How do you how to stay focused at work with ADHD? This is a compilation of my best tricks and tips over the years since my diagnosis in my mid-30s.
I work in an open office space – a dream for most creatives, but for me it’s a slippery slope. As much as I want to discuss Game of Thrones with my coworkers or participate in the daily deliberations of where to lunch, I have to be very careful of where I assign my mental energy. This is the case for every worker in our society, especially in our modern age, but for ADHD’ers, knowing how to stay focused at work can mean the difference between being employed or unemployed.
How could I possibly complete the day’s tasks when I want to get into the nitty gritty of John Snow’s fate and make sure my vote for burritos for lunch is counted? I wasn’t always like this. Before I was diagnosed with ADHD, I was the instigator of many a water cooler conversations that maybe lasted too long and bled into the daily workflow long after the proverbial water cooler had been visited. I didn’t know when to shut it off, and in retrospect, I’m amazed nobody lashed out for my being so inconsiderate. That said, there were probably consequences unbeknownst to me for being overly social. It probably seemed like I didn’t care about my work, and it probably worked against me when it came to opportunities for advancement.
Related: Best Music for Concentration and Focus (& Why It Actually Works)
Post-diagnosis, I’m on the other side of the coin and am very sensitive to workplace distractions. I consider myself a pretty chill person, but when it comes to background noise I’m easily agitated. My first few months into my most recent job, I actually slammed a door once in frustration. A completely unacceptable reaction to a completely fixable situation. Since then, I have worked to come up with (and still constantly experiment) with a set of systems in place to keep myself focused and calm without taking my frustration out on coworkers (or worse, silently seethe, then erupt over something really idiotic like coffee creamer).
Get A Good Pair of Headphones
Fixing what you can control is the first step to learning how to stay focused at work. I have found that when I listen to white noise (this is the recording I swear by), I am far less likely to lose my concentration (and my cool). White noise is a random stream of noise that occurs at even frequencies that have the tendency to wash out everything else. The most common examples of this are ocean waves or wind. Also on rotation are the Electronic Study Music and Productive Morning lists on Spotify. Headphones at work serves a dual purpose – zoning in and a nonverbal cue that I am busy.
Lately I’ve been wondering if I can do even better and really invest in some heavy-duty earwear. Because as much as the earbuds help, I still hear enough background noise that I can still get distracted. Typically, headphones that specialize in noise cancellation create frequencies that cancel out the other noises competing for your attention. While no model of earphones is going to eliminate everything, a solid model can go a long way in eliminating noises like chit-chat around the office. Like everything else, you get you pay for. Even then, some have found that after trying different models, they were better off with earplugs or earmuffs, which typically are far less expensive. On the other hand, there are those who swear by their Bose headphones.
Pro tip: If you plan on investing in a serious pair of headphones, check out Headphones.com (aff). They offer special deals on their curated selection and an unheard-of 365-day return policy.
Best Headphones for the Office Environment
From general and assistive headphones to earmuffs and earplugs, you have a few options when it comes to how to tackle your background noise in the workplace. Here are a few places to get started:
General Noise Cancellation Headphones
From low-key earbuds to headsets that broadcast to the world you’re on a mission, there are all sorts of directions to go here. Style and budget also will come into play, with brands that range among affordability, stylishness and functionality. For example, you may decide to go with Dr. Dre Beats or Skull Candy if you’d like to make a fashion statement. Or, you may be happily content with a no-frills Monoprice.
Examples : Bose QuietComfort 25, AKG N60 NC, PSB M4U 2, Plantronics BackBeat Pro, Sennheiser Momentum Wireless, Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H8, Parrot Zik 2.0, Monoprice’s Noise Canceling Headphones, Dr, Dre Beats, Skull Candy
Assistive Devices for Noise Reduction
Companies like b-Calm have developed headphones especially for those with ADHD, autism and other disabilities. These assistive devices have been billed to block out noise, increase focus, prolong concentration, alleviate anxiety, and provide clarity in stressful situations. How do they differ from general noise cancellation headphones? They were developed especially with these conditions in mind, with the research to back it up.
Examples: b-Calm GP-Adult, b-Calm EX-Adult
Earmuffs & Earplugs
While some find music or white noise to be helpful, others just want silence. For them, there are earmuffs and earplugs. My husband, who is a drummer, says that he prefers the foam or swimmer’s earplugs and that he isn’t loyal to one specific brand. He did say that the swimmer’s earplugs are less noticeable if that is a concern for you. You also don’t have to wait for them to expand, which is the case for the foam ones. Right now he’s rocking dual-use earplugs from CVS that can be used for work, play, swimming, and more.
