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Full speed to dopamine

thoughts about automation and ADHD

type Life

time 8 minutes

tl;dr I needed a way to stop repetitive coding tasks from taking up my brain, so I built a cool solution.

So, I made my site. Time to sit back, relax, and . . . manually format my writing each time I want content to go live?

Let me explain.

I needed to make sure my blog wasn’t gonna be a pain in the ass

Here’s a sample of what my last blog post looked like, inside the code editor:

As a writer, this was annoying the ever-loving shit out of me. I’d draft my blog in a nice writing tool (Notion), and then I’d copy/paste it into the code editor and have to add all these little HTML markings (the ones in green) plus manually create the links to other webpages.

To make it worse, this had to become the home of my working draft, which made it difficult to make significant content edits or share for feedback before publication.

And after publication, each time I spotted a typo, I had to redeploy my entire site to fix it. It was a hot mess.

Now, I hear you tech folks saying, okay, so use a content management system (CMS). But you have to understand: As a writer, I really hate CMSeses.

I needed a solution that allowed me to draft, edit, collaborate, and publish all from the same place.

But hold up. First, let me tell you more about why avoiding repetitive tasks like this—even if it means climbing over a mountain—is so important to me.

Making sustained creative efforts with ADHD

I used to talk about my ADHD a lot.

As I moved into the freelance, professional sphere, though, I deemphasized this part of my story.

See, clients need to feel like you’ll complete the work. Unfortunately, prevailing ADHD stereotypes tend to cast me as someone who, while highly creative, can’t focus my energy.

If I’m being honest, that’s a mantle I’ve too often worn myself.

The thing is, capitalism makes me, as a person with a neurodiverse brain, feel very incompetent. Corporations reward repeated effort and don’t often have ways to measure sparks of innovation.

In a team setting, I’m the person you want brainstorming and finalizing your project. It’s the middle that’s tough—that’s where the repetition takes place. I’ve already visualized the idea with the client, but now making it can all too often feel like rehashing the same mental territory in slow motion.

Boo from Monsters, Inc., blinking, sleepy, and bored.

ADHD is, at the end of the day, a lack of dopamine. It’s just not as available to my brain as a neurotypical one. What this does mean, though, is that if I get interested in something, I will hyperfocus it to completion—there’s no other more-dopamine-inducing tasks to interrupt me.

I’m vastly oversimplifying, but that’s the crux of the problem. The longer a vision takes to execute, the more I might resort to:

Caffeine ☕, medication 💊, procrastination 🐨, and general stimming 🐒

Stimulants connect neural pathways that are often broken for ADHDers. Caffeine, far from making me hyper, more brings me into a state where I can suddenly get the dishes done.

Sounds great, but what’s the catch?

Well, all the same things you might hear from a neurotypical person: caffeine affects sleep, anxiety, and can have some nasty physical withdrawal symptoms.

Perhaps most importantly, caffeine’s effectiveness completely wears off on me if I drink it every day. I also find that the day after Espresso Getting Shit Done{super:TM} tends to be . . . horrible? Maybe it’s interruption of sleep patterns or just some chemical thing, but I definitely get caffeine hangovers.

I know, I know—time-released medications exist to stimulate the brain in a much more consistent way. One of the most frustrating parts of ADHD, for me, is when I can’t commit to a task I know will help me meet my goals. ADHD meds—amphetamines and otherwise—are good products that help a ton of people not just survive this corporate world but actually thrive accomplishing what they want.

So I tried meds for a long time. When I first got on Vyvanse, it was life-changing. All the pent-up ideas in my brain could suddenly be communicated, could escape to the page. I played piano and understood for the first time why my childhood teacher always said I was out of tempo.

Time moved linearly, and I was participating in its stream in a way I’d never before related to chronology. I took prescribed amphetamines for about 9 months before I decided to stop.

I had a few experiences that led to this choice:

  • The medication wore off over time. My first month was great, but later months had exponentially less effect on my brain. Bumping up my dosage somewhat worked but fucked my sleep. I could only go so high.
  • I lost access to my medication for a few days because of a healthcare failure. That week was one of the foggiest, most helpless experiences I’ve ever had. I remember not being able to engage with any activity whatsoever.
  • While working at Starbucks, I couldn’t help but notice that medication was the only way I could focus enough at my job. But when I got home and wanted to do my own thing? The meds would wear off and I’d be back in brain fog. Double depresso.
  • Actual footage of me withdrawing from meds:

    A burning dumpster floating down a flooded street.

    I have so much respect for those of you who have done the extreme work it takes to balance medication. It just ended up not being for me. As much as meds initially empowered me, they also took too much of my independence.

    I decided instead to take a look at my life and try to make some serious changes—to adapt my intellectual life to the brain I have and love and not the brain I was jealous of in others.

