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Published November 8th 2021

How To Harness Your ADHD And Improve Focus At Work

Read the next article on overcoming imposter syndrome

Many of us know the frustration of staring at a blank document or growing email inbox, willing ourselves to ‘just get on with’ the task at hand. 

We also know our almost-impressive ability to find anything else at all to procrastinate with, be it the desk tidy you’ve been putting off for weeks or actually getting around to the email you were avoiding dealing with. 

And for those with ADHD, which is more common among adults than you may have believed with almost 1% of US adults officially diagnosed with it, we sometimes find ourselves practically paralyzed by the ability to get started or finish these tasks. 

However, after having picked a career in writing, which revolves around deadlines, and working for a magazine with a small team in my first graduate job, I quickly had to learn how to adapt and harness my (still-undiagnosed) ADHD.

While I’m still learning new tricks and methods every single day, I’ll be sharing what has worked best for me when it comes to kick-starting and improving my focus at work. 

I’ve also enlisted the help of Dr. Alexander Lapa, a Psychiatrist at Asana Lodge, and Erica Vonderwall, Freelance Digital PR, who was recently diagnosed with ADHD. 

Whether you have ADHD, are yet to be diagnosed or are simply prone to getting easily distracted and procrastinating, read on to discover tips to avoid procrastination so you can – hopefully – transform your habits and get those items ticked off your to-do list.

1. Learn your hours 

Move over, Dolly Parton! While it may once have been the standard, working nine to five certainly isn’t for everyone and this is something I quickly learned upon going freelance. 

After speaking to a few fellow writers, I realized that I could dictate my own ‘office’ hours to whenever suited my brain. 

I’m far from a morning person so I found that 11:30am to 12pm were often when my brain is at its most inspired and switched on, and ensured I removed the guilt from this. 

I was still working the same hours as someone in a full-time job – often longer – but during hours where I performed better. 

Erica Vonderwall explains, “​​For me, I know I'm not productive before 10am or around mealtimes, so I plan my working day in bursts of time. 

I tend to do admin, read emails and plan my day from 9:30am, get stuck into work from 10am to 12pm.”

Find when you truly focus and maximize that time 

It’s all well and good sitting at a desk for 9am, but what’s the point when you’re blankly blinking at your screen, reading news articles and refreshing your email. 

After her lunch break, Erica adds, “I take my dog for a walk and have some lunch and chill a bit before working a solid 1pm to 6pm in the afternoon with no breaks whatsoever, as I tend to get really hyperfocused then. 

In that time, I would do more than a neurotypical person would do, so it makes up for the slow start.”

Don’t be afraid to approach routine changes with your employer 

Of course, this may not be possible if you’re not a freelancer, but it’s worth having a serious talk with your managers to let them know these hours aren’t working for you. 

Instead, try to explore flexi-hours where you still complete the required hours and tasks, but work at times that suit you best – of course, you’ll need to factor in attending meetings when you’re required. 

2. Inspired intervals 

Working within time intervals and setting out time blocks, known as the Pomodoro Technique, has become a popular way to boost productivity. 

An astonishing 75% of US adults surveyed by reMarkable believed that, “Digital notifications lead to procrastination and decreased focus.” 

So, whether you use one of the apps or website blockers recommended below, or merely the timer and ‘Do Not Disturb’ function on your phone, the purpose is to work for a chosen amount of time such as 25 minutes without any distractions. 

You then take five minutes to decompress and have a break. 

While 25 minutes is the suggested amount of time, those with ADHD may want to start with smaller blocks of 10 minutes and work their way up gradually. 

Along with motivating you to work harder, the added pressure of being under time constraints is an excellent way to learn how to make decisions faster. 

You don’t have time to procrastinate or ponder for long, so you’re more likely to take action and, in my case, get words down on the page faster. 

It’s also important to acknowledge and praise yourself for the fact that you focused and worked solidly in that time block, too, rather than dismissing your efforts.

The best time blocking apps

The best apps I’ve used so far include Forest and Tomato Timer

Allowing you to grow your own virtual tree with every focus block you complete (your progress is lost if you use your phone), Forest is great for incentivizing you to focus as you have an end goal – your very own virtual forest. 

On the other hand, Tomato Timer keeps things simple, allowing you to pick the session and break times, but still forms motivation as you can see time depleting. 

