Mastering Productivity with ADHD: A conversation with Bryan Jenks
Bryan Jenks’ carefully tuned systems for task and time management are the product of years of experimentation.
Yet his approach to rigorous and consistent time and energy management didn’t come easily - it was born out of necessity (and a lot of perseverance). Bryan, who was often labelled unfocused and hyperactive as a kid and sent to the back of the class so he wouldn’t distract his peers, was diagnosed with ADHD at 16, and Autism at 30.
The tools and systems he relies on to stay focused and productive have evolved considerably since his teens. What started with post-it notes and lists in moleskin notebooks, then moved to bullet journaling, and eventually, to a mix of calendaring and task management software, is now firmly anchored in a Morgen/Todoist combo.
Clearly, it’s working. Bryan is an Information Technology Specialist who also consults, creates educational content for his wildly popular YouTube channel, and just completed a bachelor’s degree in Data Management & Data Analytics.
I had the chance to chat with Bryan about how he juggles so much and learn about the critical role his systems, toolkit, and expectation-setting with others feed into helping him stay on top of it all.
Productivity and ADHD
ADHD is often perceived as a limiter on one’s productivity. The neurodevelopmental disorder is characterized by hyperactivity and impulsivity. Inattention or, conversely, hyperfocus can make it challenging for those with ADHD to regulate their attention on the right thing at the right time even if it's something they want to do.
Bryan was quick to remind me though that ADHD and neurodivergence present differently for everyone. “If you’ve met one person with ADHD, you’ve met one person with ADHD.”
The systems, processes, and tools that work well for Bryan won’t translate to everyone. However, there are a lot of nuggets of generally applicable wisdom here from which we can all take away something.
Not in the calendar? Not getting done.
David Allen, in Getting Things Done, famously said “your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” I was immediately reminded of this when talking to Bryan, who has built so much discipline about getting things off his brain by putting them into his calendar and task manager.
“I don’t want little tasks filling up my brain or to spend time worrying I’ve forgotten something,” explains Bryan. “Trying to keep track of all the tasks I have to do looks like a giant executive dysfunction mountain I’ll never be able to surmount.”
Instead of constantly trying to climb that mountain, he captures all his tasks in Todoist and plans them in Morgen. That way, his cognitive load isn’t clogged by trying to remember what to do, and instead can be focused on the task itself.
That's why for Bryan, “if it’s not in the calendar, it’s not getting done.”
One glance at his calendar and it’s evident that he truly means it. Yes, his calendar and task manager store the big things – meetings, deadlines, events. But they also hold smaller chores as reminders, from taking vitamins to feeding his cats.
If it matters, big or small, he captures the task in Todoist. He then time blocks in Morgen, “usually planning one week at a time, two weeks at most.”
But like most of us, getting good at time blocking has been a work in progress. “I used to be bad at estimating how much time [a particular task] would take. When I underestimated the time, I would then be left with a big, undefined block of time and not know what to do with it.”
He says he’s getting better with time estimates and his time blocks are more realistic. But when he gets it wrong and doesn’t complete something, he’s trying to be more kind with himself. “It will get done. Just not today, and that’s okay.”
Planning isn’t just about time, but also energy
Bryan also takes his energy levels into account when planning his days.
“I know I am less effective between 6-8pm and checked out by 8pm. I used to schedule tasks at that time, then would inevitably end up dragging them to the next day. I’ve stopped booking that time with tasks and instead leave it open for reading books.” (If you’re curious, you can find out what he’s reading on Goodreads where he has an ambitious TBR stack for 2023.)
Similarly, when he has a big, cognitively demanding task, he tries to schedule those on emptier days, when he knows he will have both the time and "coins" (mental energy to spend) to tackle it.
But sometimes, even if planning has been done well and he knows what to focus on next, “getting started can be the hardest part.”
Often that means approaching a time block for a big cognitively demanding task with one small action. “Once I get going on that small task, I get momentum, and it starts to snowball. Then I can keep going and tackle the harder parts of the work.”
Communicating his needs
Bryan’s careful planning clearly helps him get more from his time. Yet sometimes things are out of his control.
In the past, he “would get irrationally angry if someone asked for something on a perfectly planned day.” Sometimes one interruption that forced drastic context switching was enough to derail a day. He recognizes now that this is an autistic symptom of rigidity and structural adherence.
Bryan has set expectations with others that he needs advanced notice when possible and works best when context switching is minimized.
At work, his colleagues have been receptive. “My colleagues are good at booking my time in advance and when possible, stacking meetings back-to-back so I don’t need to keep context switching out of my work and into another meeting. This way I get large blocks of uninterrupted time to do my work undisturbed.”
Additionally, if he receives a meeting invitation with no clear objectives, agenda, or role for him, “I simply won’t attend.”
He has also asked his family to follow suit, taking “a business approach to my time.”
“I’m always willing to help, but I ask my family to give me a couple of days’ notice and some options for what time works best. It might seem heartless, but it’s the best way for me to see and help them while also still protecting my time and energy from unexpected interruptions when feasible.”
His family have adapted and are happy to accommodate the way he processes information and organizes his life. They understand that to effectively manage his life and priorities independently, this is an accommodation that really helps him balance everything going on without guilt or avoidance.
Bryan has been a vocal advocate of Morgen. He’s tried a lot of calendars over the years but what stands out for him is that Morgen:
- “Integrates with Todoist” to smooth the workflow between his task management and time blocking
- “Isn’t overly polished and graphical” which helps to minimize distractions
- Has "keyboard shortcuts that keep up with my mental process speed”
- “Makes it easy to adjust blocks of time for tasks” so that time blocking is quick and adjustable
He concedes it won’t be the right calendar for everyone, but for him, it’s where everything is stored. And if it isn’t there, it simply won’t get done.
Learn more about Bryan’s tools, research, and productivity systems by following him on Twitter @tallguyjenks, his website, and on YouTube.