ADHD and Entrepreneurship: 5 Tips for Success in Business
The gentleman sitting across the table from me focused his attention on the laptop screen I had placed in front of him. His poker face was good. I couldn’t really gauge his reaction, but it was clear that his gears were turning. Then, a light appeared in his eyes and his smile pierced through his rugged beard.
“I love it! You’ve done great work here. I like these ideas and I think we can take them a bit further,” he said with enthusiasm.
His carefully crafted words, his minimalist hand gestures and the subtle adjustment of his glasses all spoke to his business acumen and his ability as a leader in the workplace. He isn’t much older than I am, yet sometimes I feel like we are worlds apart. He sits back in his squeaky office chair and crosses one leg over the other. I notice that the particular color of charcoal gray slacks he chose to wear this day is very similar to a suit I had been eyeing recently. It was sharp and simple, the way that Apple products are elegant and professional. I felt it matched well with the solid blue dress shirt he wore. I, personally, would have gone for a pink or any light shade of color, especially a pastel. His paisley tie did a great job of adding flair without being distracting.
This is about the time I realized I hadn’t heard a single thing he said. “When do you think we can get this done?” he asks me as he reclined comfortably. I make eye contact and my mind quickly scrambles for any hint of what I might have missed. I knew what I had been working on and I knew what the project was heading towards, but in my experience, I have found that honesty really is the best policy.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that last part, can you repeat that while I jot it down?” I respectfully asked, pen at the ready. Without skipping a beat, he jumped back into his thoughts on what he liked regarding my data analysis, what he’d like to see and goals he’d like to achieve. With my attention back on the topic at hand, I was easily able to address his concerns and quickly assemble a tentative action plan that we all agreed was realistic. We eventually set a deadline, everyone shook hands and all was right with the world.
This may not appear to be a noteworthy story or special circumstance to most people. To me, it’s a reminder that a professional adult with severe attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), rapid cyclic mood disorder and an anxiety disorder can still live a functional and productive life.
Everyone goes through moments of “spacing out.” For those of us with ADHD, it’s a way of life. I was first diagnosed with severe adult ADHD in my second year of college. Thanks to my academic advisor who suggested I be tested for a learning disability (a story for another time), my life was forever changed for the better. I had always been great in school and no one had ever thought about the possibility of me having a learning or mood disorder, especially because I had none of the typical characteristics of hyperactivity. Then again, I also grew up in South Texas during the rise of Ritalin and when most parents’ perception of the ADD/ADHD diagnosis was that of a child/adolescent simply being lazy. It took going to an Ivy League university in another state for someone to see that I needed help when I didn’t even know it.
I was reluctant to take any medication, so at first I opted to work with a psychologist to learn about how my brain functions and implement habits and lifestyle changes that would help me function better. Needless to say, that changed my life. I became incredibly more productive just by changing simple things, even in my diet. I began to scrutinize everything I did. Eventually I did began using medications and found that it really did work for me. I understand that it doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s important to find what works best for your particular situation. Ultimately, one of the many great qualities shared by individuals with ADHD is the incredible ability adapt.
That’s where I bring my story back to me running my own business. Even though I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a second degree in Human Biology (with honors), I struggled to find work right out of college. It didn’t help that the economy was at the height of the 2008-2009 recession either. Even with the jobs I did have, they were hard to keep because I do struggle with being on task. It was in early 2011 that, out of a lack of job prospects, I dove into the world of being a business owner. I had no experience starting a business or running one, but it seemed like the benefits certainly outweighed the downsides. Since then, I have started and operated multiple businesses in various industries. I’ve even sold a business too.
Over the years I have been involved in so many projects, businesses and experiences that I have built up a resume that looks like a misshapen nightmare to a potential employer, but a hidden gem to business owners. I built my own consulting firm where I specialize in helping other businesses develop and improve internal systems, infrastructure, operations, etc. to help them grow. I also consult startups and help them get off the ground. Lastly, I buy into and manage other ventures and operate a business as a holding company. As I write this, I operate three businesses (along with my business partners). I am directly consulting three medium-large clients and I am in the process of launching two new businesses while helping my wife launch her first business.
You might be starting to wonder if it’s even possible to do something like this successfully. That’s the keyword: “successfully.” It took me a while to figure out there really is such thing as biting off more than you can chew. Just like how I was forced into business by my circumstances, I was forced into learning how to work smarter, too. If I could describe the state of my businesses right now, I would say that they are in early stage startup and I have learned how to count my successes every day, no matter how small they might be, when stacked against the odds.
