I’ve been working from home with ADHD for the last five years.
I mean, I didn’t know I had ADHD until recently. I went to a neuropathologist at age thirty-two after years of procrastination, convinced I was a depressed, lazy, narcissistic underachiever with early onset dementia. Turns out I just had a norepinephrine deficiency in my locus coeruleus, lmao.
Living with a lifelong undiagnosed mental illness sucks shit. But you know what’s a pretty okay consolation prize? The naive tenacity you develop when nobody tells you it’s okay to expect less of yourself!
To be clear: I can’t recommend spending three decades white-knuckling your way through adult life… but you will have the thick, powerful knuckles of a silverback gorilla when all’s said and done!
Working from home pre-diagnosis required a lot of experimentation. Learning to keep myself focused and motivated (with crystal clear work/life boundaries) was tough. I’m going to summarize my very best tips for y’all today, sponsored by our Patreon donors.
Since 42% of Americans abruptly joined Team Work From Home in the last six months, hopefully these tips will help everyone who’s struggling—whether you’re riding the Royal Struggle Bus of Clinical Executive Function Disorders, or just riding dirrrty in your own messy minivan.
As a general disclaimer: my advice will skew towards creative workers, freelancers, and early- to mid-level white collar workers. Because it’s based on my personal experience! I’d rather stick with what I’m familiar with than guess how it would apply to folks in different industries. YMMV!
Get your mindset right
1. If ya think you need it, seek a diagnosis
I believe strongly in setting yourself up for success.
My dogs are very obedient (with one memorable exception). But I would never leave a crispy, golden roast chicken on the coffee table—right at their eye level!—then peace out for a few hours. That’s entrapment! What do I look like, the DEA in Sherman v. United States?!
Not saying everyone has ADHD, per se (although I’ve learned that 50-75% of women with ADHD go undiagnosed, so maybe you do). But generally, symptoms like fatigue, irritability, distractibility, headaches, back aches, and eye strain are more than productivity hurdles. They could be signs of something serious… and treatable!
So if you have any mental or physical difficulties that make getting through the day difficult, you owe it to yourself to get ’em checked out.
2. Fuck your negative narratives
I’ve overheard many people on work calls complaining about various aspects of working from home. “I can’t stay focused!” or “I keep working through the evening!” As if your lack of immediate, consistent success is a natural phenomenon you can’t impact, but must watch passively, like the tides.
Don’t do that! Don’t tell yourself a narrative that you’re bad at something just because you’re unfamiliar with it. Willpower ain’t a silver bullet, but mindset greatly impacts performance.
You can become good at this. Give it a chance. Embrace the unfamiliarity and build a few new neural pathways.
3. Do favors for your future self
If there’s a task I must do for someone else, I almost never fail to deliver. But I fail all the time to do things for myself. So I started treating my future self like a separate person—someone relying on me.
You know that person who always forgets that I have laundry in the wash? That’s me. I was the girl in college who smelled a lil’ mildewy because I just couldn’t get it together (also Lil’ Mildewy is my rap name). I knew I should probably set an alarm on my phone—but I just couldn’t follow through and make the good idea into a good habit. Until I started doing it for Future Kitty.
It’s evolved into a bizarre but effective self-care ritual. “She’ll need these later,” I murmur as I put a fresh pair of socks in her boots. Later, when I’m Future Kitty and already running late, I find the socks and say “gawd love ya, Past Kitty.”
Don’t worry about talking to yourself too much. It’s the era of ‘Rona! We’re aaallllll monologuing like Gloucester over here.
A good day starts the night before
4. Get enough sleep
Good sleep hygiene deserves its own article. But it comes down to this: working from home is a new routine. Learning a new routine takes more spoons. You need to replenish your spoons with good quality sleep.
Too little sleep is the roast chicken on the coffee table. Why are you over there looking like Surprised Pikachu when the dogs eat it?!
I get eight hours of sleep every night. I make it a priority because exhaustion exacerbates all my worst habits. When I am well-rested, I can do as Bruce Lee says and become like water: effortlessly adaptable, assuming the shape of any situation.
Five hours of sleep, and I’m less water, more DQ Blizzard: a dense, immobile, nutritionally useless cylinder of artificially flavored milk fat.
… Fuck. Now I want a Blizzard. And for Joe Biden to be the next president. Guess one outta two ain’t bad!
5. Before sleep, check your calendar and set multiple alarms
People with ADHD are characterized as unfocused. But I find the opposite is more accurate: I have way too much focus. If I’m enjoying a task, I can do it for hours without so much as a piss break. The real challenge is changing my focus.
That’s why before sleep I rely on labeled alarms to keep me from losing track of time. I check my work calendar for the next day, and set one to wake up; one to leave the house; and one for the first meeting of the day. Making it part of my bedtime ritual helps me sleep, because I’m less nervous that I’ve forgotten something.
