Author Helen May answers our questions about ADHD, the pandemic, her productivity tips and general advice on how to find flow and satisfaction in our professional lives.
Thank you so much for joining our interview series! Before we get started, we would love to “get to know you” a bit better. What is your ‘backstory’, and how did you get started?
I have been working in the talent, leadership and culture space for over 20 years, initially in the corporate world, then progressing into consulting before setting up my own business 6 years ago – which was the best move I ever made. My corporate business focuses on creating a sense of belonging in organizations to protect well-being and maximize talent, whilst my private practice works alongside neuropsychiatrists, coaching neurodiverse clients. I also run a community interest company called Diverse Futures, supporting neurodivergent 16-25 year olds during life transitions. From a professional perspective my interest in this topic comes from the innovation created by unique thinking, and from a personal perspective, I was diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood and my son was diagnosed as a teenager.
Can you share an interesting story or anecdote that happened to you, and which you think helped direct your career?
I had a ‘Devil Wears Prada’ moment several years ago, when I walked out of my last job in a consulting business, where I was a director. It was a real ‘Enough!’ moment, and I feel grateful in a way for having had that experience. It was from that moment I started to overcome the dreaded impostor syndrome and, by realizing what I am capable of, it opened up a successful career, with real purpose, about which I am truly passionate.
In a way, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. Is there a person who helped you get to where you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My dad, no question about it. I am incredibly lucky to have someone like him who is unshakable in his belief in me. After a lifelong career running businesses himself, he now works with me and is the one who ‘keeps it real’… I have a million ideas a day, and he is my filter, steering me towards the ones that have legs and away from the ones that are unworkable. When I feel I am starting to lose my nerve he is always there saying “Just keep going” and that is enough. He is both my hero and my cheerleader.
Excellent. Let’s now move on to the core of our interview. For many of us, the pandemic fundamentally altered the way we work. Most notably, many teams have started working remotely, which is very different from the more traditional office environment. In your experience, has this shift negatively impacted people living with ADHD?
From what I have seen, my clients’ experience of it is mixed, and the challenges may not be what you might expect. On the one hand, working remotely allows you to take control and make your own rules which is something I stress to all my clients. On the other hand, without others around to help refocus or create an awareness of time, it is easy for ADHDers to become distracted, or go down rabbit holes and hyper-focus on the wrong things. Time blindness is core to ADHD, and being in an environment where you are not led by the normal rhythm of a working day can be difficult.
Another less understood challenge of remote working can be the lack of social connectivity. Contrary to the caricatured stereotype of ADHD, many tend to be perfectionists with an anxiety-inducing desire to get everything right. Related to this, many also suffer with something called rejection sensitive dysphoria, an emotionally and physically painful condition causing a disproportionate fear of real or perceived criticism. Remote communications can be misinterpreted, with silence perceived as a signal that something is wrong, and the ensuing anxiety exacerbating the typical challenges of focus and organization.
On the other hand, what are some significant benefits of remote work for neurodiverse professionals?
ADHD brains don’t conform to norms, so imposed structures, routines and ways of working can be pretty useless. Ask anyone with ADHD how annoying it is when they lose their keys and other people ask why they don’t always put them in the same place! Your own space, without distractions, to explore, create and embed ways of working for your brain can be incredibly powerful. I never prescribe it for my clients, but I encourage them to be curious about when and how they are the best version of themselves.
For example, one executive client often stayed in the office until the early hours, trying to get work finished, which left her exhausted the following day. Being at home, she realized that she was actually more of a morning person, and could get so much more if she woke up early. This meant that she started and ended the day without feeling tired or anxious, and in addition she had the time at the end of the day to exercise, something which is very important in terms of managing her challenges.
As some organizations make the move toward making these changes permanent, what are some recommendations that you would make for ADHD professionals, particularly those in positions of responsibility?
Most important of all is to work WITH your brain rather than against it. Remember the keys comment above? Putting a hook next to the front door where you can hang your keys may make little difference. But attaching your keys to something else that is important might. I have my keys on a slim pencil case, where I keep one pen and my medication, and whilst that may not work for everyone, this is what works for me!
