I recently gave a talk about the basics of adult ADHD and how it can look within, and impact, the engineering field. My client, Ashley Chand, joined me to share her lived experience of being an engineer with ADHD. I am so thankful to everyone who showed up and felt like they were walking away with great tools.
But, I learned something in that conversation, too: ADHD really isn’t discussed nearly enough in the engineering space.
Some people shared that they were just beginning to learn what this mysterious acronym even meant.
Without awareness, we can’t make environments accessible and accommodating for people with ADHD. As a result, many feel isolated and confused about why their struggles seem so different from those of their peers. Coping with ADHD is difficult enough; isolation only compounds its impact.
Lack of conversation leads to shame… and there’s nothing to be ashamed of here. So let’s talk about it.
Quick Facts: What is ADHD?
There are hundreds of thousands of studies on ADHD at this point in time, and parsing through it all would be impossible. I highly encourage digging deep to learn more about your diagnosis, but to begin the journey, there’s just a few basics I want to touch on.
- ADHD has 3 hallmark components: impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention.
- Inattention can actually be misleading terminology. Those with ADHD still have attention, but it’s being split between multiple things, and it’s difficult to tune any of them out.
- Those three components will manifest differently in everyone. Some people will be more impulsive than others. Some people may have very little hyperactivity. This does not negate their diagnosis. ADHD is more of a spectrum!
- There are two main neurotransmitters discussed in the study of ADHD management: dopamine and norepinephrine. Both are related to motivation, attention, impulse control. Dopamine is also associated with the brain’s reward system.
- You’ll hear the term “executive functions” frequently. Executive functions refer to the high-level cognitive processes required for goal-oriented behavior. In other words, the capabilities needed to be successful over time. This includes: time management, impulsivity, working memory, prioritization/planning, metacognition, cognitive flexibility, etc.
- Depending on your resource, the list of executive functions will have slight variations. That doesn’t mean your resource isn’t reputable! Some are grouped together under one name, while other experts may choose to separate as much as possible.
How Do ADHD Executive Function Deficits Impact an Engineer?
What ADHD looks like in the workplace will be different for everyone, but here are some of the most common issues that my engineering clients discuss:
- Poor Work/Life Balance: When you struggle to get started working at an appropriate time, you may need to stay late in order to catch up or feel like you had a productive work day. When you have to stay late or work later than ideal, it pushes against the self-care time that you reserved for the end of your day. So one of two things will happen: you sacrifice your self-care time in order to keep your nightly routine, or you push back your nightly routine to get in self-care, which disrupts your sleep cycle.
- Missed deadlines/needing extensions: Whether this is due to procrastination, or underestimating how long you would need to complete a project, asking for extensions from a client or supervisor is never a feel-good moment. You may start experiencing severe anxiety as deadlines approach, realizing that once again, you’re not going to be able to have it complete on time.
- Losing interest in long-term projects: You may start a project with a lot of excitement and engagement, but as it loses its novelty and you start getting interested in other ideas, you may lose your steam and leave things incomplete.
- Paralysis due to overwhelm: You may struggle to break projects down into approachable pieces. By looking at EVERYTHING that needs to be done, you might not know where to begin, or how to get yourself in a headspace to get started. It might feel easier to not even try.
- Recognizing burnout and fatigue: Engineering requires you to pay attention to a lot of components and variables. Trying to keep track of everything might mean you sacrifice self-awareness. You might not realize how many hours you’re putting in, or that you haven’t eaten that day. Exerting all that effort is bound to turn into burnout. By the time you realize it, you might need several days to recover.
- Getting overwhelmed switching between conversations or projects: Without transition time, it can feel difficult to jump into different conversations and discussions. You’re still trying to process a meeting or new expectations when you get bombarded with more information. You may get disoriented and overwhelmed trying to jump from one task to another.
- Estimating how long a project will take: You may have two weeks to complete a project for a client, but after reviewing it, you come to the conclusion it will take about four days of productive work to finish. Unfortunately, when you actually do start, you realize there were many subtasks that you forgot to account for, and won’t be able to make the deadline.
- Recognizing when to switch approaches: When you run into an issue or a problem, you might get tunnel vision on what the solution should look like. Rather than trying to get others’ eyes on it or try another way of solving it, you may spend too long trying to get “your way” to work.
