How to organize a scatterbrain - part two

Night time with the stars and galaxy in the background and a car driving along a road in the foreground
Photo by Nick Raniga

In Douglas Adam's brilliant book The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, a great computer called Deep Thought spends seven and a half million years computing the answer to "life, the universe and everything". The answer, it declares, is 42. The computer then recommends that an even greater computer be constructed so that they may work out what the question actually is.

I have now spent just over a year researching, developing and dogfooding the tool I call ZealPad and I'm delighted to report that it works! But what problem is it actually trying to solve, you might ask. Coming up with a clear and concise answer to that question, dear reader, is my current challenge.

This is the second part of a blog post that I published back in January How to organize a scatterbrain - part one where I describe the shortcomings of existing productivity tools especially where there are executive skill weaknesses. In this post I hope to explain how ZealPad addresses those shortcomings.

What can ZealPad do

Based on my research, here is a summary of what ZealPad can do:

  • It can help you to grow good habits or help get rid of bad ones
  • It can motivate you to persist with goals you set for yourself
  • It can raise your emotional awareness
  • It can encourage you do things more mindfully
  • It can impart a sense of control
  • It can help you feel less overwhelmed
  • It can remind you how much you actually get done
  • It can enable you to question and correct distorted beliefs
  • It can help you get shit done
  • It can make you feel better

I realize these are bold claims, so let me spell out how it has helped me over the last 9 months.


One of the major areas of my life that ZealPad has supported me so far is my health. Like most people, I’m constantly trying to strike the right balance between enjoying myself and making healthy choices. I’ll give you a few examples of how I’ve used ZealPad to improve my health.

ZealPad has a basic journaling feature, so for over 6 months, I’ve been recording a few words each day; a 1 minute daily health check-in. This serves two purposes: Firstly, it’s just a good habit to get into, taking a moment to check in with yourself. This can let you know that everything is fine, or that the headache you had before didn’t go on forever like you thought it might, or maybe that you actually do have a recurring issue that needs to be looked into. As a personal example, I noticed an angry looking freckle on my arm back in March of this year. Instead of adding it to my worry pile and letting it drag me down I monitored and measured it for a couple of days until it disappeared. Taking a note and keeping track of it gave me a sense of control instead of anxiety. Secondly, my daily health diary serves as a record that I can refer to when talking to doctors (I hate talking to doctors) when they ask impossible questions like “when did this start” and “how often does it do that”. For example, I used it to work out the date of my angry freckle story.

Other health-related items I’ve monitored include my weight, my blood pressure, the sleep score copied over from my fitness tracker and the number of alcoholic drinks I consumed that day. Instead of using a journal for this numeric data, ZealPad allows me to capture numeric values which can then be plotted on a chart to give you a visual representation of your progress. This information might be used to test your own hypotheses about how your eating, drinking or exercising might affect your weight, your sleep quality, or your mood. ZealPad has suggested that alcohol isn’t great for my sleep. Obviously that’s not a million dollar insight for a year of work, but it has also told me that there are a number of other factors in play that might have played a role on my sleep quality, not just alcohol. Not only that, if I limit myself to 2 drinks with food and I’m finished before 8pm I notice a general improvement in my score.

Three screenshots of ZealPad on mobile. The first shows the template selection page, the second a measure your weight activity and the third shows the record your BP activity
Several views of Zealpad in mobile mode showing the template selector, a weight recording activity with chart and a blood pressure and pulse recording activity

 I’ve been tracking my blood pressure for as long as ZealPad has existed. Prior to that I used a note in Google Keep that I would append to on a daily basis. I have a mild case of hypertension which is unfortunately exacerbated by being at the doctor's office (did I mention I hate talking to doctors?). For that reason I have been taking a small daily dose of blood pressure medication for the last couple of years. My current tablets initially came in a container that holds 30 daily doses and, while I knew that I might occasionally forget to take a dose, I was very surprised indeed when I discovered that my 30 doses took 90 days to get through! It turns out that my terrible memory is so bad that I forget actually how bad it is. Before ZealPad was even called ZealPad and was still just some code running on my laptop I had a daily recurring task called “Take your BP meds” and I haven’t missed a dose for more than a year. 

