My Tips for Working While Neurodivergent

Give yourself permission to do what works for you instead of what works for others.

Note: I’m not a mental health expert and I don’t have a diagnosis. I do have some symptoms of ADHD that I’ve had to learn to work with. This essay is based on my experiences doing so and intended to be the kind of advice I could have used earlier in my career.

I can’t even tell you how much of my life I wasted beating myself up for being “lazy” and “disorganized” before I instead put myself in different situations where it became clear I was no such thing. My goal here is to help others avoid wasting as much time and emotional energy as I did.

Of course, the whole thing with neurodiversity is that it is diverse. People’s brains are different and what works for me might not be what works for you. So even though I’m going to use direct imperative language for clarity and readability, this content is intended as inspiration and not prescription. Every time I tell you to do something, there’s an implied, “Or at least, that’s what worked for me,” after it.

Okay, let’s get to it.

The Most Important Thing

The most important thing you need to do is: Give yourself permission to do what works for you instead of what works for others.

To explain this, I’d like to start with a story. The story comes from Scott Alexander and is about a hair dryer.

[T]his one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

It’s a pretty typical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was really interfering with her life. She worked some high-powered job - I think a lawyer - and she was constantly late to everything because of this driving back and forth, to the point where her career was in a downspin and she thought she would have to quit and go on disability. She wasn’t able to go out with friends, she wasn’t even able to go to restaurants because she would keep fretting she left the hair dryer on at home and have to rush back. She’d seen countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, she’d done all sorts of therapy, she’d taken every medication in the book, and none of them had helped.

So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her “Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

And it worked.

She would be driving to work in the morning, and she’d start worrying she’d left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house, and so she’d look at the seat next to her, and there would be the hair dryer, right there. And she only had the one hair dryer, which was now accounted for. So she would let out a sigh of relief and keep driving to work.

. . . Here’s someone who was totally untreatable by the normal methods, with a debilitating condition, and a drop-dead simple intervention that nobody else had thought of gave her her life back.

Most people are able to go through their day without repeatedly checking whether they’ve left their hair dryer on. When the woman in this story wasn’t able to, the health care professionals she consulted tried to help her operate the way most people do by eliminating her unusual need to check the dryer. When that failed, they were out of ideas. Until she met with Alexander’s colleague who instead helped her succeed with her particular need.

Needing to check on her hair dryer was unusual but it wasn’t her real problem. Her real problem was the disruption this need caused in her personal and professional life. Eliminating the need would have been a clean way to solve that problem, but it wasn’t the only way. Making the need much easier to address was also a way to solve the problem, and that solution actually worked. But despite the simplicity of this solution, the woman never thought of it herself and she had to go through countless well-educated professionals before she found one who managed to suggest it. Why is that?

Here’s my explanation: Most people are neurotypical, by definition. The strategies that have worked for them and that they’ve seen work for most other people are the kinds of strategies that work for neurotypical people. So when a neurodivergent person struggles with something, most of the advice they get will be advice tuned for neurotypical people. It will be advice on how to work within a neurotypical-friendly framework, instead of advice on how to change the framework to be neurodivergent-friendly.

Sometimes this advice can still work for a neurodivergent person, but other times it won’t. And because the advice is well-intentioned and can be seen to work for most people who try it, it won’t be clear why it isn’t working this time. And unfortunately, the most obvious explanation that will occur to people is usually that the neurodivergent person isn’t trying hard enough.

To highlight the absurdity here, I want to compare this to a more physically-obvious personal difference. Imagine an office building with several flights of stairs and no elevator. Several people work on the ground floor of this building, but occasionally their work requires them to visit another floor.

For most of the workers, taking the stairs to the other floors isn’t a problem. One worker is out of shape and struggles with it, but gets some good advice from their colleagues: take the stairs one at a time, catch your breath on landings if you need to, practice going up and down small distances even when you don’t need to and it will get easier, and so on.

One day, one of the workers comes in with crutches and a broken leg. When they need to visit another floor, they receive the same suggestions as their out-of-shape coworker. When they protest that this strategy doesn’t work for them, their colleagues get upset. The advice worked for the other worker, so why not this one? Are they just lazy?

Any reasonable person in this scenario would see how unreasonable a response this is. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned the advice is or how many other people it helped or that it’s technically possible for this worker to get themselves up the stairs. Expecting them to take the stairs is a bad idea, and if they repeatedly throw themselves at the stairs to try to do things the way their colleagues do, they are just setting themselves up for frustration and pain. It’s obviously a better solution to change the framework so that they don’t need to use the stairs to do their job, such as by installing an elevator, having the workers trade assignments so that the crutch-user can stay on the ground floor, or using videoconferencing to eliminate the need to go between floors at all.

