12 Hacks for Managing ADHD at Work When You Have a Desk Job
Managing ADHD at work can be a challenge. Humans were never designed to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day. Yes, you technically get a lunch break — but how many of us feel pressured to work through our lunch? Yet, a large proportion of the population working corporate or desk jobs are expected to sit and work for a full day without losing focus or productivity. Not only is this near impossible for the average person, it’s even harder for people with ADHD.
People with ADHD end up switching jobs more frequently, or lose their jobs more than the average person. ADHD can prevent a person from keeping their focus, staying on task, remaining organized, managing time, or maintaining productivity. That doesn’t mean people with ADHD aren’t good employees or failures. People with ADHD are smart and capable, but our work systems aren’t set up to support neurodiversity.
Over my years of working in a corporate environment, I’ve come up with ways to get through the workday. Here are my tips and hacks for managing ADHD at work.
1. Time your ADHD medication to maximize your energy and focus at work.
If you take medication for your ADHD but find that it doesn’t kick in soon enough to start your workday feeling energized, try setting an alarm for 2 hours before you need to wake up and keep your medication by your bedside. When the alarm goes off, take your medication and go back to bed. By the time you need to wake up, you’ll be ready to go.
2. Eat high-protein food to maintain energy at work even when ADHD medications suppress your appetite.
Medication always made my stomach feel weird, so I found taking it with food helped. Eggs, cheese, protein shakes, or anything with protein helped immensely and kept me energized because the medication often killed my appetite during the day.
3. Use quiet fidget toys or jewelry to stay focused with ADHD at work.
Fidget toys are my favorite tool to manage my ADHD at work. I have a discreet ring that I can spin around. Though it wasn’t intended as fidget jewelry, it’s always on my finger so I never have to remember it. I also use a fidget cube with buttons that don’t make noise so I don’t distract myself or others in meetings. You can also use typical office items if you want to be more subtle, like pens with multiple colors.
4. Succeed with ADHD at work by scheduling work blocks in your calendar.
Schedule specific work blocks and focus time in your calendar when you have a task that will require more than 15 minutes. This helps structure your day and week, and ensures things don’t get missed. With ADHD, it’s easy to see a list of tasks and not feel like you’ll have any time to do it all, which is overwhelming and kills motivation. It’s OK to not stick to the time blocks — I often will switch the blocks around depending on what I feel like doing. Make sure that your blocks are specific — “analyze ABC report” for 1 hour is better than “respond to emails” for 3 hours.
5. If possible, schedule work meetings at times when you can focus.
If you have control over scheduling your meetings, try to determine what meetings will require the most amount of focus and participation, and schedule those for when you find you have optimal focus and energy. For me, meetings from 10-12 or 2-3 work best so I try to book them then.
6. Make a to-do list or use a planner, whichever works best for you when managing ADHD at work.
I like having an ongoing to-do list instead of a planner. I’ve never liked using a planner, so my to-do list is often a sticky note or Google doc of things I need to keep track of.
7. Restructure your day and breaks to maximize your productivity with ADHD at work.
I find my productivity is really high during standard lunch time, so I don’t often take a lunch break. I take my breaks when I know they fit me best. I like frequent, short breaks every hour or two instead of one long break in the middle of the day. Some people say to work for about 50 minutes and then take a 15-minute break, but I find ADHD isn’t that consistent. Sometimes I need a quick break after only 30 minutes of work; other times I can go two hours without a break and don’t want to interrupt my flow.
8. If ADHD makes you distracted during the workday, take that into account.
ADHD makes my mind wander, so I plan for that. If a task will take an hour of working, I’ll block about 10-20% more in my calendar to account for the time my mind will wander around. That way I don’t end up behind and don’t need to force myself to get back to work, which almost never works.
9. Plan shorter meetings — especially if you have back-to-back meetings.
I have my default meeting time to 25 minutes instead of 30, which allows me to build in time to grab a snack or decompress for a minute or two before jumping into my next meeting. I often book short meetings (10-15 min) to stay focused and avoid Zoom fatigue.
10. Turn off notifications and digital distractions during some of your work blocks.
If you need to focus, turn off your email/Slack notifications. I try not to do this for more than an hour at a time because otherwise, I don’t know what I’ve missed and find the surprise when I check back in stressful. With ADHD, it’s easy to feel the urge to check a notification as soon as it comes in, and then I disengage from what I was working on and it takes a while to get back into it again.
11. Make your work environment comfortable so you can stay on task with ADHD at work.
Find your optimal work set up, and get comfortable before settling in to work. One of the biggest reasons I get off task is because I am distracted by being a bit too cold or hot, or I didn’t fill up my water cup, or I can’t decide what music to listen to. Taking a few minutes to check in with if your environment feels good before trying to settle in and work can prevent multiple interruptions, which make it harder to refocus. If you find your environment changes often, keep things within arm’s reach — like a sweater on the back of your chair.
12. Setting deadlines for everything can be helpful.
I set my deadlines before they’re actually due. For example, if something is due for the end of the week, I schedule it to be completed by mid-Thursday or if something is needed for the end of the day, I’ll plan to complete it by 2 p.m., which gives me some leeway.
If you have ADHD and find getting through the workday challenging, you’re not alone! It’s also not your fault if you find working difficult, and there are ways to make it easier with a bit of creativity. If you’re able to do so, give these hacks for managing ADHD at work a try, or think about what changes you can make to make your workday more conducive to your needs.
Getty image by Hiraman.