A line chart with three lines showing my blood pressure reading and pulse
A chart of my blood pressure and pulse measurements 

In the last 12 months our family doctor has retired and her replacement won’t begin until later this year so, in the meantime, talking to doctors (I think I mentioned that this is something I don’t like doing) has become even more taxing. Therefore getting a repeat prescription, the kind of job I struggle with anyway, is now even more of a challenge. To combat this I used an “Impossible Task” in ZealPad that I called “get a repeat prescription”. An impossible task is a tongue-in-cheek name for a mundane piece of work that you want to get done but you just can’t for some reason (In my work I’ve identified 12 different barriers to getting a piece of work done which I’ll save for a later post). The Impossible Task repeatedly asks you to commit to a very small step towards what you want to get done. In the case of getting a repeat prescription it might be to just locate and make a note of the phone number of your doctor, that’s it. The next step could be to determine a few times in your calendar that you would be ok for a call. The next step after that could be to write down the questions you have for your doctor so the conversation isn’t stressful. At some point you have everything you need all in the same place, you can make the call. I’ve used impossible tasks for both short-term things that I just couldn’t face doing and they helped get me over the difficult part and for long-term things that have lots of different components that seemed initially overwhelming.

Another good use for the Impossible Task was my ADHD diagnosis. In my blog post last year Why I left a great job to build a crappy task list, I mentioned that I was a “textbook case of ADHD”. This was purely a self-diagnosis. Back in November I finally decided to make it official and not put it off for yet another year. Thanks to ZealPad it actually happened and my official scatterbrain status was confirmed. Without this gentle assistance it’s entirely possible that I would never have gotten around to this.

Historically I’ve not been great with exercise. It’s fine when someone else is piling on the peer pressure but when it’s just down to me I could never seem to get into a regular habit. There’s always something else that’s way more interesting going on. However, with ZealPad I have managed to stick to a reasonably consistent exercise routine 5-6 times a week for the last 6 months.

Work and Home life

It’s not just health where ZealPad has been helpful. I do not believe I would have made anywhere near as much progress on this project if I hadn’t used ZealPad to keep track of the mundane things that are necessary to keep a business going and a project moving forward. Company registration, tax and legal work, bookkeeping and accounts all make me fatigued at their mere mention. Using ZealPad to gradually chip away at these until they are no longer daunting has given me much more guilt-free creative freedom.

One of my neglected hobbies is creating music on a wide variety of instruments. I have always loved the sound of the cello and for many years loved the idea of being able to play it. About 8 years ago I was delighted to be gifted a second-hand cello for my birthday. It then sat next to our family piano for 7 years being played approximately once a year. The cello is a large bowed instrument which takes a little time to get set up and a lot of time to learn. In order to actually play it I would need to arrange lessons and then regularly practise to improve. At the start of this year I set up an Impossible Task to research and arrange cello lessons. After a few days I had arranged weekly lessons. I then set up a daily task to encourage me to practise. Recently I downloaded an app that lets me practise reading music and I use another daily reminder to remind me to play with it for 5 minutes. I’ve now been playing daily for 6 months and I’m really happy with my progress.

There are so many more examples where ZealPad has been helpful to me and allowed me to get things done without stress but I’ll end this section with just one simple example and explain why I think it works so well. I have a daily reminder called “Day Planner”. This is where I note down the things I’d like to get done today. I very rarely go back to my old notes in this task, the value is the fact that I have to think about what’s going to happen today. This means actually engaging my brain and thinking about what I want to get done, looking at my calendar and seeing if there’s anything in there, looking at what I got done yesterday to see where I left off, and possibly starting a discussion over a morning cup of tea about our family plans. Prior to the creation of this ZealPad activity I would regularly start work without even checking my calendar or reviewing where I got to the day before and then fail to prepare adequately for the day. Instead of a vague anxiety gnawing away in the background telling me that I’m probably forgetting something, I instead feel like I’m on top of things and in control of my day. This has a pretty positive effect on my mood.

Components of ZealPad


I have already introduced you to some of the basic units of ZealPad. The Journal, Repeating Task and Impossible Task are different types of Activities (I call these “Templates”). An activity is basically a commitment you make with yourself to get something done. This might be as simple as acknowledging a reminder or as complex as a GAD-7 self-reporting anxiety questionnaire with multiple choice questions and a final score.

