How To Stay Focused At Work


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.

This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through any links that you click. Proceeds are used to help grow the Adulting With ADHD universe - thank you for your support!    

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.

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).

How To Stay Focused In Three Steps

Step 1: Gear

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.

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.

Price: $85-$500
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

5 steps button;

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.

Price: $109-$205
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

Step 2: Communication

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 … 

Step 3: Systems

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.

What do you do to keep it together at work? Let me know in the comments section!

Get More Adulting: Sign up for the free ebook: Adulting With ADHD: A Quick Start Guide for Women!


Recent Content