The best website blockers for focus

When your research and work requires you to be browsing, you may also fall into the trap of finding yourself on social media or scrolling through irrelevant articles. 

To prevent yet another form of distraction and procrastination, you can install web blockers to help you focus at work. 

StayFocusd is a highly recommended Chrome extension that can be installed, which “restricts the amount of time you can spend on time-wasting websites” and makes the websites inaccessible once you’ve used up this time. 

You can either block whole sites or specific pages. An excellent way to overhaul and analyze those procrastination habits, WasteNoTime not only blocks distracting websites, but it's Time Tracker also produces reports on where your time was spent online.

Accountability can take your focus to the next level

And if you’re still finding your mind straying during this time block and want to learn how to avoid distractions much faster, then get an accountability buddy

Set a timer with a friend or someone at home and get them to check in on you when you’re slacking. 

Make sure they point out when you’re cheating or procrastinating during a time block. You’ll soon be far less likely to let your mind wander or check your phone and will find yourself back on track much sooner.

3. Break a sweat

While deadlines are something often feared by myself and others with ADHD, they can be incredibly useful, too. 

Erica suggests giving yourself tight deadlines and reveals she is far more productive when up against them – something I, too, can wholeheartedly relate to. 

Micro-goals and deadlines can boost productivity 

And if you’re a fellow freelancer who thrives under pressure and quick turnarounds, she has some excellent advice on working methods that may suit you. 

She says, “I have only been taking on work that requires individual tasks to be completed, rather than managing one whole project. 

This way it feels more like a box-ticking exercise, and I get a nice dopamine rush whenever I can tick something off!”

So, rather than taking on a chunky project that leads to several drawn-out tasks being done for a month or two’s time, look for a micro-goal-focused approach. 

You can either be accountable to yourself, giving yourself hard personal deadlines, or you can choose to share these with your client and promise individual task-based dates in advance. 

Multi-tasking may be your downfall, focus on one goal at a time

Dr. Alexander Lapa says, “One of the most common things I’ve found with my patients who have ADHD is that they’ll often have multiple uncompleted tasks to take care of, so my first suggestion would be to ensure you take on one task at a time.” 

For example, I had 10 articles to write recently and they were due three weeks from the date I received the briefs. Instead of allowing myself to hand them all in on deadline day, my client and I agreed for the pieces to be sent over daily.

4. Boundaries are key

Whether you have ADHD or not, it can be very easy to measure your worth against your productivity each day. If you find yourself feeling low when you have unproductive days (or weeks), remember your boundaries

Your worth is not based on your productivity 

Last year, after ironically having a procrastination scroll through Instastories, I came across a quote from Tiwalola Ogunlesi, founder of the Confident and Killing It podcast. 

It swiftly pulled me out of the negative thought spiral I’d gotten myself into. She said, “Your worth does not depend on how many emails you send out in a day or how many boxes you tick. You matter simply because you exist, not because of how many actions you carry out in a day.”

With social media, an entire pandemic and lifestyles that have dramatically changed, it can be so easy to compare and feel like you’re the only person who’s unproductive and procrastinating at times. 

However, I can promise you, you aren’t! There are plenty of people you probably look up to who have reached the exact same levels of procrastination. 

You’re not alone! 

Instead of beating yourself up, remember you’re human – not a machine – and could be needing rest or even approaching burnout

When friends and family think of you, it’s unlikely they’ll think, “Well, she only ticked five out of seven items on her to-do list off so she’s not a great person.” 

By being a little easier on yourself and talking to yourself as you would a friend who came to you saying they felt “useless” because they’d been unproductive that week, you should hopefully start feeling a bit better and less overwhelmed. 

Take baby steps, even ticking one item off your list a day initially could help, and you should also avoid writing a to-do list that comprises more than three items.

5. Downplay your tasks

One of the strangest – yet most helpful – ways I manage to get myself motivated and beat writer’s block is by downplaying the work ahead. 

For example, if I have a 1,500 word article to file in a few days, I’ll start by telling myself it’s something I’ve managed easily before. 

Then, I’ll give myself a pep talk and say it’s “just” 1,500 words or I “just” need to start with the first 100 words. From there, it suddenly starts feeling a little more manageable. 

Read the latest about how to know when to start and stop writing.

