Adults living with ADHD face a number of challenges in all areas of their lives — even in the workplace, where it can manifest in different ways, from arriving late to the office to missing deadlines and struggling to focus to becoming easily distracted.
But the good news is that ADHD is manageable, with many of those affected excelling in their jobs once they’ve made the necessary adjustments in their work environment.
It’s just a matter of figuring out what works best for you — and in this article, we share some useful tips to help you optimize your performance at work and reach your full potential as an adult with ADHD.
1. Avoid multitasking
When it comes to productivity, multitasking is a big no-no — and this rule applies to everyone.
Indeed, a study that sought to understand how multitasking affects adults with ADHD found that they were no better or worse at multitasking than neurotypical individuals. The study also noted that those with ADHD were less likely to stress over their work and that they maintained a more positive outlook, even when they were interrupted.
That said, juggling numerous tasks at once can result in disorganization, delayed completions and a shorter attention span due to the constant transitions.
So, what should you do instead? Start by prioritizing the most important tasks and working on them one at a time. Each task should have a set timeline that you can work towards. To achieve this, and to avoid the temptation of multitasking, you must also introduce a few other elements to the process, which we will explore further below.
2. Break up tasks into manageable chunks
Working on one task at a time can be easier said than done, but by breaking each one down into smaller, manageable parts or subtasks, you’ll be able to stay more focused. Start by outlining what needs to be done for the task to be completed, create a timeline, and add in each subtask and its due date.
You could also create a checklist and gradually tick off your subtasks as you work your way through them. That way, if you’re inching towards starting to work on a new task while the one at hand remains incomplete due to boredom, you can simply switch to a different subtask; you’ll still be working on the same task, just simply focusing on a different area.
3. Set deadlines
Deadlines can be a true struggle when you have ADHD but, at the same time, they can be incredibly helpful when it comes to getting things done. Indeed, a lot of people living with ADHD often work very close to deadlines.
In her article on the relationship between ADHD and chronic procrastination, therapist and clinical scientist Keath Low notes that, for some people, this “can create an emergency-type situation — an urgency of sorts — that helps propel you forward to successfully get the job done. The fast-approaching deadline (and the immediacy of the negative consequences that will follow if the deadline isn’t met) may help you to focus and complete the task.”
By setting deadlines for individual tasks, you are more likely to work on each of them until they are completed, and avoid multitasking.
Meanwhile, William Curb, the man behind the Hacking Your ADHD podcast, also emphasizes that “the most important factor of a deadline is that it has to be relevant to you or to the project. Deadlines can’t be arbitrary.” Consequently, your deadlines need to be attached to consequences if they’re not completed in time, and you need to be able to hold yourself accountable if this happens.
4. Incorporate planners into your day
Introducing a planner into your routine can help you stay on top of tasks, remember appointments and meetings, jot down upcoming deadlines, and create detailed to-do lists on a daily basis.
If you tend to be forgetful, your planner will be something you can refer to when you need reminding on what you’re meant to be working on as well as any important work and life events.
Overall, a planner will help you establish a better work–life balance, as it will allow you to visualize and organize your days more effectively, both within and outside work hours. That said, make sure not to overschedule yourself, and to allow some buffer time between different items contained within your planner. This will give you some room for flexibility and help you avoid overwhelming yourself with too many things.
5. Use fidget devices
Having a sedentary job, where you’re required to attend long meetings and sit at a desk all day, can be challenging if you have a predominantly hyperactive presentation of ADHD.
One way to manage this is with a fidget device like a stress ball, therapy putty, a sensory finger ring or a fidget spinner.
In fact, fidgeting (without an object) improved cognitive function in children in ADHD, according to a UC Davis Health study. One of the authors, Julie Schweitzer, psychiatry professor and director of the UC Davis ADHD Program, discusses her theory is that “hyperactivity is actually an unconscious coping mechanism, so instead of trying to get adults and kids with ADHD to sit still, we can use this behavior to help people function better”.
Ideally, your choice of fidget device should be discreet so that it won’t distract your coworkers or disrupt a meeting while you’re using it.
6. Eliminate distractions
Offices can often be noisy, hectic and full of distractions, and as someone with ADHD, all these elements can sidetrack your progress and disrupt your workflow. So, how can you eliminate these disruptions? Try some of these methods:
- Use noise-canceling headphones to block out everything happening around you; they can also help you prevent sensory overload.
