ADHD and working styles
This is a wholly personal account on what it's like to work when you have ADHD
In the previous edition, I briefly spoke about how sometimes when you have ADHD you get stuff done in “impulses” (defined in physics as a large force acting for a short period of time). However, I think the concept is important enough to get at least one entire edition on it’s own. So here goes.
I must mention that most of this post has been made be generalising a single data point that I know very well - which is myself. I need to issue statutory warnings that ADHD is a spectrum, and that experiences of others diagnosed with the condition may not mirror mine.
Thanks for reading ADHD and Company! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
The three states of work
Fundamentally, the thing with ADHD is that at a point in time you are either able to massively focus on one thing (the literature calls it “hyperfocus”) or you are terribly distracted.
And this leads to interesting dynamics in terms of work. If I think about it, there are three broad states that you can work in - flow, hyperfocus and distraction.
This is possibly how most neurotypical people largely go about their work (I’m only speculating here). You do your work slowly and steadily in a rather relaxed manner. You are able to focus “normally on it”, and when you get distracted you deal with the distraction and get back to where you were.
Among all modes of work, this is easily the best, since it allows you to get a lot of work done without necessarily tiring yourself. You are relaxed, not expending too much energy and getting a lot done. Unfortunately, if you have ADHD, this kind of work mode occurs only very rarely.
In that sense, I’ve been quite lucky in that I managed to hit this flow state on two days this week. That is possibly unprecedented. Two things that, I think, massively contributed to my hitting flow twice this week were
The lack of meetings
The lack of short-term deadlines
Back when I was an undergrad, there was this myth about this bunch of guys who lived on the floor above me - that they would go to exams after taking a hit of marijuana, and then knock off the paper in double quick time (for that’s how long their high, and subsequent focus, would last), and then dash back to their rooms and crash (pun fully intended).
Now, long ago, I’d written about how being high on marijuana is comparable to having ADHD - rather, ADHD (based on my very limited data points with illicit substances) is like being perpetually but mildly high on grass. From that perspective, I can sort of retrospectively empathise with these guys from my hostel.
A lot of times, especially when facing short-term deadlines, the way you end up working is to work up a frenzy on the thing you need to do, and then hyperfocus on it. This is similar to how I dealt with the situation in Kochi last month, where I had to handle nearly a dozen kids for four days.
You get into the “zone”. And while you are in the zone, you are able to work at a furious pace. You know you are prone to distractions, so you shoo away people who are trying to distract you. And you go on with your task until you have finished it.
Now, this strategy helps you get work done but is extremely expensive - it tires you out like crazy and it takes a long time to recover from it. However, during crunch times (and facing deadlines), if you aren’t able to work up a flow (and that’s hard with deadlines), this is the most sure-fire way of finishing the job.
This is not a desirable way to get work done, but it gets stuff done, at least in the short run (if you find out just after you have “finished” that you need to revise your work for whatever reason, you are in deep trouble! Lots to do but exhausted all your willpower). For a long time, this was the only way I could work - getting into periodic periods of frenzy punctuated by long stretches of nothingness. Over the years, aided by some self-awareness and some medication, I’ve figured out that Flow is superior.
Oh, btw, a LOT of my better blogposts are written in frenzies. And I suppose Ganesha also worked up a frenzy to write the Mahabharata as Vyasa recited it to him.
Maybe the most common message I’ve sent my wife while I’m working is “today is a high ADHD day”. This refers to days when I’m constantly distracted by things and am unable to focus on a single thing. This happens much much more often than I would like to.
Right now, for example, I’m writing this in a distracted state. There are many things happening around me as I write this (even if they weren’t I’d find things to get distracted by). One thing I read in Scattered Minds, that I read recently, is that when you have ADHD you are far more sensitive to things that happen around you. So the speed of the fan turning around me is distracting me. A voice from the street in front of my house is distracting me. The rustling of pages as my wife reads her book while sitting next to me is distracting me.
There are always a zillion distractions. If you try to shut them out, you find new things to get distracted by. So you try to do whatever little is possible in the little moments between distractions. Now, this means there is no flow of thought, and so you produce something rather incoherent.
On days like this, when flow doesn’t happen and I don’t have sufficient energy to work up a frenzy, the only option is to make use of the distraction. Use that day to finish all those zillion tiny but massively pending tasks. Actively seek out meetings since you can’t work anyway. Random chat up colleagues, hoping to make “non work gains”.
This is everyday life for me.
How work gets done
Flow is a rare event for me. So work largely “gets done” in a long series of interleaving frenzies and distraction. This means there are times when I’m incredibly productive. And there are times when I go for long periods seemingly doing nothing. And there is a fractal element to this.
If I look at my entire career, there have been times when I’ve done so much, punctuated by long periods of times when I’ve done so little. Within a particular job or assignment as well, this pattern holds good - highly productive for short periods of time and doing nothing for long periods. The pattern is largely self-similar at other time scales as well - on a lot of days, most of my work in that day is done in a short period.
And while I mentioned earlier about “working up a frenzy”, it’s not so easy. You can’t get into a frenzy at will. Sometimes you just lack the energy. Sometimes you’re so distracted it’s impossible to focus on just about anything. How long your periods of frenzy and distraction last is beyond your control. All you know is both happen.
This pattern on randomly alternating frenzy and distraction means that the nature of the job you choose has a massive bearing on your productivity. The more “fighter” your job is (i.e. generally procedural work where output is largely proportional to input), the worse you will do if you have ADHD and work in bursts. This is due to a “frequency mismatch”.
