If you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may have a more difficult time on the job than most. The limited attention span, restlessness, and distractibility that are hallmarks of the condition can hamper focus and productivity at work.
Medication can help, but there are also do-it-yourself tricks that can help maximize productivity and efficiency. Read on to see how you can excel in your career.
You can improve your focus by tackling the big jobs first and leaving the small stuff till later. Make a list of what tasks are the most important. Your "A List" might include anything with a deadline of today or tomorrow. The "B List" would consist of projects needing to be completed next week, while the "C List" catches loose ends like checking your email.
"If you fail to prioritize tasks, this can lead to organizational and distractibility issues," says Simon Rego, PsyD, director of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Training Program at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
|Corral Your Email|
Even the most focused individuals can quickly be led astray by the incessant ping-ping-ping of incoming emails. But if a person is already prone to distraction, these incoming signals can derail the whole day. Rather than read email as it comes in all day and night, set aside specific periods of time to do this.
"Most patients find this very useful because we're almost slaves to always having to be available to emails and phone calls," says David Loewenstein, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
|Limit Other Distractions|
Persistent voice mails, the 24/7 availability of the Internet, and even casual conversations outside your office can drive you to distraction and away from the work at hand. As with emails, set aside specific times to check and answer voice mail messages.
And depending upon what project is the most pressing, you may even consider turning off your computer to eliminate the endless allure of the world wide web. "If you don't turn your computer on, you don't get distracted," Rego says.
|Break It Into Bite-Size Chunks|
If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed, this may well be because you're taking on too much at one time.
"If you feel stressed or anxious, you can assume whatever task is making you feel (this way) is too big," Rego says. "Therefore smash it into smaller, more manageable bits." If you're anxious about needing to write something before the end of the week, break it down so that you feel more focused. Set realistic goals one day at a time or even one hour at a time.
|Work in the Same Location|
Working at Starbuck's one day, the library another, and your home office yet another will make you super-vulnerable to distracting external stimuli, says Rego. But if you habituate yourself to one place, your mind gets used to the area and can rev up to actually make you want to work.
"Being consistent in your environment and trying to work in the same place at the same time increases your natural tendency to do work in that area," Rego says.
|Find a Quiet Place to Work|
The ideal would be to have a private office with a door but this isn't always realistic in today's world of Dilbert-like cubicles. If your boss isn't open to giving you your own office, there are ways to minimize distractions even in a small cubicle.
If you have to share your space, try to share it with someone who does more computer work than phone work and ask he or she to conduct meetings in other, more open spaces.
|Set a Timer|
Setting a timer to go off at certain intervals can help bring a wandering mind back to the task at hand.
"Have it go off as a cue to ask, 'Is what I'm doing right now one of my important A-List items? Am I on task?'" says Rego.
If you're off task, this is a reminder to get back to what you were doing. You can also use a timer to try to gradually extend your attention span, from 10 minutes one week to 12 the next and 14 the next.
|Declutter Your Work Space|
Having a neat, clean work space can help improve organization and focus, but be aware that moving items around on your desk can be a double-edged sword. When cleaning your desk suddenly becomes a priority even with other deadlines looming, that could mean trouble.
"If all of a sudden it's so important to clean (your) desk, that could be a red herring," says Rego. "Call it for what it is. . . Be honest with yourself. What is the function of what (you're) doing right now."
|Plan Your Days|
Many people with ADHD find they are more efficient and productive if they use a day planner or a personal digital assistant (PDA). A compact PDA is especially useful because it can be carried with you and programmed to send messages and reminders, perhaps a 30-minute "warning" bell before an upcoming meeting.
That way you can make sure you're prepared and on time. "You will always have cues that will orient you," Loewenstein says.
|Use Relaxation Techniques|
"If you have ADHD and are impulsive or distracted, that can become even greater if you are under stress," says Loewenstein. That's why it's so important to take breaks where you can relax, be it just deep breathing, meditation or working with imagery.
"These things will help get people into a very focused state," says Loewenstein. This way, you can get a sense that everything is not equally urgent and take the time to reassess. Do you need to finish this job now or can it wait? "It gives people a chance to recalibrate," he says.
Taking notes in a meeting or while you're on the phone can help you remember items later. You can also use the notes to highlight new items for your A, B and C lists. And there's another advantage.
"If you have problems processing auditory information in a meeting and become distracted, taking notes is great because you're processing in another modality," says Loewenstein.
|Maintain a Routine|
"In general, anything that you can routinize that you know you have to do and it becomes overlearned is very, very good," Loewenstein says. If "you're constantly losing things, that just puts added pressure on your life."
This could be something as simple as putting your house and car keys in the same place every day so you don't screw up your whole day. "That's one less thing that can go wrong," says Loewenstein. The same goes for your organizer, notebooks, pens and briefcase.
|Surround Yourself With Organized People|
Many successful people with ADHD have one thing in common: They've set up the right supports. That means getting really "together" people around you.
"If you're a businessperson, you have to make sure you're surrounding yourself with people who are really well organized and who like to organize the day," says Loewenstein. "Getting the right people around you, particularly if you're in an executive position, is absolutely invaluable."