Price: $2.50 to $19.49
Examples: Optime Over-The-Head Earmuffs, Bilsom Leightning L3 Earmuffs, Etymotic ETY Plugs
Communicate … If It Makes Sense.
Decide how much you want your coworkers and managerial staff to know about your struggles. You are under no obligation to reveal your diagnosis, but know that it’s completely acceptable to do so as well. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “psychiatric disability” is protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The ADA, which applies to companies with 15 or more staff members, stipulates that you have certain protections if your situation meets the appropriate conditions. For example, it is illegal to discriminate against you or treat you unfairly because of your mental illness. For more information on how to exercise your rights, check out this NAMI fact sheet: “Mental Health and Employment: Your Rights.”
In my case, I “came out” about my condition in a moment of candor and I’m glad I did. Through communication, I was able to learn that even though I had the best of intentions, my actions were communicating otherwise. By re-evaluating how my approach to my job was looking from the outside, I was able to make some modifications that made everybody a little happier. Now that I’m in a different job better suited for me, I still practice those skills I learned – all because I came out with my diagnosis. With my psychiatrist’s recommendations combined with coordinated efforts with my managerial team, I was able to start my path down functional living. None of this would have been possible without the proper communication. This leads us to the last step …
Find Tools & Systems That Wotk For You … Then Wait for Your Brain To Change. Rinse and Repeat.
When it comes to remembering things, if it doesn’t live in Google Calendar, it doesn’t exist to me. When I need to remember something important for later, it goes in as a calendar event with at least 3 reminders – 1 week, 1 day and 4 hours. I’ve also become friends with Google Sheets (h/t to color coding via conditional formatting) and Google Tasks (that little pop-up list you can access through Google Mail). I guess what I’m really saying here is that I’d never end up as the subject of a true crime podcast because there is a digital “paper trail” of my life, down to my step count and number of times I rolled over in my sleep.
When it comes to tech tools, it can get overwhelming settling on what to use. There’s nothing wrong with trying one at a time for a few days until you find the right magic formula. Don’t feel guilty for tossing a tool because it’s not working for you. What’s going to work for one person isn’t going to necessarily work for another.
While your team may have a set of project management tools that they use, you may find yourself playing around with ideas that can help organize yourself internally so that you can better participate in the team workflow. If it’s okay with your management team, you may consider looking into a project management tool to help yourself internally. In fact, some people come to like them so much they use them to organize their life outside of work. A few free project management tools include Asana, Trello and Slack. I’ve tried all three and each are great in my opinion – you just have to find what works best for you.
Find An Accountability Group
As a full-time working mom with a side hustle, I don’t get it done without setting goals. And those goals have to be diverse, from making sure I’m taking care of myself to crossing off items on my to-do list.
But the thing about to-do lists and calendar items? They don’t talk back. You can’t check in with them and talk about your challenges and victories. They can’t give you the tough love you need or pull you back when you’re being too hard on yourself.
Enter an accountability group. Without realizing it, I’ve been in some form of an online accountability group for years. Back in college I frequented the Weight Watchers message boards. When I was a freelance writer, I connected with my “tribe” in a Facebook group. As I became a seasoned professional, I gravitated to groups and memberships of like-minded women.
I can’t believe it took me so long to admit it, but it really is the act of engaging with others that has contributed the most to my personal growth. This is huge for a self-described introvert who gravitates to alone time over communing with others. (Spoiler alert: We have an accountability group right here at Adulting with ADHD.)
Beware Of Open Offices
If you work in an open office space and are an ADHDer or ADHD introvert, you know how extremely frustrating it can be to get through a workday. Unfortunately, office spaces are built for the neurotypical, which means you’re likely to continue to run into work environment-related challenges. The level of support you will receive at work will vary and will also depend on whether there are workarounds available that can be explored. Here are some tips for working in an open office environment.
It’s A Common Struggle, Even For The Neurotypical
According to a 2014 open office space study by Ipsos and Steelcase, 85% of people are dissatisfied with their work environment and can’t concentrate. While almost all respondents valued working privately, only 41% had that option and 31% had to leave the office to get work completed.
So while you’re not alone, as real estate prices climb, don’t expect it to change. On the bright side, more and more companies are moving to telecommuting and/or hybrid open-office options where there are private rooms to use as needed. And if push comes to shove, you may find yourself in a situation where your work environment can be a factor in whether you accept a new job opportunity.
Can Accommodations Be Made?
That is a very slippery slope and your mileage may vary. When it comes to ADHD, you do have rights. If you work at a company with at least 15 employers, your company may be required to provide accommodations.
Per the Americans With Disabilities Act, you are entitled to accommodations if 1) “have a disability that substantially impairs one or more major life activities”; and 2) “are able to perform the essential functions of your job with or without reasonable accommodations.”
