Maybe you’re an entrepreneur. Maybe you’re a real estate agent or writer. Maybe you’re an artist or a photographer. Maybe you’re a graphic or web designer. Maybe you’re a coach or consultant. Maybe you’re an attorney with your own practice.
Whatever your profession, you aren’t tied to a desk and you don’t have specific work hours — like 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. And you also have ADHD, which makes not having a built-in structure challenging.
For example, people with ADHD tend to hyper-focus on things they find interesting, while other tasks fall through the cracks — such as invoicing and filing taxes, said Bonnie Mincu, a senior certified ADHD coach who understands the challenges of having ADHD and an unstructured job.
Mincu left a highly structured, deadline-driven corporate career of 23 years to start her own coaching and consulting business. But she was unable to get anything done — and, much to her surprise, was diagnosed with ADHD. In 2001 Mincu founded her coaching practice Thrive with ADD.
Another challenge is disorganization. “We can waste enormous amounts of time looking for things or performing re-work on tasks we can’t find or can’t remember where we left off,” Mincu said.
Because ADHD causes a distorted perception of time, you also might underestimate how long it takes you to complete a project, she said. And you might run late to your appointments, “which can hurt your reputation with customers.”
Essentially, “structure includes many skills that ADHD adults lack: organizing systems, time management systems and symptom control,” said Dana Rayburn, an ADHD coach who also has ADHD. Rayburn is the creator of the ADHD Success Club, a virtual group program that helps individuals build these very skills, along with providing coaching and community support.
The good news is that you can create structure and thrive in your career. Below are five tips to help you create a routine that works best for you. Stay tuned for a second piece with more suggestions.
Know how you work.
Do you have an inner rebel who resists and revolts at a structured schedule? If so, Mincu suggested thinking about your activities in a more general way. For instance, “you could use a planner that simply divides each day into morning, afternoon and evening rather than hour by hour.”
Or maybe you’d benefit from setting specific office hours. This works well for Rayburn’s clients. She asks them to identify the time they’ll get to the office, the time they’ll break for lunch and the time they’ll stop working in the evenings. Experiment with both techniques to see what you ultimately prefer.
Both Mincu and Rayburn underscored the importance of knowing your body clock. Specifically, figure out what times of the day you’re best at different activities, Mincu said. For instance, if you’re taking medication for ADHD, you might focus best in the mornings, she said. So you use this time to perform tedious administrative tasks or do your most meaningful work.
“Pay attention to what you tend to gravitate to doing at different times of day, and then plan your work around that ‘flow,’ rather than fighting against it,” Mincu said.
Take advantage of timers.
Timers are a great way to keep yourself accountable and on track. They serve as a check-in to confirm that you’re doing what you intended to do — and if you’re not, they allow you to readjust as needed, Rayburn said. You can find timers in smartphones, watches and fitness trackers. Or you can use a kitchen timer. Try different timers to find the best tool for you.
Get to the root of a problem.
What are you struggling with in your job? In your business? To get to the core of the issue and find a solution, keep asking yourself “Why?” (and “What?”). Mincu shared this example for an independent attorney who was regularly behind on invoicing:
“Why didn’t I invoice the client at the end of the month? I forgot. Why did I forget? There was no reminder in my calendar. Why not put recurring reminders in the calendar? I’ll probably be too busy and ignore them, and then forget about them. What would make you be sure to get the invoicing done? Carve out a block of time in the calendar to do it (or delegate this task to an assistant.) What would make it faster and easier to do the invoicing? If I didn’t have to search all over for the information to determine how much to charge. Why don’t you keep the information in one folder for the client?”
Think super simple.
“Most adults with ADHD start with long, very complicated routines,” Rayburn said. Which is why she stressed the importance of simplifying. That is, she suggested starting with just three steps: get to the office, check your calendar and write a task list. Try to postpone activities that easily become distractions, such as checking email and researching online, she said.
Care for your brain.
At a minimum, Rayburn said, caring for your brain includes sleep, a brain-healthy diet and exercise. “Ignore these and the best tools and structures in the world won’t make a difference.”
A brain-healthy diet consists of: protein, such as meat, eggs and cottage cheese; complex carbs, such as whole grains and brown rice; and plant-based sources of fat, such as avocado and olive oil. It also includes avoiding sugary sweets, soda and foods with artificial ingredients or dyes, she said. (Rayburn shares more specifics in this piece on her site.) When it comes to exercise, be sure to pick physical activities that you genuinely enjoy. Getting enough sleep usually isn’t easy for adults with ADHD. These tips can help.
Structure is a challenge for adults with ADHD, and it’s something you tend to eschew. But as Rayburn said, structure is the “scaffolding that holds an ADHD life together.” Thankfully, you can create structure on your own terms — with routines, habits and systems based on your body clock and preferences.