Neurodivergence is less obvious than a broken leg. It’s very possible for reasonable people who haven’t learned about neurodiversity to see situations where a neurodivergent person is doing the equivalent of throwing themselves at the stairs day after day but still struggling to get their work done and conclude that they simply need to try harder.

Thus, a neurodivergent person who is struggling to succeed in a neurotypical-friendly framework is likely to receive advice which will not work and then, when the advice fails, get accused of laziness. The neurodivergent person can easily internalize that they are lazy and that their inability to succeed the way other people do reflects a weakness or moral failing, instead of the fact that they should be trying to succeed in the way that works for them.

If you fall into this trap, you’ll want to keep trying the things that work for neurotypical people so you can prove that you aren’t broken. But you were never broken to begin with. You have a different skill set, a different slate of strengths and weaknesses, and trying to solve problems like a neurotypical person is setting yourself up to fail. And if you do fail, it will only seem to reinforce the sense that you were broken and need to try harder with those same bad strategies.

But what you actually need to do is to remember that your goal is to succeed, not to succeed the way other people do. Once you start using the strategies that make use of your strengths, you’ll stop failing and you’ll break the cycle.

That’s why I say this is the most important part of working while neurodivergent. You need to give yourself permission to succeed in your own way. Stay off the stairs. Take the hair dryer to work. Whatever works for you. Unless you can do that, you’ll just keep trying strategies that won’t work to prove something to yourself that never needed proving in the first place.

Square Holes for Square Pegs

Once you’ve given yourself permission to define your own framework for success, the next step is to put yourself in positions that are compatible with your needed framework. Take an honest look at your actual strengths and weaknesses and what motivates you–not the strengths, weaknesses, and motivations you think you should have–and move towards jobs and situations that work well with those constraints.

This is easier said than done. It will take time, experimentation, and introspection. Try things, notice how you feel about them, and be honest with yourself.

For my part, I’ve learned that my biggest motivation is feeling like I’m making a positive difference in a real person’s life. My second-biggest motivation is feeling like I’m learning. In practice, this means several things:

  1. I find it very hard to do work that seems pointless. Some people can just power through busywork; I struggle with this. (This led to me being a terrible student, because doing homework after I’ve already learned the material felt completely pointless and I often couldn’t get myself to do it.) But on the other hand, if I have a chance to do something that obviously solves a problem for someone and then see the smile on their face, I’ll eagerly move mountains to do so.
  2. I learn best when it’s goal-oriented. I can’t just pick up a textbook and learn a topic because it might be useful someday, but if I have a specific goal that requires me to understand a topic, I can pick that topic up fast.
  3. Rote, repetitive work quickly becomes unbearable because I’m not learning anything new. On the other hand, I’m a quick study for new situations that require new solutions.

With this in mind, it’s pretty clear I should avoid roles that require repetitive work, learning a bunch of abstract stuff before doing anything impactful, or putting distance between me and the people I’m helping. But I can be a high performer in positions that involve frequently learning new things or finding new solutions to help people that I communicate with directly.

There are a number of jobs that fit that profile, but the niche I’ve found is doing product support for B2B SaaS companies. In support, you work directly with people who come to you with a clear need that you can solve for them. Since it’s B2B, the customers are invested in their goals and you can make a real difference in their day by helping them. And since it’s SaaS, problems can get fixed for all users simultaneously so you don’t need to solve the same problem over and over, and as the product continues to grow there will continue to be new things to learn and problems to solve. It’s a great fit for me.

If instead I’d fixated on my inability to do repetitive or abstract work that my friends and colleagues had no problem with, treated that as a flaw to be fixed, and kept trying to succeed in roles with that kind of work, I’d have been putting myself as a disadvantage for no reason. I’d have had consistently worse job performance, which I’d have felt worse about and which would have generated less value for the people I was working with. When I accepted my particular strengths and weaknesses and pursued roles that meshed well with them, it was a win for everyone involved.

Diversification as Specialization

Even within a given role, there are likely to be a number of different kinds of tasks that need doing. If you’re part of a team with varying skills and interests, these tasks can be divvied up according to those skills and interests, resulting in happier teammates getting more things done faster. That’s the value of specialization: taking advantage of diversity to better match the task to the worker.

This includes diversity due to neurodivergence.