So what if you work for a company with fewer than 15 employees? In that case, it’s on a state-by-state basis. What kind of accommodations can you expect? According to the ADA, the request must be reasonable. And this is after you have a formal diagnosis and a job impairment due to your disability has been established.
Explains Dr. Carl Sherman to ADDitude magazine:
“It depends on the situation and the size of the company. What’s reasonable to expect from a multinational corporation might cause undue hardship for a small business. Let’s say you’re not a “morning person,” and that you say to your boss, “I need to come in at 10, but I’ll work till seven.” If the office does all of its business from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., your request probably won’t fly. Given the demands of the business, it may not be reasonable. Or let’s say that the only way you can stay organized is to have your own secretary. If the company has a firm policy of one secretary for every three workers, that accommodation may also be seen as unreasonable.”
Before You Disclose
While you certainly have a right to disclose your ADHD to your employer, it’s not that straightforward. Stigma still exists in the workplace, and it’s a personal decision that should be weighed carefully. In a 2016 interview I did with ADHD coach Linda Walker, she explains:
“First, do you meet the job qualifications? What is the organization’s track record when it comes to this type of request? Are you well regarded as an asset in the organizations? How easy would it be to replace you? How easily could you bounce back if you lost your job? I would usually invite a person to first put into practice self-accommodation strategies to mitigate ADHD-related workplace issues. This shows initiative and a willingness to improve in the face of challenges on your own.”
Okay Great, Now What?
If you’re finding yourself in an open office nightmare, run a check on these items to see if there’s anything else you can do to alleviate this incredibly frustrating situation. On the bright side, if you’re able to successfully resolve this struggle on your own, it’s a great way to demonstrate your independent problem-solving skills and poise under pressure. And if you do find that you just can’t hang, it could be just the nudge you need to find a better workplace situation for yourself. Without further ado, here are the top pieces of advice out there on the topic.
1 – Communicate With Desk Mates
Tread lightly on this one, but try to use non-verbal cues (such as the aforementioned headphones) to get your point across. That said, prepare for the problem not 100% going away – and in some instances, it can get worse if you don’t have the support. Another tactic is to lead by example to try to help set the tone for the workspace, but again, your mileage may vary.
I’ve never met anyone in person who’s tried this, but depending on your crowd (read the room!), you may try using a pomodoro status desk flag or this digital version of the same concept. It could be a fun way to break the ice. In one of my jobs, a worker would bring yellow caution tape and wrap it around her cube when she was really deep into a project and needed to be left alone. It was a funny, non-confrontational way to communicate that she needed to be left alone – and it worked! Meanwhile, if you use an interoffice messaging system like Slack, you could always change your status to Busy or Do Not Disturb. You may get teased or it may not work, but it could be worth a shot. Standing up for yourself is always a worthwhile endeavor.
2 – Go Private For Major Projects
I try my best to go with the flow, but if I’m faced with a last-minute and/or high-priority project (often they’re both), I push for using one of the private meeting rooms. It’s a completely fair thing to ask for, and more companies are actually moving to this hybrid situation of having both open office space and private workspace.
Another related alternative is to set quiet time hours where you can go to an isolated place for a couple of hours and be interrupted. In my case, this doesn’t really work because I need to be “plugged in” my entire shift, using both monitors. However, maybe for you there are certain tasks that you could save for a quiet time block away from your desk.
3 – Provide Feedback To Management
If all else fails and you’ve tried to be independent, proactive and productive in managing your challenges, you may consider providing feedback to management. However, tread lightly and don’t be surprised if you’re faced with a lack of support. It would be more advisable to bring up a specific thing they can address such as a coffee machine that’s placed behind you that brings in a lot of foot traffic that can be easily relocated. It’s much more challenging to tell a manager you can’t work in general because of the people you sit with (which, by the way, is totally valid, too).
On this topic, also try to handle frustrations with grace. Even if you are completely justified in your reasoning, I have found it to fall on deaf ears if my feedback is delivered negatively. Instead, try to go take a walk or grab a coffee if you’re too frustrated to hang. Then, once you’ve collected your thoughts, you can come up with a plan. That could be communicating with your deskmates or updating that LinkedIn page to find a more desirable workspace situation.
Open office environments suck for ADHDers, but they’re also a necessary evil for cash-strapped companies, creative agencies and almost everyone else it seems. In the end, you do what you can using your ingenuity. Short of that, do what you need to do to get into a better situation. The beauty of this all is, you’re the architect of your own life. There are plenty of fish in the sea when it comes to gainful employment. Life’s too short to stay crouched behind your desk frustrated, so make a plan today and go get ‘em, tiger!
