Learning earlier this year that I had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) changed a lot for me. I finally realized that I was not a “bad worker” or didn’t have a “work ethic”. My work ethic just doesn’t look like a traditional one.
You’re probably aware that increasingly it’s not just adolescents who get ADHD diagnoses — more and older people are receiving a diagnosis of ADHD, or what’s known as adult ADHD. The fact it’s growing in prevalence means it’s also thankfully becoming less stigmatized. It also means a lot of people in the wider working population are looking to find ways to cope.
How ADD and ADHD Symptoms Show Up at Work
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (the term ADHD is more widely used now) covers a wide range of experiences and symptoms. The NIH defines Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) clinically as “an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.”
The list of basic symptoms of attention deficit disorders includes everything from trouble focusing and doing one task at a time, to staying organized — but also covers restlessness, mood swings, sleep disorders, problems with executive function, fidgeting, tapping or general impulsive behavior (interrupting people or difficulty delaying gratification). Taken together, any of these symptoms can make life either a little bit, or a lot, harder.
My ADD symptoms may not necessarily be the same as what someone else deals with, but the skills I’ve developed to cope may likely be helpful for attention deficit people, but could also be useful for almost anyone in the workplace. Let me give you an idea of how this might work on a daily basis.
Many people just sit down and get their work done, and it’s really as simple as that. After several hours at a desk, they have likely accomplished what they originally hoped to do – or some large portion of it – and can put their tasks away.
It’s not that the average person is 100% productive on a daily basis — far from it — but when they’re working on a project, the work proceeds in a fairly straightforward way. And it happens without constant worry, interruptions, detours or distractions. Some people do live within time constraints and what’s expected of them, and go about their day knowing it will go roughly the way they expect. Compared to a person who has ADHD, that’s a radically different life. It’s the difference between being able to focus on one item at a time, listen to your body, or move from one thing to the next with ease.
But for those of us in the workforce who struggle with ADHD, it doesn’t go like that too often.
To give you an idea, on any given morning I might sit down at my desk to work remotely, as I usually do — I’ll get up to pee one time at 10 am, realize there is a separate chore that needs to be done, and also that I need to wash my face or brush my teeth.
Some ADHD people struggle more with the tendency to daydream, but in my case, it’s often about fixating on the various things that need to get done. Usually the face washing or teeth brushing feels like it has to happen before the chore, so the chore may or may not ever get done. That in itself isn’t so bad, but the issue is with what happens to the original work I sat down to get started with prior to the bathroom break.
Reading this, you might think this level of distraction is tied to working a remote or work from home (WFH) job. But I’d argue, on the contrary, WFH or working remotely hasn’t caused any more substantial challenges for me as an ADHD person than a regular workplace was, for reasons I’ll get into here.
How ADD Affects My WFH Routine
When I worked with an in-person team, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I frequently felt overwhelmed. I took on a lot of projects, but rarely finished the ones assigned to me that had no set due date. I would make new to-do lists every day, but it was always easy to distract me if you just passed by the front desk, where I sat.
I loved the aspect of co-located working that involved getting to know my team and our clients in person. But in general it turns out I am much more organized when working from home, because there’s actually less to distract me.
Some basic examples: There’s less to do in terms of orchestrating my morning, or less distraction in terms of seeing coworkers in the physical office space. Our remote team at PF also has multiple modes of communication and context building — which include due dates, the history of the project, and what members of the team need to be included or updated. Having these forms of accountability built in ends up being incredibly helpful.
Working from home isn’t without challenges. It can be a little too easy to get caught up when my phone buzzes, or when it feels pressing to respond immediately to a notification. (We have a great post incidentally on why notifications truly are not your friend, and how blocking them can do wonders to protect your attention.)
Other days in my remote office, I might have 50,000+ thoughts about one project at work, and end up two hours deep into researching or planning – only to realize too late that the work I’m doing may not be helping me get that project done.
If that sounds stressful, believe me, it can be. The good news for anyone who struggles with their attention, or who has a ADHD diagnosis, is that it is possible to manage constant thought-jumping with the help of a few tools and tips.
Currently my biggest source of support is a therapist who helps me with mindfulness techniques to center myself. I’ve also found other methods to help me stay on task and finish my work, like coworking with a buddy. There are plenty of ideas out there that can help when you have that urge to do anything other than what’s in front of you. (And I know it’s not for lack of trying. I see you, ADD and ADHD friends!)
