ADHD at Work

Time Wasters and Productivity Killers at Work

You’re overwhelmed at work. Buried in to-do lists. Always catching up. Never getting ahead. If this sounds familiar, take a hard look at how you’re spending your time — unwisely.

The work space of someone with ADHD; a very cluttered desk
Illustration of disorganized office desk belonging to someone with ADHD

Are you always late to work? Are you so distractible that you have trouble completing projects on time, or do you get bogged down for hours on some minor task? Maybe you can’t find your phone under the mountain of paperwork on your desk.

From time to time, everyone confronts such things on the job and could use a little career advice. But for adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), staying on top of details at work is an endless struggle — one that brings conflict with managers, missed promotions, and a stalled career.

On average, studies suggest, college graduates with ADHD earn $4,300 less per year than their peers who don’t have ADHD. People with ADHD change jobs frequently — often impulsively — and are more likely to be fired, to miss work, and to have troubled relationships with co-workers. It doesn’t have to be that way: Adults with ADHD frequently excel in the workplace, once they adapt to their disability and develop coping skills.

“When people with ADHD come to me for treatment, they’re often unhappy in their professional life, and have a very low self-image,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a Silver Spring, Maryland, psychologist and the author of ADD In The Workplace. “I help them see that having ADHD is not a negative thing. A lot of entrepreneurs, entertainers, politicians, and business leaders have ADHD, including the CEO of JetBlue, David Neeleman. In fact, Neeleman invented e-tickets because he kept misplacing his airline tickets every time he flew. So he created a system that wouldn’t require paper tickets.”

The key to succeeding at work despite ADHD is to tailor your workplace environment so as to take the best advantage of your strong points (such as your creativity or your people skills), while minimizing the negative impact of your weaknesses.


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Playing to your strengths, says Michele Novotni, Ph.D., a psychologist in Wayne, Pennsylvania, “is really about figuring out how to be efficient and effective in your job. There’s usually some creative way to do it. This may involve shifting your responsibilities, or hiring someone to do tasks you find difficult.” Knowing how to delegate is a valuable but often overlooked skill. “People don’t mind hiring someone to clean their house,” Novotni points out. “Why are they so often reluctant to do the same with their job-related work?”

Inner Executive

Poor time management, difficulty setting priorities, and other job-related difficulties bedevil workers with ADHD. These problems all have to do with executive functioning, a set of cognitive abilities arising within the brain’s prefrontal lobe.

“This is the part of the brain that does self-monitoring,” says Nadeau. “Your executive functioning tells you whether you’re on time or not, whether you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing and doing it in an efficient way — basically, the skills that we expect most adults to have. In people with ADHD, the prefrontal lobe is chronically under-aroused, and so the ability to monitor behavior is impaired.”

Poor executive functioning explains why a person with ADHD can waste hours on a minor task or get distracted by the slightest interruption. It’s why papers never get filed and the office is always a mess.

To their colleagues, workers with ADHD may appear to be irresponsible, disorganized, or downright lazy. In fact, people with ADHD often work harder than their colleagues in a desperate attempt to keep up. “Often, the patients I see are smart enough and capable enough to do their jobs, but they find they’re not working up to their potential, and that their attention span seems to fluctuate,” says Novotni. “Sometimes they’ll do brilliant and amazing things, but other times they’re just not there. Everything seems to come harder for them. They’re like ducks, appearing to swim effortlessly, but paddling furiously under the surface.”

Two-Pronged Approach

Workers with ADHD typically do best with a combination of medication and counseling to develop strategies for dealing with problems that arise on the job.

“If you fit the diagnostic criteria of ADHD — hyperactivity, distractibility, or compulsive behavior in two or more settings on a chronic basis, going back to when you were six years old — then it’s virtually certain that you’ll need medication,” says Larry Silver, M.D., a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. “With the right medication, you’ll find you’re able to sit quietly and work, focus on a task without getting distracted, and control your impulsive behavior.”

Dr. Silver says it’s not enough simply to find the right ADHD drug. “Be sure your dosage schedule covers you for the full time you’re on the job,” he says. “The medication comes in four-, eight- and twelve-hour doses. If you leave for work at 7:30 in the morning and don’t finish until 6:30 in the evening, the eight-hour pill you take before going to work will wear off around 3:30 — which means you’ll need to take a four-hour pill at 3:30. If you plan to work at home, you may need coverage in the evening, as well.”

Ending Distractions

The next step is to develop a workplace strategy that will enable you to work at peak efficiency. Minimizing distractions is a top priority. “One of my clients worked out a schedule where he came in early to work, when it was quiet,” says Novotni. “That way, he could focus and get his work done.”

