ADHD at Work

9 to 5 with ADD: Practical Work Strategies for Clever ADHD Brains

What jobs are best for ADHD brains? What workplace accommodations help the most? How do I stop procrastinating? How can I learn to navigate office communications and politics? Here, two successful entrepreneurs with ADD answer the most common and plaguing questions from ADDitude readers trying to manage their symptoms at work.

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ADDitude: How do I put my best foot forward at work — especially when I don’t believe I have a “best foot?”

Edward Hallowell, M.D.: Most adults with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) don’t realize how good they are. After a lifetime of struggles and criticism, they see themselves in a far less favorable light than the rest of the world sees them. It’s hard to put your best foot forward when you don’t think there’s all that much good about you!

Not only is it unpleasant to live like that — it also makes it hard to advocate for yourself at work. It makes it hard to go to a job interview and present yourself as someone who should be hired. That’s why it can be incredibly helpful to see a therapist who is trained to point out your positive attributes and to help you embrace them.

[Free Resource: 8 Dream Jobs for People with ADHD]

Peter Shankman: Remember that everyone is an expert at something. Figuring out what you’re an expert at — no matter how small or “unimportant” you perceive it to be — will help you confront your impostor syndrome and start to recognize your potential.

At the end of the day, I’m my own worst critic. Most people with ADHD are. But too many dreams have died because the people who dreamt them up didn’t believe they were good enough to implement them. I think that’s the saddest thing in the world. So if you have a dream — any dream — ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I fail?” As long as it’s not jail time, I think it’s best to just do it.

ADDitude: How can I stop my ADHD brain from procrastinating in the face of deadlines?

Hallowell: This problem has two root causes. The first is that, in the world of ADD, time is fundamentally different. We only pay attention to two different times: “now” and “not now.” This means that far-off deadlines don’t register in our brains — or at least, not until they shift from “not now” to “now.”

[Video: 7 Secrets to Maximum Work Productivity]

The second reason for procrastination is that it’s a form of self-medication. When you panic and start frantically working toward a deadline, your body releases adrenaline, which is chemically very similar to medications used to treat ADHD.

One solution, then, is to stimulate your brain and body in another way, to mimic these “panic modes” without the accompanying risks. This could mean getting into a highly stimulating profession, like entrepreneurship or brain surgery.

Shankman: Another solution is to create or request deadlines. If someone says they need a project “soon,” that’s meaningless to an ADHD brain. Ask for a specific deadline — “Thursday at 2 P.M.” means it will get done, while “Whenever you have time” means it will be forgotten.

If you have to do something that’s boring or fundamentally difficult, give yourself a hit of adrenaline beforehand. I personally like to skydive, but it doesn’t have to be that grand — it can be as simple as running up a few flights of stairs before tackling paperwork.

ADDitude: How can I navigate office politics and communication with ADHD?

Hallowell: Office politics means bringing up touchy topics tactfully, navigating boundaries, and respecting privacy. People with ADHD tend to struggle with those things — but everyone has to manage them. It’s an inescapable part of being an adult.

[Free Handout: Manage Your Time at Work]

You may not naturally excel at these skills, but you can strengthen them. Observe a skilled manager deliver criticism in a meeting, and take notes. If you have to have a tough conversation and you struggle with being diplomatic, ask a friendly colleague for advice.

Shankman: People with ADHD have a tendency to speak first and think later. If you feel yourself getting angry at work — whether it’s over email or in person — excuse yourself. Take a walk, think about what you want to say, and return to your desk only when you’ve collected your thoughts.

And ditch the passive aggression. Your co-workers know what you’re trying to say. Be honest, but tactful — it’ll take you a long way.

ADDitude: How can I overcome my ADHD tendency to be late to work all the time?

Shankman: Go to bed earlier! It’s the single most fundamental thing that’s changed my life. If you go to bed earlier, you will wake up earlier. Even 15 extra minutes can mean the difference between leaving the house rushed and chaotic, and leaving the house calm, caffeinated, and on time.

Hallowell: The solutions to chronic lateness are painfully obvious; the problem, of course, is implementing them. I think the best thing you can do is work with another person — whether a coach, a spouse, or a therapist — who can help you set up the structure and encourage you to implement the solutions. Working with someone else will give you a much greater chance of finding something that works, and sticking with it.

Shankman: And don’t overlook the technology that’s come about in the last 10 years. Wake-up lights, QR code alarms, automatic coffee makers — all of those streamline your morning routine, making it easier for you to get out the door.

ADDitude: How can I work effectively with someone I dislike?

Hallowell: The short answer? Suck it up!

Shankman: It’s important to recognize that the vast majority of people who are interacting with you — including your co-workers — are not trying to hurt you. They’re just trying to get what they want. Once you accept that negative work interactions are almost never about you, it relieves a lot of the pressure.

You don’t have to be best friends with your snooty co-worker, but you don’t have to hate her, either. Do your job as best you can; everything else is out of your control.

ADDitude: Should I reveal my ADHD diagnosis at work?

Shankman: In my opinion, being ashamed of ADHD or afraid to share that you have it, does a disservice to those who are living with it and trying to benefit from it.

I think it’s important to share. Explaining to your boss that you have ADHD — that you work differently than others, but not less — is a critical step toward advocating for your needs and educating those around you.

Hallowell: I disagree. I’ve spent my whole career telling people that if they manage ADD right, it’s an asset. But in the workplace, I think it’s a practical matter. Most people in the world don’t understand ADD, and often think it means you’re unreliable. They’re wrong, of course, but sadly, that’s still the public perception.

