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 Work

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I work in public education. I was a teacher for nine years and I’ve been a school administrator (principal or assistant principal) for the last five. Most of the work impacts I share will be from my experiences in that realm, though the struggles I faced I’m sure you’ll be able to relate to regardless of the field you work in yourself.

Disorganization

Similar to home, my classroom and my offices have all shared the common problem of ‘piles instead of files.’ Whether it is the never-ending stack of papers to grade or the endless forms that make their way onto my desk, I always feel inundated with so much paper that I can barely think straight.

Deadlines

The ADHD brain typically sorts everything into mental piles of “now” and “not now.” For me this translates into a lot of procrastination as I wait for whatever the project is to come close to due. The only thing that really flips something onto the “now” side is if the deadline actually has consequences attached. There are some hard deadlines in education. There are many more soft deadlines, the ones that have no consequences when you break them. Once you learn that there’s a soft deadline, well, that project just got put back onto “not now.” I’ve had many projects assigned in September or October get pushed all the way to June that way, much to the chagrin of my supervisors.

Poor short term memory

This one hits pretty hard. There are so many conversations that happen on the fly in break rooms and hallways, and even regular meetings that I just happen to walk into. And people are always asking me to help with things. In my current position as a principal, it’s a huge part of the job. Ultimately, I am a support staff member who helps make sure everything in the school runs as it should. But when those promises are made on the fly, I typically forget them before I am ten feet away. I have unintentionally broken so many promises over the years that I’ve no doubt gained a reputation of at best being flaky, and at worst, being a liar.

I can also come across as disconnected and uncaring because I cannot remember names of people I just met. Most of the time I can’t recall a name seconds after it’s been shared with me, even if I’m trying hard. Then I feel awkward about it and even in the “still new” period where I could ask again, I don’t. And then it grows too late and I feel disconnected and intimidated by further connection with that person. Not a great way to build relationships.

Distraction

I don’t have the outward hyperactive symptoms but that certainly doesn’t stop my mind from racing. Whether I’m walking down a hallway or meeting with a person one-on-one, my mind is probably attempting to hop back and forth between a dozen ideas at once. This makes it look like I’m not paying attention, even when I am trying my best. I once attended a meeting where I took three pages of diligent notes and was later accused of not paying attention.

Long meetings do stretch my stamina. I will often have to pull out my fidget or stand up at the back of the room to stretch my legs. All the while my mind is desperately trying to be elsewhere.

“Work Chores”

These are the mundane must-dos of work. When I was teaching this would be grading papers and lesson planning. As an administrator it might be reviewing paperwork, completing observations and evaluations, or setting and reviewing agendas for all the meetings that need to be run. All of these are frequently put off in favor of other tasks that are more interesting or immediately rewarding.

Possibly related to distraction, I struggle reading nonfiction text. Especially when it’s assigned reading. It immediately gets classified a chore and all of a sudden my comprehension level drops to zero and I may spend half an hour trying do read and re-read a single paragraph. Nonfiction texts are frequently used as part of professional development and it’s a constant struggle for me to learn in this manner.

Time Blindness

Many ADHDers struggle with time blindness, which is basically the inability to tell how much time is passing. As a principal I might start a project in my office and inadvertently stay working on it for several hours. Just today I was in my office until nearly 7pm, about 3 hours after every other employee had left the site. I missed dinner and a regularly planned evening activity that starts at 7. This can also take place during the school day, disrupting my effectiveness by keeping me engaged in tasks longer than expected.

This may also account for all of the late arrivals at work. Try as I might, get up as early as I like, arriving on time for work seems all but impossible. It’s not like I’m horribly late, but I typically roll in about 5 minutes later than my own expected start time every day. It seems like there’s always some unaccounted for thing that pops up, one more thing I remember, or some time that I just ‘lose’ somewhere in the morning.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)

If you’re not familiar with RSD, the basic idea is that you perceive rejection, even when it isn’t there. So where there’s disagreement, you may read confrontation. Where there’s a helpful tip for improvement, you may hear criticism. Many ADHDers experience RSD symptoms and it is believed that they are taught through experience: as we have suffered so much rejection throughout our lives, we begin to anticipate it everywhere. So when your boss tells you “we need to meet,” your mind may immediately jump to the worst case scenario. Without multiple points of reassurance, I can very easily feel that my boss is “out to get me” every time she comes by my office.

The high stress that stems from RSD and falling behind at work inevitably leads to more sick days taken. Frequently I’ll find myself in need of a “mental health day” just to get away and do something that feels good, or even to do nothing in particular. Where this can get tricky is if I get into playing a new video game or binge-watching a new series. Then one sick day can easily turn into two or three.

Low Impulse Control

Taking multiple sick days in a row when they’re not *ahem* exactly necessary, could definitely be connected to low impulse control as well. My low impulse control can manifest in several other ways at work too. Sometimes it’s giving into my current fixation and spending time on it when I should be working. Other times it’s the need to throw out a joke or snarky response in meetings. It doesn’t matter how serious the topic of the meeting is, a snarky remark is often the first one to roll off my tongue.

Before my teaching career, I actually quit a job on a whim. My wife and I were working multiple jobs as we neared the end of our college careers, and at one point we both worked in a call center as our second or third job. My wife had a day off and I wanted to have the same one so we could be together. When my request was denied, I handed in my badge and quit on the spot. I haven’t done this with my professional career, though I will admit the thoughts cross my mind from time to time.

It all adds up

I’ve shared a lot of impacts of ADHD on the workplace here. What they add up to is supervisors seeing you as disorganized, lazy, flaky, or just plain not caring about your job. Personally, I have spent my entire professional career feeling like a failure because I could never do the job that my colleagues seemed to be able to. I couldn’t keep up. Oh I could pour hours into an extra-curricular club that I was excited about, but I always felt mediocre about my teaching and have felt even worse as an administrator.

I am on my third job in as many years. My last two employers have cited many of the problems above as reasons why we should part ways. I was never outright fired, but we had those conversations where you’re invited to “read between the lines” and move on. In education, when you start to get that kind of pattern on your resume, it raises red flags to future employers. It says there’s a problem you keep running from. I am the primary source of income in my home, so seeing the huge liability I was becoming for my family financially was one of the driving factors behind me seeking therapy this year. That’s what ultimately led to me learning about ADHD and getting my diagnosis.

So although I’m not glad I had all these struggles, I am glad that I finally saw the need to get help. Because now I know the reason behind all of these issues I’ve faced. I’ve been measuring myself against a bar that I could never reach because my own brain was working against me. Knowing I have ADHD is a huge help, because now I can see what all of these problem areas are. I’ve begun treating ADHD with therapy as well as medication so that I can continue to overcome these issues and finally feel successful at work.

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