Great Tips for Getting Going at Work with ADHD

In a blog about ADHD and marriage, it’s all too easy to “hyperfocus” on the ins and outs of relationships, without looking at some more general issues that many have with ADHD.  We got this post recently from a man who is having trouble focusing at work.  So, for all of you who have trouble getting going at work, here are some tips:

The post:
“I can't seem to get started at work each day.  For as long as I recall, as a student I would do all sorts of tasks but not study.  Focus is hard and my mind wanders. Currently I use 40mg of Adderall, but unless there's lots of pressure, starting daily things involving work are simply avoided.  How can I organize myself so I can start and follow through and, hopefully, enjoy it?”

The response:
What struck me most about this post is the “and, hopefully, enjoy it?” part.  Inability to follow through is really getting in his way.  And, if he has a spouse, I’m guessing it’s really getting in the way at home, too.  (If he’s having this much trouble focusing at work, chances are good it’s an “all the time” kind of thing.)

Here are some ideas:
There are many ADHD medications, and the best match for you is one that alleviates your worst symptoms without causing significant side effects (such as appetite suppression, tics, depression, tamping down of personality, etc.)  Since you are still having significant initiation and follow-through issues, it may be that you haven’t found the best medication for you yet.  The first thing I would do is go back to your doctor and experiment with some other options (different dosage, different medications, addition of more exercise, etc.)

Another option might be that you have the right medication, but that you have spent so much of your life not being able to initiate projects that you haven’t really learned the skill set involved with project initiation yet.  If you feel that this is the case, then a coach might be able to help you both get more organized and put your day together in such a way that you could better attack those daily chores that are giving you such problems.  Look for someone who is knowledgeable about ADHD, and comfortable giving advice for the business setting.   A good resource to find out more about coaching in general, and how to find a coach, is the ADDResources website coaching section.

There are a number of other tips that you can use to get things done at work:

  1. Exercise creates chemicals that help you focus better for a few hours.  See if you can set up your work day so that you can exercise before work or at lunch hour on a regular basis.  Then schedule those really-hard-to-do items for immediately after exercise (with 30 - 45 minutes of good aerobic exercise, you’ll have several hours of more focused time to work with).
  2. Organize yourself so that you minimize distractions.  That probably will mean adding 10-20 minutes a day of organizing time to get your projects in order and clean off your desk.  Find what time of day works best.  For me, it’s at the end of the day, so I arrive the next day to a clean work area and have a couple of top priority projects sitting out that scream for my attention.  Good organization also means minimizing time that you go searching for things like phone messages, project folders, etc.  (These are all good sources of distraction which you want to minimize!)  Get a carbonless message pad for phone numbers (top copy goes with the project, master copy stays near phone).  Terry Matlen, whose collection of articles on organizing can be found at this link, suggests color coding project folders by priority or due date (red for most urgent, for example).
  3. Delegate some of the projects you hate, if you can.  If you can diminish the total number of these projects, then they won’t seem so overwhelming to you.
  4. Use timers to help you stay on task.  You might hate to write status reports, for example, but if you know ahead of time that you only have to do it in 15 minute spurts, this might help you face this task.  Set the timer, promise yourself that you will stop when it rings, and then use your ADD ability to hyperfocus to really go at it.
  5. Experiment with music to see if it can help you focus.  Many with ADHD find that listening to music can actually help them focus.  Try a day with an ipod or stereo set on low.
  6. Ask for someone to help you get started each day.  If you have an assistant, you can “schedule” a time when he/she finds you, asks you what the first project of the day is, and helps you locate all the materials you need to start it.  (This is the adult version of a parent helping an ADHD child get their homework study place in order for more productive studying.)
  7. It might be a bit awkward in most companies, but if you have problems initiating work you are doing at home, consider putting a good-sized mirror at your desk.  Studies with school children suggest that having a mirror that reflects the image of you working helps extend focus (presumably by reminding you that you are supposed to be working, which is the image you see in the mirror).

Let us know how you do with these suggestions.  If they work at the office, perhaps you and your partner can figure out good ways to modify them to use at home to initiate some of those oh-so-awful projects that are part of every person’s home life!