This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
One of the paradoxes of my ADHD brain can be neatly summarised by the following situation:
- I have 15 minutes to go before my next meeting.
- I don’t want to waste 15 minutes so I’ll start a reply to that email I’ve been thinking about on and off through the day.
- I get a calendar notification that my meeting starts in 10 minutes. Mental note to self: do another 5 minutes and then stop to clear my head before the meeting starts.
- Deep in concentration I have a sudden panic; wasn’t there a meeting I was supposed to attend?
- I turn up 5 minutes late, apologising profusely: “sorry, sorry, I got distracted”.
This scenario has played itself out countless times over the past 25 years and you’d think I would have learned by now not to start something 15 minutes before a meeting (impossible! I have so much to do and I can get so much done in 15 minutes) or not to get too focussed on it (impossible! The move from casual attention to deep concentration is instant and, to me at least, undetectable).
The paradox of ADHD is that an inability to focus on something that doesn’t engage me is neatly counterbalanced by an ability to hyperfocus on something that does. But that state of hyperfocus is hard to shake and excludes attention to anything else.
In today’s world of ubiquitous and synchronised tech, the answer to the first half of this problem is simple. For meetings I now have notifications at 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 5, 2 and 1 across laptop, phone and watch. And for really important meetings I set an alarm for 2 minutes before the start because, believe it or not, if I’m really wrapped up in something I have been known to miss all five notifications pinging & buzzing across all three devices and need a persistent, loud alarm to shake me out of my hyperfocussed state!
But, of course, so much notification is great for getting to meetings on time and terrible for concentration when not hyperfocussed. In addition to meeting reminders there are instant messaging @’s, important email notifications, social media alerts, not to mention incessant cold calls. When trying to read a legal contract - something I find almost impossible to properly engage with - I can barely get through one page an hour whilst jumping to every ping and buzz that comes my way, even though I know a Twitter like isn’t in any way important compared to what I’m trying to do.
After speaking with my coach I came up with the following scheme that has been working well.
Turn off all notifications for unimportant events: social media, calls from unrecognised phone numbers, unimportant emails. Catch up on these at break times or leave until the end of the day.
Make it easy to pause notifications for anything that isn’t time-critical when you need to focus, especially on something unengaging. Apple’s Focus Mode could help although I always forget to set the correct mode before I start something new. Instead I’ve found it helpful to work with two laptops: my work laptop is only set up for urgent time-critical notifications and I’ve resurrected an old one which has email, Slack, etc. on it and more permissive settings for non-time-critical events. To pause these, I just close the laptop lid and open it to pick them back up again.
Only leave on time-critical notifications - meeting reminders, IM @’s from people likely to need your help or tell you something urgently - while you need to get work done.
It has taken quite some time to set this up and fine tune it to the point where it really works but the effort has been more than worthwhile. I even turn up to nearly all my meetings on time. Nearly.
Coping strategies for Neurodivergents in the workplace
I was diagnosed with ADHD and Autism shortly after my 50th birthday. For the 25+ years prior to that diagnosis it’s been obvious to me that I have a large number of habits, rules, techniques and repetitive ways of working that I am absolutely lost without. Everybody has some of these, of course, but it was the sheer number of them and the degree to which I had to adhere to them - even when that seemed unreasonable or unhelpful to others - that puzzled me. Why do I need all of these habits and rules? Why do others seem to not need them?
I only learned the phrase “coping strategy” after I was diagnosed but immediately recognised it. All Neurodivergents have to adopt a number of strategies to survive and, perhaps, prosper in a world that is organised around the typical. Of course there is great divergence in neurodivergency but this strategy (and others) has worked for me and it, or something like it, might work for you.