In product support, I personally do very well with tasks that involve digging in to a thorny technical problem to diagnose a bug or find a workaround. I do less well with tasks that involve guiding users through a simple but extended process and checking in regularly over the course of days or weeks. So when I’m on a team with someone who is built differently and who finds the idea of digging into complex debugging totally unappealing but is happy to steer users through their projects, we can trade our tasks such that we each do the work that we enjoy and are good at.

This isn’t a failure. Your job isn’t to self-flagellate yourself into powering through every kind of task that happens to land in your inbox. Your job is to make sure the work gets done, preferably quickly and with high quality. The team is better off when you recognize that the best allocation of team resources often involves trading tasks around, instead of treating those tasks as a personal proving ground.

Managing Your Focus Management

Even the most ideal job isn’t going to be a perfect fit all the time. You do still need to have strategies to shore up the gaps and deal with the parts of the job that don’t come quite as easily. For me, the most common problem is a lack of focus. So I have a number of coping strategies to make it easier for me to stay focused on work.

You may or may not find these specific tips helpful, but even if they are useless to you I hope they still serve as illustrations of the sorts of things you should be willing to do to set yourself up for success. Doing what you need to do in order to be successful at work is a sign of strength, not weakness.

But I also try to remember that these are supposed to be supports for the edges of my work, not crutches for the core of it. I should be using these strategies to enable me to do work that I want to do. If I find I’m leaning hard on them to just barely tolerate work I don’t want to do as the bulk of a typical work day, then my typical work day needs to change.

1. Minimize the number of inboxes

In the modern workplace it can be difficult to have only one inbox, but the more you have the harder it is to stay on top of what you need to do. If at all possible, pick one channel that will be your primary channel: email, chat, SMS, whatever makes sense in your environment. And set up your other channels to feed into that channel. Configure items that come up in a secondary channel to trigger notifications in your primary channel. The fewer places you have to check to know what you need to do, the easier it is to keep a clear mental image of what you need to do and the less time you have to spend updating it.

2. Have a single to-do list

Even if you do have tasks coming in from multiple channels (maybe you get emails, chat DMs, items assigned in a bug tracker, etc.) have a single unified view where you can list all of them. There are a lot of to-do apps out there depending on your needs and style; personally, I just use something very simple like a text file or this basic scratchpad I created (it saves anything you type to your browser’s local storage so it will persist across browser sessions; nothing gets uploaded anywhere).

I often find that when I feel overwhelmed with tasks, it’s really just that I’m having a hard time visualizing everything I have to do. Struggling to hold everything in my head makes it feel bigger than it actually is. By writing it into a single list, I can see that it’s more manageable than it seemed, and then I can stop spending the mental effort of trying to hold it all in my head. I don’t have to remember everything, because I can always check the list and see what’s left. I can then just focus in on one thing at a time, moving down the list and knocking items out one by one.

One thing I do have to be careful with is browser tabs. Any open tabs that aren’t connected to my current task are a distraction that make it harder to find the tab I need at any given moment and which make my work feel more overwhelming than it is. I try to notice when I’ve got irrelevant tabs open, copy their URLs into my to-do list, and close them until I’m ready to actually work on the corresponding task.

3. Have blatant, obnoxious reminders

I’m well aware that I can get sucked into interesting tasks and lose track of time. I’m sure some people can just keep one eye on the clock and remember when they have to be where, but I’m better off simply offloading that responsibility. So I make sure that every appointment and time-sensitive responsibility I have is in my calendar app, and when it’s time for me to do something my phone will buzz and my computer screen will show a big annoying reminder with enough lead time for me to switch gears and do what I need to do.

On top of this, I use an app called MeetingBar that constantly shows my next appointment in my menu bar. When I’m deciding what task to work on, I can always see how much time I have left and thus whether I should do something quick and simple or large and complex.

4. Get into and out of work mode

Especially in an era of increased remote work, it can be easy to blur the lines between work time and personal time. Both suffer when that happens. Your attention gets split and it’s harder to be fully present in either side of your life.

To combat this, try to set up your environment such that there is a clear line between work and personal. If possible, work in a space where you don’t do anything else. If you work in an office, you likely get this for free; it’s harder if you work from home. If you have a spare room you can set aside as an office, great; if you don’t, try to at least have a separate desk or workstation from any you use for other purposes. The more of a boundary you can put around your workspace, the better.

