ADHD at Work

Be the Boss: 9 Sanity-Saving Strategies for ADHD Executives

You manage people, projects, and processes, and you’re great at what you do — but are you managing your ADHD well enough to avoid stress and exhaustion?

An executive with ADHD stares out a window at work
ADHD at Work: 10 Sanity-Saving Strategies for the ADHD Executive

Ami is a business development manager for a financial institution. She manages 30 people at branch locations in three cities. Her daily schedule consists of lots of meetings with clients, and taking individual and conference calls with the staff people who report to her. Her e-mail inbox is always full, mostly because it takes her too long to write replies. She struggles with completing reports on time. Ami stresses out over performance reviews because she hates giving negative feedback to employees.

Jim is a project manager in a large construction firm. He coordinates multiple projects and manages dozens of people. Half of his workday consists of planning meetings, the other half finds him bombarded with phone calls and e-mails that require his attention. His office is a mess, which makes it more challenging to keep track of all the paperwork, records, and tasks to get done. Despite working long hours and taking work home on weekends, he can’t catch up.

Jim and Ami are successful executives who are good at their jobs. They have ADHD. They are hardly alone. There are thousands of adults with ADHD in executive and managerial positions in every profession. The challenge for Ami and Jim, and many others in their position, is to learn to manage their ADHD well, so that their jobs will be less stressful and exhausting. Below are some strategies they found helpful.

1. Write Your Own Job Description

Most employees have a clearly defined job with specific goals and structured routines. This is usually not the case with executive positions, where expectations and responsibilities are loosely defined and open-ended. If someone has not given you a clear, structured job description, write one yourself.

What are the most important responsibilities of your job? How much time do you need to devote to each of them? When do you allocate time for these priority tasks in your schedule, and how do you balance your schedule to ensure that priority tasks get done? What specific performance goals do you strive to meet, and how do you consistently monitor and assess your progress?

An unstructured executive is likely to be all over the place, distracted by small things and wasting time. An additional danger is that, without realistic expectations and healthy limits, an executive’s job can easily take over his or her life. That, as Jim discovered, is a recipe for burnout.

2. Make Planning Your Top Priority

Take time to plan, long-term and short-term, and think through the whos, whats, and whens of a project. The problem for many executives with ADHD is that they get caught up in putting out fires, and don’t take time to look ahead and plan effectively. The long-term result is often disaster.

Jim learned that the more effective he became at planning, the fewer fires he had to put out. “My most important task as an executive is not to put out fires, but rather to prevent fires from flaring up.” Basic short-term tasks, such as meetings, are scheduled in his planner, with notices and reminders sent out to participants by his office assistant. Longer-term and more complex projects are planned out in detail with the help of a project management software program, such as Microsoft Project.

3. Minimize Distractions

The more distractible a person is, and the more details she needs to deal with, the greater the need for an organized work environment. Make it an ongoing mission to eliminate and reduce distractions on your desk and in your office.

For Ami, the biggest problem was the flood of e-mails. Every time she stopped to read one, she explained, “I had a terrible time getting back on track.” The solution was to give herself dedicated e-mail times for reading and replying to e-mails, and to ignore them when she needed to focus on other scheduled tasks.

The problem for Jim was that his desk faced a glass wall, which looked out into the larger office complex. The solution was to turn his desk around, so that it faced an opaque wall.

An efficient executive delegates; an inefficient one does not. Delegating well requires that you are clear about which tasks should be delegated, and which should not. Delegate tasks that someone can do as well as you, to free up time and energy for tasks that require your own expertise. Be sensitive in not delegating tasks that an employee is not able to manage, and welcome honest feedback if those situations arise.

Delegating well requires getting over your pride. Jim didn’t want to delegate because “I didn’t want to look like I was shirking.” This was a case of working harder but dumber. Jim discarded this habit.

4. Learn When to Say “No”

There are two major reasons why many executives are overwhelmed by their jobs. They may be inefficient, in which case the solution is to improve productivity through coping strategies such as the ones mentioned here. A second reason for feeling overwhelmed is taking on too much work. The only solution to being over-committed is to cut back your workload. If cutting back an unmanageable workload is not an option — for example, if higher management disagrees — the long-term solution may be to find another job.

An effective executive should always be aware of what is doable or not doable, and make commitments or turn down requests accordingly. One recurring problem for Ami was that her boss would ask her to handle problems without consideration of the current projects on her desk. She needed to, and eventually did, become assertive and tell her boss, “I can take care of this, or I can take care of that, but I can’t do both.”

Another problem was too many requests from people who report to her to reschedule phone meetings or other planned events. This was throwing her own schedule into chaos, and she had to say no to such requests.

5. Be Good, Not Perfect

Once you have reviewed, prioritized, and planned your day, give your best effort to complete the tasks within the time limits you allocated for them. Ami had a tendency to get lost in little details, and complained, “I’m always trying to re-organize information” to make reports or e-mails perfect. Her perfectionism, coupled with her distractibility, slowed her productivity down to molasses speed. It was only by forcing herself to stop on schedule-by setting an alarm to warn her that she had 10 minutes left and then quitting the task when time was up-that she was able to stay on top of her heavy workload.

6. Keep Meetings Short and Focused

Whether you’re running an internal or an external meeting, always prepare a concise agenda and stick to it. Not only does this help you organize the information, it saves everyone time. Keep the meeting tightly focused and on topic, and steer the conversation back to the agenda when others (or you!) get off track.

7. Don’t Agonize over Performance Reviews

Many individuals with ADHD are people pleasers, and sensitive to the discomfort or pain of others. Ami’s discomfort with performance reviews came from her concern that receiving constructive criticism makes some people uncomfortable. She stopped procrastinating when she rethought a performance review as a teaching opportunity, not a confrontation. The evaluation became an opportunity to tell her employees how to be more effective in their jobs.

8. Fuel Thyself

When you’re tempted to work through lunch, don’t. Maintaining a healthy blood sugar level is essential to attention and concentration. Besides nutrition, the brief time away that a lunch break provides helps prevent mental fatigue in the afternoon.

9. Schedule Routine Tasks

Mundane tasks are often avoided or forgotten unless they become habits. Routinize ongoing responsibilities by implementing a procedure that you follow on a set schedule. Turn in expense slips by noon every Friday. Ask your office assistant to remind you if you forget or procrastinate. This change helped Jim and Ami stay on top of things.