For many, learning disorders like ADHD are considered problems. In reality, they represent a different way of processing information. Leaders who encounter ADHD challenges can use their unique mental processing style to get more done in less time. It’s not shocking that ADHD is more common among entrepreneurs than the general population: Research shows the learning challenge may strengthen their entrepreneurial abilities.
And success with ADHD isn’t isolated to business: Northwestern University researchers studied a group of Kenyan nomads with a high incidence of ADHD. They found that within the nomadic group, ADHD tendencies correlated with better health. However, the inverse was true of non-nomadic groups, where people with ADHD had higher rates of malnourishment.
This study confirms that ADHD’s advantages or disadvantages depend largely on context. People with attention disorders occasionally struggle in school and work settings today, but that doesn’t mean they’re less capable. They need to structure their environments to position their learning style as a strength rather than a weakness.
In fact, it’s possible for people with ADHD to outperform the accepted standard — by leaning on their very mental processing approach to do it.
Why ADHD Feels Like a Challenge
Part of the challenge with ADHD stems from the way it leads the brain to interpret rewards. People with ADHD typically have fewer dopamine receptors, which means tasks that feel fulfilling to non-affected people come across as boring to those with ADHD. That nagging feeling of dissatisfaction leads to many of the most well-known impacts associated with ADHD.
The nomads of Kenya, however, turned that feeling into a positive. Nomadic groups, unlike settled ones, continuously evaluate their environments to identify potential sources of food and other necessities. A person who constantly looks for more and better resources has an obvious advantage over someone who only collects enough for the moment.
Does this mean that people who experience ADHD should abandon stationary life and take up nomadic pursuits? Not quite. By considering what makes ADHD an advantage in other parts of the world, however, those with ADHD can learn how to leverage their condition to their benefit.
ADHD Help to Push Yourself to Another Level
Here’s how you can turn your challenges into triumphs:
1. Push what’s inside your head out.
One of the most challenging parts of ADHD is the struggle to focus and track concepts that exist purely in the mind. Converting mental tasks into physical ones by, for example, writing your goals on paper or adding a physical component to a task, allows you to maintain creativity without exerting mental energy to keep track of things in your mind, which can lead you off course.
Axiom Learning, an education firm founded by Harvard University alumni that develops customized learning programs for individual students, specializes in helping students deal with the challenges of ADHD by helping them develop executive functioning skills. Its focus is using organizational tools designed to break complex tasks into a series of simple tasks. Tools like these shape life management and study skills into an instinct, reducing the difficulties associated with ADHD while allowing the advantages to shine.
One of my team members manages her ADHD tendencies by maintaining a whiteboard of her priorities in her office. She marks off what’s been completed and lists what needs to happen before another task can be completed. This keeps her on track without getting distracted by the need to make decisions in the moment.
2. Get rid of distractions.
ADHD naturally lends itself to creativity. In open spaces, that kind of free thinking can be an incredible asset. Unfortunately, modern schools and offices operate within parameters, leaving people with ADHD struggling to reconcile their ideas with their duties.
Free your mind to think clearly by getting rid of anything unrelated to the task at hand. Smartphones, scratch notebooks, calendars, email — they can all wait. Turn off your computer monitor or get noise-canceling headphones to block out distractions. Transform your workspace into an area dedicated to the task at hand.
3. Ditch the mundane.
Struggling to focus on boring tasks? Channel your interests into focus: One of the characteristics of ADHD is “hyper focus” on things they find interesting. Instead of forcing your way through work you find dull, start your work with something you find engaging.
One strategy highlighted by Dr. Aisha Simon, the chief academic officer at Learning Efficiency, a firm specializing in programs for students with learning challenges, builds on these very strengths. “If you are more of a visual learner, start with a visually oriented task, like finding differences between two similar pictures, before doing a task you find more taxing,” she says. “The visual task sharpens your focus, which stays intact even when you switch to tasks you find more challenging.”
4. Block time off for everything.
People with ADHD can do things quickly, but without concrete timelines, they may never get around to starting. Never commit to finish something “this week” or even “this afternoon.” Pick a time on the clock and a day on the calendar.
The next time someone asks you to complete a project, ask follow-up questions about the deadline. If the other person doesn’t have a specific time in mind, make your own.
Can’t tell how long something will take? Break the task into pieces. ADDitude, a publication for people with ADHD, believes strongly in the power of the to-do list. Identify the first piece to complete, set a deadline for that piece, then think about the larger timeline when you finish. Write out the plan as you go — the more physical, the better.
5. Let go of the need to be perfect.
One of the greatest advantages of ADHD is paired with one of its greatest challenges. People with ADHD can become hyper focused on the tasks in front of them, but that focus sometimes prevents them from understanding when the task is complete. Perfectionism leads to high-quality work — yet without a stopping point, a person with ADHD might spend hours trying to take something from 99.9 percent to 100, not realizing it’s not the best use of time.
Create self-imposed review points to step back and evaluate your work in progress. What would happen if you turned this in right now? If you can’t tell, solicit outside feedback from a teacher, boss, or co-worker.
A teammate I once worked with told me that he had a hard time determining whether his desire for perfection stemmed from his ADHD or a perfectionistic streak. To check himself, he’d ask another teammate, known for her high quality standards, whether she’d continue to enhance the thing he was working on. That gave him “permission” to drop something that was good, not great — and focus on more important projects.
Learning disorders like ADHD come with challenges, but they’re far from a burden in every situation you might find yourself in. With ADHD help, a person in the right environment can come up with a thousand ideas or work diligently on an important project. The trick is to create an environment where the learning-challenged mind can thrive.