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ADHD in a Pandemic

Photo of a young woman working on her computer, from her home office.

When the pandemic hit, I was still adjusting to my newly diagnosed ADHD. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder usually attributed to kids who fidget, have trouble with impulse control and cannot selectively focus their attention; however, ADHD also encompasses deficits in executive function. Executive functions are the abilities of your brain to plan, organize and prioritize tasks as well as retain instructions and multitask. Executive function deficits are probably most recognized as poor time management. If you have trouble fully planning and organizing a project, it is difficult to gauge how much time it will take. This can lead to chronic procrastination, missed deadlines and unfinished projects. These issues persist in the lives of adults with ADHD. Additionally, those with ADHD may not be identified until the demands of their environment exceed their capacity; for me, this did not happen until I started my Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins.

One of the best ways of dealing with executive dysfunction is to keep schedules and written logs, and assign dedicated spaces to work. In my undergraduate institution, I had an arsenal of places to do different kinds of work, like silent library floors and cozy coffee shops. My projects were laid out in structured syllabi with defined weekly benchmarks. But when I started my Ph.D. program, I was stuck in an open office with little formal direction or criteria. I hit a wall.

Following my diagnosis, as I was slowly learning how to accommodate my disability, the pandemic hit. Suddenly, the structure I built for myself evaporated. I was stuck at home, unable to change my surroundings. I was constantly distracted by the pandemic and undone household tasks. Most of the time, working felt like grasping at straws, but there were some unintended benefits to this shift.

For those of us with ADHD, accomplishing “deep work,” or focusing on one task for a long period of time that requires deep thinking, can be difficult, especially in the traditional work setting of an open office. People chatting or even moving can be a distraction that keeps me from getting in the headspace to focus on deep work. But I happen to live alone, which is a blessing for deep work. When it comes to coding or intensive writing, I can do that in my home environment with no background noise, no shifting co-workers and fewer impromptu meetings. I am taking much less time to do these tasks because once I start, I am not constantly interrupted.

As awful as this pandemic has been, it has shown me just how much I was compromising to continue to work in the way I felt was “normal” instead of the way that was best for me. I plan on integrating these changes in my workflow when I return to the lab. Now, when I am working on a project that requires deep work, I am going to request that I work from home or another secluded space. I am going to ask for a different desk position in the lab, one that faces a wall and is as far as possible from communal work areas. I will no longer compromise my mental health and productivity for the sake of “normal.” I hope that my other neurodivergent colleagues, despite the extra challenges this pandemic has brought, can also find something positive to bring back to their research.

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