For adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), work can become a continual cycle of challenges. Studies show they’re more likely to experience work-related problems, get dismissed and quit impulsively.

But your experiences don’t have to mirror these findings. With proper treatment, an awareness of your challenges and the right strategies, you can excel at work.

Here’s how to thrive, not just survive in the workplace.

Getting Evaluated

A professional evaluation, whether it’s from a career counselor or therapist, is a significant step on the road to success. Wilma Fellman, a licensed career counselor who specializes in working with adolescents and adults with ADHD, assesses her clients’ strengths, interests, personality type, recreational and work values, focus pattern, work habits and special challenges.

Kathleen Nadeau, director of the Chesapeake ADHD Center of Maryland, begins by assessing clients’ biggest stressors in their jobs. The goal is “to cut down on distractions and add structure,” she said. Fellman uses an 80-20 rule — comfort with 80 percent of the job, employer accommodations for the difficult 20 percent.

Sometimes the job simply is a bad match. Nadeau once counseled a social worker whose job exclusively required paperwork, making it a tremendous challenge. After she suggested he change jobs, he found work in an inpatient unit with minimal writing and maximum patient interaction. He went from being considered a poor employee to a successful one.

Also important is finding a niche “where you can be successful in spite of your ADHD and your talents can shine through,” said Russell Barkley, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the SUNY Upstate Medical University. For instance, in the performing and musical arts, your disorder might not interfere at all, he said.

“Extroverts with ADHD often do well in sales, politics and entertainment,” Nadeau said. “Emergency work of many kinds also seems to be a good fit for those with ADHD because of the intense involvement and activity.”

Changing Careers

If a career change is necessary, do extensive research into that profession to make sure you can work in similar surroundings. Find out the essential tasks, get the inside scoop with an informational interview and observe the work environment, said Fellman.

“It’s very important for adults with ADHD to do some reality testing before they even get into the job or sign up for educational or training programs,” she said.

Being passionate about your profession makes a huge difference in your ability to succeed. “One of the most critical elements is to have a very powerful connection to the focus of the work, because people with ADHD are able to hyperfocus on things that are engaging and interesting to them,” Nadeau said. “I think people can overcome tremendous obstacles if there’s interest, passion and capability,” Fellman added.

So what are some of the strategies for being successful in the workplace and having attention deficit disorder, or ADHD traits? The next section covers workplace strategies for coping with ADHD.

Strategies for Success

Though these aren’t magic solutions, applying the following strategies can combat symptoms and boost work performance.

  • Figure out what time you’re most alert and focused. This is when you might work on tougher tasks.
  • To improve concentration, ask your boss if you could start earlier or stay later, when the main crowd isn’t there.
  • Try telecommuting some days. Several of Nadeau’s clients find they’re more productive writing reports and proposals from home, so she helps them negotiate the ability to work from home at least part-time.
  • Use a timer. A standby in every coach’s toolbox, a timer is meant to set parameters, according to Linda Anderson, a professional coach specializing in ADHD clients. For instance, set it for 15 minutes and use that time to commit to a task.
  • Have a basket of items you can play with, like clay or squishy balls, said Anderson. She uses a chair that rocks so she doesn’t feel restrained. Anderson also cited Fidget to Focus as a good resource.
  • Get outside for a few minutes if you’re having difficulty concentrating. Exposure to nature, even briefly, can help you refocus.
  • Curb constant email checking. “Email is sparkly and keeps the brain bouncing around,” said Anderson, which can be distracting.
  • Schedule weekly meetings with the boss to discuss your goals and performance. If you don’t want to schedule a formal meeting, just ask your boss for an informal chat about your progress.
  • Keep protein snacks in your drawer or chew gum, said Anderson.
  • Consider a body double — someone who acts as an anchor and quietly works next to you. Here, “the common denominator is connection and not doing it alone,” said Anderson. One of her clients found that he would complete tasks when his wife sat next to him, diligently working.
  • Exercise. Exercise releases endorphins, which make you feel good, and supplies dopamine, which wakes up your brain. Moving around and stretching your legs at regular intervals helps you to regain focus and prevents blood clots from forming in deep leg veins, a potentially deadly condition.
  • Take advantage of the “honeymoon period.” Demonstrate your best work habits in your first three months on the job. After that, you should be able to identify whether you’ll need additional help from a coach or counselor.
  • Create a daily to-do list. A large, unbroken list can become overwhelming.
  • Organize your workplace. Some people have coaches come on Sunday to help them redo their workspace, Fellman said.
  • Use a tape recorder or take notes during meetings.
  • Create routines. As some tasks become automatic, you will have more time to focus on attention issues.
  • Consider an ADHD coach. Coaches can be found at a variety of websites. See this article’s references and resources section for sites.
  • Consider a team of helpers including a therapist, physician and financial advisor.

Disclosing Your Diagnosis

Should you reveal your diagnosis to your boss?

In general, experts suggest against disclosing because of the “common misconceptions and negative images about ADHD,” Nadeau said. “Many that have disclosed their ADHD find they’re often viewed in a negative way; that their supervisor is almost looking for problems and micromanaging them,” she said. If you’re considering disclosing your diagnosis, make sure to talk with a professional first.

Asking for Accommodations

You can request accommodations without formally revealing your diagnosis. Instead, tell your boss how you work best, said Fellman. Try reframing the challenge and suggest a solution, as in the following examples.

Challenge: So noisy you can’t concentrate.
Solution: “I’m having a challenge working in an environment with so much noise; is it possible to have a corner?”

Challenge: Afraid you’re going to miss everything the supervisor says.
Solution: “I do my best if I take notes during this training session; is that okay?”

Challenge: Unsure about your job performance and the short and long-term goals.
Solution: “It’d help me to understand our priorities; can we schedule a meeting today?”

Challenge: Too many minor meetings are distracting you, depleting your attention and taking you away from important tasks.
Solution: “Because I’m finding that attending all of these meetings isn’t the most productive use of my time, can we carefully examine which meetings are critical to attend?”

Getting Treatment for ADHD

“ADHD is one of the most treatable disorders,” Barkley said. It’s vital to get proper treatment, which often includes therapy and medication.

Adults with ADHD often find that medication helps them be more self-controlled, more thoughtful and less deregulated — all results that benefit work performance. “Medication has often made the struggle at work an even playing field,” Fellman said.

So what treatments are available for ADHD? You can learn more about the various types of treatment available for attention deficit disorder. Treatment starts with an initial evaluation by a mental health professional.

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Remember, living with ADHD at work is do-able. You just need to find a set of strategies that are effective for you. Don’t be afraid of seeking treatment for ADHD if it is significantly interfering with your ability to get things done in your life.

References and other resources