Managing Adult ADHD as a Freelance Creative
By Erin Ollila on September 4, 2017
Here is what I did in the past hour and 36 minutes: scrolled Facebook, checked my business email, watched 90-Day Fiance (hey, don't judge!), deleted spam comments on my website, ate an organic frozen fruit pop, researched this article, picked at my cuticles, and added notes into a few other assignments I'm working on. To neurotypical humans, those actions might seem like choices, but when you're managing adult ADHD, choice often isn't involved in your impulsive, inattentive behaviors.
You wouldn't know my diagnosis by simply looking at me. In fact, when you hear the term ADHD, you probably imagine a kindergarten-aged boy running from toy to toy, chattering uncontrollably.
I'm a regular ol' 30-something woman who writes for a living and spends the rest of her day picking up discarded crayons, toy parts, and clothing—from my children, not from me. I promise.
This summer, an essay I wrote about my experience as a wife and mother living with ADHD was published. Many acquaintances stepped out from the woodwork to connect after reading it. "Thank you so much for writing this," I heard. "This is how I feel every single day. I didn't think anyone else could relate." Others regaled me with stories about managing their children's or spouse's diagnosis, and they appreciated reading an unbiased opinion from someone in their family members' shoes.
Then finally, another, albeit small, group made themselves known. "Why would you write this?" I was questioned. "You'll forever be judged now by potential clients on your abilities." Now that was a backlash I wasn't prepared for. Some people truly believed that I shouldn't vocalize my experience for fear of losing potential clients once they learned my brain can be a confusing, forgetful place.
What a sad, defeatist outlook.
If you've recently been diagnosed with ADHD, know this: You are special. You are able, and you can succeed. Never allow anyone to judge you for your abilities. If anything, your potential customers will appreciate that you know your strengths and weaknesses, and you have systems in place to be the best creative business owner possible. Embrace your ADHD and creativity, but remember to follow these guidelines.
Celebrate Your Strengths
ADHD brains may be different from "normal" adult brains, but it certainly doesn't make you any less than. In fact, there are many strengths that come along with the diagnosis. Adults with ADHD are known to be creative, resilient, and able to generate ideas. They are able to think outside of the box and find solutions to the most confusing and complex problems.
In fact, some of the most successful entrepreneurs—like the founders of IKEA and JetBlue—are living with ADHD and credit their diagnoses as a business strength, not something they had to overcome to get where they are today.
What about you? Make a list of your strengths—yes, with a paper and pen—and keep it with you for the days when you need reminding what a stellar freelancer you are. Use them as selling points on your website's About and Sales pages. Mention them as perks of working with you during discovery calls. Whatever you do, sing your praises because your ADHD is a gift, and not a life sentence.
Hire Out for Help
I like to think I can do everything on my own, but the older and more experienced I get, the more I realize the value of hiring help to fill in your weak spots. Here are a few ideas of contractors that can help you be your best when it comes to your business.
Organizational consultants can help you create systems. If you're anything like me, systems help you function and save your sanity. Here's the one caveat: You need to be in the driver's seat when it comes to choosing which systems you'll actually use. If you don't use them, what's the point in having so many? For me, I like written lists. If I can command something to paper, I'll make sure it happens in real life. If it doesn't get written down, it doesn't happen.
However, I'm not suggesting you be stringent in your ways. Attempt to adopt a new system an organizational consultant requests, such as a CRM or an online scheduler. You might find the new systems work better than you could ever imagine, especially when it's set up for you and you're taught how to use it. If you find their suggestions aren't working, ask for their help to get you organized via a tried-and-true method you've used before. Know and advocate for yourself.
Financial professionals, such as advisers or bookkeepers, can help get your business in order. Adults with ADHD aren't well-known for being financially organized, and if you're doing your bookkeeping manually, you're bound to make a mistake. Take the task off your to-do list, and hire a professional to keep your books. Then, talk with a financial advisor to get your personal finances in shape. Want to buy a house or retire in the future? Leave the planning of these big goals to the professionals.
Don't forget about niche virtual assistants, either. You can hire one—or several—who can help you keep your calendar, email, or systems in check. Or, utilize them to take on the tasks that are important, but often get neglected, such as asking for testimonials from happy clients or responding to people on social media. There are many ways to use VAs, so ask your organizational consultant to suggest tasks to offload to one.