- Set up shop in a designated quiet room or an empty conference room for distraction-free environment.
- Show up to work before everyone else so you can get through your most demanding tasks right from the start of the day.
- Write down any thoughts, ideas, reminders and tasks that pop in your mind as you work on a different task by having a designated notebook or sheet at your side.
- Turn off email and IM notifications, and allocate specific timeslots to check these — for example, every 30–45 minutes.
- Declutter your workspace — a disorganized and cluttered office can harm your attention span and be a constant source of distraction.
7. Use a timer
If routine tasks and menial work cause you to block out, leading to multitasking, boredom and procrastination, then using a timer could be quite an effective method to get the task done on time and meet your set deadlines.
For example, you could set a 20-minute timer for each task. This time pressure will help you stay focused and stick to one task at a time, which will ultimately contribute to your productivity. Using a timer can also help you avoid hyper-focusing on a task for too long, losing track of time and neglecting other pending duties on your to-do list.
You could also implement time management methods into your workflow such as the Pomodoro technique: pick a task, set a timer, work on the task, take a short break once you run out of time, and repeat.
8. Take intermittent breaks
Speaking of taking breaks, these are vital in helping you cope with hyperactivity, boredom and impulsivity.
Use intermittent breaks to walk around the office and do tasks that may require you to move, such as getting something photocopied, delivering paperwork to a different department or visiting a coworker on a different floor. While this is a good way to implement physical activity within your day, you should also take regular breaks where you can, even if it’s to just step outside for a bit, take a walk or sit in a quiet space to recharge.
9. Take notes
If you need some help organizing your thoughts better and improving your memory, try taking notes during meetings. You could also use a voice recorder, which you can refer to later on and use to complete any missing parts from your compiled notes.
Beyond meetings, taking notes throughout the day could help you keep track of ideas, thoughts and reminders. Just make sure to keep these in one place — either in a notebook, planner or even note board.
10. Ask for feedback
Chronic indecision is common when you live with ADHD and can manifest in many ways, such as:
- Making choices impulsively
- Overthinking and becoming overwhelmed by a situation
- Delaying starting a task because you don’t know where to begin
- Postponing making a decision until it’s too late.
Asking others for feedback is always a great idea when you hit a roadblock — be it your manager, supervisor or a trusted coworker. By getting their opinions and guidance, you’ll be able to determine your next steps.
Beyond indecision, feedbacking can provide you with a better understanding of your work performance, as well as areas that you can improve on further.
11. Collaborate with others
Working alongside coworkers with good organizational and time-management skills can help you stay on track with ongoing projects and tasks. By buddying up with someone from your team, you’ll be more likely to stick to a task and meet your deadlines.
Furthermore, knowing that someone else is relying on you and also has a stake in the successful completion of a project could enable you to keep yourself more accountable. Curb notes that “accountability works best when it is used with other people. This means sharing your intentions with someone else and checking back with them whether or not you did the thing.”
So, whether you ask your work bestie to monitor your progress or start a shared collaboration with a coworker, working with others is often key for an adult with ADHD in the workplace.
12. Create a schedule
Psychologist Michelle Novotni, PhD, stresses the importance of following a detailed schedule, which will, ultimately, allow you to curb your impulsivity. You can ask a supervisor or coworker to help you with this, and check in with them periodically to ensure you’re on track.
Instead of making impulsive commitments, consider how that could affect your existing schedule. Nadeau advises using a catchphrase like “I’d like to, but let me take a look at my calendar” before agreeing to something on impulse.
Navigating the workplace as an adult with ADHD takes time and consistent effort. That said, by taking the time to try different coping strategies and methods, you can optimize your workflow and improve your work life substantially. So, remember the following:
- Focus on one task at a time, and avoid multitasking where possible.
- Set deadlines for yourself and use a timer to stay on track.
- Take frequent breaks and utilize opportunities to move around the office.
- Block out distractions by using noise-canceling headphones and working in quiet spaces.
- Use a planner to organize yourself better and keep track of everything.
- Work with others and attain their feedback to optimize your performance.
Are you an adult with ADHD? Have you got any useful tips for excelling at work? Share them with us in the comments section below.