ADHD at Work

How to Manage Expectations and Meet Deadlines at Work

A step-by-step guide (with scripts and tips) to help you define, clarify, and meet expectations on the job when you have ADHD.

If there’s a formula for figuring out how much you can get done in a single workday, ADHD brains don’t know it. Time estimation eludes us, making it impossible to manage expectations at work. How can you take on new projects when you can’t understand all the implications?

Managing expectations at work is a juggling act. It requires planning, prioritizing, communication, and other skills that are already challenging on their own for many individuals with ADHD.

Are you already feeling overwhelmed at work? Or are you feeling inspired to take on more? Either way, this guide to help you understand, set, and meet expectations at work from start to finish.

1. Determine and Clarify Expectations

Many of us show up to work with only a vague sense of what’s expected of us. This is where the problems around getting things done start.

  • Double check your understanding of expectations for tasks that you’re asked to perform — regardless of how long you’ve been in a role. As you prepare your questions, think about the gray areas of your job. They’re where you tend to run into problems.
  • If you’re offered a new project, don’t accept it immediately. Prepare a list of questions about that project’s requirements. What’s the timeline? What results are expected? Get rid of any uncertainty before you say yes. If you’re asked to give a presentation, for example, ask about its desired format and length. You should also ask about any procedure you should follow (like templates, logos, fonts) and about takeaways, draft deadlines, and so on. Save these questions as a template for future projects.
  • Develop a system for documenting expectations. Save and file them so you can refer to them (without relying on memory). Do not wait for or rely on someone else’s meeting notes.
  • Use this handy script to ensure you’ve gotten the expectations right: What you want me to prepare for you is [service/product/result] with the following [parameters] by [deadline]. Is this correct?

2. Review and Negotiate Expectations

How will expectations around your prospective project fit with your current workload? Figuring this out will take time and thought.

  • Before you say yes, buy yourself time to think. Use a script like, “Let me check my projects before I commit to this. I want to make sure I meet your timelines.” Be sure to include a reasonable time frame in which you’ll follow up.
  • Make an appointment with yourself to review the project. Block enough time to compare its requirements in relation to your current projects. Tentatively plot the new project’s milestones onto your calendar.
  • Triple your guesstimates if you have never done a similar project and have no clue how long its tasks will take to complete.
  • Negotiate new timelines. Taking on the new project may mean reprioritizing your current projects. Be prepared to negotiate alternative timelines for those projects too. If there are any events that may affect deliverability on the new or existing projects, say, “I’m thinking the timelines will be okay as long as [event] doesn’t happen. And if it does, I’ll let you know.”

[Get This Free Download: How to Manage Your Time at Work]

3. Meet Expectations and Deadlines

Even with the clearest expectations, things can get tangled up in execution. Procrastination, distractions, and/or executive dysfunction can all get in the way.

Create a Work Plan

  • Identify up to three significant tasks to do per project per week. Don’t worry about identifying all project tasks for upcoming weeks. That’ll eat up lots of time, and tasks are likely to change.
  • Timebox the week’s tasks into your calendar. With timeboxing, you get a specific amount of time to work on a task. You move on to the next item once time is up, even if you haven’t finished. This strategy ensures progress. It also helps you avoid overthinking your work and procrastinating. As you timebox, factor in transition and buffer time to manage the unexpected.
    • How to get started with timeboxing: Develop time estimates based on your current work patterns. Then, time yourself and compare your estimates to reality. Even if you realize you need an extra hour for a task, do not continue working on it past its scheduled time. You’ll allow for that extra hour as you timebox tasks for the following week.
  • Account for your energy patterns and the nature of the tasks as you arrange your calendar. If you’re most alert in the morning, for example, schedule your tough, deep-thinking tasks for that time of day. Some tasks are harder than others because they demand focus or because you don’t like them. Before starting a challenging task, tackle a short, easy task to kickstart your brain.

Create Interruption-Free Zones

  • Eliminate distractions from your work area. Get rid of desk clutter and materials for competing priorities.
  • Prevent interruptions. Announce uninterrupted time by showing yourself as “busy” on your work calendar. Give friendly but firm notice. Say, “From [time frame], I need to work uninterrupted. Please come back/call back later. If you need to reach me, send me an email instead.”
  • Prepare a script to deal with interruptions. Say, “I’d love to talk to you right now, but I’m focused on this project, and I don’t want to lose my flow. How about we talk at [new time]?”
  • Don’t switch gears. If inspiration strikes in the middle of a task, write your thoughts in a catch-all document. Then get back to the task at hand.

Maintain Momentum

  • Inject interest, novelty, competition, and/or urgency into the task. Novelty, for example, could be a temporary change to your work environment.
  • Body double. Working in the live or virtual presence of others (i.e., body doubling) is an effective tool for many people with ADHD.
  • Decrease decision fatigue by maintaining routines and habits. Instead of wondering when to check your emails, commit to doing so at 9 a.m., 12 p.m., and 4 p.m.
  • Practice extreme self-care and stress management. You are only as productive as your brain allows you to be.

[Read: DIY ADHD Accommodations for Your 9 to 5 Job]

Communicate Progress

  • Plan regular check-ins. Share your project’s status with your supervisor, client, or colleagues.
  • Report. At the end of each week, email a bulleted list of project status. Share what’s done, next steps, and any snags you’ve hit (along with solutions and contingency plans).

Aim for Excellence, Not Perfection

  • Perform only to the accepted standard. Do only what you’re asked to do. This doesn’t mean you deliver sloppy, shoddy work. Perfection isn’t real, and striving for it will only eat up time, skew expectations, and reduce productivity.

Managing Expectations at Work: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “GTD @ Work w/ ADHD: How to Set Expectations, Meet Deadlines & Increase Productivity” [Video Replay & Podcast #431] with Linda Walker, PCC, which was broadcast on November 15, 2022.

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