ADHD and Working a Job

Working a “normal” job is hard when you don’t fit into the traditional definition of normal. I bring the perspective of someone who has worked in management roles while struggling with undiagnosed ADHD, and then seen first hand, the difference a bit of help can do.

The following is based on my own experience. I am in no way implying that what worked for me will work for everyone, but maybe that there are useful bits and pieces for those struggling with ADHD at work, or a coworker who is interested in more insight but too afraid to ask.

Two States of Being

First, an introduction to the topic of ADHD and neurodivergence. Neurodivergence means that you function differently from those whose neurons do not diverge. There are many sub-variants. I am what’s called Combined ADHD, and while I’m not going to dive into details of the diagnosis, it basically means that my brain doesn’t have a high enough natural production of dopamine for me to function.

Dopamine is the stuff all brains produce, that makes you happy. Not having enough of that is like having an express ticket to Depression Land, and nobody wants to go there if they can avoid it. As a result, my brain is always looking for ways to unlock more dopamine. Happy is good. Please send more Happy!

Generally, dopamine deficiency leads to one of two states of existence for me; brain scattered in a million pieces, or complete and total focus. The problem is, I don’t really get to pick when one or the other applies. If my ADHD brain senses no dopamine reward, I physically can’t bring myself to even start on a thing. If it keeps getting fed rewards, however, it will latch on and suck them up relentlessly.

Both are bad for different reasons. Being distracted is obviously not great for remembering things, planning far out in the future (or sticking to plans), and anything that requires staying in one place, whether physically or mentally. Being hyper focused means literally ignoring everything else, including relationships or your own body, from sleep and hunger to showering, because all that matters is the thing you’re working on.

Medication makes it easier to find a reasonable balance between the two states, but at least for me, does not fully eliminate the possibility of either extreme. It just happens less often. I was diagnosed late in life, and as soon as I was put on the right meds nearly every aspect of my everyday life improved. If you are untreated or undiagnosed but suspect you might be ADHD, do yourself a favor and get tested as soon as possible.

ADHD at Work

Let me first describe what work was like before I was diagnosed. Working in an office meant feeling trapped behind my desk. I constantly had to get up and walk around, get a snack, or one of many, many daily cups of coffee.

I had no idea, I was actually self-medicating using caffeine to give me a short boost of focus. It worked, but it also was murder on my gut and blood pressure.

I always felt like I didn’t belong, because I couldn’t just sit at my desk all day like everyone else. Unless I was hyper focused, but that was very rare at work.

Post-diagnosis, this completely changed. I still can’t sit at a desk all day, but I’m doing better. Times that call for more focus, like being present during meetings, or performing detailed work with no room for error – all of that is so easy now by comparison. Knowing what the issue is also helps, because I can prepare my myself and my space accordingly.

Playing to My Strengths

Being ADHD means being able to learn new things quickly. This comes from eternally procrastinating things I didn’t want to do, until it was full on panic time, and everything had to be done/learned in very short time. I never paid attention in class, but consistently finished in the top 5% in tests when I was in school. Another “gifted kid” who could amount to so much more, if he’d only “apply himself” was repeated year after year by well meaning teachers.

Cramming in knowledge kinda sucks. I can learn new things fast, yes. Not to expert level of course, but good enough to get by. But it’s exhausting to do, because contrary to what some believe, it is in fact not a “superpower”. It is just as exhausting for someone with ADHD to cram a semester into a weekend, as it would be for anyone else.

For me, playing to my strengths means focusing on work that plays well with my condition. Being a producer or PM was an excellent path because these jobs have a lot of daily variation by their nature, meaning less chance of boredom and dopamine drought.

These are also jobs that require quick thinking and learning the gist of important issues fast, so you can connect the right people to get the work done on time and within budget. Lots of potential for small victories along the way, each of which generates another reward.

I do well with deadlines and that sort of pressure. The Looming Deadline is basically my default on all things. The pressure ties into gamification – can we make it? Huge pay-off when we do? Game on! It’s much harder to do the same tasks on repeat forever, especially with all the time in the world.

Preparing Work

I have to set myself up to succeed. The first decision is hard – how much to share with your coworkers and manager, and then actually doing that. I prefer to be very open about it, as you can see. I have been lucky to live and work in places where diversity is welcomed, including the neurological kind. Your situation will be different, which is why that decision is yours alone.

I will mention it as early as during job interviews. If a potential employer reacts negatively at this stage, that is a huge red flag. I don’t ask for special accommodations, beyond understanding that I operate differently from most people. If the job is in a shared space, I will let my neighbors know as well. It helps them understand me, and I find it makes me feel better because I don’t have to mask as much.

Masking, in case you don’t know, is when you pretend that things are fine and normal when they are not, because you don’t want other people finding out about your condition. It’s super common but can really come back to bite you.

Ultimately, shared office spaces are not great for me, unless it’s just me and maybe 2-3 others. This was especially bad before my diagnosis. There is just too much going on all the time, and if it was hard to focus before, it becomes nearly impossible in that setting. In situations like that, I usually end up working in ultra fast sprints – often gamifying it in my head to try and trigger a reward – then walking away for extended time, to recover. It’s very productive but adds unnecessary stress, which can spill over into other parts of work performance. When it comes to sharing my work space, less is more.

The other way I prepare my work space is by setting it up so it works for me. This includes removing things that aren’t crucial, and arranging things I need a lot or at any moment, in a way where I can see them from my seat. Drawers and boxes are where things go to die. Shelves are your friend. My kit also includes a paper journal and pen, because I’ve learned that scribbling notes helps with focus during meetings, despite drifting into doodling sometimes.

The more comfortable I am in my space, the less chance there is of my brain checking out to seek dopamine elsewhere.

Curse of the Restless Fingers

Having something for my hands to do helps calm the mind. I sometimes use fidget spinners but a lot of people scoff at those now and I just can’t be bothered explaining to them, why they are being assholes. So just to avoid the comments, the spinner is not always my first choice. Squeeze-ball type things are good, but don’t bring them to meetings unless you want to put off some tense vibes.

Other hand-distractions I have tried include poker chips (never got good at stacking though), card shuffling, playing with polyhedral dice (can be loud when rolling/falling on table) and using my phone. That last one is particularly dangerous.

Working from Home?

Stay tuned for part 2. I have talked about some contrasts between being diagnosed or not while trying to function in a professional environment, and some of the habits and coping mechanisms I still use today. The next installment will focus on working from home, which has its own pitfalls to avoid.

By Rasmus

Nerd and immigrant who uses words, pictures and sound to tell stories.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for this post, it describes a very similar experience to my own.
    I still haven’t found meds that work well for me, sadly. :/
    Still using caffeine and green tea to get through the day.

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