Working from Home with ADHD: Setting up your Workspace and Schedule

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Covid-19 continues to increase its impact on the lives of everyone I know. Or perhaps it’s better put that we as a people are increasing our response to the virus by the day. Where a few weeks ago this was something I’d heard of that was on the other side of the world, it’s now turned my entire life upside down.

I work in public education in Washington state. As of last Tuesday all of our schools have been ordered closed for six weeks by order of Governor Inslee. My staff and I continued to work at our site for a few days, but as of today, we are all working from home. This is such a drastic change in how we operate. I can’t tell you how little thought I had ever put into possibly doing my job from home.

So that’s why I’m here. I’ve now been forced into figuring out what this looks like. How do you set up your workspace? How do you schedule your time? How do you stay motivated and avoid distractions? I don’t have the experience yet to say I’m an expert, but I’m happy to share what I’ve come up with so far.

Setting up your workspace

Whether you’ll be working from home for a few days, weeks, or long-term, you will need to find an appropriate workspace. If you actually have a full or partial office with a desk in your home, consider yourself lucky, and you may be able to skip this step. But more than just a desk to work from, there are a few things you should consider before settling on any workspace in your home.

  • What types of work will I need to accomplish at home? Does this space allow me to adequately carry out all of them?
  • Does the space lend itself to video chats? Remember to look behind you to see what others in your chat will see.
  • Is the workspace somewhat stimulating, but not so far as to be distracting?
  • How close is it to some of your regular distractions? For me these would be food and television.
  • If you live with others, is the workspace in a heavily trafficked area or is it somewhat secluded?

Start by considering all spaces with a flat surface large enough to accomplish your work. In my own home, I can consider a built-in desk in the kitchen, the dining room table, the living room coffee table, a small desk in a bonus room upstairs, and a sewing table in a guest bedroom.

The built-in in the kitchen seems ideal, as there’s already a computer with webcam and ample desk space to get work done. But it’s also in a heavily trafficked area and very close to one of my main distractors, food. The dining room table and coffee table both fail the traffic and distraction tests. The bonus room desk is close to passing but is somewhat small and right outside my daughter’s bedroom.

By elimination, the sewing table in the guest room wins. The table itself may be inadequate, but I have a folding table I can put in its place if needed. There is a beautiful view from a window in that room, but no one will be coming through, and it’s far from television and food. This all bodes well for me making it work.

Having chosen it, I will organize the space as much as possible as I did at work, making sure I have all things at-hand so I can do my work without leaving the space. I’m thinking computer, pens, post-its, journals, contact lists, schedules, etc. And please, maybe most important of all, make sure you have a comfortable chair.

Scheduling

Especially if working from home is a change, you will be operating on a new schedule. It’s okay to change. Build something new that works for you. Elise Kumar wrote about why this is important on her recent post about changing gears.

Make sure you block out time on your calendar for all tasks you intend to accomplish for the day. Schedule each one longer than you expect it to take, so that you can account for transition times. You may even find that you need to schedule transition times separately, or operate on a timer system so that you keep yourself moving between tasks. If you’re plagued by time-blindness like me, you may find that timers are life-saving.

As you’re scheduling your work, try as much as you can to switch to different types of activities. If one task requires high levels of concentration while working at the computer, try following it up with something different like checking in with someone by phone. You should also be mindful and intentional about scheduling breaks, so if you do have two or more similar tasks to accomplish, you can at least make sure you get a break in-between.

As you consider breaks, remember that not all are created equal. Here are a few different ideas you can try.

  • Get up and dance to an up-tempo song or two
  • Watch a funny YouTube video
  • Go for a short walk
  • Get a snack
  • Call a friend or relative, but make sure they know your time limit
  • Read a chapter from a novel
  • Lay down and rest for a few minutes
  • Play a level or two of a retro video game

With any of these, you want to consider what task you’ve just finished, and what task you’re going into next. For any of them, you might consider a timer or alarm to remind you when it’s time to transition back. But do make sure you break as needed.

What next?

Once you’ve got your workspace and schedule set up, it’s time to get to work. But maintaining focus and motivation to do work at home is another great challenge to overcome. Originally I was going to include motivation tips in this post, but that grew into a big enough topic to tackle all on its own, which you can now read here: Working from Home with ADHD Part 2: Staying Motivated.

Have you set up a workspace and schedule using any of the tips above? I’d love to hear how it went! Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter.

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How Undiagnosed ADHD Impacted My Home Life

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As you seek an ADHD diagnosis, your doctor or psychiatrist will ask about how it is impacting your home life, as well as work or school. The challenges we face which drive us to seek mental health services will almost always stem from one or more of these major arenas. And as you look closely, you will find the impacts of ADHD in all areas of your life.

As my diagnosis of ADHD-Inattentive came well into adulthood at age 37, I have found plenty of signs of its impact at home, work, and school. Though I of course experienced them all as they happened, I accepted what I had always told myself: that these were the simply signs of a good-for-nothing, lazy, and possibly incompetent person. Someone who did not care for his things, his family, or himself. A person lacking motivation to take care of even simple, every day tasks that every adult is simply expected to do.

