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Dan Reis is a product designer at an e-commerce startup — and a listener of the podcast! Like many others, Dan saw his coping skills vanish during the COVID-19 lockdown. This led to him finally getting diagnosed with ADHD. 

Since then, Dan has made it his mission to explore different tools to build his own “ADHD toolkit.” Through trial and error, he modifies strategies to work for him. And he uses these tools to get his work done. Through self-compassion, routine changes, and experimentation, he’s understanding himself better. And, as is true for so many of us, he knows there’s still a long way to go. 

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Episode transcript

Dan: My wife shared some comics with me that some people had made. And it was like, wait, all these people are describing these things that I thought were just like me things. Like things around mood and emotion regulation. Things that I never would have thought could have been an ADHD thing. And so it was like this giant umbrella suddenly of all these struggles that I had that I thought were all sort of one-offs. And it turns out oh, all these things are all kind of connected.

Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.

Our next guest, Dan Reis, is a listener who wrote into our email thatjob@understood.org. Like many others, the coping skills that were built into his life vanished during lockdown. This led to him finally getting diagnosed with ADHD. Now he's made it his mission to learn about ADHD and himself, and build his own ADHD toolkit. Dan is a product designer at an e-commerce startup, but he uses these tools to get his work done. Welcome to the show.

Dan: Thanks for having me.

Eleni: I know that you wrote in. Tell us how you found the show and what you liked about it.

Dan: I think I heard — someone from Understood was on another podcast. I can't remember which one. It might have been "ADHD reWired." And I heard about the podcast, and so I checked them out. And one of the things I was wanting to do more of is to get more involved in the ADHD community and just general neurodiversity. And it's something I've become very passionate about. And so I was like, How can I find ways to make connections? And so I was just like, What if I just reached out and I just did it?

Eleni: Yeah. Well, thank you for doing that. It's very exciting. So, I work on a product team. I'm not sure if you know that. I look after user research, and I work with a lot of product designers. But for our listeners, could you tell me, like, what is a product designer and how is it different to a graphic designer?

Dan: So I spent much of the first half of my career in graphic design. One way to think about graphic design is it's more like advertising. I'm a senior product designer, but another word for that is user experience or UX. And so I do a lot of research and learning about how people use software and how to build software so that they can use it to solve their problems.

Eleni: So you mentioned that you started out in graphic design. What made you decide to make the move into product design?

Dan: Yeah, I was always fascinated with user experience, and watching and thinking about how people think and how they use different tools. And eventually, I think 2016 or so, I started to take some courses on UX and really learned what it was.

And one of the things that really radically changed my perspective was the book "The Design of Everyday Things." And they talk about things like light switches in a house and how there's like sometimes you'll see six light switches and there's no labels, and you have no idea what each switch does. And that fascinated me, because it's like the real-world usability issues that we all experience.

Eleni: What would you say some of the transferable skills are?

Dan: Some of the biggest ones would be listening to people. And when I say listening, it's really about not trying to validate what you think, but to hear people out and understand what their struggles are. It's a lot of communication and language that I think is super, super relevant to it, like anything you do.

And so just like the language and the usage of technology as a way to communicate with people. Like what are they feeling right now? Are they nervous about something? You want to make sure that the interface isn't going to stress them out. Is the lighting bad? Thinking about accessibility is a huge one. Make sure people with different types of vision can read and clearly understandings.

Eleni: How do you think that, you know, your own learning and thinking difference plays into that? Because it sounds like there's a big empathy piece there.

Dan: Absolutely. And a intention of mine is to think about it as What are my struggles? How do I solve for myself? So my lack of working memory is an advantage. It's like if I give myself these, you know, I have to follow these 10 steps or whatever. And on step 3, suddenly I have no idea what I'm doing. Well, I'm going to solve for that. If it doesn't make sense to me, it's not going to make sense for someone else. And so thankfully, it's like I almost am my own user tester in a lot of ways, because usually what works for me makes — works for others because I have to solve those problems before I'm going to share it with someone else.

Eleni: I love that. Like, what would you say are the most important skills to have as a product designer? And, you know, for you personally, would you attribute any of those skills to ADHD?

Dan: For anyone in this industry to be successful is a willingness to learn. And so over my career, I have to do deep dives in order to learn or specialize in something to solve a specific problem. And over time, you start to collect those things, those learnings. And then you might not need to use it again for a while. But it's always there and it's a great lens.

So, when I started to learn about accessibility, for instance, it wasn't always the top of mind at a company. And so I have to advocate for it. But then there are times when it is top of mind to make sure that something we build is compliant for accessibility. And so I have to be able to specialize in things and then come back to it and then relearn about it. And so it's like building a toolkit of skills and then knowing when to use them and then when to like, lean on experts.

Eleni: So I know when we last spoke, you mentioned that some of your coping mechanisms were kind of failing during the pandemic, which is what led to your diagnosis. Can you share what some of those coping mechanisms were, and why they were no longer working?

