Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a common neurodevelopmental condition that impairs executive function — the mental processes that allow people to plan, prioritize, and focus.
About 2.8% of adults worldwide are estimated to have ADHD. It’s often diagnosed in childhood and tends to be a lifelong condition.
While often classified as a “disorder,” ADHD is now seen as a “cognitive style” in some circles, with unique benefits in addition to challenges. For example, traits that are often linked to ADHD — like risk-taking and hyperfocus — can be workplace superpowers, especially in an entrepreneurial setting.
But ADHD can also make work life more difficult, as problems with executive function can translate to missed deadlines, chronic lateness, and poor social skills.
However, by setting up the proper support and resources, people with ADHD can thrive at work and in entrepreneurship.
ADHD symptoms at work
According to the CDC, ADHD presents in two common ways: (1) the “Predominantly Inattentive Presentation,” characterized by forgetfulness and issues with focus and (2) the “Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation,” characterized by restlessness and speaking out of turn.
People can exhibit a combination of these presentations, too. Here’s a list of some of the most common ways ADHD can present at work:
- Trouble focusing: Easily distracted by environmental noises and movements as well as internal thoughts (daydreams)
- Hyperfocusing: Intense focus or fixation on particular tasks or topics, which can result in losing track of time, de-prioritizing more urgent tasks, and ignoring people around you
- Impulsiveness: Making quick decisions without thinking things through, or being susceptible to outbursts/losing your temper
- Hyperactivity: Feeling the need to move around a lot and having trouble sitting still
- Trouble remembering: Forgetting things you talked about with co-workers and things you said you’d do
- Time management challenges: Underestimating how long tasks will take, which can lead to missed deadlines. As a result, it can be hard for people with ADHD to manage complex, long-term projects
- Organizational challenges: Having trouble creating and maintaining organized systems, which can make it hard for people to keep track of files and correspondences
- Procrastination: Putting off responsibilities until a later time, which can result in missed deadlines, increased stress, and more time spent at work
- Communication challenges: Propensity for talking a lot, speaking out of turn, and interrupting co-workers. Speaking bluntly and not listening well are characteristics, too
- Chronic lateness: Because people with ADHD have trouble with time management and can easily lose track of time, chronic tardiness is common
ADHD and tardiness at work
People with ADHD tend to perceive time differently than neurotypical people. Reviews of studies published in the Medical Science Monitor (2019, 2021) found that people with ADHD have trouble estimating the passage of time, approximating how long a task will take, and retroactively assessing how long a task took to complete.
For people with ADHD, time can feel less defined and more like it’s quickly slipping away, whereas people with typical neurology tend to have a clearer sense of what they can accomplish in a given chunk of time.
This different perception of time is sometimes called “time blindness,” and it can cause people to be late.
As an employer, it’s important to keep in mind that chronic lateness can be linked to brain neurology. If your employee is perpetually late, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t prioritizing work.
ADHD accommodations at work
It’s mutually beneficial for employers to make accommodations for employees with ADHD. Some common accommodations include providing a quiet workspace, allowing set work-from-home days, and scheduling weekly (or even daily) meetings with a manager to prioritize assignments.
By providing these types of accommodations, it’s more likely your employees with ADHD will be happier and more efficient. This can translate to increased productivity and improved employee retention.
Providing accommodations is also required by US law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires companies with more than 15 employees to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with ADHD, if the employee can show that their diagnosis hinders their job performance. (A reasonable accommodation is something that isn’t overly burdensome to the business.)
Accommodating employees with ADHD can help improve workplace equity — a recent study found that people with ADHD earn ~17% less than their peers and are more likely to be unemployed and on disability.
Managing ADHD at work
ADHD-related challenges vary from person to person. So it’s crucial to zero in on your unique struggles as you design your optimal work life.
