Adults with ADHD are all-too aware of their shortcomings at work and regularly bash themselves for their inconsistent productivity and sinking motivation. But there are many things you can do to thrive at the office.
For starters, it’s important to recognize that all workers struggle.
“It would be a mistake to assume that non-ADHD or neurotypical workers do not struggle with some of the very same ebbs and flows of productivity, focus, and prioritization difficulties,” said Aaron D. Smith, MS, LMSW, ACC, a certified ADHD coach who helps individuals with ADHD and executive functioning challenges to bridge the gap between their current performance and their potential.
“The difference for ADHDers is that these issues pose a more significant challenge due to the degree of severity in which the symptoms manifest.”
It’s also important to recognize that workplaces are responsible, too. Ironically, many workplaces aren’t optimized for working. As Smith noted, many are noisy and commotion-filled, and have insufficient training and internal processes.
So what can you do?
The key is to focus on your strengths and to mitigate your challenges, said Smith, founder of Potential Within Reach.
You can start by finding the right job for you (if possible). “A lot of challenges can be avoided if the job is right for how your brain works,” said Linda Swanson, MA, PCC, PCAC, an ADHD coach who specializes in working with adults and college students with ADHD.
To help you figure that out, Swanson suggested considering these questions: “What type of work will hold my interest longest? Do I need a lot of variety and action or something on which I can hyper-focus for extended periods of time? Do I work best in a calm, peaceful, minimalist environment, or do I need an environment that is busy and stimulating to my senses? How connected do I need to be to the end product of my work or my employer? What kind of supervisor do I find most helpful?”
It also can be tremendously helpful to get input from a coach or an observant, nonjudgmental friend, since self-awareness can be difficult for individuals with ADHD, Swanson said.
Whether or not you’re able to find the best job for you, below are nine tips to help you capitalize on your strengths and minimize the challenges.
Create structure. “When there are no externally provided anchor points in time or space, someone with ADHD is likely to get lost,” Swanson said. “Since the ADHD brain often does not readily create structure, structure has to be created externally.”
You can establish structure in how you schedule your day and arrange your workspace. For example, a 10-minute walk every two hours can become an anchor point, which reminds you where you are in the day, and helps you to pause and make sure you’re working on what you need to, Swanson said.
An anchor point in your workspace can be a whiteboard to jot down your schedule, ideas, and reminders (something that works great for one of Swanson’s clients). “It’s important that the arrangement work with your brain, and not the brain of your office manager, or you’ll start losing things.”
Know your priorities. “Don’t let the stream of emails, phone calls, and random chatter from co-workers get you distracted from your big-ticket items,” said Smith. How do you know what those are? Smith suggested asking this question: “At the end of the day when I look myself in the mirror, what tasks do I have to complete today to feel satisfied and productive?” These might not be easy or enjoyable, but they are important.
Plan backwards. Swanson shared this suggestion from Marydee Sklar’s course “Seeing My Time”: Ask yourself, “What is the last thing I need to do before this?” until you get to the first step of your project. (For example: “What is the last thing I needed to do before I give my presentation?”) Write each step or task on a sticky note, and put all of them “on your paper calendar so you can see your project laid out before you,” Swanson said.
Get clarity on projects. Smith stressed the importance of making sure you understand the aim and specifics of a project before you start. He suggested taking good notes, and following up by email to confirm the details. “It’s much better to get feedback early on than to realize that you misheard or misunderstood the project midstream.”
For example, one of Smith’s clients was working on a project for weeks before realizing that the objective wasn’t what he thought it was. He ended up being “late with the work and [investing] a significant amount of time on something that he ultimately needed to scrap.” Match tasks to your energy levels. That is, if your focus is sharpest in the mornings (and your energy levels dip in the afternoons), block out time to work on an important report in the a.m., Smith said. “[I[f you can anticipate these fluctuations in energy, then you can respond in ways that mitigate their impact.”
Decompress before tasks. This is especially helpful if you’re feeling angry or overwhelmed. Smith suggested taking a few minutes to breathe and re-center yourself. “Don’t overly identify with the emotional state of mind. Just observe it, breathe through it, and then let it pass.” And refocus on the present moment.
Stay curious. Smith suggested being curious and asking questions about work procedures and practices. “If a process does not make sense and there is a better way to do it, be professional, but assert your ideas.” This provides “an opportunity to contribute on a deeper level and helps keep our ADHD brains engaged for the long haul.” (Of course, some workplaces will be more receptive to this than others.)
Don’t go it alone. Create a support system of people who understand you, don’t judge you and offer support and encouragement, Swanson said. She also noted the importance of having an accountability partner, such as a friend, family member or colleague. “Perhaps you decide to send an email to let your buddy know that you have done your daily planning, and you send that by a certain time each morning.”
Advocate for yourself. Disclosing your ADHD is a complicated issue with advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it can spark stigma. On the other hand, you can request accommodations—and your employer can’t fire you for actions related to your ADHD, Smith said.
Whether you disclose or not, you can still be an assertive advocate for yourself by framing your requests in this way, he said: “I work best under these conditions.”
I work best in a quieter environment, so I’d like to move to a different office. (Which is what one of Smith’s clients did.) I work best with noise-canceling headphones. I work best when I’m not frequently interrupted, so I’d like to tape a “Do Not Disturb” sign to my door. I work best when I can record meetings.
(Smith mentioned a product called “the Live Scribe Pen, which makes a digital copy of your handwritten notes, and records the audio. This way you can go back to a part of the meeting where your attention drifted off, tap on the page and bring up that audio.)
ADHD can make certain aspects of your job challenging. But by knowing yourself, harnessing your strengths, and being your own best advocate, you can shrink those challenges, and absolutely thrive.