For professionals, I would advise understanding your challenges and identifying simple solutions. If you have administrative support or a personal assistant, make sure they understand these challenges, and identify how they can best support. Maintaining control over time is absolutely critical, and having a rhythm to the day, one that works for you, will help you to be more productive.
Drilling down a bit, a common quest among ADHD individuals is finding the ideal daily routine that provides productive focus without neglecting incoming responsibilities as they arrive. What do you think is a good baseline to start planning a good day at work, and at home?
One of the biggest challenges of ADHD is not being able to rely on your ability to focus, no matter how urgent the task. Accepting this is key to dealing with it and working with it. The benefit of systems such as Priority Matrix, which groups tasks according to importance and urgency, can be really useful for the ADHD brain. Starting each day by dividing tasks this way also allows the opportunity to consider which tasks you are unlikely to be able to focus on, those you may hyperfocus on, and those that will simply distract you from your priorities. This can really help you to be realistic about the day ahead.
I encourage clients to experiment with different ways of managing time and focus effectively, as different things work for different people. Consider what energizes you, be it fresh air, exercise, drinking plenty of water, coffee, connecting with others, music, food, working in a particular spot in the house… the list is endless. Then plan your day around your priorities, the time of day you work best, and your unique combination of energizers.
We are big believers in the power of prioritization. With what frequency do you think someone should review their day-to-day priorities? And what are some good tips for deciding what is your next task, when you can choose among literally hundreds of options?
Prioritization is a tricky one for the mischievous ADHD brain, and neurotypical planning techniques often fail miserably. Thinking isn’t linear, and therefore planning time linearly is unlikely to yield results. So again, work with your brain. Let it jump in exactly where it wants to, so long as you are directing attention to your priorities. Take each of your tasks and break them down into short bursts of activity. If you are having trouble getting started, pick the one you can engage with the most, even if it is not the first or most important. If you are feeling energized, use this time to focus on those tasks that are not so easy or interesting, and save the others for when energy wanes.
In terms of reviewing priorities, ADHDers have a tendency to fall down rabbit holes, so it’s critical to have regular check-ins to ensure you are focusing on the right things. To keep making progress throughout the day, break up time, so tasks feel distinct. When you finish one short burst of activity, get a glass of water or move away from your desk for a short period before starting the next. This helps to keep the under-stimulated ADHD brain happy.
On a more personal note, how do you get yourself in the zone for productive work? Any tricks, techniques or aids that you can share?
For me, the key is to keep it simple and, though I may be starting to sound like a stuck record, work with rather than against my brain. There are three things that work for me.
First, I am phenomenally focused and productive early in the morning, and I mean VERY early. I can get more work done between 4:30 and 8:30 am than I can for the rest of the day. This means that I have less pressure for the rest of the day when interruptions and unforeseen priorities start coming in.
Second, I start each day by making a realistic to-do list. I also put some simple, nice-to-dos on there to break up the day and allow a change of pace when needed.
Finally, and for me this is perhaps the one that helps the most, I am a natural creative and so, where I can, I lead with this strength, which energizes me for subsequent activities. Creating an eye-catching design for a report or presentation alongside developing the content makes me so much more effective than just focusing initially on the content alone.
At a systemic level, what do you think organizations can do to help employees with ADHD thrive at work, and contribute at the top of their capacity? What are some DOs and DON’Ts?
This is where I have some very strong views regarding how organizations need to evolve generally to maximize the talent of all diverse thinking!
The first thing is that any line manager who has an ADHDer (or indeed any other neurodivergent condition) in their team, needs to fully understand the condition, as well as the unique workings of the team member’s brain. They need to understand how they can support and how they might both communicate when the employee feels overwhelmed or is struggling. This should also extend to colleagues, so that they understand this is a neurological challenge, and they don’t label the employee as ‘lazy’ or’ chaotic’.