6. Don’t work in the evenings
I’ve said it before: my pace of life feels ideal when I work for eight hours, relax for eight hours, then sleep for eight hours.
But with wages so low that most families need two working partners, the administrative labor of running a home has burrowed into our collective leisure time. Cleaning the house, shopping for food, paying the bills… it all needs to get done. (And now our employers are inside our homes, reaping those free services. More on that later.)
I urge you in the strongest of terms, for your personal sanity and longevity as well as that of your fellow employees, to actively undermine the expectation of round-the-clock availability and overwork as the norm.
Companies set official policies on workplace culture, but the workers have collective power to show solidarity in resisting those policies when they’re exploitative and unfair. Overworking hurts you and everyone else.
Start with the perfect morning routine
7. Start your day with unskippable essentials
The first item on my to-do list is always “morning chores.” This is the basic shit I can’t skip: brushing my teeth, feeding my pets, etc.
Piggy gets dressed every day while working from home. I respect the hell out of that! As for me, there’s a 50/50 chance I won’t ever make it out of pajamas. And that’s totally fine. But I try to wear loungewear that demonstrates a respect for my body: clean items I look and feel good wearing.
8. Build a rewarding morning ritual
“I’m not a morning person” is something I used to say all the time, until I really wrapped my brain around tip #2.
Of course I like evenings more! Evenings are where the beers and video games and warm beds live! I could be a morning person—I just hadn’t yet developed a ritual to make my morning as pleasant as my evening.
Now I have a nice rhythm going. After a few minutes of snuggles with the dogs, I play a short news digest podcast, let said pooches outside, watch ’em run around like fools, then pour myself an iced coffee, and sip it slowly. It’s a fine way to start the day.
9. Define what will make today a good day
ADHD gives you Chinese Buffet Eyes—but for time. You think you can fit everything into your day, so you start heaping commitments onto your plate. It leads to a cycle of overwork, exhaustion, procrastination, panic, then back to overwork.
I hate living in that cycle. The only way out I’ve found is to deliberately limit my commitments. Which is surprisingly tricky!
That’s why every day, I sit down with a small note pad and write the same question: “What would make [today’s date] a good day?” Not a great day, or the best day—what’s juuuust enough to make me feel content with my efforts, so I can relax later without regrets?
I write ‘em down. That’s my to-do list for the day.
10. Make your to-do list before you open for business
Don’t check email, texts, social media, Slack, etc. until after you’ve finished that to-do list!
Yes, there could be changes needed if you have something urgent burning a hole in your inbox. But it’s important to avoid a cycle of reactivity. If you are highly responsive at all times, people will come to you first for everything. Slow your pace of availability.
11. Love the act of crossing something off your to-do list
Sometimes I’m feeling all intrinsically motivated n’ shit, and the special joy that comes from crossing something off my list is enough.
But if I’m feeling unmotivated (or working on something I truly hate) I give myself a reward for each completed task. A piece of chocolate, one level in a video game, ten pages in my book—whatever I’m into at the time.
Do I put a few easy things on there for additional satisfaction? Who can say…
Go on the offensive against distractions
12. Try your best to keep a tidy home
The most transformative change I have made in my daily routine since I started working from home? Easy: finally keeping my home pretty clean.
I do not build new habits easily. Ex-roommate Piggy will attest that I was not born a tidy person, but made! I grew up deeply ashamed of my family’s messiness, but unable to break away from it. (Party people, if the phrase “company’s coming” fills you with dreadful memories of your hoarder mother scrambling to shove all evidence of her problems into the garage, lemme hear you say heyyyy!)
Building the habit of cleaning for thirty minutes every day changed my fucking life.
A very old tightness in my chest eased up. My home transformed from a source of shame to one of pride. It gave me time to organize my thoughts before work. And I spent a lot less time looking for my keys (an absolutely classic ADHD symptom).
To get this habit started, save your favorite half-hour podcasts and only play them while cleaning. Or gamify it by telling yourself you’ll stop as soon as you’ve picked up 100 things, and see how quickly you can do it.
Only after my space was tidy did I realize how much looking at the mess affected me. Like a bad app drawing phantom power, seeing it in the corner of my vision ran my batteries down. Post-diagnosis, I think I know why.
13. If you can’t keep your whole house tidy, start with your workspace
I’m writing this from a clear, empty kitchen table. Just my computer, my to-do list, a pen, my coffee, and a pumpkin. Here are my stray thoughts about my workspace:
- “Huh. I wonder how long this pumpkin will hold out.”