    Some pretty major life changes

    Look. What follows is my own story and what has kinda mostly worked for me. There’s a couple things I need to make clear:

  • This isn’t life advice. And I’m certainly not about to start selling organic remedies for real neurodiverse brains that can benefit highly from real medication, science, and professional therapy.
  • I write as if I have things figured out. Call it pretentiousness I’m still working to shake. I do not have things figured out.
  • I hope parts of my story, as I share them here and in future posts, can be the beginning of conversation and not the end.
  • Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the time I up and moved to Egypt.

    My freelancing had finally turned into a source of enough revenue for me to throw in the apron at Starbucks. (Not gonna lie—I kept the Sharpie.) I knew, if I was gonna make a self-motivated career work, that I needed to adapt.

    Egypt wasn’t a random move, and I can talk about more of the reasons in another post, but suffice it to say for now that I needed an adventure.

    I also focused on building up my brain. Others might say building up their business, but for me, I always knew the war with freelancing would be on the inside. I was my biggest threat of failure.

    So, I began to change some things:

  • I stopped putting pressure on myself to accomplish work every day. I did what I could in day (sometimes nada), and I relaxed when I was out of brain smoothie. This grew into a feeling of abundance: of rest, of energy, even of motivation. Pouring into myself led, weirdly, to way more productivity than pushing myself.
  • I started adventuring more. Even before the pandemic began, I’d been reticent to see the world outside my home, but I decided that I was depriving my brain of interest by not going out into the world. This meant living in a brand new country, sure, but on a more basic level, it also meant taking a little time near-daily to explore the city I lived in. Stimulating my brain and body.
  • I let my brain choose how it wanted to accomplish work. In the past, I’d shamed myself (or been shamed) for the roundabout ways I finished tasks, often changing goals several times in the middle. Instead, I embraced nonlinearity. I still worked on deadline, but I stopped caring if a workday turned into a ten-hour deep dive into a new Photoshop trick to get a clients’ photos to look cohesive. Taking the scenic route taught me, over time, that I was far better at getting stuff done than I thought.
  • I made sure to choose projects where I didn’t know how to do some of the work. I’d always known I love learning, but I didn’t see myself as a learning-motivated person until more recently. I started getting work done by scaffolding learning throughout the project. Conversely, where possible, I stopped taking on work that wouldn’t teach me anything new.
  • Which all leads back to where we started: my blog solution. Remember that problem?

    Conventional tech wisdom says: use a normal CMS that’s already built for this kind of thing. There’s plenty to choose from.

    Alice wisdom, though, pulled me in a different direction. Learning how to make my own tool, and then customizing the hell out of it, felt fun.

    See, “harder solutions” aren’t harder for ADHD folks if they’re the more fun path. We can climb any mountain that continues to interest us. It’s the repetition of the highway that brings us down.

    So I built a janky thing

    I’m writing this blog in Notion, my favorite tool for writing and organizing my thoughts.

    For those of you who aren’t familiar, Notion bills itself as the connected workspace where better, faster work happens, but I think of it as the thingamajig I dump all my thoughts in and swear to categorize later. It’s like a computer file system, but infinite because their free tier is abnormally generous. You can make documents, and then spreadsheets of those documents, and then spreadsheets of spreadsheets, and—

    You get it. I’m a Notion fangirl. And I was thinking: why switch tools if I don’t have to?

    Last year, Notion released their public API, a term which developers use to mean hot damn I can glue this to anything now.

    So, I spent some time learning, more time coding, and most time cursing, and I made, well, this.

    This thing you’re reading. It’s all typed in Notion. I even have my images in here, right in the order I want them, just by dragging them from my Photos app.

    Okay, I’ll stop with the window-ception.

    This workflow is already a huge win for me, and I’ve also added:

  • Autogenerated table of contents at the beginning of each blog post based on written headers.
  • Image alt text (for accessibility with screen readers) generated off of the captions I give images here in Notion.
  • Full GIF, emoji 👏, and video support.
  • Some custom additions that Notion doesn’t even have like {super:superscript} and {sub:subscript}. (Literally added these just for the {super:TM} joke earlier.)
  • Blocks inside Notion that don’t get published to the site, for taking notes and working on redrafting content.
  • And more under development!
  • The best part about this janky solution is that, even though there’s still bugs, the solution is mine. I know its flaws, and I know how to stretch it and work with it.

    And my favorite part? You can work with it, too.

    Meme from the Simpsons where the character is sitting on the bus, and the caption is: “(chuckles) I’m in danger.”

    I can invite guest writers to my blog, who need only to draft their writing in their own Notion account, in the very easy-to-use editor, and then share that draft with me to add in the blog. The original author gets to keep access to their Notion draft and tweak it as necessary, which is reflected on the live site.

    I’m really looking forward to building this accessible solution out more and collaborating with you. If you’d like to be featured on the blog, just let me know!

    Real quick: that section for all the tech people who clicked here excited about Notion CMS tips and tricks, or, a conclusion of sorts

    I’m sorry if I clickbaited you. There’s no technical explanation here. I wanna make one soon, I swear. But this blog post is so long already, and it’s like 11:14, and I gotta get to bed.

    For now, go and rest your brains. You’re probably overworking.

    Much love,