ADHD Productivity Success: Techniques that Work to Strengthen Your Career

A compassionate guide to productivity habits you can use to beat procrastination and forgetfulness

Sasha Collecutt
Jan 29 · 16 min read
Photo by Ben Lowe on Unsplash

Being diagnosed with ADHD marked a turning point in my career.

I had gone my whole life assuming that deadlines were about as reachable as clouds in the sky. That choosing a workday outfit caused paralytic mornings for others too. That remembering departmental rules and office policies was a polite fiction everyone maintained. Or that being criticized was always meant to be crushing and alienating.

Understanding that my career experience wasn’t normal was liberating because it meant I could adapt—and I have.

Now, at 33, I have a job I love, that I’m good at, and at which I think I’m succeeding. Every day brings new and interesting challenges that I have the ability to anticipate, evaluate, and respond to in a timely way. Some of my colleagues actually think I’m an inherently organized person, a realization that continues to amaze me.

The habits and productivity systems that work for others generally don’t work for me, and so to stay on top of my work and excel, I made it my mission to find the systems that do. I read a lot about motivation and memory, trying to understand how neurotypical people work and how things are different for those of us with ADHD.

Here’s how I adapted my work habits to overcome the challenges that ADHD presents for me in the workplace, and even leverage the strengths that I bring to the table.



The Challenges to Overcome

ADHD usually has specific impacts on executive functions. The ones that have impacted me the most include:

  • Impaired working memory —the ability to hold on to information over the short term. In the workplace, having a poor working memory makes it very difficult to resume tasks after you’ve been interrupted or distracted. Following complex instructions can be challenging for the same reason.
  • Emotional self-regulation — being able to adjust behavior appropriately in response to different situations. If you don’t have well-developed regulatory processes, it’s easy to react poorly to criticism and miss out on opportunities to improve and grow in your career.
  • Self-motivation —the ability to act on one’s desires. Even if you want to make positive changes to your career (and who doesn’t?), following through with these pledges can be extremely tough. And what you fail to finish, or even start, at the beginning of your career can have unhappy professional and financial consequences later on.
  • Planning and problem solving — the ability to see forward into the future, make reasonable estimates of time, and predict the outcomes of events. Being able to deal with time is an important part of every job (showing up on time, making estimates of work required, tracking effort, being patient with clients, etc.), but ADHD can actually impair your ability to think about time. There are some fascinating studies about this often-unrecognized symptom of ADHD.

Procrastination and forgetfulness are significant consequences of ADHD and its effects on executive function. Before I found strategies that worked, they’d been eating away at my career progress, causing stress and discouragement. My goal was to negate them so that I could let my best work shine.

Once I’d set that goal, I worked out strategies for each of these career-corroding ADHD effects. For each strategy, I researched and experimented with different tactics.


Strategies and Tactics

I want to explain how I think about strategy and tactics, because the distinction between them is important.

[Strategies] form a method for articulating the different pathways that might exist for you tomorrow, and finding your appropriate movements down each of those possible paths

Peter Schwartz, The Art of the Long View

A strategy is a way to reach a goal. A thoughtful, coherent strategy will help you identify potential obstacles along the way.

Tactics are the movements you’ll use to get started, overcome or bypass obstacles, and arrive at your goal.

A strategy without tactics won’t get you very far. Likewise, having tactics but no strategy is problematic. I learned a great deal from this piece exploring the distinctions between strategies and tactics.

With that shared definition of strategies and tactics in place, let’s revisit the goal:

Negate the stressful and discouraging career impacts of ADHD

I’d identified procrastination and forgetfulness as the drivers of my stress and discouragement. So for each, I considered what strategy and tactics I could use to address their effects on me. These are the results.


Dealing with Procrastination

Perpetual and painful procrastination is one of the hallmarks of adult ADHD. It’s a depressing, exhausting form of mental torture that I would call self-imposed, but that implies a choice on my part. I want to arrive at the office on time, respond to all relevant emails, complete projects ahead of deadlines, be a great product manager, and succeed. I have no interest in being mediocre or even average.

In my reading, I found that procrastination is just a symptom. It’s like realizing you’re not fit enough to climb a mountain. It’s still a functional deficiency (let’s not pretend ADHD is all rainbows and unicorns), but now it’s one that you can control.


Strategy: Avoid Direct Engagement

My brain loathes feeling like I must do this mundane task or start that monolithic project. The crushing teeth of the procrastination monster seize on that moment of hesitation, and it holds tight. I can’t depend on willpower to fight it outright, but I do have a range of sneaky tactics for slipping free.