Don’t strive for perfection, just start

It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by jobs when we procrastinate and leave them until the last minute, but try not to let your brain get the better of you. 

One of the common reasons people procrastinate is that we overthink the work ahead and feel like it has to be perfect. This leads us to overthink and become lost with where to start.

As a writer, I’ve got myself stuck in a rut for hours or even days before by being unsure about how to craft the perfect intro or structure to a piece. 

Rather than attempting to craft the perfect introduction to a piece by overthinking, I’ve found that forcing myself to just start typing whatever I have in mind onto the scary blank document, has allowed me to make decisions faster. 

Unsurprisingly, what I produce all pieces together and the words start flowing out. 

If it helps, break the project down into tiny chunks and work through one stage at a time. You’ll get the dopamine hit of ticking something off at each step, and should breeze through the task. 

6. Organization is crucial

As anyone with ADHD will know, by the time we’ve actually sat down at our desk to start work, there are probably hundreds of thoughts going through our minds already. 

That bill that needs paying, or the email you forgot to reply to two weeks ago. 

Whatever it is, every evening take the time to note down every single task you can remember that needs doing and try to spend a little bit of time clearing those non-work-related ones off so they don’t distract you during the working day. 

Boost your productivity by preparing the night before

Then, write a separate list of the work tasks you need to complete the next day. 

It sounds silly doing it the night before but trust the process and you’ll find yourself being able to focus at work far sooner! 

Dr. Alexander Lapa suggests this, too, and explains, “Writing or journaling is a fantastic way of staying organized, keeping yourself accountable as well as the therapeutic benefits that come from it.” 

Not only are you likely to sleep better knowing exactly what’s required of you the next day, but you can also take a bit of time to downplay these tasks and when you sit down at your desk in the morning, you’ll know exactly what needs to be done. 

This avoids worry and stress, while also allowing you to be in the right headspace from the start of your day. 

7. Be your own boss

And finally, an excellent tip from Erica, that I inadvertently took on myself in November 2020 without realizing, is working for yourself. 

She says she chose this route as, “This way I can pick and choose the jobs I work on, making sure that I choose things that interest me and that I will be able to focus on.”

When you do what you love, improved focus with work is sure to follow

The moment I left Digital PR and a role that made me feel demotivated daily and began professionally writing again, I couldn’t believe how driven and passionate I felt about my work. 

Though not every day is filled with me typing away at my keyboard and producing thousands of words for an article, I’m still more productive when working overall than I was doing tasks that didn’t excite me.

Erica adds, “When I am forced to work on things that make me uncomfortable, I am far more likely to procrastinate and get distracted by things that DO bring the sweet, sweet dopamine hits!”

Harnessing your neurodiversity will see you thrive

Dr. Alexander Lapa also recommends choosing a career around things that “play to your strengths”. Fascinatingly, he confirms exactly what I’ve believed since I began suspecting that I may have ADHD. 

He explains, “ADHD is named officially as a disorder, but many do not realize that ADHD can be a gift when utilized correctly. 

People with ADHD are often incredibly creative and can find innovative ways of doing things that others can’t, this is why so many people with ADHD become entrepreneurs.”

While it can seem daunting, just remember that these changes take time and you’re not going to suddenly become completely productive overnight. 

Take it one step at a time and tweak your lifestyle weekly – whether this is just by downplaying a task before you start the next one, or trying your very first time blocking interval. 

You’ll soon find that you have the tools to pull yourself out of productivity ruts far more quickly and remember, you’re not alone!

Note: The American Psychiatric Association describes ADHD as “one of the most common mental disorders affecting children”. 

However, it also affects many adults, too. 

The association explains, “Symptoms of ADHD include inattention (not being able to keep focus), hyperactivity (excess movement that is not fitting to the setting) and impulsivity (hasty acts that occur in the moment without thought).” 

Here are helpful links to help you better understand ADHD symptoms and traits to look out for:

  1. American Psychiatric Association - What Is ADHD?
  2. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) - Adult Diagnosis
  3. ADDItude Magazine’s ADHD Adults section has plenty of useful and insightful resources

Symptoms of ADHD are wide-ranging and can vary immensely from person to person. Therefore, if you think this could apply to you, then speak to your doctor to begin the diagnosis process. 

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