Initiate Other Assistance
There are people in your circle who will gladly help you if they know how, and you don't have to pay them a dime. First, check in with your family and close friends. Be vulnerable. Let them know what you struggle with and ask if they'd mind stepping up. As much as I hate to admit it, I'm not the best homemaker. But I'm fortunate to be married to a man with a hyper-focused brain who can clean our home in what seems like five minutes flat. My son knows to remind me to sign permission slips or give him lunch money if I don't do so on my own. Their help allows me to step back and use my strengths in other areas.
Accountability buddies are also a huge savior in my life. I thrive on commitments. If I tell someone I will do something, it gets done. If my editor tells me a hard deadline, it gets turned in—and early. Do you have a peer who will hold you accountable for the goals you set? What about someone who can act like a coworker and help you brainstorm when your brain is feeling a bit fuzzy? Without all these people in my life, my ADHD would feel overwhelming every day, not just in small moments here and there. Just remember to return the favor. You need to step up and lighten some of their burdens, too.
Don't Be Time Blind
When I wrote about procrastination, I heard a chorus of echoes from my writing community letting me know that they too suffered from clean-the-house-while-on-a-deadline syndrome. Maybe this is something that strikes many writers, but for those freelance creatives managing adult ADHD, the time warp is tricky and all-consuming.
How many times does it feel as if time is passing so slowly or much faster than normal? Do deadlines creep up on you seemingly unexpectedly? Think about the last time you were given a due date for an assignment that was a few weeks in the future. Did you get started on it right away and complete it early, or did you wait until the last minute and rush it off to your editor moments before it was due?
Image attribution: Olu Eletu
One way to avoid time getting the best of you is to set pseudo-deadlines, but treat them as your actual due dates. Let's say I pick up an assignment that is due in seven days. I schedule it into my calendar to be due in five days. Then, I try like heck to never look at the actual due date again. What's in my calendar is my deadline. This gives me a two-day buffer to avoid last minute procrastination or be forced to ask for an extension.
You're a perseverer, aren't you? I am too. No matter the odds, I'll fight. I'll find a way to make something happen if I committed to it. I'll sacrifice self care to achieve what I set out to do. Oh, and I do this more often than I'd like to admit.
The book Answers to Distraction by Edward Hollowell and John Ratey says it perfectly: "One of the most admirable traits associated with ADD is a tenacious, never-say-die attitude. However, sometimes it is best to jettison this approach; sometimes it is best to say die."
If you feel as if you're ready to crash and burn or are always overwhelmed, there's too much on your plate. Give it up already. Adults with ADHD often find themselves failing to finish projects, burning out creatively, or in embarrassing situations after they've let a professional colleague or client down. Avoid all this by knowing your boundaries and limitations. Then, be true to yourself and only pick up the amount of work you can actually complete, and do it well. Overbooking yourself feeds your frantic, foggy brain, and that beast doesn't need anything else for dinner.
Stop Beating Yourself Up
Wow. You've made it this far without being completely distracted by a cat GIF or the squirrel outside your window. I joke. I joke.
Managing adult ADHD isn't always easy. There are days when I find myself in the fog of not being able to concentrate or easily grasp my thoughts. My cloudy brain feels all consuming, and there are physical reminders—the handwritten lists, dishes in the sink, an overflowing laundry basket—all around me reminding me of my limitations.
I'll be honest with you: I used to beat myself up about this all the time. I'd question why I couldn't just get a few hundred words on the page or remember to email back the warm lead that went out of her way to email me last week. I aimed for such a high level of perfection that I was constantly setting myself up for failure.
Image attribution: Jason Blackeye
There are good days and bad days in everyone's life. Your ADHD is a facet of your personality and behaviors. It does not dictate them. When I catch myself slipping into the poor-me feeling and pointing blame for not being perfect, I instead take an action. I email the lead and take full responsibility for the length of time it took me to respond. I give myself small goals. First, write 10 words. Then, 50. Then 100. Every step of the way I give myself a little pat on the back, never mind how awkward it is to praise yourself for writing a sentence. I find humor in the frustration, and I don't allow a diagnosis to dominate me.
Give yourself some grace. On your bad days, put down the work and do something else. Allow yourself a creative reboot. Heck, if you followed my advice on avoiding time traps, you've given yourself a buffer before your work is due, and you have the opportunity to take a mental health day. Play with a puppy. Catch up with a friend. Do something completely unrelated to your original assignment. Then, come back to it with fresh eyes and a positive spirit.
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Featured image attribution: Josh Blanton