ADHD: Harnessing the Power of Technology & Apps
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neuropsychological disorder characterized by symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and dysregulation (NIH, 2020). While commonly thought of as a condition that only affects children or adolescents, ADHD actually impacts individuals across the age spectrum, from childhood through adulthood.
Most individuals with ADHD face challenges with executive functions (EFs)—planning, organizing, focusing, shifting attention, self-regulating, solving problems, and other mental functions. These functions continuously work together, coordinating across the “superhighway” of the brain, to help us accomplish tasks and work towards goals. Having trouble with EFs can set individuals with ADHD up for a lot of difficulty at home, school, work, and in daily life. While there is no one specific technology for managing ADHD-related challenges, using varied apps to support common EF challenges may make life easier for individuals with ADHD.
The sections below provide an overview of select apps that address each of the six core clusters of EFs identified by ADHD experts (Brown, 2020).
Organizing, prioritizing, estimating time, and addressing procrastination can be assisted by apps such as Evernote, Trello, Asana, Slack, Todoist. Some of these offer team-based collaboration, useful for coach/client, family members, or other groups.
Maintaining routines and habits can be a significant challenge with ADHD. Developed by a clinical psychologist, MotivAider helps build habits by sending vibrating signals through your phone to help keep your goals in mind throughout the day. Several other apps to consider are: HomeRoutines, Routinist, The Fabulous, and Productive Habit Tracker.
Sustaining and shifting focus is a “hallmark” symptom of ADHD. Focus@Will offers users a number of scientific validated audio tracks that are said to improve focus by 2-4 times. Popular meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace also have audio tracks to improve focus and attention.
Be Focused is a well-designed app using the widely popular Pomodoro Technique for time management and productivity. Engross also builds on the Pomodoro Technique, and includes scheduling, reminders, and app blocking features. 30/30 employs a surprisingly simple, user-friendly interface guiding effective management of tasks and time.
Blocking access to other programs and apps may also assist focus. Freedom is a blocking app that syncs with all your devices, supporting better focus on the task at hand. RescueTime has similar features and can help analyze how your time is being spent, improving productivity. Forest is a unique, fun app that “grows” a forest on your phone the longer you stay focused on a task (virtual coins earned can be put towards an organization planting real trees!).
Effort & Regulation
Regulating effort over time is difficult for many individuals with ADHD. Priority Matrix provides a powerful visual method for project organization and determining task urgency. Mind Mapping apps can also be useful, catering to the visual strengths of many individuals with ADHD: MindNode, iThought, and SimpleMind are some to consider.
Waking up is a significant obstacle for many individuals with ADHD. FreakyAlarm and Wake N Shake offer novel approaches for getting you out of bed. Sleep Cycle tracks your sleep and wakes you when you are in a lighter stage of sleep. The American Sleep Association outlines some of their favorite apps for sleep here.
Mindfulness is a research-backed tool that can help manage emotions as well as improve executive functions. Calm; MyLife Meditation (formerly Stop, Breathe, & Think); Insight Timer; and Headspace are just a few excellent mindfulness apps.
Mood-tracking is another way to assist with emotion management. By tracking how we feel regularly, along with other events that may affect our mood, tracking apps can help users see patterns over time and identify things that help them feel better. Apps can facilitate mood-tracking quickly and discreetly; check out Daylio, Sanvello, and MoodPath.
Working Memory & Recall
Working memory (i.e., holding several bits of information in your mind at once) is a common challenge for many individuals with ADHD. An awesome app for help managing this challenge is IFTTT (If This Then That) which syncs all of your apps to improve your overall efficiency.
Brain training apps, used as an adjunct or alternative to stimulant medication, can strengthen working memory as well as improve focus. MindMed’s ADHD Treatment: Brain Training builds on years of existing research supporting neuro-cognitive digital training for ADHD. Other brain training apps not specific to ADHD include Elevate, Lumosity, Cognifit, and Peak.
Individuals with ADHD often seek excitement and have difficulty with low or non-stimulating tasks. EpicWin and Habitica both turn the humble to-do-list into an adventurous role-playing game in which you tackle tasks in animated battles and earn points for your character as you progress through your list. Brainsparker provides a virtual creativity coach that can help bump you out of a rut.
A wide variety of available apps can support managing common EF challenges seen with ADHD. However, the choice of specific apps is a very individual process, and different things will work for different people. The plethora of currently available mental health apps provides a wide variety of options for supporting the unique challenges and needs of individuals with ADHD.
I always advise clients to give a new app some time. With so many different to-do-list apps, for example, it can be tempting to try them all at once or for a few days each. Using one app long enough before deciding if it is useful will help gain a more accurate picture of its efficacy—and also preserve your sanity!