But across the room, I can see into my partner’s office. It is the messiest room in our house. That’s temporary—I’m retiling our porch floor, so it’s storing extra stuff. Here are my stray thoughts as I look into that room:
- “How long has that rip been in the rug? I wonder if I can repair it?”
- “So much cat hair… When is the cat’s next vet visit again?”
- “His chair is all ripped up. Should I get him a new one?”
- “How would I even get rid of the old chair? I should look up the town recycling bylaws.”
- “Why does that plant look so bad? Does it need fertilizer? Less water? More water?”
- “That artwork is askew. My friend gave me that artwork! I haven’t reached out to her in forever. Fuck, I’m a bad friend…”
- “That cushion needs washing. Does it even unzip?”
- “When’s the last time I dusted that couch? What do guests think when they see this?”
- “Is he done with those dishes? Will he think I’m being passive aggressive if I put them in the dishwasher? Wait—how full is it? What else could I add to run a full load?”
This is just a fraction of what springs into my brain when I look inside a messy room. I don’t think you need me to explain which makes the superior working environment.
14. Check email way, WAY less
Email, to me, is exactly like the mess pictured above: a randomized distraction generator. What’s waiting for me? Who knows! But no matter what it is, it’s some shit that wants to fuck up my to-do list.
That’s why I only check email twice daily: at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. That’s it.
You send me an email at 4:36 p.m., you better believe I ain’t dealing with your shit today. That’s a line item for tomorrow’s list.
And I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t that reflect badly on me? The answer is a resounding “nah.” My coworkers need consistency, clarity, and quality above pure speed. I defend my process every day by delivering on that.
15. Get off communication apps
Skype, Slack, Microsoft Teams: I dutifully used them all for work. Until about a year ago, when—for no reason, like some out-of-body experience—I watched myself delete every single one of them off my phone. And I didn’t feel bad. I felt free.
Nobody likes interruptions, but people with ADHD are debilitated by them. I can’t deal with checking seven places for missed communications!
Now that I’m not online, my flow cannot be interrupted with questions easily answered by someone else (or Google). If it’s urgent, they’ll call.
What’d the boss say to all this? She asked about it after a week. When I explained my rationale, she said, “Good for you! I need to do that too—I’m too available, it’s not fair to my family.”
With a clinical diagnosis in hand, I could formalize this as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. But I haven’t had to. I’ve (mostly) managed to avoid paternalistic bosses, and I’ve left companies that don’t value work/life balance. If anything, setting boundaries made my team members feel comfortable doing the same. What’s good, workers of the world?!
16. Prevent yourself from wasting time on social media
How much time per day do you want to spend on social media?
For me, it’s ten minutes. Long enough to see key updates, show love to the most crucial dogs, and watch the first thirty seconds of a twenty minute John Oliver segment I will never finish, but will tell everyone I loved.
But when I timed it, I was using it for more than an hour every day! Wtf, me!?
With the help of plugins, I limited my access after ten minutes. It took a while for the frustration to wear off—but once it did, I felt so much happier. Social media is engineered to keep you scrolling, looking for the next crumb of dopamine. They will take as much time as you give them. If you don’t set limits for yourself, no one will.
17. Find the right balance of occupying ears, eyes, hands, and brain
Everybody has a different tolerance for background noise. Personally, nothing could torment me more than working in dead silence.
I need four things engaged at all times: ears, eyes, hands, and brain. (Yes, it’s as exhausting as it sounds!) So I play media constantly to supplement my craving for stimulation.
- Level one: mindless tasks. Organizing and backing up old project files, for example. It engages my hands, but really nothing else. To keep from being bored, I’ll put on something visually, aurally, and mentally stimulating—like a movie I haven’t seen before.
- Level two: physical work. Say I’m cleaning, using my hands and eyes. I engage my ears and my brain with audiobooks and interesting podcasts.
- Level three: mental work. Right now, I’m writing this article, and it’s fully occupying my eyes, hands, and mind. That’s when I play music.
- Level four: stimulation paradise. It rarely happens. I have a vivid memory of being at a party. There was good music playing; I was engaged in vivid conversation with good friends; and someone handed me a badly tangled chain necklace, knowing I love to untangle things. Honestly mighta been the highlight of my life.
18. When in doubt, play lofi
Lofi is unobtrusive music with a steadying, almost therapeutic calmness. It’s elevator music from heaven. (As opposed to what we’ve traditionally played in earthy elevators: elevator music from hell.) There’s something truly magical about the looping samples, warm vinyl crackles, and gentle distortion that whooshes you straight into The Zone.
19. Multitask away—but use the to-do list as your guide
If you’re reading a work-from-home guide that wags its finger at you for multitasking, assume its author will eventually be divorced for leaving dishes by the sink.
