How to Work From Home With ADHD
Try these tips and most importantly, share them with your loved ones.
Like many moms, I’ve always dreamed of working from home.
It’s not (just) about writing in my pajamas and setting my own hours. I get that it’s harder than it looks: you have to provide structure for yourself, create accountability, keep a schedule, manage time and money, organize tasks and resources, plan and make decisions, and monitor and track it all… all without a boss hovering over you to make sure it gets done.
In other words, you need to excel at executive functioning.
Except that I have ADHD, which is pretty much defined by executive dysfunction. Contrary to popular belief, ADHD folk don’t hate structure — the fact is that we actually need it much more than most neurotypical people do. We’re just terrible at creating it on our own.
But when the pandemic hit and I was forced to quit my full-time job to stay home with my kids, I had the chance to fulfill that dream. However, ADHD wasn’t my only hurdle.
In the dream, my husband was at work and my kids were at school, leaving me with a blissfully quiet house where I could write for hours with no distractions (unrealistic maybe, but I did say it was a dream). Never had this fantasy included a global pandemic, an out-of-work spouse, homeschooling kids, or any of the chaos that now defines my everyday life.
I decided to go for it anyway.
Fast forward seven months. I’m in my makeshift office/bedroom, trying to write to the sounds of GTA or whatever video game my unemployed husband is playing in the next room. My 8- and 5-year-old are screaming at each other, and at any minute they’ll bombard me to whine about being bored or beg me to go to McDonald’s for them… again. All the while, I’m trying to figure out how to work from home, change careers, be my own boss for the first time ever, and homeschool my kids without having a breakdown.
Today began as a fairly typical day, in that it involved the whole family arguing about who should be helping the kids with school. But this one ended in an epiphany.
As I mentioned, my 3rd grader and kindergartener have distance learning in the mornings. My husband mostly helps out during the live sessions so that I can attempt to work a bit, a loosely organized plan with thus far varying levels of success.
It was now 11 o’clock, and I was trying to get some writing done when my daughter runs in to ask me if I could help her with her math. This was a recurring theme of being interrupted abruptly, and unfortunately, this incident was the last straw. I blew up. Full-on ADHD tantrum. The ensuing argument went something like this:
“I just need a schedule!” I said. “I need to be prepared, I’m not good at dropping everything anytime someone needs me.” But we had already discussed this, my husband argued. I had said I was going to help at a certain time, he said. “It wasn’t ever finalized,” I said (admittedly a pretty weak argument because we had talked about it, but in my head, there were still loose ends).
“We should have something written and posted so there’s no question!” He just couldn’t understand this, and instead kept accusing me of not wanting to help with school.
“I do want to help!” I said, “but I need to know when I’m expected to help and when I can expect to work. My brain just works differently than your brains do.” As often happens, I felt like I was the crazy one, just making excuses for my “bad behavior.”
I never like to have an ADHD tantrum in front of the kids, and I needed to find a way to explain to everyone the way my brain works. And that’s when it hit me.
“Wow….” I realized. “I have the brain of a toddler.”
I explained this to my 8-year-old, knowing she could relate, especially having a 5-year-old brother. “Their brains aren’t done growing yet and they don’t know how to transition very well. If they’re in the middle of playing and you ask them to come to dinner right now, they’re likely to have a tantrum.”
It’s not bad behavior, I explained; their brains are just immature in the areas of planning and time management.
And as it turns out, the ADHD brain is very much like a toddler’s. Some areas of the prefrontal cortex are underdeveloped in ADHD brains, so the analogy is a sound one. Both toddlers and anyone with ADHD struggle with executive function, which includes planning, time management, decision making, and more; they also both have underdeveloped abilities of attention and self-awareness and are generally more resistant to change. All of this adds up to a big struggle with transitions.
As you probably know if you have ADHD, we don’t always have a “deficit” of attention; we’re also prone to hyperfocus. When I get in the zone, I don’t stop for much. It’s not unusual for someone with ADHD to forget to eat or even pee when they’re hyperfocused.
The farther down the rabbit hole I go, the more disorienting it is when I’m unexpectedly yanked back into the daylight. I can’t just stop — all these thought loops are right there at the tip of my brain and if I don’t close them now I might never remember where I was going, and then here comes the anxiety.
It was only after having this epiphany that I remembered (once again) that my brain is different and needs to be treated that way. When I forget that and unknowingly try to be neurotypical, disaster typically ensues. Just as you treat children in ways that respect their developmental stage, we need to treat ADHD brains accordingly, or else bring on the tantrums.
Luckily I’ve been a mom to a couple of toddlers before, so I already understand some of the tricks for transitioning without a meltdown. So if you have ADHD and you struggle with hyperfocus, transitions, or getting interrupted, try these tips and most importantly, share them with your loved ones.
- Explain your brain to your family. If you haven’t, do discuss the basics of the ADHD brain or at least this particular issue to your family, or remind them if you have (even we forget sometimes). Our brains don’t work like everyone else’s, and a little bit of explanation can go a long way towards understanding.
- Create a schedule, print it, and post it. Not only does this give you the accountability you need, but it also lets the rest of your family clearly know when you’re available and when you’re not. It also eliminates any arguments about the schedule, since it’s right there in black and white.
- Be mindful, especially of hyperfocus. If you have some self-awareness as you’re working, it may be a little bit easier to stay tethered to the outside world. The deeper we are into whatever we’re doing, the more wrenching the transition when we’re abruptly pulled back to reality. Try to pull back every so often and see the larger perspective. Watch out for rabbit holes!
- Set timers and use them. Set one timer for the total time you plan to work, and set another timer for 5–10 minutes before that. Just like toddlers, we need to be prepared to transition, so make it easy on yourself and let technology handle it.
- Roll with the punches. Try to prepare for interruptions or even expect them, and they won’t be as surprising if they happen. Easier said than done, but if you set to work with this attitude, it can go a long way towards creating space to respond before you lose it. One caveat: this tactic can go overboard, to the point that your brain becomes so hypervigilant that you can’t focus because you’re afraid you’ll be interrupted. In this case, try to cultivate a sense of equanimity ahead of time — that no matter what, you can take things as they come without rushing to react.
- Consider open-door work. I do this for at least one of my “work sessions” each day. By leaving the door open, my brain isn’t expecting total, uninterrupted silence, so my expectations are more realistic and interruptions aren’t so jarring. This is when I do the things that don’t require sustained periods of focus.
- Request transition time. Planning is very helpful for people with ADHD, but things will come up and kids will be kids. If they’re anything like mine, they often demand your attention, like NOW. Just as we shouldn’t force them to drop everything without warning, you can respectfully ask other people to give you a heads up before jumping into something.
Remember that this to will pass and schools will eventually reopen. Working from home may always be a challenge, especially for those with ADHD. But by remembering to honor the unique and creative ways that our brains work, we can get one step closer to living the dream.
Writer, blogger, and mental health advocate with a background in science and teaching and a deep fascination with the human mind and human behavior. I endeavor to share research and insights and spread awareness of mental health issues to help others along the way.