If I had to summarize what working feels like with ADD: there are some things I do at 10 times the speed of a ‘normal’ person, and other things that take me 10 times as long. Most people I work with think I’m either a genius or an idiot - I’ll figure out an elegant solution to a really thorny problem, but then struggle to respond to a simple email in a timely fashion - or forget to respond at all.
I should begin with a disclaimer: obviously, I’m not a doctor and this article isn’t intended as medical advice. However, I am a business owner who has learned to (mostly) manage my ADD. And by manage, I mean using my strengths to my advantage while reducing the negative impact of my weaknesses. That’s the paradox of entrepreneurs with ADD - managing your business when managing your life is a full-time job.
10 Tips for Optimizing Your Life as a Business Owner with ADD
1. Get an assistant
There’s a reason this is at the top of the list. Even if you read and agree with everything on this list, you will not execute all the suggestions without help. You need to be reminded. Cajoled. Coerced, even. This has to be someone you like enough that you won’t avoid them when they inevitably pester you. But not someone so similar to you that they share your weaknesses. Complementary skills are what we’re going for here. Coming up with ideas is your innate gift, but your success will be determined by the amount of work that you finish.
So find someone who genuinely enjoys executing, and is happy to let you be the ‘ideas person’.
2. Find a like-minded mentor, business partner, or coach, if you can
You’ll be more likely to finish your projects if you have someone else to bounce your ideas around with. Note that this person is probably not your spouse and definitely not your assistant. Your spouse may listen patiently while you ramble on about your current obsession, but their excitement may be dampened by other aspects of your relationship (see #6). Your assistant’s job is to help manage your creative impulses by relieving you of routine tasks and reminding you of things you’re likely to forget.
3. Manage your attention, not just your time
Too many productivity articles focus on time management. But time is not your enemy. Sometimes, it’s not even relevant at all. Most people can only spend a limited amount of time on anything, even if they enjoy it. But not you. If you find something interesting, you can spend hours upon hours of hyper-focused time getting it done. You may be able to work 12 hour days for weeks on end without getting burnt out at all. But when it comes to items that aren’t particularly interesting, you have a finite amount of attention that you can spend through sheer force of will. Be very conscious of how you spend that attention. The amount of energy you have to spend on boring tasks is your scarcest resource.
4. Optimize your work routine to maximize your efficiency
Maybe the word ‘routine’ makes you cringe, but ultimately you need one. You don’t need to do the exact same thing every day, but organizing your activities into clusters will help you focus. For example:
Monday: organizing your week, prepping for important meetings or projects, and reviewing goals.
Tuesday: hardcore focus on your most important business functions. Depending on the kind of business you’re in, this could be meeting with prospective clients or designing and delivering your product.
Wednesday: addressing anything important that came up while you were hyper-focused on Tuesday, and prepping for your hyper-focused Thursday.
Thursday: another hardcore, “get ‘er done” hyper-focus day.
Friday: internal meetings, phone calls, and time for unstructured big-picture thinking.
5. Be ruthless about minimizing distractions and saying “no”
Studies tell us that it can take up to 25 minutes to regain focus after being interrupted by a distraction. My guess is that for anyone with ADD, it’s even longer.
- Stop taking unscheduled calls. When you simply answer the phone every time it rings, you are basically leaving your productivity and success to the whims of other people and their agendas. Have your assistant or an answering service filter and prioritize your calls, and schedule time for you to return them.
- Avoid the email vortex. Remember that not all emails are created equal, and they don’t necessarily need your instant attention. Ideally, you should hand your inbox over to your assistant and have them set up a triage system:
- Simple requests and meeting invites can be handled by your assistant without you spending any brain power on them.
- Items that need your input can be batched together and handled at one or two designated times during the day
- Have a ‘big red button’ for urgent, high-value inquiries. This might mean having your assistant send you a text message when something needs to be handled right away.
- Disable notifications on your phone, and delete apps that you know are a time suck. Schedule time in your calendar to catch up on Facebook or do your online shopping if you must, but remove the temptation to fire them up every time you find yourself with a few spare moments (like standing in an elevator or waiting for a website to load).
6. Accept your limitations and understand that they can be a challenge for others to deal with
This is especially true for the people closest to you. Nobody likes the drudgery of household cleaning and chores, but most people are able to do it anyway. For the adult with ADD, however, simple things like doing laundry, paying bills, and remembering to take out the garbage can seem damn near impossible. And this is endlessly exasperating for the people around you who find themselves picking up after you just to avoid living in squalor. Clutter and mess make it even harder for the ADD person to concentrate, and yet keeping things tidy is incredibly challenging.
If you do nothing else on this list, hire a housekeeper.
7. Schedule everything, including quality time with your spouse
This is not a joke. Put your assistant in charge of your calendar, and have them set aside time for date nights and family vacations before it fills up with work and meetings. It may not sound romantic, but if you want to keep the relationship you’ve got, you have to invest the time and effort. In fact, your spouse may be relieved to coordinate with an assistant on your behalf, if it means you’re able to plan things in advance and have them actually happen.
8. Maintain your physical self
- When you get into something interesting, it can be hard to pull yourself away. I know I’ve struggled with just how time-consuming it is to prepare proper meals, never mind sitting down and eating them like a normal person.
- Mind your protein intake. There are studies showing that protein can be especially helpful to the ADHD brain.
- This can be a tough one, especially if you’ve got an atypical chronotype. Personally, I have a terrible time getting going in the morning, but by the evening I’m firing on all cylinders. And once the workday is over, the emails stop coming in and everything is quiet so I can finally focus, the last thing I want to do is try to wind down and go to sleep.
- When my partner is out of town, I have a tendency to get carried away with work and stay up until 3 am or later. But then of course, my next day is shot and my whole week gets out of whack.
- Create a wind-down ritual that you can actually look forward to (i.e. doesn’t feel ‘boring’) and that doesn’t involve a computer or mobile screen. For me, it’s reading a sci-fi paperback, with meditation music on in the background.
- Exercise is another tough nut to crack if you don’t find it innately satisfying. If you’ve got the ‘H’ in ADHD, it might be perfectly natural for you to find a healthy exercise outlet - in fact, you may even need it in order to sit still for any length of time during the day. If you’re the inattentive type, it may be a struggle to see exercise as anything other than a boring waste of time. Only recently have I found an outlet I can do consistently: weight training. Despite the time commitment, I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my ability to focus when I’m training consistently.
9. Get a professional opinion. As in, a doctor or psychiatrist
It’s not uncommon for people with ADD to get an initial diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or something else entirely. If you suspect you may have ADD, try to find a specialist who can tell you for sure. Bear in mind that not all doctors and mental health professionals have sufficient training with regards to clinical attention problems. And without an ADD diagnosis, some depression and anxiety meds can actually make your ADD symptoms worse. Finally, mood disorders can turn out to be symptoms of untreated ADD. By correctly diagnosing and treating the underlying issue, you may find your other symptoms resolve themselves.
10. Take your meds (if you and your doctor have decided medication is right for you)
Not everyone with ADD needs or benefits from medication. But if you have consulted with your doctor or psychiatrist and determined that medication can help you, take it consistently. And remember that professional treatment is not a one-shot deal - ideally, you should create a relationship with a professional who understands your condition and can monitor and adjust your treatment as you make progress.
As I mentioned before, this article isn’t meant to diagnose or treat any condition, including ADD. But if any of it resonates with you, you might find the 10 tips above to be helpful. Ultimately, the goal is to understand yourself and outsource the things you will probably never excel at, so you can hyper-focus on the important, interesting, and profitable stuff.