Grace Tay has been in publishing and creative agencies for 20 years but was only diagnosed with ADD earlier this year. She shares her lived experience of working with attention deficit disorder (ADD )- and how companies can recruit and retain more Neurodiverse talent.
I was diagnosed with ADD in May this year, and my ADD challenges can be summarized as brain fog.
What brain fog means for me:
- I have poor perception of time.
- Depending on the task, I struggle with focusing, or I can be hyper-focused (and lose track of time).
- My memory is terrible.
I’ve been in publishing for over 20 years and did stints in creative agencies. As an editor, juggling editorial work (writing, editing, conceptualizing, etc.) and management tasks (decision making, forward planning) was the classic example of Maker vs Manager conflict.
What is the Maker vs Manager conflict?
In 2009 Paul Graham wrote about the difference between a ‘Maker’s Schedule’ and a ‘Manager’s Schedule’. Makers work best in long, uninterrupted chunks; Managers prefer to work in shorter blocks, and are able (or need) to change context frequently. For Makers who need uninterrupted time to focus and ‘Make’ things – ad hoc meetings, interruptions to focus, or mid-morning or afternoon commitments can ruin productivity and slow down progress.
Being interrupted constantly and having to switch tasks made it impossible to focus and get meaningful work done during the workday, because I couldn’t get that focus time.
So, I often stayed late at the office for peace and quiet.
I’ve always worked better at night; my brain is just clearer. Solutions also often come to me at night or when I’m showering (theta waves!)
People have called me a workaholic because of the hours I put in – I don’t agree with this characterisation; I would much rather have more personal and social time.
I don’t think being busy or long hours are badges of honour – if anything, I constantly feel guilty.
Feeling inefficient, slow, inadequate — there was/is a lot of anxiety and some shame. But the strongest feeling for me is guilt, that I’m holding others up or letting them down.
It’s natural for me not to sleep till 3 or 4am. I can work till 7am if I’m in hyper-focus mode. So, getting to the office by 9am was a struggle.
The lack of sleep makes my memory worse. I’m bad with dates and have a warped sense of the passing of time. It seems like such a basic thing to know what day it is today, right?
Being nocturnal + lack of sleep + having an impaired sense of time = being late for work, meetings, forgetting appointments, etc.
It’s easy to see why others would think I’m rude, irresponsible, inconsiderate, disorganized, ill-disciplined.
It’s not just colleagues but in my personal life too. How many times have I told my husband at 6.45pm that I’m leaving the office soon, only to reach home at 10pm to a very hangry man…
Even before I suspected I had ADD, I recognized that I had all these challenges.
To counter them, I became obsessed with productivity tools and hacks — anything to help me claw back time. And systems, organizational tools, to try to build in some order:
- I use various habit trackers to set up routines.
- I calendar obsessively.
- I have spreadsheets for tons of things.
- I fill notebooks with to-dos and random notes to self (but often forget to read them).
- I set multiple reminder alarms.
Any breaks in these routines are a nightmare because they’re so hard to build.
If I have a morning appointment or have to go into the office, the night before I have to list out every single thing I need to do, even the mundane things like showering, coffee, getting my wallet and keys, and wearing my shoes. Otherwise, I’d feel overwhelmed and forget half the things and be super late.
So, it’s been a lifetime of building coping mechanisms just to get closer to the baseline of normalcy and expected behaviour.
I was diagnosed with ADD in May this year as part of a study.
An optical topography brain scan was done as I performed some tasks, which showed poor frontal lobe function (score 3.6, normal cutoff <50). The professor conducting the study explained that this accounts for my poor capacity for attention and concentration.
I also did a Conners screening test, scoring 203 and 90% DSM-IV, though I somewhat distrust the accuracy of self-evaluative tests.
What’s changed since I’ve been diagnosed with ADD?
- The diagnosis was vindicating. My whole life I could never explain why I was always late, or wanted to study at night and sleep in in the morning – which my dad put down to a self-discipline issue.
- It’s also reassuring to know that there are drugs to help me with focus, though I haven’t decided if I want to deal with the potential side effects.
- Now, I am extra conscious about using tools and systems to keep my life in order. I remind myself to have ADD – attention development discipline. Corny but true.
- I try very hard to hit 7 hours of sleep, aiming for 8, but 5 seems to be my natural cycle.
- I take various neurotransmitter support supplements
- Importantly, I am figuring out what kind of work suits me!
I know I’m a visual, creative problem solver
And because I’m obsessive about processes and systems, and streamlining things with shortcuts and automation, I’m pretty decent at systemizing things.
Understanding how and why I work the way I do is important to build successful work relationships.
For companies that want to better facilitate the hugely untapped neurodivergent talent within workplaces, I just want to say, ‘They Are Among Us’.
This is a silent disability. If you don’t know I have ADD and I’m always late or have to work late to complete a task, it’s easy to conclude that I’m just inconsiderate or incompetent.
What to compromise on – and what not to – with neurodiversity hires
I don’t feel any stigma in having ADD, but I don’t go round telling people I have it as not everyone knows what to do with that information. But I would tell my colleagues about my date and time blindness, even if they may not completely understand.
I think neurodiversity hires should not be any different from regular recruitment: Hire the person if they can do the job.
Just know that neurodivergent people may need to work differently to get the job done.
Hiring managers should look at what the job needs and hire the neurodivergent candidate if they can fulfil that.
They need to be clear about what the deliverables are and communicate this to the candidate, so they can honestly assess what they can deliver on. Don’t set the employee up for failure.
But please don’t hire a neurodivergent person as a token DEI hire and then mandate that their colleagues have to tolerate the person’s differences or make up for their weaknesses.
That could easily breed resentment among colleagues, and could make the hire second guess themselves.
If the person can do the job they were hired for, they’d be more readily accepted by their colleagues and also feel more confident with what they’re delivering.
We may have quirks that those working with us may need to be made aware of, and hopefully accept. But that’s the case with neurotypical people as well – everyone is compromising around others’ individual personality traits and working styles all the time.
Flexibility, acceptance, and compromise are key to an inclusive workplace.