ADHD at Work

Bored at Work? Motivation to the Rescue

Instead of scrolling through Facebook (again), use these tools to transform normally tedious tasks into stimulating activities for your ADHD brain. (Psst! These tricks work for home chores, too!)

A young woman with ADHD, sitting in front of a computer and thinking "I am so bored at work!"
Bored woman with glasses at work staring at computer screen

Boredom stresses people with ADHD more than those who haven’t been diagnosed with the condition. In fact, some research suggests that boredom plays a key role in three ADHD symptoms:

1. Inattention: If you are bored with a task, you lose focus. You forget details, make careless mistakes, or doodle and daydream.

2. Impulsivity: If you constantly find yourself lamenting, “I’m SO bored at work,” then anything — an incoming message, a phrase you overhear from the next cubicle, or a novel idea that pops into your head — seems more interesting than what you’re working on. You impulsively open your e-mail, eavesdrop or butt into the nearby conversation, or pursue that novel (but irrelevant) idea.

3. Hyperactivity: Boredom makes you squirmy, so you invent a reason to walk down the hall or go to the restroom, even if nature isn’t calling.

ADHD involves inadequate activation of the chemical dopamine across the synapses of the brain. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter active in the reward circuitry of the brain, carries a wave of satisfaction through our brains when we do certain things and, by rewarding us, encourages us to keep doing them. It increases our focus on the task at hand.

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

People with ADHD have less diffusion of dopamine in the brain’s synapses than do people without ADHD, so they do not get the same degree of satisfaction from doing ordinary tasks. That lack of satisfaction is felt as boredom, and it saps a person’s motivation to continue.

The brains of people with ADHD are always seeking interest, more physical or mental stimulation. When they are keenly interested in something, they focus on that, and suddenly the executive function of their brain seems to work well. Attention is activated best in moments of newness; boring tasks are hard to stay with. Interest keeps us going.

What Are Your Elements of Interest?

Escaping or shaping boredom is, therefore, a critical skill for those with ADHD because their ability to sustain focus at work and at home is neurologically dependent on the stimulation of interest. Escape boredom by opting out of situations that don’t fall into your Elements of Interest. Shape boring situations that you cannot escape by bringing your Elements to them.

Interests vary from person to person. The most universal of what I call Elements of Interest may be novelty — something new. However, some people prefer to engage in what is familiar, already mastered, or things that offer little risk. Some common Elements of Interest for people with ADHD are risk-taking, problem-solving, reveling in skills, social interaction, speed, applause, rhythm, color, romance, surprise, action, suspense, humor, and multi-sensory stimulation.

To identify your Elements of Interest, think about activities that are pleasant, joyful, or satisfying to you. Assess in detail the Elements that these activities offer. For example, as a child you may have loved to build walls and roads in piles of dirt. The Element that I call “hands-on” kept you engaged. Today, you don’t play in dirt piles, but you may be drawn to hands-on activities, like working on cars, building or repairing things, or planting a garden. Getting your hands on things may represent one of your enduring Elements of Interest.

Suppose you take a job with a charitable organization because altruism is one of your strong Elements of Interest. But your job — what you do all day — is managing budgets, the same as you might do for a company that makes automobile tires. You never meet the people the company helps. It’s time to escape. Find a new job.

On the other hand, suppose you are in a job that you love. You teach a class of seven-year-olds. You are “on” all day, and you never sit down. You get down on your knees and interact with the kids in your class, who are eager to learn. You are funny and creative; you sing songs and draw pictures. You are a performer with an audience. Social interaction, nurturing, humor, applause, and hands-on are just a few of your Elements of Interest. You have excellent results as a teacher, so you are offered a promotion to the job of principal, with more money and prestige. Stop. What does a principal do all day? It looks like she sits at a desk and talks to other adults. Is that fun? Not for you. Stick with teaching.

[Need Help on the Job? How to Make Changes at Work]

Shape Boredom

Suppose you find your job boring. A lot of us do. People tend to do less in a boring situation, and idle time is even more boring. Don’t do less; do more. Devise useful projects, learn new skills, become an expert, make new contacts, help others. Whatever adds your Elements of Interest to your work will increase your energy and your performance. Rewrite your job description so that it adds interest and leaves boredom behind. Propose it to your boss. She’ll be impressed with your enthusiasm and initiative.