My advice? Share away — just don’t use the term ADD. Discuss your strengths and weaknesses, and talk about what can be done to help you work better. You can still get the help you need, without playing into negative ADHD stereotypes.

ADDitude: Should I ask for ADHD accommodations at work if I feel I need them?

Hallowell: Of course. You should try to make your workplace as suitable to you as possible — and any boss worth his or her salt will do whatever he or she can to help you achieve that goal.

Shankman: My advice is that, if you want an accommodation, frame it in a way that benefits the boss. If you’d like to be moved to a quieter cubicle, say: “I noticed that when everyone was gone for Christmas, I doubled my productivity. I think because it was quiet, I could really focus on my work. There’s an empty cubicle over in the corner — would you mind if I moved over there? It could really improve my output.” You’re getting something by giving the boss something — everybody wins.

ADDitude: What is the most effective workplace accommodation for someone with ADHD?

Hallowell: The most important accommodation isn’t putting up a partition or getting the right lighting — it’s finding the right job. It may seem too obvious, but it’s true: A lot of people with ADHD who struggle at work are simply in the wrong job. You should spend your career doing what you’re good at. All the accommodations in the world won’t do what finding the right job will do.

Shankman: I agree. Early in my career, I had a job that required me to punch in and out, and take exactly half an hour for lunch. I was miserable!

I realized that the “job” that worked best for me was going out on my own. Not everyone has that opportunity, it’s true, so it’s important to ask yourself what you can do to change or leave an unfulfilling job. You spend a huge chunk of your time at work — it shouldn’t be something you hate!

ADDitude: How can I tell I’m in the wrong job for my ADHD brain?

Shankman: If you’re struggling at work, you probably blame yourself. For the longest time, I beat myself up: “Is it me? Am I doing something wrong?” Society tells us that you have to have a job, and that it’s not supposed to be fun — it’s supposed to be work. I think the hardest thing for people with ADHD to accept is that work doesn’t have to be torture.

My problem was that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. If you’re struggling at work, ask yourself: “Is this something I love?” If the answer is no, you should be doing something else.

Hallowell: Think of as your ideal career as the “sweet spot” where three qualities intersect: what you love to do, what you’re good at, and what you can get paid to do. Spend as much of your time as possible in that sweet spot, and work will become a rewarding endeavor.

4 reviews

  1. Great Article!
    Loved the Discussion and Advice!
    It helps understanding the explanation re: Why adrenaline helps so much in getting things done “at the last minute”; And how to create that feeling in healthier ways to get things done! Will try that today!

  2. Leaving the armed forces and getting my civilian job which luckily was enjoyable, and something I excelled at, it never dawned on me that puctuality would be a problem . Of course it was so when my first job evaluation arrived and by then i was now replacing 2 people the supervisor told me how pleased they were.. but could i try to arrive on time. Time cards were not used but it was very noticeable when i came rolling in 15 minutes late often. I promised I would and was awarded double the normal raise at the time. I lived 10 minutes walking time from work. Well a year later and our baby who was now one years old and would not sleep at night for another two years, was on the scene. I had just bought a house anticipating another raise to help pay for it along with my Taxi driving 4 nights a week. We sat down for the interview and agin he emphasized how pleased he was with performance ( my Math skills are savant like) and again the issue of timeliness came up. I explained the baby problem and he was more than accepting of this issue. He however suggest that it would be better to come in the back stairs door so as not to flaunt the priviledge. That raise and promotion and another the following year doubled my original salary as this place valued performance beyond anything. That was 50 years ago and many places still do.
    Great advice about making sure it was the right work place. And 50 years ago adhders including me seldom graduated Highschool much less university as education tolerance about homework was non existent. The armed forces training seemed to even the playing field at places i applied for that required a university degree or HS Diploma.

  3. How did i pick out this job and how did I know it could be the right job. Three things worked in my favor. When I left this city I had a large group of friends similar in age, some of whom had started work immediately upon graduation from high school. I had worked at house repair work painting, roofing, eavestroughing and other work for 3 years part time by then and hated it ergo I was not interested in an outside job specià’y in the cold winters. I had also worked two summers in a mining hardware warehouse, training similar to my armed forces trade and was also not overly fond of this . Finally i thought about the jobs my former close buddies had and the two who were enjoying their work the most and were seemingly well paid were in the corporate insurance industry speciàizing in transportation.
    I had lined up two jobs one in Healthcare of the HO of a very large insurer and the other in parts and stock control of a catepillar dealer.
    Choice was easy to make and the result landed me 9 years of technical administration and claims experience, which led directly to my next job as a consultant and eventually Senior executive with a major actuarial and consulting firm. Working for many clients i left this job 9 years later to form first a business partnership and later my own consulting business. Although this began in 1965 i was still using some of the knowledge i gained in my first few years 35 to 40 years later and no one person could fire me .
    I did learn to deliver reports on time though. Best of all the timeliness and many of the other weaknesses we have were attended to by staff who i employed to manage me. Doing the job i loved. As i often said to my business partner its a good thing they dont know I would do this for free i like it so much. Of course i much preferred the $200 to $300/hr we billed for my time.
    A few years later following a major bout with cancer I made a concious choice to work no more than 1000 hours a year 2000to 3000 hours is the expected norm in the industry. . Just another accommodation that as an entrepreneur one can make.
    Now if only i could have had as much success in relationships.

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