In addition to physical separation, you can create psychological separation through the power of ritual. Have something you do that signals to your mind and body that it’s time for a context switch. Again, if you commute to an office, that can serve this function, but if you work from home you’ll need to create your own rituals. Maybe you start your work day by making a cup of coffee and playing some energetic music, and end your work day by taking a short walk around your neighborhood. Anything you can do consistently will become associated with the transition and will help you get into a mode where you can focus on work and then get into a mode where you can set it aside.

5. Take controlled breaks

Sometimes I have to spend a few minutes on something completely unproductive to let my brain switch gears properly before starting on a work task. I don’t beat myself up for taking these breaks. They are part of my process, and if I just let my brain catch its breath for a few minutes I can usually then dive into work and be focused and productive, whereas if I force myself not to take a break I’ll often struggle to focus and be both slower and more stressed.

But I am careful about what I let myself do with these breaks. I only do things that aren’t especially engaging and that can be stopped immediately at any time. For me, that means I don’t do things like play a video game, put on a movie or TV show, or read a book. Usually I browse some entertaining but inconsequential website with bite-sized content (right now, my go-to is to read a couple posts from the Best of Best of Redditor Updates subreddit).

If you do use social media as your break, be very deliberate how you interact with it. Most social media sites and apps use techniques like infinite scroll to minimize friction so you’ll stay engaged, but you need that friction to avoid getting sucked in for too long. Continuing the break needs to be an active decision, not the default outcome. So what I do is only visit Reddit in a desktop browser, open a couple stories in their own tabs, and then close the main tab. Then when I’m done with the stories, I can’t just scroll down or even hit the back button to find more. I have to actively decide to return to the main page, and that’s a conscious-enough process that I actually ask myself whether I really want to do it or if I’m ready to get back to work.

6. Minimize interruptions

External interruptions can be far more expensive than they appear. If something interrupts me for two minutes while I’m in the middle of focused work, I’m not just out those two minutes: I may also need to browse Reddit for a few minutes to change gears back to work again and then spend a few more minutes rebuilding my mental model of the task and remembering what I was about to do and why.

There are some things you can do to minimize interruptions, though how feasible they are will depend on your particular situation. One thing is to defragment your calendar: try to avoid having meetings that are spaced out from each other. A one-hour meeting at 11 AM and another at 2 PM means that the longest uninterrupted block of time you can possibly have that day is only two hours. If you can schedule your meetings more closely together, then you can have much larger blocks of time to focus with as well. For this purpose, consider blocking out certain hours or days on your calendar in advance.

On top of this, try to set clear expectations with your coworkers, housemates, and anyone else who’s positioned to be a regular source of interruptions. Make sure they understand the impact of those interruptions (though be polite about it!) and try to arrange for windows outside of your focused work time for addressing whatever comes up.

7. Deal with procrastination

Procrastination has a lot of causes, but when I find myself putting off a specific work task, it’s usually because on some level I’m not actually confident in my plan for handling it. I can’t solve this by avoiding the task–I need to fix the plan.

Sometimes I can do this by just making the plan explicit. If I list out the actual steps I need to take, I can identify weak spots where I’m missing information or skills and then find ways to shore up those weak spots through research or asking for help.

Other times, the plan may involve something I’m worried I won’t be able to do because I’ve never done it before. To overcome that, I just tell myself I’m going to give it an honest try for five minutes, and after that I’m allowed to give up–but once I’m a couple minutes into a genuine attempt, I almost always start making actual progress and just stick with it.

8. Occupy your hands

In meetings, I often find that my hands need to fidget in order for me to stay focused on the topic of discussion. Some things are better for fidgeting than others. It can be tempting to use my phone, but it’s a bad idea to fidget with something that I have to look at. As long as I’m watching the speaker I can appear engaged and attentive even if my hands are busy with something else, but if I’m looking down at a phone screen or a piece of paper I will seem disinterested and rude.

Kinetic toys can work, but many of these are noisy or visually flashy, which can distract or annoy the other people in the meeting. I’ve settled on using handheld grip strength trainers, as these are quiet and unobtrusive and they keep my hands busy while also providing useful exercise.

What I Want You To Take Away From This

Before you can set yourself up for success, you need to give yourself permission to do so. You need to recognize that you do more for yourself and those around you by understanding and working with your own strengths and weaknesses, even if people in your life have been trying to steer you toward working against them. Once you do, you can put yourself in a situation where your unusual brain is an advantage instead of a disadvantage and lean on whatever additional strategies you need for patching over the gaps.

Don’t beat yourself up trying to be “normal.” Find and do what works for you.