By Gretchen Rockwell
I was diagnosed relatively late in life—my mid-twenties. Due to my non-traditional schooling and a college experience wherein I was bombarded with deadlines and extreme pressure that kept me focused, it wasn’t until I got a desk job that I really started to notice what I’d later identify as ADHD symptoms. To name a few:
- I had trouble staying focused for long periods of time
- I found it hard to pay attention during staff meetings
- I frequently needed to get up and walk around
- I didn’t know how to prioritize task importance when not clearly stated
- I did well when given a job and a deadline, but floundered without specific guidance
- I had reminder notes all over my desk area for new tasks AND regularly scheduled ones
Once I was diagnosed, my understanding of how to cope improved drastically. My job has unpredictable busyness: hours at a stretch with very little to do, but also intense periods of high-stress activity. During the high-stress times, my ADHD actually helps me: my brain “kicks into gear” and I can (hyper)focus. However, like many AFAB (assigned female at birth) people I have an inattentive type of ADHD, and it makes this job miserable during the times I’m not in “crisis” mode.
Here are some of the things I do to make my job bearable.
1. Take lots of walks around and outside my office.
Seriously. It gives me a break from staring mindlessly at my computer and lets me “recharge” my brain temporarily.
2. Seek out whatever work needs doing—as long as I’m not OVERdoing it.
I have a reputation for being a “team player” and “always being willing to help out.” My secret is that if I don’t do that, I’ll lose my mind from boredom. It just has the side benefit of making me look like a great employee. That said, I try not to take on more than I can handle, or anything that will become my responsibility if I know I can’t handle it long-term!
3. Set timers for myself: Work for 7 minutes, then allow myself 13 minutes to zone out or take a mental break.
It sounds ridiculous, but it is much easier to motivate myself if I know I am only doing it for a sustained period of time. It also helps me fully focus for those 7 minutes by adding a sense of urgency. But if I do get focused, I can ignore the timer and keep working till I lose it!
4. Switch between tasks, if possible.
This, alongside timers, is one of the biggest things to keep me present at work and actually get things done rather than staring blankly at my computer and realizing an hour has passed without my knowledge. I’ll often do this in conjunction with setting timers. (Hooray for combining coping skills.) And again, if I’m really in the zone with one task, I can stick to it.
5. Set deadlines for myself.
Again, it feels ridiculous, but trying to trick my brain into believing I need to answer that email BY 3PM OR ELSE MY BOSS WILL BE UNHAPPY does often work to motivate me. Harness that rejection sensitivity, baby.
6. Make lists AS I THINK OF THINGS that need to be remembered, and try to plan out the steps of a task before I start.
Do I have a desk covered in Post-It notes? Yes. Do they work? Also yes. The planning is easier said than done, but when I manage this, it’s the best feeling. Here’s a sample scenario: On Monday I sent an email about supplies not being delivered (let’s say I need them by Friday), and now it’s Wednesday with no reply. So I write out these steps:
a. Check emails (including spam) to make sure there’s been no contact with the supplier
b. Check supply area to see if they WERE delivered and I just wasn’t told
c. Check other supply area/with another person to see if they were put in the wrong place
If I still can’t find them, plan to send another (more urgent) email:
a. Find out on my own OR ask my manager who my contact’s higher-up is, so I can CC them on the 2nd email I’m sending—as this is time-sensitive
b. If I feel it’s necessary, tell my manager or CC them on the email so they know the situation (just to show that it’s not my fault the supplies aren’t here)
c. Draft the email
d. Send the email
e. Write a Post-It for myself to email AGAIN by Thursday at 3PM if I still haven’t heard back
I may not come up with all these steps at once, but if I have the list started I can add to it. My previous experiences have made me better at organizing, coming up with checklists, etc., but my executive function struggles are often related to initiating tasks, keeping things in “working memory,” and navigating changes with ease. So jotting down things as I think of them and keeping them visible and accessible is a MAJOR coping skill for me.
7. Take medication.
ADHD medication has helped me maintain focus and apply these other coping skills. I managed without it, but the medication does make it easier for me. There’s no universal experience with ADHD medication, so I can only speak to mine.
I’ll be the first one to say that I’m hardly perfect at this—it’s a daily (hourly) (minute-ly?) thing to stay focused and be productive in a job that doesn’t have as much stimulation as I need to stay engaged. But these strategies have helped me a lot, and I hope they can help you too!
Gretchen Rockwell (xe/xer/xers) is a queer poet and supplemental instructor of English at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, RI. Xer work has appeared in Glass: Poets Resist, Into the Void, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Kissing Dynamite, FreezeRay Poetry, and elsewhere. Gretchen enjoys advocating for mental health and writing poetry about gender and sexuality, history, space, and unusual connections. Find xer at www.gretchenrockwell.com or on Twitter at @daft_rockwell.
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