"People Assume I'm Lazy" — People With ADHD Are Sharing What They Wish Their Co-Workers Understood About The Way Their Brains Work

  tommy via Getty Images
tommy via Getty Images

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, can affect up to an estimated 8.7 million adults in the United States.

Despite how common it is to have the condition, there are still too many misunderstandings about what it’s like to actually work while having ADHD. Although having ADHD can create job challenges like distractibility, impulsivity, procrastination or time management difficulties, many adults with ADHD have successful careers.

“Just because we live in a neurotypical world doesn’t mean our way of being is wrong,” said licensed mental health counselor Micheline Maalouf, who has ADHD. “Accepting the diversity of our minds, behaviors, and processes can be so extremely valuable and can strengthen relationships, even at work. So instead of focusing on ‘How is ADHD making my co-worker difficult to work with,’ focus on how can I lean into my ADHD co-worker’s strengths so that we all benefit from being here.”

So to clear the air, HuffPost asked professionals to share what they want colleagues and clients to understand what working with ADHD is really like, and how they can be a better help instead of a hindrance:

There are still wrongful assumptions that having ADHD means you’re lazy.

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Cristi Jayo, the co-founder of a fully remote design agency, said one misunderstanding she would like to clear up is that having ADHD is not necessarily always a superpower to be glorified, nor is it a negative thing.

“It’s just a different way of the brain to be working, doesn’t need to be seen as positive or negative,” Jayo said.

Sometimes, having ADHD can be both an asset and a challenge. Indianapolis-based human resources professional Jaki Milakovic said that having ADHD has made her an invaluable employee who can hyper-focus on accomplishing tasks but has also caused her to lack boundaries, burnout and take a leave of absence at a past job before her ADHD diagnosis.

“People just assume that because I’m not getting things done that I’m being lazy. But really, it’s like the inability of figuring out where to start,” Milakovic said.

“Not being able to set boundaries is a huge difficulty,” she continued. “And it kind of also leads into over-committing and then not being able to accomplish tasks and then making it look like I’m lazy. So it just kind of snowballs from there.”

A desk may look messy to you but be perfectly organized for a professional with ADHD.

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What you may see as disorganization may make complete sense to someone with ADHD.

“Although it may seem so to the outside world, our brains function differently and what doesn’t make sense to others makes sense to us. ADHD-ers create systems within their own worlds that work for them,” Maalouf said. “To the outside world, this may look messy and chaotic, but we understand our organized chaos, and it works for us.”

Marissa Miluk, a Greenville, South Carolina-based registered dietitian with ADHD, advised people not to judge a person based on what their workspace looks like.

“If you see an ADHD-er’s desk being messy or cluttered, they’re not a slob, but they have a very strategic way of remembering where things are,” Miluk said. “I can have things in a pile and know exactly what’s in that pile where someone else might just see it as a mess.”

Interruptions can really throw off their day. 

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Miluk recalled co-workers coming by to chat in the office could really throw off her workflow.

“If I was, like, in a flow of getting some work done and someone popped by my desk to say something, and if it wasn’t the most pressing, it could easily kind of pull me out of that workflow, get me distracted by some other things, instead of keeping me in the zone,” she said.

Similarly, Milakovic said interruptions were disruptive. Since her ADHD diagnosis, Milakovic plans how long tasks will take by timing herself as much as possible.

“What works is timing myself and saying, ‘OK, this task is going to take 25 minutes,’ and if in the middle of that, I get interrupted, it really just throws off the rest of my day, and I’m unable to come back and focus,” she said.

At the same time, Milakovic said she recognizes that interruptions are sometimes necessary and suggested that if you know, you have ADHD or suspect you have ADHD, it helps to let colleagues know the best way to interrupt you.

Milakovic also said that sometimes, people with ADHD will prefer written communication like Slack chats or emails because when they can come back to it, they can better understand the expectations for the task. “Managers make the assumption that everything has to be face to face, and it really doesn’t,” she said.