Tactic 1: Avoid the trigger of external expectations

I’m very careful to word the things I want to get done in a certain way. Instead of letting myself think that I have to do this or must do that because a colleague or client needs it, I take control and tell myself that I choose to do this and I want to do that because I think these tasks are important to get done. I try to fit my actions into a larger picture rather than letting work become a series of mundane activities forced upon me.

I know that if I weight an action with external expectation, I risk becoming indifferent to it. This gives the procrastination monster a grip on my mind. So I think about projects as endeavors I own, schedules as my timelines, policies as my choices, and so on. I am always looking for ways to frame these as matters of intrinsic motivation.

Tactic 2: Reshape the issue at hand

If you can’t bring yourself to get something done, try solving a more interesting problem.

I don’t mean do something else entirely, I mean squint at what you’re facing and see it in a different light. Publish a guide instead of writing emails to answer the same questions over and over. Learn a new skill to automate a tedious data entry task. Delegate a low-priority project as a learning opportunity for someone else. Ask a colleague for help. Dodge the procrastination monster.

Tactic 3: Surprise yourself out of inaction

Procrastination is a relentless beast, but it doesn’t adapt well to sudden change. Work from a library, park, or cafe instead of your usual location. Listen to music if you usually don’t; try silence if you do. Wear a new fragrance. Try something out of the ordinary for lunch. Rearrange your desk. Write with your nondominant hand. Use a different piece of software. Change your working hours. Capitalize on the motivation that novelty brings.

Tactic 4: Tell yourself incremental lies

This sounds ridiculous, but it works. If I’m putting off leaving for work in the morning, I tell myself, “I’m not going yet, I’m only gathering my things.” And then, when I move on to the next step, “I’m not walking to my car, I’m just appreciating the weather outside.” And then, arriving at work, “I’m not sitting at my desk, I’m actually getting a coffee.” And finally, starting work, “I’m not working, I’m planning my day.” By the time the procrastination monster realizes what’s going on, I’m too well-armored with a sense of progress to be susceptible.

Tactic 5: Keep your achievements close

Completing a critical piece of work at 3 a.m. because you started it in a panic the evening before it was due isn’t a great feeling. You might be relieved it’s done, but more likely you’ll be angry at yourself for having had to work like that. But anger isn’t a good weapon to fight the procrastination monster with. It thrives on negativity.

Satisfaction and pride in one’s work are anathema to the procrastination monster. So remember to reflect on and be familiar with all the things you didn’t procrastinate on and the things that you did accomplish.

I like to look back over my task lists and delight in all the items marked as done. Opening my “Sent” email folder gives me the same sense of accomplishment. Even just noticing the details of my email signature or the folder where I keep my qualifications is helpful. On a larger scale, seeing my colleagues succeed and my company make progress as a result of my efforts is useful too. I made things happen.

Tactic 6: Understand procrastination itself better

Knowing what procrastination does for you can help you be a bit kinder to yourself as you seek to rein it in. Procrastination is basically a form of short-term mood repair. The beast convinces you that pleasure in the short term outweighs the pain your future self is going to experience as the result of your procrastination.

This is my favorite essay about procrastination, which I read a long time ago. I’d forgotten about it until I got curious just now and searched to see if other people thought about procrastination as a beast in their brain.

It’s worth noting that the infrequently seen second head of the procrastination monster is called flow, or hyperfocus. When the stars align, ducks form a row, lightning strikes twice, and everything comes up Milhouse — you and the procrastination monster want the same thing. Great achievements can indeed happen in these circumstances. But hoping flow shows up when you most need it is like expecting to win a lottery with a single, randomly chosen ticket.


Fighting Forgetfulness

Moments of forgetfulness are extraordinarily common for people with ADHD. In fact, this absentmindedness might also be the most public sign of ADHD.

I’ve been embarrassed, disappointed, and subjected to scorn and criticism as a result of my forgetfulness. I forget things often. Like the method for calculating a z-score, what I did yesterday, and who my favorite writers are. Also, making backups, project details, bringing the right cable, and that meeting that happens at the same time every week.

People have given me far too much well-meaning and useless advice. Here’s a list:

  • “Write a list”
  • “Keep a notebook”
  • “Buy a whiteboard”
  • “Use a diary”
  • “Make a memory palace”
  • “Memorize this mnemonic”
  • “Repeat my words back to me”

I accept the apparent hypocrisy of listing unhelpful memory techniques. But notice that the act of making this list doesn’t help me recall its contents. Each point is exactly as accessible to me as it was before I wrote it. Once a piece of information is out of my head, stored somewhere else, what am I going to use to retrieve it? My memory? Yeah, no.