As ADHD was given this camouflage of laziness, it wreaked havoc on my home life. After my therapist brought up ADHD I was able to begin to see all of the damage that had been done. Here I share some of the major areas of impact that I have observed in my home life as an adult.

Organization

I have always struggled with organization, and my adult home is no exception. First off, I own too many things. There’s a massive sense of guilt attached to letting go of anything that might one day be useful, and a great deal of nostalgia surrounding a multitude of belongings I’ve kept since childhood. I have collections gathered from many, many past fixations that are neatly stored and awaiting the day when the fixation might resurface.

All of these belongings greatly exacerbate the general state of disorganization that permeates the house. The farther you are from the front door, the more my belongings exist in piles. Historically this has been worst in the garage and an extra bedroom which came to be known as “the storage room.” Both areas tended to grow in clutter until I literally just threw items through the door onto the pile because either the mess was so bad the extra item wouldn’t be noticed, or because I could no longer enter the room without stepping on something.

My own bedroom has often gotten to a state where (predominantly) clothes dominate the space: in baskets, on the floor, or piled on open drawers. Tops of dressers and night stands are covered in clutter accumulated by dozens of drive-by drops as the rest of the house gets “cleaned.” Even the cleaner parts of the house like the living and dining room will collect small piles of clutter around the edges of the room and on top of flat surfaces. These get somewhat spruced when the infrequent guest stops by, but often are ignored as we become blind to the existence of the smaller piles.

I can clean and organize things, and every now and then I will muster up the drive to do a massive cleaning or organization project and I can completely fix a room or two over the course of several hours. But typically that is a one-shot deal and within a week or two the room has returned to its usual cluttered state.

Lack of maintenance

I always admired my dad for how well he took care of his things and family. Our house and acreage, many cars, various pets, and of course us humans in the home too. He was always working to improve and/or maintain things. For example, with his cars he kept a notebook for each one where he would log the maintenance he performed. These notebooks existed for the entire time he owned each vehicle. If anything became broken on the property or on a vehicle, it was fixed almost immediately.

I have always felt like a failure compared to him. No matter where I live, my home or apartment is in a constant state of decay, and though I may even notice what is happening I simply don’t have the drive to do anything about it. Many home-improvement projects are lying around started but unfinished and there are several items that are broken and have been awaiting repair for years.

This lack of maintenance also extends to myself. Routine things regarding self-care are very difficult to sustain with regularity. I have developed a few routines that help me (usually) stay on top of the basics like brushing my teeth and showering. But ‘bigger’ self care items like going to the dentist and doctor are put off for years in favor of the “go when it really hurts” plan. It’s not a great way to stay healthy.

Relationships

My undiagnosed ADHD was particularly challenging for my partner and my kids. My fixations were often all I could think about and took all of my time and attention, usually taking priority over all family matters. I would rarely help with chores around the house unless I was asked. I simply didn’t feel any drive to clean and do dishes or laundry. And when I did resolve to make changes, they would only last days or weeks.

A big part of my ADHD is emotional dysregulation. My emotions run very close to the surface and that means that anger, frustration, fear, happiness, sadness-any or all of these can come rushing out. While I can usually hold things together at work throughout the day (where there are real world consequences for ‘losing it’), I tended to lose it at home instead, where the immediate consequences for doing so are less severe. This often meant yelling at my kids or being surly with my wife when they weren’t really the source of the frustration or anger.

Managing life tasks

Poor executive function is the culprit for a lot of things I struggle with. I have low impulse control and tend to spend money on frivolous things or items related to my current fixation, whether we can afford them or not. I completely forget about or am slow to pay bills even when I have money to do so. An incredibly poor short term memory equates to a lot of broken promises to family members and many forgotten and neglected responsibilities.

Time blindness is another hallmark of ADHD. For me it shows up in a few ways. When I’m hyperfocused, I lose track of time completely and hours may pass. If I’m doing something that’s required or imposed, time my drag on and 10 minutes can feel like an hour. It also impacts larger passages of time. While I may think I called my dad earlier in the week, if I check the call log, it may show that as much as two months have passed. I’m horrible at keeping up contact with family and friends who are long distance.

What now?

This list surely isn’t exhaustive, but I believe it gives a pretty good picture of the major impacts that undiagnosed ADHD had on my home. I hope that reading it helps you identify some of the ways ADHD has impacted your home so that like me, you can begin to make changes for the better as you gain knowledge and supports to combat your symptoms.

Just discovering you have ADHD can be life-changing, as you can begin to build supports and routines into your life to counteract many of the symptoms. But for me, treatment through therapy and medication have been necessary. What isn’t helped by medication can be supported through therapy as you break down mental barriers and create new routines together. Things aren’t perfect for me at home yet, but I am seeing a huge difference for the better as I’ve begun treating my ADHD in earnest.

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