Brain power

How to manage ADHD—and leverage its benefits—at work

New work habits can help people with neurodiversity improve performance
How to manage ADHD—and leverage its benefits—at work
Illustration: Pavlova Yuliia (Shutterstock)
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I was diagnosed with ADHD just before my thirtieth birthday. Looking at my life through the lens of a neurodivergent person, someone whose brain processes information in an atypical manner, made me realize that what I previously believed were personality quirks were manifestations of my brain working differently.

I built my life as a giant coping mechanism for the ADHD I didn’t know I had. The work I do—and how I do it—is structured yet flexible, diverse yet balanced. But it took me a long time to get to this place where I lean into my needs.

Part of that journey was adapting my life, including my habits and practices and the strategies that support them, to a new reality after my diagnosis. If you want to better care for yourself amidst the unique challenges posed by ADHD, try these six tips. (These work for the non-neurodivergent too!)

The catch, check, and change it model

ADHD folks can be hypersensitive to perceived rejection. William W. Dodson, MD, coined Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria to describe the phenomenon. Although research shows that as many as 70% of adults with ADHD struggle with emotional regulation, the push to include these symptoms in the diagnostic criteria is still relatively new. I feel rejection as a physical sensation, like a punch in the stomach—and it was a shock to learn that not everyone experiences rejection like that.

It can be challenging for women and girls. Though we may internalize many symptoms of ADHD, those that we do externalize, like outbursts and hyperactivity, are portrayed most often in popular culture. Our experiences may be written off as “emotional” or “perfectionist” when emotional reactivity can actually be a sign of ADHD in women.

Thought work can help rejection feel less personal. I enjoy the Catch, Check, Change model (pdf).

  • Catch the thought
  • Check to see if it’s objectively true
  • Change the thought to something more true or supportive

A few moments of thought work can save you from hours of distraction.

Be stubborn about your goals, not about your methods

This is my ADHD anthem, which goes hand-in-hand with a flexible structure. If I know where I’m going and what I want, I allow myself to get there whichever way makes the most sense that day, depending on how much energy I have and the level of stimulation I need. Once I identify the best method for me, I can create a sandbox to work in that helps me reach the same end goal.

Let’s say one of my big goals for the year is to build relationships. There are many methods of, or paths towards, achieving that goal. I could attend networking events, sign up for an intramural volleyball tournament, call or text loved ones, or invite someone to coffee. If going to a networking event would require more energy than I have to give that day, I can still work towards my goal of building relationships in another way. Instead of giving up, get curious. Ask yourself: How else could I reach the same end goal?

Put your support where you can see it

With ADHD, things are often out of sight, out of mind. Do yourself a favor and give yourself visual cues, or what researchers call reminders through association. If you want to journal before bed, let your journal live on your nightstand. Keep your fidget spinner near your keyboard if you have trouble focusing in virtual meetings. Place a sticky note on your mirror. By making a resource more visible, you increase your chances of actually using it.

Self-care may look different for you

Accept that mainstream approaches to self-care don’t always work for neurodivergent people because much of the advice about self-care, productivity, and personal development wasn’t made with you in mind. I define self-care as listening within and responding in the most loving way possible. Turn down the volume on those voices around you, on social media and in real life, telling you what self-care is supposed to look like. Releasing unrealistic expectations will permit you to find what works for you.

​​Self-care might be giving yourself a few hours to go down a hyperfocus rabbit hole. On the other hand, it could mean bringing movement into your meditation practice despite the emphasis from some meditation teachers on stillness.

Embrace a flexible structure

ADHD brains have a love/hate relationship with routine. We thrive with structure, but it can feel constricting to do the same things in the same ways. Whereas methods allow us to work towards our longer-term goals, rituals offer day-to-day support. In my book, Inner Workout, I share a non-dogmatic approach to creating rituals. They are often positioned in the mainstream as rigid structures, with activities planned almost to the minute. That approach has never felt sustainable for me. I teach others to create rituals by setting a clear intention and outlining the components needed to support that intention.

For example, my morning intention is to set my day up for success. To do that, I need to move my body, reflect, and nourish myself. Those components are the building blocks for my morning ritual, but I have free reign on what they look like day-to-day. Sometimes I’m cardio boxing, meditating, and making breakfast tacos. Other days it’s a quick stretch, one-minute gratitude practice, and a protein shake. As a result, I get the benefits of my routine without the boredom.

Don’t ride solo

One thing I’ve had to do is get more comfortable asking for support. Self-care doesn’t mean solo care—especially when you’ve got ADHD. Being accountable only to yourself doesn’t always provide enough motivation. Instead, give yourself some healthy pressure by inviting others into your practices.

A study from the Dominican University of California found that people who shared weekly progress reports with a friend made more progress towards their goals than those who worked towards goals on their own or only shared their commitment once. Signing up for a regularly-scheduled class or sharing updates with a trusted person are two ways to weave in more accountability.