Imagine you’re jumping up and down on a giant trampoline enclosed in a safety net. You feel an intense, childlike joy. Then someone dumps a bucket of tennis balls onto the trampoline with you. Most are lime green, except one that is neon orange. The balls bounce around in the trampoline enclosure, hitting your body and the safety net in rapid, chaotic motion. You think about slowing down your own jumping, but something is keeping you from being able to stop. You decide to catch the balls, one by one, beginning with the orange one, but you can’t. You become frustrated and start grasping at whatever you can, desperate to find some order and control and get back to the euphoric, childlike feeling you had moments ago. This is the best analogy I can provide for living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) brain. It’s a constant state of trying to hold on to important thoughts and feelings, but not being able to, because there are too many distractions.
The American Psychiatric Association (2022) defines ADHD as a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. A hallmark of the condition is executive dysfunction: In the cultural zeitgeist, ADHD is often thought of as a childhood affliction characterized by an inability to sit still, be quiet, or succeed academically; a condition someone will surely overcome as they mature, so long as they learn to make to do lists or follow an organizational system. This couldn’t be further from the truth. ADHD follows at least 65% of diagnosed children into adulthood (Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada (CADDAC), 2023). Four to six percent of adults living in Canada have ADHD (CADDAC, 2023). To put that into more understandable terms, 4-6% of the Canadian population (39,420,062, according to Statistics Canada (2023)), is roughly two million people. In the spirit of brevity and staying within the topic I set out for myself in this article (neither of which are my strong suit, thanks to ADHD), I will leave it to you to explore the multitude of symptomology, subtypes, sex differences, diagnosis, and treatment on your own. I suggest chadd.org or caddac.ca to gain a general understanding.
ADHD in adulthood is associated with an increased risk for poor occupational outcomes due to difficulties with focus, planning and organization, and relationship management, not to mention the occurrence of comorbid conditions that affect mood and learning (Jangmo et al. 2021). In this first part, I will use my own lived experience to discuss the challenges that neurodivergent peoples may encounter with focus, planning, and organization in the library workplace.
Currently most full-time employees are paid for the time they spend doing their work, rather than their completion of specific outcomes, however, those of us with ADHD are not always successful operating in a time-based work environment (Adamou, et al. 2013). This is due to executive dysfunction: a set of cognitive abilities controlling goal-directed actions that people with ADHD struggle to learn. These abilities include self-awareness, self-restraint, non-verbal and verbal working memory, emotional control, self-motivation, planning, and problem solving (Rodden, 2023). A common symptom of executive dysfunction is time blindness: the inability to perceive time outside of the present moment—I am simply unaware of time ticking away. I often look up at a clock and am surprised to learn that hours have passed me by. For example, I have been sitting here researching and writing since 11:00 am. Though I intended to write until noon, it is now 1:40 pm. Time blindness is always worse when I am in hyperfocus. For example, I’ve also just realized that I’ve neglected to feed myself. This happens to me very often—so much so, that I don’t pack a lunch meal or take a lunch break. Instead, I pack many small items (e.g. smoothies, drinkable yogurt, nuts, fruits, and vegetables) that I can reach for as I work. In my work context, and likely that of many academic librarians, compensation is based on time, while career advancement is based on deliverables. When I hyperfocus on a task, in other words, I am doing something that feeds my brain dopamine, —a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and reward that the ADHD brain is deficient in (Volkow et al. 2009)—I have endless time and attention to expend. The trouble is, when a task either stops feeding the very hungry dopamine vampire inside me (or never gave me dopamine to begin with—hello email inbox, is that you?), I am not able to complete it until it is URGENT. In the world of ADHD, this is demand avoidance rearing its ugly head. The trouble is, most of my work is self-directed, so how am I supposed to complete these “boring” tasks? This is where planning and organization come in.
Planning and organization
I become overwhelmed by lists of things to do, so I avoid them. When I make a to-do list, I can’t determine which item to start with, nor can I estimate how long each task will take me, therefore, I avoid the to-do list. Something that I have learned along the way, is that this is an indicator of bottom-up processing—the need to think about the details before being able to conceptualize the larger task (Craft, 2017). Here is an example from my personal life: I am lucky enough to own a house, but like many folks with ADHD, I struggle to understand and manage my finances (Beauchaine et al. 2017). After months of anxiously paying bills without any idea of how much my home was costing, I came up with a plan to write out a monthly budget. Groundbreaking concept, I know. I couldn’t just start writing out a budget though—how would I know where to start? Eventually, I realized that if I broke it down into small steps, I could complete one at a time, and would eventually produce the budget that would decrease my financial anxiety. This is the plan I developed:
- Step 1: write out a list of all house related expenses
- Step 2: determine the monthly cost of each expense, write it down
- Step 3: determine the due date for each bill, write that down too
- Step 4: determine which expenses need to be paid manually (because those are the ones I will avoid or forget)
- Step 5: enter each expense, cost, due date, and payment method into a spreadsheet
- Step 6: find the account login information for each expense and enter it into the spreadsheet
- Step 7: print that spreadsheet and pinned it up in my kitchen
The neurotypicals (i.e. folks who do not live with ADHD or ASD) reading this are thinking, “All of those steps were implied when you said you needed to write a budget”. My fellow neurodivergents are fist pumping, “way to go girl!”.
