Finding the right job is one of the biggest puzzles anyone with ADHD has to crack.
If you have ADHD, you’ll probably find that your productivity fluctuates greatly depending on your environment. At your best, you might be hyperfocused. In other situations, you’ll struggle to generate the motivation necessary to complete tasks. So finding a job that fits with your brain is a must for being able to manage your symptoms and stay happy.
You’ll find plenty of lists of specific jobs that ADHDers often gravitate toward, but the truth is that the precise job you excel in depends on many other individual characteristics besides ADHD. People with ADHD might enjoy being artists or firefighters, but that doesn’t mean the same person with ADHD is equally suited to both jobs.
Therefore, I want to go a little deeper and consider some general traits of jobs that tend to better accommodate people with ADHD. These are traits you can look for when choosing a workplace or a career – whatever the specific type of work you’re interested in might be.
For people with ADHD, it can make a big difference not just what work we’re doing but how we organize it.
Personally, I know that the order I do tasks in can make or break my productivity. I also need to be able to control the environment I work in. For example, if I’m doing sedentary work on a computer such as filling out forms, I have to be able to listen to music to keep my brain stimulated and focused. Another ADHDer might have different conditions, such as total silence, that are imperative for maintaining productivity.
The upshot is that having a job that gives you autonomy and independence in how you perform your work will go a long way toward being able to manage your ADHD symptoms. A study published this year found that people with ADHDer are less psychologically distressed when they have control over their jobs combined with social support.
If you have ADHD, you’ve probably developed coping strategies that increase your productivity, whether you realize it or not. You need a workplace that is flexible enough for you to use these coping strategies and set up your environment according to your individual preferences.
2. The right kind of structure
You may have noticed from experience that certain types of external structure help you stay organized while other types just act as useless restraints. Hence why it’s important to find a work environment that provides the right kind of structure.
I’ll give another example from my own life. I like having deadlines because they provide an external roadmap of when to get work done. In fact, I especially like work that is oriented around relatively short-term, even unpredictable, deadlines: it provides structure but doesn’t involve too much planning ahead.
On the other hand, I don’t like structure that restricts how I do my work, which goes back to the need for autonomy.
In my writing business, I don’t mind clients sending me work with relatively short deadlines (within reason, of course!). But I also prefer to do the work for a flat fee rather than an hourly rate and to be specific about which stages of the actual writing the client will be involved in. So my agreement with the client gives external structure as to what work I do, how much work I do, and when I get it done, but I determine on my own how I do it.
The more general point here is that some external structure is good for ADHDers. It’s not a contradiction to look for a job that provides both autonomy and structure. You just have to know what kind of structure you find helpful so you can seek out workplaces that provide it.
3. Tangible rewards
ADHDers are reward driven. Our deficits in self-control and executive functioning mean that we have a hard time generating motivation and forcing ourselves to concentrate without having specific rewards to kick our brains into gear.
There are two ways jobs can provide these rewards. The first is if you find the work itself inherently rewarding. If you’re a writer and you enjoy the act of writing, that will certainly act to your advantage. In fact, many ADHDers have observed anecdotally that they’re sometimes able to “hyperfocus” on tasks that engage then, and recent scientific research has provided evidence for a link between hyperfocus and ADHD.
The second way is to have specific extrinsic rewards that you’re working toward. Knowing that your work is concrete progress toward receiving these rewards and accomplishing tangible goals can provide motivation.
This might be one reason people with ADHD commonly become self-employed or strike out as entrepreneurs. In these work environments, your work is directly tied to tangible rewards. Being self-employed is different than working a 9-5 because the amount of work you do directly correlates with the amount of money you make. In the cause of running a business, your tasks are directly tied to the success of your business.
Rewards don’t have to be monetary. They can also be helping other people in a specific way. If you’re a lawyer, your reward might be winning a case. If you’re a scientist, your reward might be publishing a paper and advancing human knowledge. But the more you’re able to set short-term goals with tangible rewards, the easier it will be to stay focused and motivated.
4. Stimulation and novelty
The ADHD brain can operate like a fully-fueled, well-oiled machine when it has stimulation and novelty to keep it chugging away. By contrast, it starts to sputter in repetitive, dull situations where it has to try to generate its own motivation or force itself to focus. This need for stimulation is related to the relationship between ADHD and novelty seeking.
One implication is that the ADHD brain will find a more natural home in workplaces that provide stimulation and novelty. Therefore, jobs that have an element of unpredictability and varied responsibilities are often ADHD-friendly. No surprise that you’ll find some ADHDers working as ER nurses or EMTs!
When assessing a job for its ADHD-compatible characteristics, then, an additional question you want to ask is: will it keep me interested and engaged?
There’s something about open-ended tasks with a creative component that seems to attract people with ADHD. The relationship between ADHD and creativity is complex, but people with ADHD do seem to score high on at least some measures of creativity. A recent study on this topic suggests that people with ADHD may be good at brainstorming and idea generation in particular.
Jobs with a creative component can play to the affinity many ADHDers have for this type of thinking. Obvious examples are lines of work that have an artistic bent, like musician, designer, filmmaker or writer.
But you don’t necessarily need to be an artist to have a job that involves creativity. Being an entrepreneur requires creative problem-solving. Working on a marketing campaign will certainly test your ability to come up with new ideas. Whatever industry you find yourself in, you might not thrive in a job where you’re going through the motions – in which case, it might help to find a job that involves coming up with entirely new motions yourself!
The exact job that fulfills these criteria for you will depend on your individual skills, interests and personality traits. And it won’t necessarily be the first job you have. Many if not most ADHDers go through some jobs that don’t mesh with their ADHD brains before they know what a job that is accommodating of their symptoms looks like.
What’s key is to continually build awareness of what kind of workplace is healthy for you. If you stay on the lookout for these general traits of an ADHD-accommodating job and accept a certain amount of failure as part of the learning process, it’s possible to find a job where you thrive with ADHD. And if you’ve already found that job, feel free to post a comment below and let us know what it is!
Image: Flickr/Fotografia UFC