Making my job ADHD-friendly
May 26, 2015 9:23 PM   Subscribe

How can I engineer my workflow to increase urgency, accountability, and structure?

This previous question of mine gives some background about my current job and some of my struggles with it. In short, I'm flailing in a somewhat unstructured environment. One commenter mentioned that I should be re-evaluated for ADHD. I took this to heart, sought a second opinion, and was prescribed Adderall, which confirmed some of my suspicions about what's been underlying some of my struggles.

However, some family health history has come to light which would make it unwise for me to take medications like Adderall, for heart health reasons.

So, I've been reflecting on how I might make my workplace more ADHD-friendly in the absence of pharmaceutical help.

Thinking back on my life, the last time I really thrived and excelled was in high school, over a decade ago. I always knew what I was supposed to be doing, had daily (and even hourly deadlines), and was supervised by teachers and parents. I distinguished myself and enrolled at a well-regarded university.

In college, I started to struggle. No one was telling me what to do and when. Assignments were open-ended (papers). Deadlines were weekly, at most, and were more often monthly. I was completely unprepared for this level of freedom. I procrastinated heavily and didn't do my best work, to say the least.

My current job requires me to manage my workflow and make headway on long- and short-term projects without much supervision. I have weekly check-ins with my manager, who is very kind and flexible (great for my anxiety, bad for my productivity). Besides that, my schedule is pretty open.

In an ideal world, my job would consist of defined, open-and-shut tasks that need to be done at specific times and can't be put off, i.e. taking orders over the phone or opening and closing tickets that need to be cleared ASAP. I suppose I could quit my job and seek out this environment, but this would represent (1) a salary cut in an extremely expensive area (2) further fracturing of an already disjointed resume, and (3) a possible departure from the creative and analytical contributions I want to make, eventually. My organization and team are wonderful, benefits galore, and I would like to make it work if possible.

Which brings me to the meat of my question: is it possible to inject urgency, structure, and an assembly-line pace to an unstructured job? Have you managed to create that "gotta get shit done NOW" feeling without your mom, teacher, or boss breathing down your neck?

I've fantasized about some kind of ticket system that will feed me my tasks, one by one, and not let me do anything else until each one is done. That way, I wouldn't be able to bounce around to less odious tasks and leave the meaty ones hanging out on the back burner. I'd wrap up each day with a sense of accomplishment.

Bonus points if you have ADHD and have adjusted to that particular set of challenges.

I hope this question isn't too similar to my last. I've done some more thinking since then about my needs, and I hope this comes through. Thanks so much!
posted by delight to Work & Money (9 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
It's a balance, for me. I can make huge lists and assign lots of due dates and then the whole thing quickly falls apart. If it gets too ordered, then the moment I get off-task for even a moment, the whole thing seems to collapse. What I need is to check in with somebody, regardless of what I'm working on, about what I'm doing, what's next, and so on, a couple times a day. But that doesn't have to be your manager, you know? It could be a friend, if your manager isn't available that often. It could just be checking in with a journal or something. A rubber duck. Whatever. It seems to go a long way. When I'm having very scattered days, I set myself timers to remind myself to check in at least mentally every twenty minutes, or every hour, depending on what I'm working on.

The check-in itself isn't something I've really codified or anything, but it goes something like: What am I working on right now? What needs to be done on it still before it's "done"? About how long do I expect that to take? What's my next step? What else needs to get done today? I tend not to get stuff onto the to-do list unless it's something that's going to need follow-up more than 24 hours from now, but YMMV as far as what's helpful. I think it's the act of consciously taking a few minutes of time-out to collect my thoughts that helps the most.
posted by Sequence at 9:53 PM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have ADHD and have had to create lots of systems to get me to do my work, which is almost entirely self-directed. The book and time management techniques in Getting Things Done helped me greatly.

What I've come up with and stuck with for the past 5 years is the idea that I actually do need more than one thing to work on at a time or else I'll just find myself spinning my wheels. So, I keep a huge to-do list in a text file (so I can't spend time changing fonts or choosing fun new bullet styles). Anything that pops into my mind or gets handed to me by a boss or coworker gets added to the list. I also put personal stuff on there because I have to get that done too.

Then, I work on 3 things at a time. Kind of like this:

- Scan the list and pick out 3 things that are not too similar.
- Move them to the top of the text file.
- Put enough line breaks below those top three items to make it so that those are the only things I can see. (or I will sometimes write them in my notebook and only have that in front of me as I work on them).
- Start working on the first one. If it seems too big or complicated or I'm not motivated then I will set my timer for 25 minutes and start working.
- Keep working until the time is up (or I get to a natural stopping point) or I finish the task. If I finish the task then I delete it from the list. If I am only stopping for now, I keep it up top.
- Move on to the next task.

I keep working around in a cycle on those 3 things until either they are done or they are all stopped and I can't work on them any more until I get what I need to keep going (might need to consult with a coworker or hear back from a client, etc.). If they are done, I delete them. If they are stopped then I put them back in the big list.

Usually, once I get down to 1 item, I go back and pick 2 more items to get me back up to 3 tasks.

Before I started taking Vyvanse, I had to work on my to-do list exactly in order or else I would keep skipping over the hard stuff and do only the easy or appealing tasks. Now that I'm taking it, I do a better job of prioritizing the tasks and consulting with my boss to see what she thinks I should do next. (I don't ask her about every task on the list, just what projects should be priorities.)

