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Working from Home with ADHD

For some people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), remote work can be a good thing – no more noisy office or co-workers showing up at your desk just after you got into the groove of working on a task. But for many, working (or studying) from home full-time is particularly difficult. To get stuff done, you need to have good focus, organization, and time management skills – all things that many individuals with ADHD struggle with, even in the best of circumstances.

Why is working from home harder than working in the office?

When COVID-19 first hit the U.S., most people thought working from home would be short-term. Many fell out of their typical routines, assuming everything would be back to normal in a few weeks. Eight months later, you may still feel like you never fully adjusted to remote work. Individuals with ADHD often rely on certain routines and techniques to stay on top of their workload; being out of the office can send that into disarray. Usually a structured workday and support from your colleagues and boss are helpful to stay on track. But at home, you’re heavily on your own to self-direct and self-motivate.

Plus – we aren’t just working from home because we want to. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and most people are facing challenges and stressors that they never anticipated. If you’re a parent, you may be trying to split your time and focus between your own responsibilities and helping your kid(s) with virtual learning or general childcare. And there’s a lot more to ADHD than inattention, including difficulties with emotion regulation. Those with ADHD may be particularly vulnerable to stress right now, and that stress may exacerbate ADHD symptoms.

What can I do to help myself?

For people with ADHD, “good days” (in terms of productivity) can be an uphill battle. They don’t often come naturally, but through using certain techniques and strategies. If you’re struggling to focus and get work done at home, you’re not alone. Here are some tips you can try out to stay on top of your game:  

Set up a workspace.

The area you do work in matters – by now, you probably have a go-to spot, but is it set up to help you be successful? Your work area should be quiet, tidy, and if possible, only used for working. Consider what you need at the office and make sure those things are close to your at-home workspace. If having one designated workspace isn’t possible in your home, check out this blog post for ideas on how to manage that. 

Create a schedule and routines.

Try to stick to the same hours you had in the office, or at least work the same hours every day. Schedule in time for certain projects and tasks, meetings, breaks, meals, snacks, checking your email – the more structure you have in terms of what you should be doing and when you should be doing it, the better. Keep boundaries around your time as much as possible. If you’re focused on a project when someone messages you about something non-urgent, avoid the temptation to do it right then; stay on track with your current task until it’s completed or you come to a natural pausing point. And avoid multitasking – replying to emails during a meeting may feel like a good use of time, but you’ll likely retain less from the meeting and there’s a higher chance you’ll make some errors in your work.

Manage distractions.

Depending on your household, external distractions may be a big part of your struggle to be productive. If there are other people in your home, set up a system so they know when you’re in “do not disturb” mode – a sign on the door, headphones in, or setting “don’t bother me!” hours each day can reduce interruptions. Silence your cell phone, flip it screen-side down, or even better – put it out of sight and reach. Carve out designated times for emails throughout the day, rather than checking constantly; even if you don’t respond immediately, just seeing it can derail your thought process and concentration. Try writing the task you’re working on on a sticky note and putting it in a visible place, like right on your laptop. If you get distracted for a bit, seeing it will remind you what you’re supposed to be focused on.

Make realistic to-do lists.

Set both daily and weekly to-do lists for yourself. Update them at the end of the day (it’s rewarding to see things crossed off your list!) and set your plan for the next day. Start each morning by reviewing that day’s list, figuring out what order you want to tackle the items in, and breaking up the bigger tasks into doable pieces. Don’t forget to build in time for the unexpected, like distractions, urgent requests, or a meeting that runs late.

Take scheduled breaks.

Breaks are important. They allow you time to recharge and make your work sessions more productive. Take your first break before your workday even starts – don’t roll out of bed and go right to your desk chair. Remember commuting? Some alone time each morning will help you feel more energized for your day. Make sure to take another break after eating lunch to combat the post-lunch crash, and aim to get outside, even if only for a few minutes (this is the perfect time to walk the dog if you have one). You probably want to include mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks as well (try to work in chunks no longer than 2 hours). Think about your break activities in advance to avoid spending your break wondering what to do or scrolling on social media. Remember: the whole point of taking breaks is to recharge before your next block of work, so use them wisely.

Virtually work with a co-worker.

For many people, and especially people with ADHD, having someone to hold us accountable is crucial to getting things done. Get on a video call with a co-worker for an hour or two – knowing that someone else is with you can add good pressure to stay on task (just make sure to mute yourselves to avoid sound distractions). You can also do a morning check-in – let each other know your plans for the day and update each other as you cross things off your list. This way you know that someone is expecting you to complete certain tasks, plus you have someone to share the little wins with, which can keep you motivated.

Eat and stay hydrated.

ADHD itself can make it hard to remember routine things like eating, but it may be particularly difficult if you’re on medication, as many ADHD medications are stimulants and suppress appetite. Set an alarm or reminder on your phone to eat lunch. Especially while working from home, it’s easy to think about eating, tell yourself that you’ll go to the kitchen in a few minutes, and then forget – and suddenly it’s 4pm and all you’ve eaten today was a small breakfast 7 hours ago. Figure out what system works for you to ensure you’re eating and drinking enough water; no matter how many productivity techniques you incorporate into your life, if you aren’t fueling your body, your brain’s going to struggle too.

If your ADHD symptoms are still causing difficulties despite your best efforts to manage them, you may want to have a discussion with your supervisor about how they can help you. You also have the right to reasonable accommodations from your employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act – check out this article for guidance on seeking workplace accommodations.