Now that you understand what a seemingly simple task looks like for a bottom-up processor, here is how I plan and organize around it at work. Before starting a new task, I break it down into steps that my brain can understand, just like the example above. Then I open my calendar and book a series of meetings with myself, labeling each according to the step I need to complete. When I feel overwhelmed, I opt for thirty-minutes, otherwise, I schedule myself an hour. When my calendar reminds me of these meetings, I set a visual timer. This helps with both demand avoidance and time blindness because I know that I must focus on the task for only a brief period and I have a visual representation of how much time has elapsed and how much more time I absolutely have to focus for. The third, and arguably most important, piece of kick starting my focus, is managing external stimulation: I need noise! Noise boosts cognitive performance in folks with ADHD (Söderlund, 2007). For me, noise comes in the form of music, an audiobook, or a podcast. There is one exception to the noise rule, which I will introduce in part two of this post. Stay tuned!
A visual timer from TimeTimer.com, available on mobile app stores.
Adamou, M., Arif, M., Asherson, P., Aw, T.-C., Bolea, B., Coghill, D., Gudjónsson, G., Halmøy, A., Hodgkins, P., Müller, U., Pitts, M., Trakoli, A., Williams, N., & Young, S. (2013). Occupational issues of adults with ADHD. BMC Psychiatry, 13(1), 59–59. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-13-59
American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In Diagnostic and statistical mental of mental disorders (5th ed., text rev.). https://dsm-psychiatryonline-org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/doi/full/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425787.x01_Neurodevelopmental_Disorders#BCFHAEIJ
Beauchaine, T. P., Ben-David, I., & Sela, A. (2017). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, delay discounting, and risky financial behaviors: A preliminary analysis of self-report data. PLoS ONE, 12(5). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176933
Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada. (2023). About ADHD. Retrieved from https://caddac.ca/about-adhd/#:~:text=Attention%20Deficit%20Hyperactivity%20Disorder%20(ADHD,the%20country%20has%20the%20disorder
Cootey, D. (2022, March 31). After the thrill: Avoiding a hyperfocus hangover. ADDitude Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-hyperfocus-crash/
Craft, S. (2017, April 23). Bottoms-up: The innovative thinking style of the Asperger’s mind. Different Brains. Retrieved from https://differentbrains.org/bottoms-up-the-innovative-thinking-style-of-the-aspergers-mind/
Flippin, R. (2021). ADHD at work: Time wasters and productivity killers. ADDitude Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-at-work-time-wasters-and-productivity-killers/
Jangmo, A., Kuja-Halkola, R., Pérez-Vigil, A., Almqvist, C., Bulik, C. M., D’Onofrio, B., Lichtenstein, P., Ahnemark, E., Werner-Kiechle, T., & Larsson, H. (2021). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and occupational outcomes: The role of educational attainment, comorbid developmental disorders, and intellectual disability. PLoS ONE, 16(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0247724
Rodden, J. (2023, January 19). What is executive dysfunction? Sign and symptoms of EFD. ADDitude Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.additudemag.com/what-is-executive-function-disorder/
Schneidt, A., Jusyte, A., Rauss, K., & Schönenberg, M. (2018). Distraction by salient stimuli in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Evidence for the role of task difficulty in bottom-up and top-down processing. Cortex, 101, 206–220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2018.01.021
Sherman, C. (2022, March 31). Is it ADHD, depression, or both? ADDitude Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-and-depression-symptoms-treatment/
Söderlund, G., Sikström, S., & Smart, A. (2007). Listen to the noise: noise is beneficial for cognitive performance in ADHD. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48(8), 840–847. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01749.x
Statistics Canada. (2023). Canada’s population clock (real-time model). Retrieved January 24, 2023 from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/71-607-x/71-607-x2018005-eng.htm
Volkow, N. D., Wang, G.-J., Kollins, S. H., Wigal, T. L., Newcorn, J. H., Telang, F., Fowler, J. S., Zhu, W., Logan, J., Ma, Y., Pradhan, K., Wong, C., & Swanson, J. M. (2009). Evaluating Dopamine Reward Pathway in ADHD: Clinical Implications. JAMA: the Journal of the American Medical Association, 302(10), 1084–1091. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2009.1308
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.