Coping with adult ADD/ADHD at work begins with choosing the best job based on your strengths and weaknesses.
by Michael Laskoff
I run a company, but I have not overcome attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). I cannot; the condition is incurable, with me for life. Instead, I wage a daily contest for control of my unproductive and potentially destructive behaviors on the job. Some workdays are better than others, but the trend continues in the right direction.
I’m not alone: Every person living with ADD/ADHD has had to overcome the same or similar challenges -- even the "successful" ones. Many books are filled with guidance on this topic, but for the sake of simplicity, I think that being able to manage ADD/ADHD at work can be reduced to three simple concepts: avoid, acknowledge, and account.
There are positions that people with ADD/ADHD can secure -- by guile, wit, and charm -- that they should not accept: namely jobs that require so much more effort for someone with ADD/ADHD than a candidate without the condition. You'll know you're in one when workplace accommodations don't help and working overtime is the only thing that does. For example, I meet people who aren't very good at minding details who nevertheless become auditors, a profession in which precision matters. As a result, they perform less well than their coworkers, even when they work harder. That’s a recipe for frustration, not success.
Rather than try to adapt to your job, it is far better to identify a career that more closely aligns with what you do well. This may seem like common sense, but many of us dream about jobs for which we aren’t really suited and pursue them anyway. In my case, doing just that once led me to accept a job as an associate in an investment bank. It was a disaster because my natural skills were not particularly valued while my natural deficits became real liabilities. Eventually, I had to leave the job. I would have been better off seeking out an entirely different position.
Admittedly, people with ADD/ADHD should avoid some jobs at all costs. It’s also true that there isn’t an ADD-friendly job out there that renders ADD/ADHD irrelevant. There are no perfect careers for anyone, including ADD/ADHDers. There will be areas in which your condition causes you to struggle more than those around you. Left unaddressed, these deficits could become employment-threatening problems. But if you acknowledge your own deficits as well as your strengths, you can pick a dream job with relatively few issues to which you will have to learn to adapt.
In the past, when faced with my own ADD/ADHD-caused deficits, I have had a tendency to minimize the problem. I hoped that if I didn’t value a skill set or think much of a particular task that my attitude would infect everyone else: No one would care, and I would be absolved of any obligation. Of course, that has no basis in reality; it’s actually denial, and it leads nowhere good.
It is far better to acknowledge ADD/ADHD-caused deficits -- at least to yourself -- and to invest necessary extra effort to overcome them. This doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect in every way, but it does mean that all employers have expectations that everyone -- adults with ADD/ADHD or not -- will meet. The trick is to pick positions with the lowest number of potential problem areas.
In the simplest terms, make sure your efforts matter. People with ADD/ADHD find it easy to stay busy, but all that effort does not necessarily translate into getting something done. At work, effort has no value unless it results in accomplishments that have recognized value. In most cases, your boss is more than pleased to give you priorities and goals to work toward.
If you can find ways to measure your progress against such outcomes, it will be easier to be certain that you are doing work that will be deemed useful. As basic as all of this may sound, I would be even more successful today and could have saved myself a great deal of headache and heartache by simply avoiding bad situations, acknowledging areas in which success was mandatory, and holding myself accountable by measuring my progress against expected outcomes. Now that I understand all of this, I act accordingly. Hopefully, as you search for the best job for your skill set, you can learn to do the same.