Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition characterized by attention difficulty and impulsiveness, wasn’t widely understood or even recognized until fairly recently. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that clinicians began focusing on ADHD symptoms in not only children, but adults as well.
Now, it’s one of the fastest growing mental health diagnoses — about 4.4% of adults in the United States have it — with diagnosis rates dramatically increasing year after year. (Between 2007 and 2016, the prevalence of ADHD in adults increased by 123%.)
The condition has historically been stigmatized, with many people falsely equating ADHD with a lack of intelligence, motivation or ability. In actuality, our intelligence has little to do with how organized or attentive we are, and ADHD symptoms are not a reflection of someone’s actual work ethic. And many people with ADHD ultimately go on to become massively successful (looking at you, Michael Phelps and Adam Levine.)
That said, ADHD can potentially interfere with how well someone is able to pay attention: Some cite issues staying organized, getting too distracted, or focusing on the task at hand. But these symptoms can be managed, and there are several ways to improve concentration, productivity, memory and focus so you can thrive professionally.
Here are five expert-backed techniques for managing ADHD on the job:
Break your work up into chunks
Many mental health professionals who specialize in ADHD recommend chunking work, or “splitting it into smaller time slices with a reward at the end of each time slice,” said Nick Garg, a psychiatrist based in Philadelphia.
The theory behind chunking is that setting up internal deadlines and breaking your workload into pieces can make the workday much more manageable.
Garg recommends a 3:1 ratio: Work for 90 minutes, then take a half-hour break and reward yourself with an activity you enjoy — repeat. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to reduce ADHD symptoms, so if you can, try to fit in a walk or something that gets you moving.
Talk to your manager if you can
If you’ve scored an understanding and sympathetic boss, it’s worth giving them a heads-up about your ADHD. For one, ADHD is recognized as a disability, so, if diagnosed, you may be legally entitled to accommodations such as extra time or private work spaces to accomplish your tasks, if need be.
On top of that, it can clue your boss into what you excel at and what you may need more support with. Then, they can provide constructive feedback and help optimize your performance. “Your boss will understand your strengths and weaknesses much better,” Garg said.
If you’re not comfortable bringing it up with your boss, you can skip over the ADHD part and ask for feedback on how you can do a better job. Identify the things you’re struggling with ― e.g., there are too many distractions ― and come up with a solution together, like occasionally working in a quiet conference room rather than your cubicle. Then, check in regularly to track your progress on said issue.
Another option is to go to human resources and confidentially ask about accommodations there, as well, Garg said. Given ADHD’s disability status, HR departments should be prepared to handle these requests.
Find a working environment that fits
This is a big one, as immediate environment can either make or break a person’s focus.
“Working environment can have a dramatic effect on performance of individuals with ADHD in the workplace,” said Michael Bloch, a Yale Medicine psychiatrist.
Some people with ADHD may flourish in an office environment, where others may struggle with the constant flow of distractions and meetings. On the flip side, working remotely may give people with ADHD the freedom to work on what they’re passionate about and chunk up their day, or it could derail their focus.
If you don’t have an ideal work environment, there are a few steps you can take to make things easier. Bloch recommended keeping your workspace super organized, and using headphones to minimize distractions. Try using a day planner, timer or phone alarms to schedule in breaks and keep up with deadlines. A therapist or organizational coach can also design a custom plan to help you work through any workplace challenges or find a new job that better fits with your needs and abilities.
Work in a field you’re passionate about
Excitement, new experiences and creativity are crucial for people with ADHD, which is why it’s important to pursue work you find interesting and rewarding. Simply being interested in something will naturally improve your focus and motivation.
According to Garg, ADHD symptoms are worsened by the mundane or the tedious. “A job that a person with ADHD would choose, in a perfect world, would be one that they are passionate about — requiring individual creativity and commitment counteracting boredom — or one that allows for ‘wearing different hats,’” he said.
Furthermore, many people with ADHD have a unique set of personality traits that can help their careers, like being energetic and innovative. Plus, there’s evidence that people with ADHD are able to hyperfocus and get so wrapped up in something they enjoy that they can tune out the world around them until they’re finished.
Many ADHD medications have become controversial in recent years, but that’s because so many people who don’t have ADHD have misused or abused them. But medications such as psychostimulants ― in conjunction with behavioral therapy ― have been shown to be extremely effective in people diagnosed with ADHD.
That said, Bloch noted there’s strong evidence that these sorts of medications are underutilized by adults with ADHD. (It’s estimated only 10.9% of adults with ADHD receive treatment.)
Part of this is due to fears about increasingly needing medication or feeling like people can grow “immune” to it. Garg said that people who take ADHD medication when they don’t have the condition can “build up tolerance quickly and therefore need higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect.” But those with ADHD typically find the right dose and rarely need to go higher.
If you’ve struggled with ADHD in the workplace, know that there are plenty of effective ways to improve your symptoms. Listen to your body, ask for support, and trust that with the proper guidance, you can play to your strengths and thrive at work.