If you have a flexible schedule or a private office, terrific. If not, you may be able to take your work to an empty office or conference room. Don’t answer the phone. Let your voicemail take messages, and return calls later. To discourage interruptions, you might even want to hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign. To minimize visual distractions, face your desk toward a wall. Keep your workplace free of clutter.

Of course, not all distractions are external. Nadeau identifies three types of “internal” distractions:

  • “Ah-ha!” distractions are creative ideas that pop up in the middle of unrelated work. To avoid getting sidetracked, jot them down on a pad for later review, then return at once to the job at hand.
  • “Oh no!” distractions involve suddenly remembering you’ve forgotten to do something. To prevent these, use a planning system in which you write down all appointments, phone calls, meetings, and so on.
  • “Ho-hum” distractions involve daydreaming as a way to avoid the work at hand — a sign that you need to make your work more interesting, or to find more interesting work.

Try tailoring your solutions to particular problems. One of Novotni’s patients was a scientist who had trouble with long sets of instructions. In the work he did, it was important that he not miss a single step, or the whole experiment would be ruined, she recalls. “So we came up with a double-checklist system: He would check off each item on the list, then have someone else quickly double-check the time. The system took just a couple of extra minutes a day, but it saved untold amounts of wasted time and money.”

If you’re prone to hyperfocus — to work on something so intently that you lose track of time — it may be helpful to “cue” yourself. Try Post-it notes, a watch alarm, a box that pops up on your computer screen — anything that makes you aware of the time and of what you should be doing.

If your symptoms include hyperactivity, take every opportunity to move around at work. Pace while talking on the phone. If you need to talk to a colleague, walk over instead of calling. Take a break every hour or so for some calisthenics or a stroll through the halls.

Staying on Schedule

Many workers with ADHD find it helpful to draw up a detailed work schedule with the assistance of a coworker or supervisor, and then to check back with this individual periodically to make sure everything is on track.

“Keeping your day well-structured is key,” says Novotni. “I’ve a number of patients who now meet with their managers every morning to prioritize the day.

Making impulsive commitments can disrupt your schedule, so make it a point to think twice before agreeing to any offer or request. Instead of automatically saying “yes,” Nadeau suggests using a catchphrase, such as “I’d like to, but let me take a look at my calendar.”

When traveling to work or an appointment, Novotni recommends scheduling more time to get there than you think you’ll need. Don’t focus on your arrival time, she says. Focus on the time you need to leave your present location in order to arrive at the other location on time.

Be careful, too, not to give in to the “just-one-more-thing” impulse. “If you think of one more thing to do as you’re preparing to leave your house,” says Nadeau, “write down your idea and act on it later.”

Put Me In, Coach

While psychologists inevitably spend time with their patients discussing work-related issues, many people with ADHD are turning to “coaches” for help in devising workplace strategies. Some coaches have no formal training in psychology. Others, like Novotni, are psychologists who coach on the side.

Coaches typically work by telephone, offering guidance and checking in periodically to see how things are going. Eventually, the clients “internalize” this external direction and learn to monitor their own performance on the job.

“I spend a lot of time working with clients with ADHD to get clear about exactly what it is they need in order to do the very best job they can,” says Kerch McConlogue, an ADHD coach in Baltimore. “Everyone’s needs are different. I’ve found that having toys at their desk that they can fiddle with while they’re working often helps people with ADHD. Another one of my clients simply wanted to be able to stand up while she worked. As it turned out, her office had a kitchen with a raised counter, where she goes to stand and do her work anytime she needs to. It makes her more productive, and didn’t cost the company a thing.”

To find an ADHD coach, says McConlogue, go to ADDConsult.com, ADD.org, or CHADD.org.

Should You Tell?

If medication is doing its job and your coping strategies are working well, you may decide you don’t need to tell your boss or anyone else at work that you have ADHD. But a good argument can be made for filling in your supervisor about your condition.

“A lot of people don’t want to disclose they have ADHD,” says Novotni. “But people already notice that you’re missing details or have a hard time focusing, and they’re calling it something — laziness, irresponsibility, lack of intelligence. The fact is, many people find they’re treated better after they reveal that they have ADHD — because now their coworkers have an explanation for their work style.”

Ideally, by telling your boss, you’ll gain an ally in helping you to set up an optimal work environment. On the other hand, says Novotni, you can do this without spelling out the fact that you have ADHD. She says, “I’ve had patients who have simply gone to their supervisor and said, ‘I wanted to let you know that I really work best in the early morning, when the office is quiet.'”

Another reason to let your company know you have ADHD is to protect yourself legally. ADHD is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act — the same law that requires buildings to have wheelchair access.

“If you have ADHD, you are entitled to receive accommodation for it,” says Dr. Silver. “You have to disclose your disability to your employer, then look carefully over your job description and spell out exactly what accommodations you’ll need. That could include permission to move around while you’re working, a special computer, more time to complete certain tasks, and so on.”

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