Tips to Manage Your Attention When Working Remote
If you have trouble sitting still, getting started, or focusing on something for more than 10 minutes, here below I’m going to offer you some tips and tricks to help. I’ve picked up on a lot of these tips along the way to help me find my focus and do the work in a sustainable way.
Techniques like these can be part of an ADHD treatment plan, and help with building self-esteem, and confidence in your ability to get work done, as well as controlling environmental factors. It also helps ensure you don’t, for instance, get sucked into hours of focusing on a single project, and forget to take care of yourself or the other five projects on deck. 🙂
- Planning is your friend
If I don’t have a roadmap for how things are going to go for the day, or for this particular project, I’ll end up getting distracted or demotivated and will choose to do something else. That’s why the roadmap is useful – to keep you from ending up in that tailspin. Creating plans might not be your strong suit, but if you ask yourself “what is the next smallest step I can take to push this forward?” you’ll find that it’s not too hard to set up a great project roadmap.
Tools like Momentum can also be a huge help with managing your lifestyle, work and symptoms — since it offers the building blocks for you to start planning.
- Use a Timer
I’ve talked about it before. The Pomodoro Technique which popularized using timers for productivity may not be for everyone, but timers as a tool can help a lot with getting started and sticking with tricky projects. Timers are great not just for doing work, but also for managing your breaks from work or schoolwork, so you don’t get too far off track.
I often put on a 10 or 15-minute timer and kick back on the couch with my guitar, or I pull out a book and give myself some time away from the screen. These mini power breaks boost my energy and help me get my creativity flowing again –- which incidentally is also great for getting back into the work.
- Block out time on your calendar
You might want to consider the possibility of creating a list or menu of things you really like doing to recover on your breaks, so you don’t get stuck in limbo. Setting up reminders for when breaks in your day are coming up can help with this piece, too. You can use your calendar tool or alarms and reminders on your phone or another device.
This list of recovery pastimes and pleasures can include almost anything: meditating or catching up on reading, going for a walk. It could be yoga or video games, or watching a Netflix series you’ve been meaning to binge on. The point is it’s a way to preserve your free time for doing things that you actually enjoy, so it doesn’t get eaten up by other items. (This is a good tip whether or not you technically have an attention deficit disorder.)
- Establish Space and Boost Energy with Music
One of my favorite ways to control my space and energy is with music. I switch between different genres, but often find myself feeling most content with ambient music and sounds — especially to keep on in the background while I work. By the time afternoon rolls around, in contrast, I tend to need more focus, so I put on some house-electronic music to keep the energy high. Sometimes I use ocean sounds, or “brown noise” when the movement of the music gets too distracting for me.
Here are some of my favorite sounds to put on in the background:
- Fantasy Music for Inspiration – A Tower on the Mountain
- Soft House Upbeat Study Music + Isochronic Tones – French Bulldog Mix
- Use one of your five senses
With ADD, your brain constantly craves dopamine, which can cause lack of focus and a constant search for distractions when the project we’re working on doesn’t spark that dopamine. Helping create novelty in your day can actually help boost dopamine, and distract you less!
I got these tips from a few different TikTok creators, and they’ve been super useful:
- Move items on your desk around for a “new” environment and create visual novelty
- Try a nice scented lotion, a candle, or essential oils to activate your sense of smell
- Wash your face or do your makeup in the middle of the day to refresh yourself
- Do a dance, or get some stretching or movement in to boost your endorphins & your dopamine.
These are just a few of the ways you can work with your body and attention when you start to lose focus, rather than against it.
The Bottom Line
There are no clear causes of ADHD, but there are plenty of non-stimulant, behavioral therapy techniques out there that can help you cope. In fact, these techniques can also be super helpful for people who struggle with attention, even without an ADHD diagnosis. ADHD medications can be helpful for many folks too, but it’s only one line of defense when coming up with ways to live and focus better.
Learning about these techniques hopefully shows you how many opportunities exist for you to create space for yourself, and the specific way your brain works within your workday! The simple tricks I listed above take less than five minutes and generally leave you feeling pumped up and ready to continue working.
And, though I work from home and have the luxury to be able to get up, and take regular breaks, it isn’t impossible to do any of these things at your place of work. It might even be fun to get others involved! Consider doing something like a morning stretch circle or an afternoon walk with a teammate.
If you give yourself space to be yourself, you might find that your work comes easier to you. Try sharing these ideas with your friends and family members to see if they find the ideas helpful too – and let me know if any of the tricks worked for you!