Here are some ideas for how to manage major symptoms of ADHD at work. Many of the ideas are sourced from CHADD, a federally funded resource for people with ADHD:Trouble focusing
- Complete one task at a time
- Silence all non-work-related notifications on your laptop and phone
- Ask for a quieter workspace or a private office; or ask to work in a conference room (door closed) for a chunk of time each day
- Ask for regular work-from-home days
- Play white noise or non-distracting music through sound-canceling headphones to drown out office noises
- Have a notebook by your side to quickly jot down exciting ideas that pop into your head, so the task at hand is only minimally interrupted
- Organize your day in advance, and set time limits for each task
- Set up notifications on your laptop that remind you about meetings, lunchtime, and moving on to the next task
- Practice self-talk to help you contemplate potentially impulsive actions before taking them
- Anticipate the types of situations that can trigger impulsive reactions — like blurting something out inappropriately — and construct routines for navigating these situations
- Take shorts breaks throughout the day to move — whether it’s a quick 10-minute walk outside or climbing the stairs
- Consider using the lunch hour to take long walks or to do some other type of exercise. On the days you’re exercising, make lunch the night before to eat at your desk
- Take detailed notes at meetings and ask if you can record important or more complicated meetings
- Write daily to-do lists, or use an app (like Asana) to keep track of your daily and weekly tasks
- Use a calendar app to plan your days and to keep track of your meetings
- Consider planning your schedule a week in advance and blocking out more time than you think you need to complete tasks
- Veer on the side of under-scheduling rather than over-scheduling
- Estimate long-term project timelines by breaking tasks down into manageable subtasks with due dates
- Create a logical, rigid filing system; document it somewhere prominent and stick to it
- Create an email folder structure for specific projects and/or tasks
- Break tasks down into manageable subtasks and reward yourself for completing each subtask. “Rewards” can be simple, like giving yourself a 10-minute break or a treat
- Block distracting websites using a browser extension
- Ask your manager for deadlines to help prioritize your tasks
- Be aware that cutting people off in conversation can be rude, and try to avoid doing it
- Work on reading nonverbal cues that signal how a person is feeling in a conversation
- Ask manager and co-workers for feedback on your communication
- Develop a nighttime routine, prioritize 7-8 hours of sleep, and try to go to bed at the same time each night. Also, consider putting your phone on the other side of the room so you can’t easily hit snooze
- Work backward from the time you wake up to the time you need to be at your desk and overestimate the time you think you need to get to work
- Another good strategy is to plan to arrive at work 15 minutes early
- Lay out your clothes, along with your keys and wallet, the night before
- Keep a journal documenting how long it takes you to get ready for work and to do routine tasks, like filling time sheets and eating lunch. See if you can make changes to gain efficiency
It’s key for managers to support their employees with ADHD. If you manage someone with ADHD, here are a few things to be mindful of:
- Overworking. If your employee often works late, skips lunch, or doesn’t take vacation, it could be a sign something’s off. Help them strategize ways to tackle their workload more efficiently, and consider taking some work off their plate.
- Prioritization. Sometimes employees with ADHD benefit from a more hands-on manager. Gauge whether your employee might need extra help prioritizing their time and tasks, and stick to a standing weekly (or more frequent) meeting to help out.
- Strengths. Identify your employee’s superpowers and assign tasks and projects that play to their strengths.
- Interruptions. Interruptions disrupt the flow of work, and it can be especially difficult for people with ADHD to get back on task after getting sidetracked. Make sure your employee has solid blocks of uninterrupted work time and that they aren’t attending superfluous meetings.
- Busywork. Consider taking non-mission-critical tasks off your employee’s plate so they can focus on crucial projects and essential job functions.
How to focus at work with ADHD
In a TEDx Talk, John Torrens — a professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University — said his version of ADHD is “like an intense game of whack-a-mole… Thoughts, images, questions, memories, ideas all pop into my head seemingly out of nowhere. And each one holds the promise of something so amazing, that I just have to follow up on it right then and there.”
Understandably, living in this paradigm could make it difficult to get things done. Here are some strategies that can help people with ADHD focus at work:
- Manage your work environment to minimize distractions and optimize productivity. This could include silencing personal notifications on your devices, blocking distracting websites via a browser extension, and closing the door to your office (or to your bedroom/office).
- Capitalize on your most focused hours. Is there a time of day you tend to be most productive or feel most focused? Experiment with this and try to complete your most important tasks — or the tasks that require the most attention — during those golden hours. Note that this ultra-focused time tends to be the morning for many people.
- Take one step at a time. Break down overwhelming tasks into smaller, more manageable subtasks and reward yourself after completing each subtask. Consider spec’ing out subtasks in a project management tool to stay organized, and enjoy the dopamine hit while checking tasks off your list.