Multi-tasking is totally fine! I don’t know how households are supposed to function without it! Put yourself on mute and sweep your floors. It’s fine, who cares? But you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you stick to the to-do list. In time, you’ll develop a rhythm for scheduling sneaky chores to coincide with low-impact meetings.
20. Plan breaks wisely
Take breaks throughout the day if you want to, but be intentional about them. Don’t do the post-lunch gradual slide into puttering around thing. It blurs the boundary between work and life, and makes you feel guilty.
Personally, I don’t take any breaks. I prefer to get my work done and bounce. More on this later.
Great job, you did it—now stop
21. Do the bare minimum
If you’re working from home, and you have a task-oriented job, there is no earthly reason why you should work a full eight hours just to maintain an already defunct status quo.
Get a reasonable day’s worth of work done—then stop working.
Meet your employer’s expectations—do not exceed them. You’re paid to provide a service, and you have.
Researchers estimate that remote workers tithe three weeks worth of unpaid labor to their employers on average. It’s usually because the workers feel like they’re already “getting away with something” by not having to sit in an office, wearing shoes and real pants. Or they think that overwork will get them a promotion (it won’t).
Forbes estimates that worker productivity during the pandemic has risen by 47%, with workers averaging nine–hour days. Simultaneously, companies are saving a metric fuckton by transferring the cost of office space, internet, electricity, security, and custodial services onto their workers.
The appropriate response to this is a four-hour workday. But few companies have the ovaries to try it.
22. Set the expectation that you are unreachable after work hours
Every single work contact in my phone is set to “do not disturb” between the hours of 5 p.m. and 9 a.m.
I’ve had a lot of people look at me like I have three heads when I say this, but it seems so utterly reasonable to me?? At my company, HR would be pissed to know a boss was calling after hours—not that the employee wasn’t picking up. I recognize that some people may have jobs where they need to be on-call. As for me, I remind you I’m not Secretary of State!
Furthermore, every contact in my phone is set to “do not disturb” between midnight and 8 a.m. I ain’t no kinda emergency surgeon. The world will keep turning if I don’t catch a Chinese robocall at 3 a.m.
Evenings are for relaxing—not working. Nights are for sleeping—not being awake. Your body has rhythms. Ignore them at your peril.
23. Give yourself permission to enjoy your leisure time
My work laptop closes early in the day. It doesn’t reopen after dinner. It’s not a Broadway performer; it doesn’t get an encore.
You aren’t immature or lazy for unplugging and doing whatever non-monetizable thing you enjoy. Go on. Take a walk. Jerk off. Play video games. Bake a cake. Watch some trash.
The whole point of “being productive” is to get to the point where you don’t have to be productive anymore—isn’t it?
And “work” doesn’t just mean work-work, but all that shit that ain’t restful or leisurely. During our recent highly stressful news cycles, I stopped consuming news after 5 p.m. My sleep and mental health instantly improved. Apparently the turning of the Earth isn’t powered by my doom scrolling!
A thick black line between work, rest, and life does wonders to enrich enjoyment of all three.
Examine your results
24. Talk out loud about what’s working and what isn’t
Patreon donors are allowed to roll their eyes, because this is my second time in one week quoting Vonnegut. (We shared some hot takes on the election—go check it out, if you’re interested!) But here I go again:
My Uncle Alex, who is up in Heaven now, one of the things he found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”– Kurt Vonnegut, If This Isn’t Nice What Is?: Advice for the Young
There’s a phenomenon called the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry, which essentially says we humans pay attention to negative experiences and take positive experiences for granted. We complain about rain, and fail to marvel at sunshine. Positive experiences feel neutral/invisible unless you make an effort to really “see” them.
That’s why I find Vonnegut’s advice so valuable. I try to stop and take an inventory of my feelings, physical and emotional. Building yourself a better work-from-home system is slow, gradual work. You have to pay attention, or you might miss what’s really working.
25. Let your system evolve
Hold on to what works, but don’t be afraid to experiment and evolve. Change doesn’t mean failure.
Even now, five years later, I go through cycles. Working at the kitchen table versus working on the back porch; ordering my to-do list by importance versus tackling it higgledy-piggledy. Your moods and mindsets have seasons. Let yourself cycle through them without internal judgement.
No two people are alike, and no two jobs are alike—so there’s no one right way to work from home. Even folks who have ADHD may only find a few of these tips helpful. But I sure hope that everybody out there struggling during these strange, tumultuous times found something they can try tomorrow.
Just enjoy your sleep and leisure time first, alright kids?
Today’s topic was chosen by our Patreon community! Thank you, Patrons, for giving me the opportunity to talk about my experiences with this lovely, inclusive topic. Our Patreon donors guide the topics we write about. And they’re really good at it. Here are just some of the fascinating topics they’ve chosen recently…
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