I think my system sounds really complicated when I try to explain it to people but it works for me. And that's the point, you need to try out a bunch of systems and then choose what works for you from each of them to create a system that is uniquely yours.
posted by dawkins_7 at 10:01 PM on May 26, 2015 [12 favorites]

Have you tried Pomodoro technique, i.e. do each task for only about 50 minutes with 10 minute breaks?
posted by kschang at 10:02 PM on May 26, 2015

OmniFocus does it for me.
posted by Brainy at 10:08 PM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've fantasized about some kind of ticket system that will feed me my tasks, one by one, and not let me do anything else until each one is done.

You might find the browser add-on "Pay the Piper" useful. It's not going to force you to do anything, but it will pop up a task from your to do list (which you can arrange by location and importance) and block distracting websites until you have done it. It's easy to circumvent, but you might find the reminder and the specificness of one suggested task helpful. Plus it's created by a mefite!
posted by lollusc at 11:16 PM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

It might be worth it for you to see an ADHD coach even if you are not on meds. A coach could work with you to figure out a method to structure your time and get results. Also, there are ADHD meds that are not stimulants, you can work with your doctor to find one that works for you. Finding the right drug will do wonders for your ability to motivate yourself, especially if you back it up with organizational techniques.
posted by lemur at 11:20 PM on May 26, 2015

I really like dawkins_7's suggestion. To be productive I need either to work on more than one thing at once, going frequently back and forth between them, or to have multiple stimuli, in order to focus. The biggest help for me was realizing non-ADHD methods of completing tasks would never work very well for me, accepting my brain for what it is, and finding what did work. I don't know what type of environment you work in, but having visual stimulation, like a nature show, on mute in the background helps me. Being seated near a window with a busy view helps. Giving myself permission to get up and walk around frequently ironically makes me more productive.
posted by branravenraven at 11:51 PM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh man. I really identify with this question. A few things:

1) Like you, I've tried using a number of reminder systems, and I've often abandoned them after a few days. I realize now that the problem is my barrier to use is extremely low. If I can't remember a password, or if the user interface is slightly unintuitive, I'm done. I started a new job recently where I implemented a system in Excel that has actually worked out really well so far.

2a) Each week, I start a new row, and list the major projects I have to do, some of their associated specific tasks, and some long-term projects. I have a column that indicates which day I should complete it by as well as a color code (red, yellow), and another column for which day I actually complete it. After I complete it I make both boxes green. When I get a new task, I assign a color to it based on urgency. This way I can take one glance, see how many red boxes I have to work on, and this gives me an idea of what I need to do. I do adjust completion dates as the day goes on. Now the real key, and why I do it in Excel, is... I HYPERLINK THE SHIT OUT OF THIS DOCUMENT. When I add a task, I link all the specific documents I'll need to work on it, including reference ones. It's more work upfront but then it gives me no excuse to just not click on it and do it. Plus it's easier to copy and link if the task bleeds into the following week.

2b) I looked over your question again and I totally know what you mean about odious tasks and avoiding them and doing other stuff first. This still happens, but for me the color-coding system, and the threat of like undone red boxes, is enough of a driver to overcome that.

3) Like you, I used to have a job that gave me way too much autonomy and I was often bored, anxious, or cursing my boss for being so flexible and understanding. I recently got a new job where, because we are contractors for a project, we literally have to bill every single hour to a specific project's charge code. This has been legitimately amazing to me. People cited it as a problem of working at the company, but I love it so much. I also have an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of how much time I spend on each project, which I update throughout the day. All my hours are split into little half hour blocks. I can't spend too much time goofing off because I can't legitimately charge the project. Related to this, I know that I operate best when I have slightly too much to do all the time. Just enough to keep me on my toes (and no time to slack off), but not overwhelming. I laughed when I read your fantasy list ticket system. When I was looking for new jobs recently, I literally was like “I want a job that will give me a series of tasks that I will then execute competently.”

4) Pomodoro works for me (I use an app), but when I saw an earlier suggestion for 50-minute blocks, I was like hahahaha. Oh no. It has to be a really difficult and engaging task for me to focus for 50 straight minutes. I use 25-minute blocks with a 5-minute break, and I use the break to check e-mail, or do other organizational things like my spreadsheets.

5) Quick note, I’m not sure if you can do this, but what often helps me is setting meetings with people. I need to have accountability to other people or I will never get stuff done. A meeting is a concrete deadline.

6) Finally, I feel like part of what took me a while to accept is that it's just much more difficult for me to do many kinds of fairly normal things. I have to set way more reminders, and again, I have to make the barriers to getting stuff done way lower than they might be for other people. At first this made me feel like my standards were too low, like why couldn't I just be better at X simple task, but the truth is I have to be realistic about how I get things. Does this mean that by the door I have little sticky reminders for phone, key, lunch, meds? Yup. Oh well, that’s how I have to roll. And this is why a simple thing like hyperlinking my Excel to do list document was legitimately a huge revelation.
posted by leedly at 6:35 AM on May 27, 2015 [10 favorites]

Work buddies save my ass. I'm a freelancer and usually work at home. One of my work buddies I actually work with in person once a week; the other is a person I have virtual work dates with. It would still work for me even if I were an employee because the key is that we trade a list of our priorities for that day. And then, maybe twice a day, we check in with each other to see how we're doing. We also frequently text or email each other simply to report whenever we've made progress. Remembering that I am making progress and documenting it is super important for me in terms of not drowning in feeling like a failure because I have not produced like a superhero. Since I am a perfectionist saddled with ADD (and I know that does not make me special), it's really good for me to reward myself for accomplishing things and announcing what I have accomplished to one of my work buddies is sometimes enough of a reward. So that's how I have tried to build in accountability for myself, simply by finding other people who, like me, need to be anchored by other people in some small way to get their work done. Sorry this is so wordy, I couldn't think of a faster way of explaining it. Really like the tips above; thanks to the OP for asking!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:02 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

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