So, how does someone with so much on their plate manage it all, much less do it successfully? Well, here are some tips that might help you as much as they help me.
1. Systems and habits.
So much of what we do is based on habit. If you build a routine and incorporate the proper habits, you can essentially automate much of what you do without having to think about it too much. I find this helpful because it frees up my mind to think about the important things while I go about doing the unimportant things on autopilot. When you know how you operate, you can work around your strengths. This is true of your work, your finances, your business and everything else.
2. Prioritize to-do lists.
I live by the to-do list. Given that I have so much going on all the time, it is not reasonably expected that I actually accomplish much of it. In fact, I rely on the fact that I know I won’t. Instead, what I do is focus my energies into breaking down all my activities into smaller activities. I do this for several reasons. The first is that it feels oh, so good to scratch off something from a to-do list. It makes you feel accomplished and positive. The more I can scratch off, the more I feel that I’ve done. That part is psychological. But it’s important, nonetheless.
The second reason is it can be visually, mentally and emotionally overwhelming to see everything you need to do. So I break things up by category. I have a to-do list for each business and one for my personal life. I jot down all the things I can think of that need to be done for that particular category. From there, I determine what the absolute most critical task items that need to be completed are. Once I identify those, I make a new list of only these critical items. On that list, I focus on which of those items are higher priority and focus on the top three to five. My goal for the day then becomes to complete those three to five essential tasks. Once these are complete, I can move on to the next task items on my various lists. It may seem like a tedious practice, but once the work is put in on the front end, the day goes by much more smoothly when you know exactly what needs to be done. Again, if you incorporate this into you system as a habit, then you will barely realize that you are doing it at all.
3. Delegate and automate.
People with ADHD are known to be masters of multi-tasking, while somehow also being terrible at it. I have found for me to be my most productive, I have to focus my efforts on the things I enjoy doing the most. For everything else, I do whatever is in my power to not do them if I don’t need to. By this, I mean delegate the task. I ask myself if there’s someone who can do it better than me or someone who might want to do it. I’m always happy to barter for tasks, too. As long as it’s a win-win for everyone, that’s important. If there’s an app I can use, a service that I can incorporate (y’all, virtual assistants are amazing!) or a program I can write, I want to invest my time and energy into figuring those things out so that I don’t have to worry about handling repetitive, non-urgent tasks.
4. Say, “No.”
At first, this may seem counter-intuitive considering I’ve mentioned how much I am involved in. It is important to know that we all have limitations. There are just some things we simply can not do. For all the things I am involved in, I have learned to say, “No,” when I know I can’t handle anymore. It’s OK to say, “No,” to a project, a meeting time or a friend/relative asking to do something. Similarly, it’s OK to say, “No,” to your business and take some time for yourself and family/friends. I make it a point to take one whole weekend every month where I do absolutely nothing related to work. I make time for family, rest and hobbies. Working yourself to the ground often yields less productivity than if you pace yourself based on what works best for you.
5. Know your strengths and weaknesses.
This last one is connected with the previous four points I’ve made and goes back to the importance of learning how you learn and operate. Up until recently, it was taboo and unaccepted to for someone to call in sick for a “mental health” day. For those of us with ADHD, anxiety and more, it is doubly more important to prioritize your mental health as much as your physical well-being. Let’s face it, if you can’t do the work, you probably won’t have work to do (i.e., get fired).
Nowadays it’s become easier to simply tell the truth when you’re not feeling well enough to give 100 percent. As a business owner, I have the flexibility to do this. But unlike non-business owners, there’s also a serious weight to balancing this correctly so as to not appear unreliable, uninterested or just incapable. Additionally, when you have employees that rely on you as a leader, there’s a standard that needs to be upheld. Results should still be produced, there’s no excuses for that.
Going back to the beginning of this article, I recall feeling positive and confident leaving that meeting. I enjoy the idea that me, an average-looking guy in dark jeans, running shoes, a band T-shirt and my favorite Boston Red Sox cap, can provide so much value to a team of suit-and-tie business men and women. At first glance, I often don’t “look” like what a business person might be expected to look like. But then again, I don’t do what most people do. I get results and at the end of the day, no one cares what you look like, where you come from or how you got there as long as you can make the right things happen.