The “do-more” approach also dispels boredom outside of work. For example, stay-at-home parents or caregivers have plenty to keep them busy, but they are not always happily engaged. Learning or expanding an interest — playing a musical instrument, writing, painting, doing yoga, or socializing on the Internet — adds many Elements of Interest, including challenge, novelty, and hands-on stimulation. They bring sustained focus.

Urgency is an Element of Interest for many people with ADHD. Urgency involves fear, which we often feel as excitement. When you’re doing a boring record-keeping task, pretend the IRS agent is observing you the night before the tax filing deadline. Say out loud, “The next deduction is clear. I have the documentation right here. I’ll write it down for you.” When you’re done, hear the agent say, “All right, then. No problem.”

We all have certain boring tasks to do regardless of our careers. Let’s say, for you, adding a hands-on component to tasks is important to maintaining your focus. Sometimes being hands-on is not the most efficient way to do your job, but, in the long run, it pays off with more careful attention and goodwill.

> A custom window designer arranged to help install his creations. This gave him a break from his detailed computer drafting. Being on the job allowed him to solve unforeseen problems right away and it improved customer relations.

> One person I know, an office manager in charge of financial decisions, did his work using a pencil, not a computer. He vigorously sharpened his pencil to help him get his focus back.

> During boring faculty meetings, a teacher knitted woolen caps for the homeless to help her pay more attention, adding hands-on activity as well as purpose and altruism.

For maximum achievement and satisfaction, bring as many Elements of Interest as you can into every area of your life — to your job as well as at home. Here are some creative strategies that have worked for many adults with ADHD I have worked with. If you have a strategy that works better for you, go to it.

1. Make It New. Suppose you’ve been putting off doing your billing. You dread the tedium. Novelty, or newness, and a time limit are Elements that people with ADHD require in order to start such a task. To bring both Elements into play, promise yourself you only have to do it for your optimal focus time.

Let’s say you zone out after 30 minutes. Set a timer for 25 minutes. When it goes off, stop. Now you get to start something new, either a more interesting task, like making a phone call that is likely to go well or allowing yourself some recreation. Set a timer for the second activity and stop when time expires. Then return to the first task, which will now feel new again. Once more, promise yourself a stopping point. Repeat the cycle, going to a “new” task when another task gets old. Hint: When you stop the task, write down the next step you need to do, so that you know where to start when you return to it.

2. Make It a Fantasy. A daydreamer with ADHD can bring any Element of Interest into a boring activity by envisioning something different. If competition is an Element that motivates you, imagine that you are in a contest to organize the best or the fastest. For drama, indulge in some under-your-breath trash talk with your competitors. “You call that organizing! That looks like a chicken walked over it. Watch this pile disappear neatly into these folders! Take that, Trash Can. In your face, folder.”

If applause is an Element for you, imagine that an audience cheers for each piece you finish and gives you a standing ovation at the end. If altruism is a strong Element, imagine that every segment of the job you complete provides a scholarship for an underprivileged student to go to college; imagine the student’s joy and gratitude when he learns that your work is making his enrollment possible.

3. Make It Social. Pair up with someone to get a job done. During boring physical tasks, like snapping the ends off beans or stocking grocery store shelves, chat or brainstorm. For complex jobs, like writing a training workbook, you can keep each other on track by talking through the steps.

4. Make It Fun. A proofreader for my recent book wrote me a summary critique in rhyme after each chapter he proofed, adding some humor and reveling in his skill at his painstaking task. Critiques are not fun, giving or getting, but he enjoyed creating these little poems, and they lightened my rewriting job. Similarly, a biologist who has a hard time remembering people’s names puts the names to the tune of a rap song and dances to it, so he’ll commit the names to memory.

Learning to pay attention to the Elements that keep your interest high, and intentionally and creatively adding them to otherwise boring situations, will ease the burden of boredom and allow you to focus. And get things done.

[The Get-More-Done-at-Work Guide]