Recognizing the Role of Technology
Technology has constant, short, engaging content with an infinite scroll. At all times, we have the world at our finger tips. For those with ADHD, that’s just an additional temptation and distraction. Engineering requires long-term commitment to projects and a lot of patience - essentially, the complete opposite of what technology can be. It’s important to create tools that help you feel in control of how you utilize technology when you likely need to be online all day to complete your work.
Strategies for ADHD Management
Learn about what energizes you in the workplace and makes it feel like you aren’t working anymore. For some people, this might be collaboration and learning; for others, it might be problem-solving and challenges. Reflect on prior experiences with these questions:
- When have I felt most engaged at work?
- What are some accomplishments I’m most proud of?
- What do your colleagues say you excel at?
- What comes naturally to you that others might find difficult?
- In groups, what role do you tend to navigate towards?
Other things that can help with motivation include breaking things down and adding outside accountability.
Work On Energy & Time Management
Learn when you’re most productive with your time. When are you most energized? When do you experience brain fog? Learning your patterns makes it easier to start scheduling your day accordingly.
To schedule your day accordingly, you’ll have to analyze what tasks require the most cognitive effort versus what’s very easy for you to complete (or doesn’t require much effort, even if you don’t want to do it). Tasks that require a lot of cognitive energy might be best placed in your most energetic parts of the day to have more motivation to tackle the dragon.
Try to be efficient with your energy. Multi-tasking drains your energy pretty rapidly. If you can, try to stick to one thing at a time to avoid having to go back and forth. When you go back and forth, you have to:
- Stop the task you were at
- Switch over to the next task
- Build motivation to start the next task
- Try to get into the focus and flow
All of that takes a lot of mental energy, and can easily lead to fatigue and lack of focus.
If you have to switch gears, plan to warm up and cool down. Remind yourself what you need to come back to and what your next actions were going to be. That way when you return to it, you don’t have to try to remember.
Externalize What You Can
ADHD impacts working memory, so the name of the game is to externalize what you can. Utilize alarms, planners, to-do lists, and calendars to remember what you need to do when. If you’re trying to think through a process, make it physical by utilizing mind-mapping or brain dumping and allowing yourself to move the pieces around.
Learn the Why of Procrastination
Procrastination isn’t just procrastination; there’s a reason behind it. Maybe you don’t know how to get started. Maybe you underestimated how much time you need. Maybe you’re waiting for that anxiety push at the end to finish it up, or you’re afraid of potential negative feedback from others. Take the time to sit down and think about what’s going on beneath the surface to create a way to tackle the issue.
Try to keep an eye out for what distracts you throughout the day. Make a log of what keeps grabbing your attention - that way you can create specific strategies for dealing with each type.
Think About Workplace Accommodations
- Can you have alternative working hours?
- Can you meet with colleagues or your supervisor more frequently for additional accountability?
- Can you receive meeting agendas ahead of time or get written summary notes afterwards?
- Can you have a quarterly performance review compared to annual or semi-annual?
- Can you change the location of where you are working within the office?
Q & A from the Webinar
- How do I actually stick to the schedule/time block (when I don't want to do what I've planned)
- A: For a time block that you planned, you’ve hopefully mapped out your energy levels and planned accordingly. You may want to utilize external motivation or utilize an aspect of urgency. Say you have from 8am-12pm to work on project A. What can be helpful is creating a hard stop right at 12pm to avoid bleeding into the rest of the day. Maybe schedule a meeting with your manager, or make an appointment with the dentist that can work as a fake deadline. There is no time to procrastinate because you’ve stopped yourself from having additional time.
- How are people who've lost insurance due to lay-offs surviving job interviews/job search without meds?
- A: When it comes to interviews, its important to recognize that you can have interview accommodations. Can I get the questions ahead of time? Can I have a 30-second break between the questions? Can I have a break between the culture fit questions before going into the knowledge and skill tests? Remember, if the employer doesn’t want to give you accommodations for an interview, if they can’t recognize that different people need different things, how they respond is really telling.
- How can you convince employers to give proper accommodations? I have had a manager think it would be “unfair,” and for some reason employers refuse to give behavioral questions in advance or ask them clearly. Any advice for this? Recruiters and employers are becoming very adversarial.