Know Thes Common ADHD Workplace Issues … Awareness Id Half The Battle
Everyone’s experience is going to be different, but here have been my top issues:
Some people consider this a character flaw. Other people say it’s the economic reality we’re in. Some may suggest it has something to do with my ADHD. The truth is probably somewhere between all of these things. I’ve had a pretty good career (and it’s actually my second career). I started out as a journalist and now I am a digital marketing consultant. It’s actually a good match for me because I’m never doing the same thing for too long
When I was a writer always just the same skill, over and over and over again. Having ADHD has both helped and hurt in certain areas. When I’m really interested in something I can excel it at easily. However, if I’m bored I have to rely on my self discipline to get through. While this is probably true for all workers, I’m guessing it’s more pronounced in ADHD’ers.
Before my diagnosis. I had a hard time working within the confines of my workplaces, especially in a corporate environment. After my diagnosis, I began to embrace processes and standard procedures. However, then the opposite became an issue: in some team members’ eyes, I relief too heavily on processes and protocols. The point is, you can’t make everyone happy all of the time, so instead focus on what works for you (then find a workplace that accepts that … and that “workplace” may be you as a freelancer.)
Focus on The ‘What Now?’, Not The ‘Why?’
When you’re doing the chicken or the egg day with your workplace and your ADHD, it really doesn’t matter if your ADHD is the reason you’re going through something or if it’s your environment. The Why is not as important as what you’re going to do about it. Because you can drive yourself crazy thinking of all the different possibilities. Then, when you find a solution know that it isn’t always going to work. It’s okay to change things up. (This is not the same thing as not even giving the thing a chance to work.)
Also, don’t try to force yourself into something that’s not working. And my example I repeatedly just struggle with the idea of working with one company full time. Some of this is because of the negative experiences I’ve had, but a lot of it is also, I have a deep philosophical reason for not wanting to put all my eggs in one basket. And this would apply, no matter how wonderful the company is, my personality is just not conducive to working in that kind of environment. And I have finally accepted this, and I am so much happier, not trying to fit into something I’m not.
Other Resources on ADHD & the Workplace
- How to Survive At Work When You’re A Woman With ADHD – This is an article I wrote for Bustle that covers the overall impact of ADHD & work, bullying, your rights, and how to thrive just by being yourself.
- Adulting With ADHD Career Guide (PDF) – Struggling at work? This PDF walks you through the basic steps I took to get my career from striving to thriving within a year after my diagnosis. Includes includes three of my favorite worksheets for handling ADHD on the job and covers the following topics: ADHD & Women, Your Treatment, Your Rights In The Workplace, Productivity Tools, and Building Your Support System.
- Adulting With ADHD Podcast Ep. 22: ADHD in the Workplace – The whole reason I was able to confront my ADHD in the workplace was because of a dream job that went terribly wrong. The experience resulted in a handout my psychiatrist gave me of ways to cope with ADHD in the workplace. While I ended up not sticking with that job, the lessons I learned in my final weeks there followed me to my next job and I 100% give credit those tips for my success.
- Adulting With ADHD Podcast Ep. 5: MyFavorite Tech Tools for ADHD – Some of my favorite digital tools I use for getting stuff done. Be sure to also check Recommended Tools, which I update regularly.
- CHADD – Workplace Issues – Solid information, webinars and more on all things including succeeding in the workplace, workplace discrimination and ADHD in the military.
- Asking For Workplace Accomodations – According to CHADD “The Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA includes ADHD as a recognized disability. For an employee who has ADHD, the act can require the employer to provide reasonable accommodations, as long as it doesn’t create undue hardship for the business.”
- Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 – Website dedicated to the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.
- Job Accomodation Network – Examples of reasonable accommodation in the workplace for ADHD.
- ADHD at Work – A resource center by the Attention Deficit Disorder Association. Includes information for employers, employees and the self-employed.
ADHD in the Workplace Stats
According to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association:
- Untreated adults with ADHD lost an average of 22 days of productivity per year, accoeding to a 2006 study by the World Health Organization.
- Adults with ADHD earn, on average, $5,000-10,000 less annually than their colleagues without ADHD, reports the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
- In the book ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says, it is reported that adults with ADHD are eighteen times more likely to be disciplined at work for perceived “behavior problems” and are 60% more likely to lose their jobs. Additionally, between 85 and 90% of adults with ADHD do not know they have it but are struggling at work.
- According to the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, as much as 83% of the overall annual incremental costs of ADHD ($143 to $266 billion) were incurred by adults ($105B-$194B). Workplace issues, mostly due to income and productivity losses, represent the largest contributor of cost of adult ADHD on the US economy ($87B-$138B).