Adva Shaviv, PhD

Feb 9, 2021

5 min read

Working from Home with ADHD: Structure-Free Structure

Staying productive — and sane — working from home

A desk with an open laptop, papers, cat, reading glasses, lightbox, candle, water bottle.
Image by the author

I am writing this post seated at my desk, which is the family’s living-room table, with eight more family members going around their business nearby. Four of them make all sorts of human fuss; two more bark, and the remaining two meow. That is a lot of action to accompany writing.

This isn’t the way I sit daily to finish writing my ADHD fantasy novel, however. The pandemic had many people move to working from home, who have never done so before. Many of them also have ADHD, which makes concentration and organization a daily struggle. I have been fighting these struggles for decades, and have been working from home for many years. Here are some of the tips and tricks that help me do that, in the hope that they may inspire you to find your own way.

Avoiding bad advice

The first, and most crucial thing to remember whenever ADHD is involved, is that typical advice is usually not suitable for non-typical people. Neurodiversity is a real thing, and our brains do not work in the same way as those of neurotypical brains. Thus, any tip that advocates consistency, for instance, is very unlikely to help when our minds are anything but consistent.

Productivity systems usually strive to create a structure, and that entails a constant average: on an average day, you will do X work in Y time. People with ADHD usually don’t do “average”. We have days in which we can accomplish the work of weeks, and weeks in which we hardly do the work of days. And that’s fine! Structure, after all, is good if it serves a purpose. It’s not good in itself. The purpose here is to get good work done on time, not to do it in a certain way. The key, then, is to accept that, and make the most of our highly productive times, without tormenting ourselves for the much-less-so.

Rather than the average, we tend to live in the edges. Things are mesmerizing, or they’re dreary; we feel invincible, or rather powerless; we’re beaming with energy, or completely useless. Difficult? Much less so if we adapt our actions to the edge we’re now in: crazy-creative when we feel like it, and easy, tiny tasks when we can’t. For instance, if I simply can’t focus enough to write, I can still proof-read, engage in fact-checking or researching, sift through previously-written ideas and arrange them in their proper places (bin included), etc. Following my state-of-mind when choosing the proper task for the moment has proven much more efficient for me than following any sort of organized working-order. It’s a structure-free structure built around the way my brain works.

Making yourself accountable

Remember that daunting task, which you left waiting for months, until you finally finished it in half an hour?

I used to beat myself up for these things. Really, I let it stand for weeks or more over this half hour?!

Except, it never would have taken half an hour before that exact moment! My brain had to reach a very specific state of mind for that. I’m not saying it’s a good idea to let things stand for the sake of it; it certainly isn’t. I’m saying that when someone with ADHD avoids doing something they can do in a short time, it’s because they actually can’t. Until the moment comes. The reasons are neurological, and that only means that when you’re trying to push yourself to do something for an hour, the result is that you wasted that hour on remorse, when you could have done something else, more in line with your inclination at the moment.

How to tell whether you simply need to push yourself a little further in order to get yourself to do it, or if it’s best to let go of it for the moment, and do something else instead? Hard to say. But being aware of the possible futility of these efforts may, in itself, get you on a more productive route, choosing to do whatever you can actually accomplish right now.

As for that daunting task waiting for its moment, you may be able to help create that moment by challenging yourself. How long do you think this might take? Try to do it in less. The sense of challenge may sometimes work wonders. Telling others, and making yourself accountable to them, can also help.

Carving inspiration time at home with ADHD

I wrote here before about the magic of thoughts, for which I have my ADHD to thank. And thank it I do; I couldn’t write without it! The myriads of ideas, constantly occupying my mind, sometimes collide — and a new idea is born!

Yes, I know everyone does that, but my ADHD mind is more prone to such happy accidents because of the ridiculous number of thoughts existing there at the same time, and my tendency to jump from one to the other unexpectedly. Unfortunately, there is no way to summon that magic, but certain ingredients may help inspire it. Here are some of these magic ingredients.

The starting position is not promising: writing on the family’s living room table may not be the best creativity spark. To help, I pull myself early from bed, hours before my family does, creating myself some quiet time with four napping cats and dogs.

I add to the daybreak but dim lighting, and a color-changing lightbox with my novel’s name on it. To help myself gain and maintain focus, I keep notes with crucial reminders for where I’m at and where I need to be in terms of plot, characters, editing etc.

I invigorate further senses with a scented candle (book’s aroma!) and my favorite pen to gnaw on. Music when appropriate and cool water complete the atmosphere.

The result I strive for is an enchanted feeling, which perfectly fits my writing; but sometimes the effect is more literal, as when I introduced a color-changing character inspired by the lightbox.

When the magic is working, no wonder I call it #ADDEDnotADHD! can you relate?