The transition has been challenging for many. But for some adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, commonly called ADHD, the switch means they’re struggling to stay on top of things as well as they may have in the office.
A neurodevelopmental disorder commonly diagnosed in childhood that can last into adulthood, the disorder stems from underdeveloped or impaired executive function and self-regulation skills, all of which aid planning, focusing attention, remembering instructions and multitasking.
The specific causes of ADHD are unknown, but researchers have found that genetics have a key role. Other possible causes and risk factors include brain injury, exposure to environmental pollution during pregnancy or young ages, alcohol or tobacco exposure during pregnancy, premature delivery and low birth weight. People with ADHD have imbalanced neurotransmitters; one of which is dopamine.
Dopamine is a key neural transmitter in the brain’s prefrontal cortex required to help us “self-regulate and help us direct our focus, actions and how we respond to what’s going on around us,” said Robin Nordmeyer, co-founder and managing director of the Center for Living Well with ADHD-Minnesota, an ADHD coaching group for all ages.
“The primary role of the prefrontal cortex is all about executive functioning,” she added. “So when we don’t have the right amount of neural transmitter availability, which is one of the leading perceptions about what’s going on, then what happens is we have difficulties with those executive function skills and with self-regulation.”
Symptoms of ADHD include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity: Adults may have trouble concentrating, staying organized, prioritizing and managing their time; feeling restless or hyperfocusing; or controlling their impulses.
For some adults, these symptoms can be severe and cause difficulties in every area of their lives. These symptoms sometimes require a work environment that helps them stay on track, maintain a structure and have supportive colleagues and supervisors.
The shift to working from home is a major upheaval to people’s lives, and some adults with ADHD have shared their struggles to stay focused and complete tasks.
Callan Jansen of Washington state was thriving as a paraeducator before the pandemic hit. The workplace was a structured, scheduled and busy but creative environment, which helped Jansen focus and stay on task. Other educators in the building were available for support, supervision and collaboration.
But the shift to teleworking has left Jansen floundering at times. For a long time, the classroom setups weren’t established or organized. Expectations for Jansen became vague, and the job description drastically changed. Jansen has been having trouble prioritizing, staying focused and keeping up a routine at home.
“It’s just really hard to feel like the work I’m doing is real or important when the expectations are so vague,” Jansen said. “External motivators are really helpful for me, and right now it feels like I need to rely almost entirely on internal motivation, which can be really hit or miss.”
This time is frustrating and worrisome but it can get better. There are ways adults with ADHD can productively work from home.
Benefits of a traditional workplace
Workplaces can be stressful, but they offer community. Colleagues and having to show up and perform give people with ADHD the structure they need to be productive when they get stuck or need support, Nordmeyer said.
There’s a clear place to sit when you have to work on mundane tasks, said Maggie Sibley, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine and member of the professional advisory board at CHADD, a leading resource on ADHD providing support, training, education and advocacy.
And there’s probably a supervisor who keeps you accountable and ensures that you’re working at a good pace.
“When you move into the settings at home, suddenly you have to do a lot of this self-regulation yourself,” she added, “and that can be really challenging for people with ADHD.”
“So now it’s about how can we get creative and create that scenario,” Nordmeyer said.
Replicate your work environment
Consider what you needed at work to be productive and functional, and how you can simulate that environment at home, Nordmeyer said.
Avoid working in relaxing places like your bedroom or in front of the television, Sibley said. Experiment with what works best for you — maybe it’s working in a quiet room or one in which the blinds are closed so you can’t be distracted by what’s outside.
Talk to your family about dividing housework to keep the home in a clean, productive condition, as the workplace would be. Messes could drain your energy and pull your attention away from what you need to focus on.
Plan your day the evening before
Plan your day the evening before to be successful in managing performance and behavior at work, Nordmeyer suggested.
When planning, note what your top few priorities are. What do you need to focus on and when? How do those priorities map out the flow of your day?
Since dopamine declines from the morning to evening, split up your day to focus on undesirable, complex tasks earlier in the day and easy, fun assignments toward the end of the day.
Keep up with a morning routine
Just as you may have shown up to work early enough in time to start at 9 a.m., keep up that same morning routine at home.
Don’t just wing it, Nordmeyer said. Wake up at the same time you normally would and get dressed before logging on for the day. “Then you’re stepping into the persona of a professional worker.”
Work alongside a coworker
Staying on task and completing assignments can be challenging. Ask a colleague you’re close with to virtually work alongside you to help with accountability and focus, Nordmeyer suggested. Or, look online for an ADHD coworking lab.
Have an ongoing video feed or arrange morning huddles to discuss the day’s workload, then check in intermittently to relay how it’s going.
Additional tips for staying on task include:
Asking your manager for guidance on prioritizing in a way that doesn’t mark you as deficient because of your ADHD, Nordmeyer said.
Instead, ask to schedule a check-in at the beginning of the week where you go over what’s most important over the next several days, so you can plan.
Telling your supervisor your deadline to reinforce that accountability to get yourself into urgency mode and deliver those assignments according to their importance.
Using your people-pleasing nature for motivation to get engaged, do the work and keep from disappointing someone.
Taking advantage of your love for challenge to get hyper-focused and in the zone to do the work, Nordmeyer said.
Set aside time for unplanned distractions
To avoid getting derailed by distractions of the moment, plan an hour in the morning and afternoon for when you can appropriately deal with pop-ups.
Those include unplanned, unanticipated and nonurgent notifications, requests from others and your own curious thoughts. Put them on a list as they arise and save them for later.
Other pointers for managing distractions include:
Turning off unnecessary notifications so you’re not even provided the opportunity to be distracted, Sibley said.
Blocking email notifications for 25-minute periods, then checking your inbox for five minutes, a system known as the Pomodoro method.
Turning your phone screen side down, on airplane mode or notification sounds off.
Making social media harder to access by logging out or removing the apps from your devices till the end of the day.
Using sticky notes that dictate your assignment for the next 25 minutes and stick to your computer screen. You’ll see it every time you work, and it can help redirect your attention to what you’re supposed to be working on.
Talk with your kids about good conversation times. Align your lunch hour with your kids’. Children might be grateful for one-on-one time, and you can limit interruptions and further distraction to certain time windows.
Take time for self-care
Setting aside time for physical activity can reset your mind, Sibley said.
This advice works differently for everyone, depending on the uniqueness and severity of their ADHD. If nothing’s working, adults should reach out to their physician, psychiatrist or ADHD coach for guidance on managing daily life and possible treatment plans.
And remember that everyone is impacted by these difficult times, Nordmeyer said. Acknowledge what you’re doing right and what it will take to improve anything that needs it, and be compassionate and understanding of yourself.
“If we start paying attention to what’s right, we can change that [downward] spiral to go upward. And that’s how with ADHD, you move forward in your life.”