“Having it verbally communicated, especially like for me, and sometimes for others with ADHD, it’s hard to retain that information... you’re kind of panicked and thinking, ‘OK, what did they say? I was thinking about something else at that time,’” she said.

That’s why, for managers and team members, asking, “What is the best way for you to receive information from me?” can be helpful for professionals with ADHD to hear, Milakovic suggested.

Staying focused can look different for professionals with ADHD, so don’t assume they’re not working or are being workaholics. 

  katleho Seisa via Getty Images
katleho Seisa via Getty Images

Maalouf said there could be a misunderstanding that having ADHD means you cannot focus on anything when it’s the opposite experience.

“People with ADHD tend to focus on too many things at once and jump from task to task because our minds notice everything around us,” Maalouf said. “However, we work extremely well under pressure and with tight deadlines and can hyper-focus and complete pretty complex tasks in short amounts of time, especially if the project or task is interesting to us.“

In general, it’s always good to extend grace and believe your colleague is being productive, even when it differs from how you personally experience it.

“I think people assume that if they know you have ADHD, that you’re easily distracted, but also ADHD-ers need to take breaks,” Miluk said.

“I’ll be in a workflow for 45 minutes to an hour, but then I might need to walk away, walk outside, get some air, get some water, play on my phone, and then I will get back to it. But without those breaks, I’ll easily burn out,” Miluk said. “Those breaks can actually sort of re-stimulate the mind.“

On the flip side, if a colleague is spending hours in the zone, that might be how they can best optimize getting their tasks done. Don’t assume they need to be taking breaks just because it looks different from how you would do it, Jayo said.

“From an outsider’s perspective, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, you haven’t gotten up from this chair.’ And they’ll say, ‘You know, it’s healthier to take small breaks here and there,’ and that might be true for a neurotypical brain,” Jayo said. “But for me, I would rather just like cram when I’m feeling it, when I have the energy, because I can’t assure you that I’ll have energy later.”

Ultimately, listen and understand that the person with ADHD knows how their mind works best. 

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“There is, unfortunately, a misunderstanding that ADHD-ers are scattered, very forgetful, maybe not hard-working, sort of need to be like looked after in some way when honestly ADHD-ers are very ambitious, very hard workers, and can be very efficient with their time when the environment is set up in a way that supports their brains,” Miluk said.

If a colleague with ADHD gets a task done right before the deadline, it’s still a job done well.

“My brain works best when I have a deadline crunch. And I get things done very efficiently in that short amount of time,” Miluk said. “It’s not just sort of thrown together, but rather, that’s when I get my best work done is when I’m like, ‘OK, cool. I have two days.’”

Miluk said clear communication is one way for professionals like her to get on the same page with colleagues. She gave the example of how she learned to set up expectations better with a previous boss by asking if Friday deadlines meant Friday morning or Friday at 11:59 p.m.

And if you are in a position of power, it’s OK to offer productivity suggestions, as long as you understand that your way is not the only way to get work done.

“Managers shouldn’t try to impose their own ways of succeeding, but maybe [try] giving suggestions like, ‘Have you tried time blocking? Have you tried scheduling time for yourself? Or would you like to try ‘body doubling’?” Milakovic said. (Body doubling, for example, is a practice in which a person with ADHD works on and completes tasks alongside another person on Zoom or in person so that the person with ADHD can stay anchored to the present.)

Ultimately, suggestions on how to be productive can be helpful, but if the professional with ADHD has a system, trust that it’s working for them.

“We’ll shame ourselves because you’re just being thrown all of this information everywhere, like, ‘You should be doing this, you should be doing that,’” Jayo said. “And the reality is, if you listen to your own body and your own mind, and find what works for you, individually, regardless of whatever anyone says is the way that things should be done, I think that’s where the real power is. And then you can really take the reins of your work experience.“

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.