Time Management as a Designer with ADHD

Jun 24th, 2024 · 9 min read

Time management has been a challenge for me for as long as I can remember. I have ADHD of the inattentive variety, which can make it hard for me to focus on tasks and effectively optimize my time without medication. When my workload changed recently, I decided to make some changes to my approach to time management, adopting a new setup that allows me to be more intentional with my time and focus.

Early obstacles

Being able to stay on task has never been easy for me. By default, my brain is noisy and restless, naturally wanting to bounce between stimuli every few moments, all day long. If a task doesn’t stimulate my mind, staying focused on it can feel like an exhausting effort. Optimizing my time to tackle multiple tasks is even more challenging.

As you can imagine, this made work pretty difficult. I’d always ship designs on time and be content with the result, but I never felt good about my productivity along the way. Every win felt like it was achieved in spite of my abilities rather than because of them. This created a lot of anxiety when it came to work, and I was constantly worried about bosses and colleagues finding out about how much I struggled to manage basic design tasks.

I experimented with several time management techniques and products over the years to help improve my working style, but I could never get one to stick. Every timer and to-do app felt incompatible with how my brain worked. Eventually, I gave up on adopting something new, and simply tried to do my best to prioritize tasks and mitigate distractions.

Quieting the noise

After struggling for a decade into adulthood, I was finally diagnosed with ADHD in 2021, and prescribed medication to treat it. I’ll never forget my first dose. Within a few minutes, all of the “noise” in my brain seemed to quiet down. My attention became clear and singular. For the first time in my life, I could sit down and focus on a task without getting distracted, and it was an amazing feeling.

This was also critical for my job at the time. I was in a leadership role and was regularly asked to juggle multiple priorities and fires. My calendar was jam-packed, with me spending 25-30 hours in meetings each week.

Work was more demanding than ever, but my medication allowed me to lock-in each day and tackle whatever was in front of me, with minimal distractions. Sure, I would often skip breaks and was exhausted by the end of each day. But for the first time in my life, I was in control of my time and my attention. Or at least I thought I was…

More time on my hands

I came to a new realization about my time management earlier this year, after making my pivot to freelance. There were a lot of differences between my in-house and freelance life, but one of the most surprising was how much “free time” I suddenly had on my calendar. I went from 25-30 hours per week in meetings down to only 2-3 hours for syncing with clients. I was no longer juggling a ton of tasks and putting out fires. And for the first few weeks, this felt great — like I finally had time to focus on the actual design work!

Unfortunately, that feeling was short-lived. Here I was, with all this time on my hands, but somehow I felt more stressed. Even with my medication, my day would fly by, and it seemed like I was never getting enough done. So what changed?

The illusion of time management

Looking back, I realized that I had actually become pretty reliant on the demanding nature of my old job for structure and focus day-to-day. I thought I was in control of my time and attention, but in reality, I was at the mercy of my calendar and whatever fires needed to be put out that day. I was able to lock-in for long stretches, but I had conflated my ability to focus with my ability to actually manage my time.

Once my calendar opened up and I wasn’t putting out fires every day, I no longer knew where to focus my efforts. My days felt more unstructured and my brain wasn’t comfortable with it. And despite having way more control over my time, I still wasn’t taking enough breaks throughout the day — my eyes and back would ache each evening.

My new time management setup

At this point, I decided it was time to re-evaluate my time management altogether. Medication allowed me to focus without distraction, but I needed to become more organized. I needed to take more breaks and give my body a rest throughout the day. And I needed to be more intentional with my time.

After some research, I decided to experiment with a variation of the Pomodoro Technique, with the goal to break up my day into intentional, focused intervals. This seemed to check most of my boxes.

I settled on the Session app from Philip Young (which was also included in my monthly Setapp subscription). Session is not a typical Pomodoro app — it’s a robust product that not only helps me focus on tasks, but has changed how I think about my time.

Setting my intention

Like other products in the space, the app’s core experience is centered around timed sessions and breaks. But it expands on this foundation with Intentions, which prompt you to consider the task/priority at hand. For work, I typically keep a list of tasks to complete captured from client notes and Figma comments, and I source from this list to populate my intention for each interval. As I tackle each one, it feels like I’m methodically completing my action items throughout each day.

Portfolio image: Session's core app experience is centered around timed sessions and breaks, but each can be labeled with an intention — in this case, I'm focusing on writing this blog post.
Session's core app experience is centered around timed sessions and breaks, but each can be labeled with an intention — in this case, I'm focusing on writing this blog post.

Another feature that Session includes is a robust analytics tab. To be honest, I don’t use the analytics very much, but it has been helpful to track my progress in adopting the tool itself. However, I think my favorite aspect of Session is its deep configurability. Nearly every facet of the app has a setting that can be customized — from interval timing and notifications, to automated blocking of apps, websites, and even Slack channels. I’ve captured a few settings that have made my setup really nice:

Profiles for different focuses

I use one MacBook Pro for work and personal — doing design, coding, writing, and more, so my needs for time management fluctuate throughout the week. Session’s Profiles allow me to configure specific settings per use case.

Portfolio image: Profiles allow you to configure settings for different focus scenarios.
Portfolio image: Profiles allow you to configure settings for different focus scenarios.
Profiles allow you to configure settings for different focus scenarios.

For example, as part of my Work profile, I use the standard 25-minute session and block social media sites. But in my Writing profile, I do longer 45-minute sessions and generally turn off the blocking features (in case I need inspiration).

Integration with Apple Shortcuts

As a long-time user of Shortcuts (and Workflow before that), I am always looking for helpful automations that make my day-to-day life easier. I was delighted to find that Session supports triggering of shortcuts on any of its state changes. While its setup is a little unorthodox — you have to name your shortcut a hard-coded value — it can be used to trigger any action supported in the Shortcuts app.

For example, whenever a 5-min break starts in Session, it triggers the break_start shortcut with the following actions:

  1. Toggles off Focus/DND mode on my Mac, allowing me to check notifications & social media between focus sessions
  2. Unmutes Slack channels and updates my status to Available
  3. Sets a HomeKit scene in my office — changing my desk lamp to a relaxing purple and shuffling a Calm playlist on my HomePod

When my break ends, the break_ends shortcut is triggered and everything is toggled back. As with other Apple Shortcuts, I feel like there are SO MANY other valuable actions I could configure, so I’m excited to keep tweaking this.

iPhone and Apple Watch support

I often use breaks to step away from my desk, taking a few minutes to use the restroom or grab a drink. Before using Session, each of these breaks was a gateway opportunity for distraction and I’d end up browsing Twitter or watching YouTube. But Session has solved for this so well! By syncing with my iPhone (and sending notifications to my Apple Watch), Session lets me know as soon as my break is up, even when I’m away from my desk.

Wrapping up

All this to say, I don’t think my system is perfect. There are some days when I’m in the zone and a break feels like an interruption. There are also some mornings when I forget to start my sessions and need to be reminded.

But overall, adopting time management techniques has been a net-positive and given me a new mindset for how I think about my day. I look at each focus block as an opportunity to lock-in to whatever I’m doing, knowing that all the distractions will be there for me at my next break. Seeing my intentional blocks of focus add up throughout the day, I have a much clearer sense of my productivity that I ever have before.

And this puts my mind at ease.

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