Dan: Yeah. I have been doing a mindfulness practice for like a decade now. But what happened during the pandemic, it added this level of stress from whether it was watching the news all the time. And that was really stimulating. I look back on it now and it's like that was super stimulating to be watching the news when it was breaking news every night. And that was exhausting. It was super unproductive.

And I was at the same time having a pretty harsh inner dialog. And eventually I started to learn the idea that I possibly could have ADHD. And eventually I saw — my wife shared some comics with me that some people had made. And it was like, wait, all these people are describing these things that I thought were just like me things. Like things around mood and emotion regulation, things that I never would have thought could have been an ADHD thing. And so it was like this giant umbrella suddenly of all these struggles that I had, that I thought were all sort of one-offs. And it turns out all these things are all kind of connected.

I think what was happening with the coping mechanisms was I would try so many things. It was just exhausting. It was difficult just to get over that hurdle of even like figuring out how do I even start this process. It's not an ADHD-friendly process. So getting an evaluation was a whole thing. But the pandemic pushed me over that edge in terms of my struggles.

Eleni: Yeah. And since you were diagnosed, what have you learned about how to cope? Can you give us some examples of some coping mechanisms you use and how it addresses some of the challenges you are experiencing?

Dan: Self-compassion is a huge one. Because if you're being like harsh to yourself, for me, it's like if I'm struggling with something and then I have a thought, "I shouldn't be struggling with this." Like the work Kristin Neff has done around self-compassion and learning about the science of self-compassion. And I believe this is normal.

In most of my life I have spent resisting external accommodations, because for me I wasn't even willing to want to help myself. It was like I should just be able to do this. So it was a sense of — I think Jessica McCabe's called it internalized ableism. It's like for me, it's like if I'm struggling with something, I don't even want to help myself sometimes, especially if I'm really struggling with it.

So, allowing yourself to use the tools to get something done, I have personally not done a great job of asking for accommodations, say, in the workplace, for instance. But it's something that I'm much more comfortable with, because I've heard about even just hearing that it's something people struggle with means that, OK, this is uncomfortable, but it's worth doing.

Eleni: You've mentioned like a number of different books throughout the conversation, so it sounds like you read a lot. Are there any other ways that you kind of learn about tools or coping mechanisms that you can use for yourself? Like, where do you kind of get these ideas?

Dan: So podcasts are huge for me. Hearing what other people use for tools through podcasts has been probably one of the biggest ones in terms of getting ideas.

Eleni: Can you give some examples of some tools or some apps that you use?

Dan: One of the apps that I've used for a while now: Focus@Will. And that's a music for focusing app. It's got music that's geared towards keeping you focused, but you can set it up as like a timer and you can choose different tracks. There's different like genres of the music. It's all instrumental geared towards focus.

Another one that I found that is really helpful, this was actually a really big game-changer for me. So, I combined the Pomodoro method of doing 25 minutes on and like 5 minutes off, so 25 minutes of focused work and then take a break for 5 minutes. And then I do a little workout. So I do like, for me, I do like jumping jacks and some push-ups.

And that transition I found is really helpful, because it is a — it's like I keep up some of that momentum of like I was working and excited and going. And then doing a little bit of a workout gets the heart rate up. And it helps me to transition from the work to taking that little bit of a break.

Eleni: I think you mentioned that you have a coach as well. So, how did that come about, and why do you find that valuable?

Dan: I was fortunate. My my company signed up for a service called Bravely Coaching, and so we get access to coaches. It's like on-demand coaching. I was able to find that they actually had coaches that specialized in ADHD, so I was like, great, let me do that.

Eleni: Yeah. And I think, you know, even on this podcast, it's such a testament to, like, different things work for different people. And, you know, it's great to experiment and figure out what works for you.

Dan: Experimentation, testing and learning, and self-compassion combined, so that when you struggle and fail, or something doesn't work, you are there for yourself. And you don't just abandon yourself and you keep trying new things. And I think one- to two-week trials of changing your routines, learning about habits, and learning about how the mind works in terms of like habit building, and then trying things out, has been instrumental for me. And it's a constant process.

Eleni: Cool. Thanks so much for being on the show, Dan.

Dan: Thanks for having me.

Eleni: You've been listening to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" from the Understood Podcast Network. The show is for you, so we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at thatjob@understood.org with your thoughts about the show. Or maybe you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job. We'd love to hear from you.

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Also, one of our goals at Understood is to help change the workplace so everyone can thrive. Check out what we're up to at u.org/workplace. That's the letter U, dot org, slash workplace.

Understood.org is a resource dedicated to help people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

"How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Margie DeSantis and edited by Mary Mathis. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. And I'm your host, Eleni Matheou. Thank you for listening.

Host

  • Eleni Matheou

    leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.

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