If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.

Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia”

If you can’t rely on short-term or working memory to fetch an answer or even find the place where you stored the answer, then you have to know how to generate it. Instead of trying to contain an armful of slippery facts, I carry a toolkit of concepts and skills.

Ultimately, succeeding with ADHD is hard work, and combating forgetfulness requires effort. Don’t waste that effort on battles of recall. Win the war of knowing instead.

My father had already taught me that [the name] doesn’t tell me anything about the bird. He taught me, “See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird — you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way,” and so forth.

There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

Richard Feynman, “What Is Science?”

For forgetfulness, I employ two strategies, each with a corresponding set of tactics: understand rather than recall, and recognize and handle ephemeral information.


Strategy 1 for Forgetfulness: Understand Rather than Recall

I don’t need to recall the superficial details of my job, because I know what its underlying purpose is. I’m confident of the relevant concepts. If a client or colleague asks me for advice or help, I can process the situation and develop a response. Sometimes when I’m presented with the same problem more than once, I’ll come up with different solutions each time, not being bogged down by remembering earlier responses. Expertise gets me by. And in situations in which I might not expect to have an answer, I’m more likely to come up with one than if I relied on recall.

It’s not necessary to be an expert in every field you touch. In the context of my current job, I focused on two areas: the company’s PaaS (platform as a service) product and my ability to communicate knowledge about it. Developing that expertise helped propel me past an entry-level position. Now I lead an initiative that grows and shares product knowledge, across both the company and the industry it operates within.

The tactics I deploy to support and enhance knowledge are nothing surprising.

Tactic 1: Observe

It seems asinine to say “pay attention” in a piece about ADHD, so I won’t. Observation is about a lot more than paying attention. It requires being open, being curious, being interested, and using all your senses. See how well those qualities align with the characteristics of ADHD? We’re already good at observing. Help those tendencies help you by observing with intention and being aware of your biases.

Tactic 2: Read

I read. It’s the most effective way I learn, and the more I read, the more efficiently I learn. I’m not fussy about how I read. I use a feed reader, newsletters, Medium, open-access journals, archive.org, and actual books. I borrow, buy, and rescue books. The content is more important than the medium (sorry, Medium). And what you do with the content is imperative.

Make time to absorb, reflect, synthesize, test, and apply knowledge that you get from reading. It won’t come fluently if you don’t use it. Furthermore, it’s worth gaining skills to remembering what you read.

Tactic 3: Write

The process of writing this article is helping me at least as much as reading the article is helping you. Poe also said: “Thought is logicalised by the effort at (written) expression.” The difficulty of wrapping up what you know into a neatly written package strengthens your understanding of a topic. If you can handwrite it, even better. As with reading, make time to review and reflect on what you’ve written — days, weeks, months, or even years later.

Tactic 4: Teach

Can you explain your area of expertise to an interested novice? Being able to share your knowledge is an excellent measure of your own understanding. The test I use to check that I have a deep understanding of a topic is whether I can bring someone up to my level faster than I got there myself.

Tactic 5: Make learning special and exciting!

Like most people with ADHD, I have an unwavering attraction to novelty and surprise. I thrive on delight. This is especially useful for learning. Topics I’m excited to learn about become more securely enmeshed in my web of work-related knowledge. So I give myself permission to geek out about everything even remotely relevant to my job.

Do whatever it takes to learn continuously in your field. Aim for conceptual fluency in the critical aspects of your job.

Note that I haven’t yet touched on the issue of forgetting items, people, and events. I use a different strategy for those bits of ephemeral knowledge.


Strategy 2 for Forgetfulness: Recognize and Handle Ephemeral Knowledge

Ephemeral information is tricky, because it’s only useful for a short time. It’s useful to know that your flight is at 3 p.m. on a particular Tuesday when you want to avoid a scheduling conflict and when it’s time to pack your things and leave for the airport. But once you’re on the right plane, you can safely dispose of the knowledge you needed to get to that point.

If, at any point within the scope of my goal, a piece of knowledge can become redundant, it’s disposable. Its shelf-life might be hours, days, or even months, but it’s definitely limited.

Recognizing this sort of information is helpful because I can dump it and look it up later. Some research suggests that it’s easier to recall how to access information than the specific details of that information.