- A: When it comes to disclosure, if you feel like it’s not a safe environment. It might not be in your best interest - not due to shame, but because of pushback, it might not be the right path for you. Can you can still ask for accommodations without using the words accommodation or ADHD? For instance, instead of saying you need an accommodation of alternative working hours due to ADHD, pull your boss aside and say that you notice you’re most creative and productive in the evening, so would it be okay to adjust your hours accordingly? Just bringing it up as being more profitable for the company is usually helpful.
- What if I don’t want to take a break when the reminder is up, but I need to because it has been hours?
- A: This might be a good time to think about why you don’t want to take a break. Do you have any thoughts that if you leave the activity, you won’t be able to get your motivation back again? If so, how can you create strategies to feel confident in your ability to pick it back up where you left off? If you don’t want to leave because this activity is more fun than a break, can you pick different break activities that will feel restorative and engaging as well?
- How can we manage the reluctance or discomfort associated with tasks we inherently don't enjoy, such as reading documentation, despite implementing common techniques like removing distractions, using medication, and meditation? Or in simpler terms, how can we achieve a flow state for tasks that we dislike, and what actionable advice can you offer?
- A: First things first is breaking it down. If you have an entire chapter of something you need to read, that’s a lot to think about. Can you think about just doing the first paragraph? The first three sentences? Or can you utilize a timer instead? Can you read for two minutes regardless of how far you get? If it’s an issue of retaining the information, you may need to take notes. It may take longer, but it will be more efficient, if this is what works for you. In short, change the framework about what the expectations for this task are.
- What percent of your clients use ADHD medications?
- A: Shimmer does not collect this information at this time! We have some clients who do choose to utilize medication, and some who decided it wasn’t the right path for them.
How Can ADHD Coaching Help Engineers With ADHD?
An ADHD career coach specializes in understanding the unique challenges and strengths associated with ADHD in the professional realm. For engineers with ADHD, such a coach can be invaluable in navigating the demands of their roles.
- Career Exploration: Not all engineers discovered their passion early on. For those still contemplating the best career for ADHD, an ADHD career coach can provide insights into professions that leverage their unique strengths. While engineering is a fitting choice for many, the dynamic thinking, creativity, and problem-solving abilities inherent in many with ADHD can be assets in a plethora of careers.
- Time Management & Organization: One of the key areas an ADHD career coach can assist with is improving time management skills. Engineers often handle multiple tasks, and a coach can introduce tools or methodologies tailored to their needs, ensuring deadlines are met and projects are executed efficiently.
- Online Resources: The rise of ADHD care online has made it more accessible for professionals to find support. An ADHD career coach can suggest online tools, apps, workshops, and courses that can assist engineers in honing their skills and coping with ADHD symptoms more effectively.
- Workspace Optimization: Creating a conducive work environment is vital. With insights from ADHD care online and the coach's expertise, engineers can learn how to structure their workspace to minimize distractions and maximize productivity.
- Coping Skills for ADHD Tailored to Strengths: Every individual with ADHD has a unique set of strengths and challenges. By understanding these, an ADHD career coach can suggest strategies that play to an engineer's strengths. For instance, someone with hyperfocus might be guided on how to implement deep work sessions with planned breaks.
- Networking and Professional Growth: A career coach can also provide guidance on how to network effectively, seek mentorship, and pursue opportunities for professional growth, ensuring that the engineer doesn't feel limited by their ADHD but rather empowered by their unique perspective.
- Empowerment and Confidence Building: Through consistent feedback and support, an ADHD career coach empowers engineers, helping them build confidence in their abilities and equipping them to advocate for themselves in professional settings.
By integrating the expertise of an ADHD career coach, leveraging ADHD care online, and aligning with what's often considered the best career for ADHD, engineers can carve a path of success and fulfillment. These tools and resources, when applied effectively, can transform challenges into opportunities for growth and innovation.
Ready to try it out for yourself?
Shimmer’s adult ADHD coaches and ADHD career coaches are great for anyone seeking ADHD care online. Plus, we’ve got some awesome partnerships with exclusive discounts - like this one, with Taro. Taro provides masterclasses, vetted Q&A, and live events for accelerated engineer career growth. Use code SHIMMER20 at joinTaro.com/membership for 20% off the premium membership.