One of the best books I’ve ever read is Benoit Mandelbrot’s The (mis)behaviour of markets. I’ve possibly read it four times till now, and each time I find something new that excites me (here is an article I’d written in Mint based on the book). In that book, Mandelbrot has this fascinating discussion on “trading time”, without using much maths.
Basically, not all hours in the stock market are equal - there are times when a LOT happens, and there are times when nothing happens. And times when a lot happens (like the first and last hour of a trading day, but not always) seems longer than the time when nothing happens. And so there is a “trading time” that is different from the “clock time”. I don’t think I’m qualified to comment more on this, so please read the book.
It is broadly similar when you are productive in bursts - time effectively moves far slower when you are in a productive phase than when you are in a distracted phase. And you need to have work that adapts to this.
Firstly, short deadlines are dangerous. It forces you to work at the pace set by the person who set the deadline, and you may not always work that way. You get bored in the times when you hit frenzy, and struggle at all other times (this is also why I largely resist the Agile methodology and “sprints” - they assume you can work at a constant pace defined by someone else).
Related to that, you need flexibility. You need to be able to push away a bulk of your work to the time when you are in a flow or frenzy. That way you can afford to be distracted and do other things when you are unable to focus. This means strictly procedural work (which can only be done at a particular pace) doesn’t work at all.
Then, this style of working means working with others can be a problem. When you are in a frenzy you work at an insane pace. If you are working with someone and they can’t keep up, you get incredibly frustrated. Conversely, when you are distracted, you can become a burden on the people you are working with, since you can’t pull your weight. Thus, design of interactions with your colleagues is very very important.
Broadly related to this (again I’ll elaborate about this in another post), managing people can be a bit of a challenge for people with ADHD. Firstly, you can’t empathise with most neurotypical people. Then, when your subordinates can’t keep up with you in your periods of frenzy, you can get massively frustrated with them (and your ADHD means you can’t hold back from displaying this frustration). During your distracted periods, you might wonder why they demand so much of your attention.
Finally, you need flexibility in terms of working times. You can’t control when you can get productive, so you need to be able to get stuff done when in such a zone. This might mean occasional unplanned late evenings, “normal working hours” when you do nothing and a schedule that might look erratic to others. This is basically a way to reconcile the work with your “trading time”.
So broadly speaking (again I don’t know if I can extend my experience with working with ADHD to others), you need to work in a way where you don’t have short deadlines, where your work is decoupled enough from that of your colleagues and the work is flexible enough that you can wait for your periods of frenzy to get stuff done.
For about 9 years (2011-20), I worked as an independent consultant. This meant that every piece of work I did would be preceded with a negotiation on how much I need to get paid for that piece of work.
Now, looking back, I find that almost in every single case, I grossly underestimated the amount of time I would need to finish the work, and thus not quote a high enough price for the task. Currently I’m employed and while I get a monthly salary, I find myself constantly massively underestimating how long it takes to do something.
This is because while estimating, I grossly overestimate the percentage of time that I’ll be productive. And then find myself running to catch up - and in such states, flow is impossible.
My blog, as many of you might know, is called “pertinent observations”. The origin story of the name goes to a comment on my class 11 report card, where the class teacher, while trying to be polite about my excessive (and often arbitrary) class participation, wrote “he makes pertinent observations”.
Around the time, I used to also come up with a lot of “X looks like Y” kind of comparisons. Soon, friends started calling them “pertinent observations” (combining my remarks with what was in my report card).
I’ve always maintained that ADHD means I’m able to think more laterally - this is a direct consequence of being constantly distracted, which means I end up thinking about seemingly unrelated topics in quick succession, and sometimes be able to connect them.
On a related note, being constantly distracted and thinking of unrelated topics in quick succession can also mean drawing connections that don’t really exist. A lot of my “pertinent observations” are that way. And the recent discourse on large language models has helped me give this a name - “hallucination” (I’ve written elsewhere about how sometimes marijuana can lead you to “cycling between several worlds”. Given ADHD is like being constantly mildly doped, you sort of are always cycling between several worlds. This means you make unnatural connections. The good part is lateral thinking. The less good part is hallucinations).
World Autism Day happened recently. There were articles about how companies now consciously hire neurodiverse people - which is a great thing. There were also articles, like this one, that spoke about the kind of advantages that someone with autism (or on the spectrum) can bring in. Like you can expect from such articles, it’s a series of gross generalisations and stereotypes.
Nevertheless, speaking for ADHD, I can say that the advantages of hiring people with ADHD is that they are (in general, on average) better able to draw connections with seemingly unrelated things, able to take the sort of risks that a lot of neurotypical people might shy away from, and are able to produce these frequent bouts of hyperfocus when they can get a LOT done.
In return, you will need to give them flexibility in the way they work, perhaps give special accommodations at work (given they are especially sensitive - I’ve told off quite a few colleagues for talking on the phone too loudly) and accept that they sometimes speak their minds which may not be comfortable for everyone around them.
I would like to think that in general it’s a good deal.
Thanks for this piece. Describing work states as Flow, frenzy and distractions is quite useful.
What do you think of Cal Newport's "slow productivity"? I've tried to follow what he means multiple times and all I get is it's an alternative to Flow which is not always possible.
Another book you might find interesting is Chris Palmer's Brain Energy which suggests mental health issues are from mitochondrial damage. I remember your reviews of Obesity Code, which got me onto this whole diet and fasting thing, and it makes me think you'd like this.
The only times I can hit flow states are early morning or dusk. Which is very weird. So I slot any kind of deepwork at 8 am on workdays and can barely eke out a two hour slot where I hope to hit focus. Even that becomes difficult if there is an urgent thing or stressful events (something went wrong and there is a ping). The period from 11am to 5 pm is impossible for me to hit flow.