful to turn to software solutions to automate away some of the administrative tedium. For instance, if I have something that I have to do every other Tuesday, it's much easier to set up a repeating appointment in a calendar app than it is to track this manually, and because of my tendency to forget things, I have a lot of these sorts of things that I need to be reminded of on a regular (sometimes daily) basis.

Okay cool, so just use a calendar app. That seems simple enough, right? Well sure, that's a good enough solution for most people, but for me there are some additional ethical (and practical) considerations. We live in a world of There's an App for Thatâ„¢, and while that can make things much easier, a lot of the software that exists out there actively (and secretly) works against the interests of its users.

Let's take Google Calendar as an example. I started using it many years ago, and it was (seemingly) a godsend. All of a sudden, I had a calendar that was automatically synchronised between my computer, phone, or any other device I happened to be using. It was a slick, low-friction solution, and it served me well for many years... but there was an ever-present problem nagging in the back of my mind. I had made myself completely dependent on a Google service: a service I could arbitrarily be cut off from at any time for any reason. Sure, Google isn't likely to disappear any time soon, but they're famous for killing off their products without warning, and I worried about how disastrous that could be for me. Besides, does Google really need to know when I brush my teeth?

As much as this bothered me, for a long time convenience and apathy won out on this issue. I didn't like it, but I also didn't have the motivation to do anything about it. Besides, I didn't really know of a better solution. Then, a few years ago, I learned about Nextcloud. It took me a while to get around to changing over, because, you know... ADHD, but when I did, it allowed me to replace a lot of Google services (calendar, contacts, drive, etc.). Now, instead of handing all my data over to the black box that is Google, and hoping they didn't do sketchy things with it (whatever happened to "don't be evil" anyway?) I could just host it myself, on a machine I have physical access to, using software whose source code was publicly available for audit by anyone. I was now in complete control over who had access to my data... and more importantly, who didn't.

All of this isn't to say that Nextcloud is the perfect solution. For starters, I have to concede that I am in an extremely privileged situation to have the knowledge and resources to be able to set all of this up in the first place. The average person doesn't want to pay for hosting, then set up a web server and SQL database, nor do they generally have the time or inclination to learn how to. The average person just wants to get shit done without having to jump through all those hoops, and I can't really say that I blame them. After all, there's a reason it took me as long as it did to make the switch.

There's also the issue of Nextcloud's interface. It's powerful, but not terribly responsive. When I'm cooking dinner, if I notice I'm running out of some ingredient, I don't have the time to pull my phone out of my pocket, open Nextcloud, navigate to my shopping list, wait for it to load, add it to the list, and then save it. Also, because of the nature of how quickly thoughts move into and out of my head, it's not the optimal way to capture them on the fly. To address this, I keep a magnetic whiteboard and dry-erase marker on the fridge so I can quickly jot things down until I can get them properly recorded. To be fair, this technique would probably have helped me in my Google days as well. Also, I should probably keep a small notebook and pen in my pocket (after all) for when this happens away from home. Much like the whiteboard trick, a significant amount of what I've learned is pretty applicable to whatever software you're using, FOSS (Free and Open Source) or not.

Because of the level of detail I need to track in my schedule, my calendar can easily become a cluttered incomprehensible mess, but I've discovered a way of combating this as well. I've found that it's useful sort things into multiple calendars by category. That way, I can turn individual calendars on and off based on what I want to be able to see. For instance, I have recently created a "Daily Grind" calendar that has all the minute tedious tasks that I need to be reminded about on a daily basis: feed the cat, do the dishes, that sort of thing. Obviously, when I'm looking at my schedule over a longer period, I don't want to have such minutia cluttering things up, preventing me from seeing more important things like medical appointments.

The next area I want to look at is social media. This can be a productivity killer even for neurotypicals, but when you have ADHD it's trivial to lose entire days just scrolling on social feeds. I know this all too well. Now I'm not foolish enough to claim that I've fully solved this problem, but I have found ways of mitigating it. For starters, I've changed the type of social media I use. I no longer use Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc. They're deliberately designed to keep you engaged so they can keep wringing ad revenue out of you. Instead, I've moved to the fediverse, more specifically Friendica. I've written about both of these before, so I won't bore you by going into a super deep dive on them again, though I do want to explain a little more about how I've made Friendica a little more ADHD-friendly. Specifically, it has three features I really like: RSS feeds, filters, and folders.

Let's start with RSS feeds. RSS is a protocol that allows you to subscribe to updates from any website that supports it. You don't need to sign up for an account; you just need something that can read its RSS feed. Find a blog that you like and don't want to forget to check on it? Just copy its URL into Friendica's search bar and if it has RSS, you'll be able to have updates from that site appear in your feed automatically. I've found that a surprising number of sites support RSS, and for whatever reason, just don't advertise it. Because of this, Friendica has increasingly become my one-stop shop for staying up-to-date with everything that's happening on the web. I don't have to check 20 different sites and apps. As a side note, If you're Canadian, you may be aware that Meta has started blocking content from Canadian news sites from appearing in their users' feeds. Because they typically have RSS feeds, I don't have this problem.

As you might expect, this can easily result in a feed that is something of a fire hose. This is where the other two features come in. Next up is filters. Filters, as its name would imply, allows me to filter my feed by putting everything I follow into categories. I can then select from these categories to get only the relevent content in my feed. These filters are very customisable, and I think they're one of Friendica's most under-used features.

The last of Friendica's features I want to talk about is folders. You can set up folders to file posts away for later. In fact, my most used folder is one I've simply named "for later". See something interesting that I don't have time to deal with right now? Just pop it in a folder so I can come back to it later. I actually set aside a block of time every day just to go through my "for later" folder. This way, I can combat the worry that I'll miss something interesting just because I forgot about it. Take that, FOMO!

These three tools allow me to take more control of my social media landscape rather than being controlled by it. Admittedly, this approach isn't perfect, nor is it for everyone, but despite some of my initial resistances to ditching more traditional forms of social media, I think I've personally had a better overall experience. Still, your mileage may vary.

With all that said, I still haven't goten everything figured out yet. I'm always looking for better ways to keep myself productive in a way that better suits my personal ethics. There are still a number of areas where ideology has taken a back seat to pragmatism... for now. Still, the Free Software landscape is always evolving. Who knows, maybe I'll even be able to make a few of my own contributions to that landscape. If I find new solutions, I'll probably talk about them in a future post. Also, if anyone out there has any additional suggestions, please email me. I'm always happy to find useful new FOSS projects... even if they're just new to me. At any rate, hopefully somewhere in my ramblings you've found something useful.

Have a good one.