The last few questions on the GAD-7 Anxiety questionaire in ZealPad
The GAD-7 Anxiety Questionnaire in ZealPad

Along with those already mentioned, ZealPad has a number of activity templates to get you started but you are not limited to only these templates. Any activity can be modified to capture whatever data you want. You can add extra fields and even build your own questionnaire like the GAD-7 above. I’ll be soon adding the capability of saving your customized activities as new templates that you are then able to reuse. Some months ago I chatted with a number of managers I know about their one-on-one meetings to see if there was a standard form that could be incorporated into the app. There really isn’t a common approach here so I’d much rather see what other people come up with. I intend to implement a marketplace for the sharing of activity templates and I expect the most popular user creations might potentially replace the default ones.

The Stack

For a repeating activity like “Capture your daily thoughts”, your activity would be given a time interval, typically daily. What this means is that this activity will become “due” approximately every 24 hours. You can also pin activities to a particular time of day so that regardless of when you got them done on the previous day, they will always show up in the morning, afternoon or evening. But where do they show up? That’s where “The Stack” comes in. The Stack is a distraction free list of the activity items that need your attention. You can only see one item at a time on your stack, you don’t get to choose which order you work on the list and in order to progress through the list you are required to make a decision about the item you are looking at. I find this hugely beneficial because even if I “snooze” the task until the following morning I have actually acknowledged it. At the end of your list you are presented with a small graphic and benign motivational pun. But the real reward is knowing that you are up to date with your list. Tackling all the items on your list all in one go is not only very efficient, it lets you build up a productivity momentum meaning you can get a whole load of useful things done in a short amount of time. I typically go through my stack 3 times a day and I can get through 20-30 items in around 5 minutes.

A screenshot of the stack page in ZealPad once you have completed all the work. Page shows how many iteams dealt with and suggests you reflect further on all the work you have done
The Stack when there’s no more work to do 


One of the things that I’ve struggled with while testing ZealPad is knowing the right value to input at the time I fill it in. For example, I’m currently trying to get out of the habit of mindlessly snacking whenever I’m near food so I’m trying to record the number of times I snack each day. This makes the act of snacking less mindless and encourages me to think about no snacking when I’m tempted. However, at the end of the day it’s not always easy to remember how many times you reached for the cookie jar. ZealPad does allow you to search for a specific activity and will let you save a draft entry for an activity but this is a little too much work to do every single time. So instead, ZealPad allows you to create “widgets” on your ZealPad homepage that can capture data and hold on to it for later. In the case of a numeric field like the number of snacks, this will show up as a counter with plus and minus sign buttons on either side of it.

A screenshot of the home page in ZealPad welcoming you, telling you how many items you have on your stack and also showing two widgets that allow the input of quick draft data
My home page showing two widgets for the quick capture of data

Next Steps

Making ZealPad work for other people

I’ve presented various ways that ZealPad has, so far, helped me along with a few notes describing its core features. Now I want to describe my current challenge to you, and that is how other people can benefit from ZealPad in their own ways.

I believe ZealPad could be of use to everyone but especially useful to people who struggle with the executive skills outlined in my previous post. I also suspect it has great potential as a vehicle for professional therapeutic intervention forms shared between a therapist and patient.

But ZealPad is utterly unlike anything I’ve seen out there and its unique flexibility comes at the cost of being just that little bit more complicated than your average task list. It has the potential to solve many problems and so far I have tried to avoid limiting it by focusing on a single problem. But in order for this to be a success I now need to pivot, to create a clear message about what problem ZealPad will help you solve.

Market Research

I’m currently reaching out to friends and colleagues who will let me buy them a coffee and interview them for 30 minutes about their own struggles with motivation and productivity.

From these interviews I hope to connect the most common productivity challenges with ZealPad features so that I can build a very clear and concise messaging around what ZealPad will do for you and how you can make that happen. ZealPad needs to not only be your path to enlightenment but also your guide.

I’m getting some great answers already and I am very much looking forward to sharing my findings with you in my next blog post. If you are interested in taking part in a 30 minute interview, please let me know and I will gladly buy you coffee (or your preferred beverage).

I think I might have the answer to life, the universe and everything, now I just need to work out what the question is!

And please, if you are struggling with your mental health, this blog post is no substitute for professional therapy. Go and speak to someone.


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