ADHD at Work

Welcome Aboard

Your first job might be boring, and your ADHD might make it tough. But with the right strategies, you can survive, thrive, and turn it into a fulfilling career.

a young woman with ADHD sits on a stack of paper, productive and calm at her first job
illustration of a calm woman in a suit meditating on a stack of paper

In the next edition of my book, I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD and ADHD, I’ll add a chapter about how to find, get, and keep a job. That’s hard for any young person getting into the world of work. It’s especially hard for those with ADHD. On average, a first job doesn’t go very well for ADHDers because it will probably be routine, unchallenging, and at times, boring. So the core task for every ADHD person is to work her way into a job that’s not average.

FIND. In searching for a job, think big. I don’t mean by planning to be a rap star, a starter for the Los Angeles Lakers, or coding Call of Duty. (Such things can happen. I know teenagers who make six figures playing Minecraft on YouTube.) But, statistically speaking, the odds of achieving those careers ranks with being struck by lightning. By thinking big, I mean looking toward a career rather than dragging yourself to some random job. Having a higher goal that is within reach is great motivation. When it comes to work, those with attention deficit need all the passion they can get.

Study different careers to see which has the greatest variety, including lots of physical activity. Most of my clients who are doctors and nurses work in emergency medicine or labor and delivery. They like the fast pace, and they never get bored with routine patient care because there isn’t any routine. ADHD people also make great sales staff, because they’re always thinking up new ways of selling the customer.

You’ll have to work some pointless jobs. We all have. Make them less meaningless by considering each job an opportunity to learn about business, customer service, repair, or maintenance. I learned everything about what to do (and not do) in business by observing at places I’ve worked and taking notes. Mundane jobs can teach you what you like and don’t like about a career, allowing you to prepare a career path that will suit your temperament.

GET. Whether it’s the job of a lifetime or a grocery-sacking gig, you will have to do several things to land a paid position. The first is to have a good work history. Everyone gets fired unfairly once or twice in their lives, or has to quit a job that’s unbearable or abusive. Try to leave on good terms, so your boss will say nice things about you – or at least won’t condemn you.

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When interviewing for a position, channel your ADHD energy into appearing reliable, conscientious, and charming. Once you get the job, live up to that profile but don’t go overboard. That would be considered ingratiating, which never works in your favor. I suggest reviewing your skills with an older mentor before hitting the sidewalk looking for work. Everyone has characteristics they don’t mean to show off, and people with ADHD may miss some of the finer points of self-reflection. When in doubt, ask a trusted guide or friend.

KEEP. There’s more to this than I can cover in this short article, so here’s a quick list. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but these challenges show up all the time with my clients.

> Never show up on time. Show up 10 minutes early. Set a series of alarms to be sure you wake up with plenty of time to get to work.

> Double-check your appearance. Shave or keep facial hair looking neat. Follow the dress code, whether you like it or not. Brush your teeth.

> When given the opportunity to complain, gossip, or engage in office politics, don’t. Just don’t. This especially rules out Twitter, Facebook, and so on.

> Don’t get high or drunk at work or at office parties. I know from inside information that a lot of fast food places have “altered workers.” Some stores tolerate this behavior for months at a time and then, when someone above complains, they drug-test and fire everyone on the spot.

> Don’t surf the computer or your phone, text, or tweet. You’re there to work, not to post pictures of your cat.

> Avoid doing impulsive things that offend coworkers. I know this can be hard for some with ADHD, but nothing upsets others more than random behavior, words, or emotion (positive or negative). If you are ever tempted to make sexual remarks, don’t.

> Stay awake. Some boring jobs – especially on a third shift – invite napping, but sleeping on the job is a quick way to get a pink-slip ticket back to your own bed.

> Don’t lie, cheat, or steal. This isn’t just a problem for people with ADHD, but it is especially hard for anyone whom impulsivity rules. Those with attention deficit usually lie to cover up embarrassment or inadequacy, so try always to face up to your mistakes. It builds character.

> Don’t forget to take your medication. Most of these challenges will be greatly reduced when proper doses of medication are taken.

If you’re worried about whether you can do all this in the right order at the right time, let me save you the suspense. You can. I’ve seen it happen many times. It takes discipline and focus, and those can be in short supply for folks with ADHD. But if you practice and get some help from technology and a mentor, there’s no reason you can’t bring a lot of productive energy to the workplace.