The following are some examples of information that I don’t try to hold in my brain; rather, I make sure I know where to look for them so that they can be retrieved when needed:

  • The start day of a new colleague (stored in my calendar)
  • The inverse Vincenty equation (Wikipedia exists for this kind of thing)
  • What Nothofagus pollen looks like (this can be found in a reference collection)
  • Whether I need a visa for that country before this trip (Wikipedia plus calendar)
  • Anything to do with MS Word (just kidding; there’s nowhere with all the answers about Word)

All of these were useful pieces of knowledge (except for the MS Word example) at a specific time, so I made an effort to at least remember how to find them again.

So what are some tactics for recognizing and storing temporarily useful information? Here are the three I use most.

Tactic 1: Consistent and constant categorization

Most ephemeral bits of information come in these forms. Identify the category of information, and it will point you to the right place where you can retrieve it later.

  • Events. Knowledge of events is easy to recognize as disposable information. Once the event date has passed, that’s it. Most things associated with dates and times are disposable. I dump the details into a calendar (synced across all my devices), set a reminder, and forget about them.
  • Methods, techniques, and processes. If I need to follow a specific sequence of steps more than a few times, I’ll write myself a checklist or guide, or adopt someone else’s. After that, I don’t make any effort to remember the steps. Next time the task comes up, I follow the guide. Sometimes I use a process so often that it becomes ingrained and I don’t need a guide, but it’s still nice to have one. A sweet bonus of having guides and checklists is that you can share them with others to follow or improve upon.
  • Decisions and preferences. In the course of a single day at work, I’m likely to be involved in a lot of decisions. A subtler form of decision is “preference,” which you can handle the same way. Remembering all the decisions and preferences for projects, products, and processes gets easier if you categorize them as “rules”: a decision that’s been made is a rule for how to go forward (a preference is a rule as well, but one that is less strict, since maybe you’ll change it later). Rule-type information goes at the front of the documentation for whatever it applies to—often a checklist or calendar item. Once it’s there, you can review all the rules at once whenever you interact with the project, product, or process.
  • Wants and needs. Wanting something is disposable in the sense that once you’ve gotten whatever it was, you don’t need to remember that you wanted it. Same for needs; once the need is met, you can carry on unencumbered. Preventing wants and needs from getting lost before you can fulfill them relies on them being visible. Like decisions and preferences, use the right context to store your wants and needs. The format doesn’t matter too much, as long as it’s sufficiently searchable. I have sticky notes, bookmarks, pictures, and emails to myself reminding me that I want or need something.
  • Names and faces. My best tactic for not blanking on people is to get to know them a little. Find a quirk or fact that gives their face and name a lasting association with the pleasure of learning something cool. I often follow up a meeting by researching the person a little and then sending them a brief message recapping our discussion and thanking them for their time. Besides the beneficial effect this has on your professional network, contacting someone after the initial meeting helps cement them in your memory.

Tactic 2: Deliberate redundancy

I keep short-term knowledge in many formats in several places. I might write a description of a new feature in a notebook but also capture it in my calendar as an understanding of what I want to do with a particular block of time. It might go into an email or instant message, accessible from different devices depending on where I am. I might sketch it out on a piece of scrap paper.

Suddenly, that idea now exists in five or six places. Yes, I know it’s inefficient, and, no, I don’t hate simple, elegant solutions (like the Bullet Journal). I just need to maximize the likelihood of stumbling over the information I need at the right time.

Tactic 3: Shorten the lifespan of disposable knowledge

Save yourself the effort of remembering things later and deal with them straightaway. For example, if you think you might forget to send a client an email later, do it now. By shortening the turnaround time of information, you also reduce the risk of other tactics failing.

The downside of this tactic is its obvious disruptiveness.


Summing Up

I adapted, and it’s helping. You can adapt too. I won’t pretend it’s not hard work, but progress is progress.

My goal was to cancel out two common effects of ADHD — procrastination and forgetfulness — so I could shine at work, instead of crumbling. My strategies were twofold:

  • For procrastination: avoid direct engagement with the procrastination monster.
  • For forgetfulness: understand what’s important (don’t rely on recall) and recognize ephemeral knowledge.

This is one of the longest pieces of personal writing I’ve produced — in word count as well as sustained effort. It’s definitely going to feature in my list of reassurances to myself that I can come up with an idea for an article AND follow through on writing it. Next time I set out to write something, I’ll remember this.

If you’ve followed me to this point — thank you, and I very much hope that my experience can be helpful to you.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Terrie Schweitzer

Sasha Collecutt

Written by

Productive robot←—→Creative clusterf**k

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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