ADHD at Work

How to Shut Your Mouth — and Your Wallet

Poor impulse control can sabotage your relationships, your budget, and your self-esteem. Here, ADHD expert Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D., shares his strategies for solving five common impulsivity problems at work, in social settings, and in your head.

Man with ADHD sits on hill by beach looking sad as he considers going to cognitive therapy
Man with ADHD sits on hill by beach looking sad as he considers going to cognitive therapy

Do you feel like you’re on a treadmill?

Managing adult ADHD and the daily details of life is hard. Deadlines at work come and go, unmet. Impulsive comments alienate friends and possibly cost you your job. You’re exhausted at the end of the day, and yet you feel that all your effort gets you nowhere.

ADHD medication can level the playing field, but you can do more. Just as diet and exercise help insulin do a better job for diabetics, these five rules will work with ADHD meds for better symptom control.

Rule 1: Stop the Action!

It’s hard to resist impulses.

Your boss proposes doubling your sales goals for next year, and before you can bite your tongue, you laugh and say, “Are you crazy?”

Your neighbor buys a new lawn ornament and asks you if you like it. You tell him it makes his house look like a cheap motel. Now he’s not speaking to you — again.

You see a gorgeous pair of designer shoes in a store window and rush in to buy them, even though every penny of your paycheck is already spoken for.

You don’t give yourself time to think and measure your words and actions. Thinking means using hindsight and foresight to assess a situation and determine what you should say or do.

STRATEGY: Make a list of the situations in which you are most likely to behave impulsively. There are times and places where it’s OK to be spontaneous and talkative, and other times when acting this way will cost you dearly.

When you are about to enter one of the situations you’ve identified, buy yourself a few thoughtful seconds by performing any of the following actions:

1. Before you answer someone, inhale slowly, exhale slowly, put on a thoughtful expression, and say to yourself, “Well, let me think about that.”

2. Put a finger over your mouth for a few seconds, as if you’re considering what you’re going to say.


“My Bedroom is Where Pintrest Projects Go to Die!”


3. Paraphrase what your boss or family member said to you: “Oh, so you want to know about…” or “You’re asking me to….”

4. Imagine locking your mouth with a key to prevent yourself from speaking.

Another strategy: Choose a slow-talking model and play that role when you converse. Quit being Robin Williams and start being Ben Stein. Slow it down. Practice speaking slowly in front of a mirror. This will give your frontal lobes a chance to get some traction, to get engaged, instead of being swept along on the tide of your impulses.

Rule 2: See the Pass…And Then Move Forward

When a problem arises, are you confused about what’s likely to happen or what to do? Do you beat yourself up for making the same mistakes again and again?

Adults with ADHD have weak nonverbal working memory, which means they don’t draw on hindsight to guide their actions. They’re not good at recognizing the subtle aspects of problems, and the various tools that might solve them. Many adults with ADHD hit every problem with a hammer, because, to them, all problems look like nails.

Adults with ADHD may find it hard to defer gratification — which you must do to save money or stick to a diet, because they can’t call up the mental image of the prize that lies ahead. You need a tool to make sure that what you learned from the past is accessible when you need it in the future.

STRATEGY: Stopping the action — as described in Rule 1 — gives you the time to turn on the mind’s eye. Once you’ve done that, picture a visual device — a flat-screen TV, a computer monitor, or a minicam — and visualize, on that imaginary screen, what happened the last time you were in a situation like this. Let the past unfold in colorful detail, as if you’re filming it or replaying it.

The more often you do this, the more automatic it will become. What’s more, you’ll find that more “videos” will pop into your brain from your memory bank. You might think, “Wow, the last time I interrupted a meeting with a joke, everyone laughed at me, not at the punch line.” Or “I felt guilty when I bought those expensive shoes several months ago, only to discover that my son needed books for school. I couldn’t afford them.”

Rule 3: Feel the Future

Many individuals with ADHD are “time blind”; they forget the purpose of their tasks, so they are uninspired to finish them. If no one is dangling a carrot in front of them, they may need some convincing to keep moving toward their goal. That’s why Rule 2 is important: It helps you learn from your memories, to become adept at handling similar situations in the future.

But Rule 2 is not always enough. Some things have to get done because it is the right thing to do. ADHD sometimes makes it tough to grasp the moral imperative for getting a task done. Imagining the negative consequences of not doing something is not a potent motivator for most people with ADHD. Imagining how great it will feel to get to your goal works better.

STRATEGY: Ask yourself, “What will I feel like when I get this project done?” It could be pride, self-satisfaction, the happiness you anticipate from completing the project. Whatever the emotion is, work hard to feel it, then and there, as you contemplate your goal. Every time you sit down to continue working on the project, try to feel the future outcome.

Give this technique a boost by cutting out pictures of the rewards you hope to earn from what you are doing. Place them around you while you’re working. They’ll enhance the potency of your own imagery and make the emotions you’re anticipating even more vivid.

Rule 4: Break It Down…And Make It Matter

ADHD makes the future seem far away. A goal that requires a significant investment of time, incorporates waiting periods, or has to be done in a sequence of steps, can prove so elusive that you feel overwhelmed. When that happens, many people with ADHD look for an escape route. They might call in sick at work or shunt the responsibility to a co-worker.

Figure out which situations are likely to shut you down: Do you panic when someone gives you a deadline that’s months from now? Do complex projects daunt you? Do you have trouble working without supervision? If so, you need some external motivators.

STRATEGY: Break down long-term tasks or goals into smaller units. If an end-of-the-day deadline seems remote to you, try this strategy.

1. Break your task into one-hour or half-hour chunks of work. Write down what you need to get done in each period, and run a highlighter over each step as you work on it, to keep your attention focused.

2. Double your chances of success by making yourself accountable to another person. Most of us care what others think of us, and social judgment adds fuel to the fire to get things done. At work, make yourself accountable to a supportive coworker, supervisor, or mentor. At home, work with a partner, spouse, or neighbor.

3. Do four things after finishing each piece of work: Congratulate yourself; take a short break; call or e-mail a friend or a relative to tell him what you’ve gotten done; give yourself a reward or some privilege you enjoy a lot — just make it small and brief.

Rule 5: Keep a Sense of Humor

ADHD may be serious, but you don’t have to be.

STRATEGY: Learn to say, with a smile, “Well, there goes my ADHD talking or acting up again. Sorry about that. My mistake. I have to try to do something about that next time.”

When you say this, you’ve done four important things:

1. You owned the mistake.

2. You explained why the mistake happened.

3. You apologized and made no excuse by blaming others.

4. You promised to try to do better next time.

Do these things and you will keep your self-esteem, as well as your friends. Disowning your ADHD conduct, blaming others, or not trying to do better next time will cost you a lot.

If you make ADHD an all-encompassing disability, your friends and family will treat it that way, as well. Approach it with a sense of humor, and they will too.

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