A number of years ago, I was working at a job that was OK, but was very strict about coming into the office. The boss loved seeing us all there and being able to “drop in” whenever he had an idea. This was a very bad situation for me and my ADHD. But because everyone else seemed fine with it, I just assumed I was deficient in some way.
Then it snowed. A lot. And none of us could get to work. And for three days, I didn’t absolutely loathe my job. I worked diligently, with focus and clarity. I wrote more in those days than I ever had under the fluorescent lights in my uncomfortable work clothes, always a little bit anxious.
And after that, I knew that the whole working remotely thing just wasn’t negotiable for me anymore. I wasn’t lazy. I wasn’t incapable. I just worked way better when I wasn’t being watched or bothered. And when I could control the sights and smells and sensations around me.
I’ve been fortunate to work remotely now for some time. I’ve held a variety of jobs. And since COVID, there are more remote opportunities every day. For many of us with ADHD, that’s a huge blessing. It’s allowed us to find a balance that works for us — and with that, ways to harness our focus and attention.
Of course, working remotely isn’t available (or even desirable) for everyone. But there may be ways to adjust your working environment to reduce ADHD triggers and feel less frustration, tension, and discomfort.
Here are a handful of extremely specific things that make working easier for me. They probably won’t all work for you. But I hope they’ll give you an idea of small changes you can make to take the wind out of ADHD’s distracting sails.
1. Selective notifications
For those of us with finite wells of attention, there’s nothing worse than something unexpectedly pulling it away. I’ve made working easier for myself by limiting how, when, and why I get notifications. I’ve taken badges off almost every app, and the only thing that vibrates is a phone call or a calendar reminder.
I also often put my phone in “theater” mode (or whatever it’s called) when I know I’m going to be doing something very attention-intensive. The thing about notifications is that most of the time, you don’t really need to see them immediately. They can wait until after you’ve finished your task — which you’re a lot more likely to do if you didn’t get the notification in the first place.
2. Built-in breaks
Nothing helps me get through a particularly onerous task like knowing that, even if I don’t finish it, I can stop doing it after a relatively short amount of time. When I look at my daily to-do list, (I use the organization app Todoist), I’ll set a specific order to do things. Then, when I get to the thing I really don’t want to do, I’ll give myself a time limit, like “Start it and focus on it completely until noon. Then you can get up and walk around and get a snack.”
Almost always, it’s a mental trick and not a practical one. Usually, I end up focusing on a task quickly once it’s started. Then I blow right past the stopping time that I set myself. But knowing that I have the option of a break is a great way to help my brain dial into one task at a time.
3. Bundling rewards with tasks
We all have chores or tasks that we just cannot stand. At work, at home, wherever. We’ll put them off over and over in the vain hope that maybe, if we never unload the dishwasher, the dishes will all melt away and float into the sea, and we won’t have to do it.
For these tasks, the only way I can get myself to do them is to bundle them with a reward. For example, I’ll download a podcast that I really want to listen to and save it for when that chore needs to be done. Or watch terrible true crime TV during the workday when I’m doing things like responding to emails. It might seem silly, but it really does help me.
I’m not sure about the science behind this. But I find that I can calm my brain down if I take at least two potentially distracting senses out of the equation. I do that by wearing headphones (and noise or classical music, but nothing with words) and through scent.
When I was in my teens and early 20s, I mostly worked in restaurants and coffee shops. So everything smelled great all the time. But if I wore the same shirt to class the next day or went to my internship with my hair down, I’d smell my other jobs constantly. It was so distracting.
Out-of-place smells really throw me off. Now that I work from home, I have a lot more control over the physical sensations that I experience. I’ll often light a candle or apply a subtle fragrance under my shirt so that I can feel perfectly comfortable.
Whatever sensory input makes it hard to focus, there are usually ways to at least minimize it to a comfortable level.
5. Drinking a ton of water
Many years ago, I met a woman in her 40s with exquisite skin. I asked her what the secret was. When she told me it was “drink a lot of water,” I ran out and bought the biggest bottle I could find.
The next day, I realized that drinking my weight in water (figuratively speaking, of course) was also beneficial because it gave me a very real way to express my pent-up energy and avoid fits of workplace boredom: The more water I drank, the more often I had to get up and go to the bathroom.
One of the greatest perils of ADHD is boredom. I can be bored to the point of becoming drowsy. But I can break it up by staying well hydrated. Taking a sip of very cold water can help give my brain something novel to focus on, and it ensures me that I’ll have to get up and walk around at some point.
ADHD at work: Find strategies that work for you
Many more people have some choice and control over how they work now. Keeping the chaos of ADHD at bay is mostly an exercise in figuring out what you don’t like and then eliminating or reducing those things as much as you can.
Sometimes it’s as easy as putting in headphones. Other times, it may require an uncomfortable chat. (“Janet, I really need you to respect the ‘Working Time — Do Not Disturb’ block I put on my calendar.”)
But whatever they may be, the specific shifts you make for your own comfort and ability are valid, important, and worthy of respect.
Originally published on our Medium publication for/by. Check out our full collection of stories by adults who learn and think differently.
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About the author
About the author
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and consultant living in Oregon. In between writing projects, she fosters dogs and tries to garden to middling success.