Second, there has to be flexibility to allow these employees to work with their challenges. For example, are strict working hours really required in the role? What systems are in place for collaboration and team working, and are these designed with only the neurotypical brain in mind? Do you allow employees with ADHD to request technologies that work for them?
Finally, stop demanding conformity! Behavior frameworks are the enemy of innovation. How can organizations possibly get the benefit of diverse thinking if they are asking everybody to behave in the same way?! I am often intrigued by how organizations don’t recognize the absurdity of this and yet are perplexed as to why they continue to reproduce homogenous, mediocre leadership teams. I used to work with somebody who frequently used to point out that I had no attention to detail, to which I would reply “And you, sir, are bald!”
What are some specific tools or techniques that you recommend in order to stay organized and productive? Can you give a concrete example of how to integrate them?
Start every day writing down what you have to get done that day. This might be on an app, in a calendar or in a notebook, but the main thing is that it works for you, and it is ALWAYS in the same place. ADHD brains can get a little too excited about plug-ins, new technologies, the latest apps that claim to be the panacea for all organization and productivity ills. KEEP IT SIMPLE! If you prefer to avoid technology altogether and write things down, do so (but not on scraps of paper which disappear under the paper monster that grows daily on the desk…) The act of thinking about what you have to get done and physically doing things to record it reduces cognitive load, so it is easier to get started and stay productive throughout the day.
Getting a bit more serious now. I read about lots of people who went through their young years thinking they were incapable of great work, only to learn as adults about their ADHD. This finding is often liberating, and it enables them to understand how their mind works, and how to best deal with it. What are some red flags for someone who has not been diagnosed, but who suspects they suffer ADHD?
This is something I have experienced personally as have many of my clients, particularly women, as ADHD manifests differently in girls, so is typically missed in childhood. Those who receive a diagnosis later in life frequently go through a period of (sometimes painful) retrospection, considering what the red flags were, which can vary enormously. For some it is failing in education, for others who are naturally more academic the problems may have started once they entered the workplace, where they had to conform to neurotypical processes.
Frequently, those with ADHD have a checkered career history, jumping from one job to the next. This is why so many entrepreneurs have ADHD. They recognized that they have creative talent and want to execute that in their own way. For others, there are more devastating consequences: failed relationships, substance abuse and mental illness. All too often, adults are diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety first, suffering for years and years before someone considers a different diagnosis.
For someone who ticks some of these boxes, what next steps would you recommend? Read more, or talk to someone? When is it a good time to seek professional help?
My advice is this: as soon as you start to struggle with life to the point you are feeling it is affecting your mental health, speak to someone. I am frustrated by the amount of people who say, “why do you need the label?” In a world not designed for their unique brains, ADHD is a very real, very challenging and often devastating condition. It is NOT a label. It is a diagnosis which means that you then have the opportunity to not just get help, but also to understand (and often forgive) yourself, as well as helping you to feel optimistic about a future where you can bring your best self and your unique talents to the world.
Ok, we’re winding down now. Something I like to ask everyone: Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson” quote? How has it been relevant to you in your life?
“You can do whatever you like, so long as you don’t scare the horses” As a very young child I was unique, a little eccentric and always went my own way. I spent a long time after that trying to conform, but my ADHD diagnosis allowed me to rediscover, accept and maximize these unique attributes, so now this is a maxim I very much live my life by.
Finally, my favorite part of the interview, the “rapid fire” session!
- In the recent past, what book has impacted you the most?
The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli.
- Coffee or tea?
- What was your childhood dream job?
Judy Garland. I genuinely thought I could actually BE Judy Garland. Did I mention I was an eccentric child?
- What public figure do you admire?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
- What advice would you give to your younger self?
Embrace and celebrate your difference – you will soon see what you are capable of and how YOU can make a difference.
- What is something most people don’t know about you?
I make hats and headpieces… my truly creative outlet!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Online at helenmayassociates.com and belongingatwork.co.uk, and on LinkedIn. My book “Everyone Included” is available on Amazon and in bookshops in January 2022.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: Pablo Diaz-Gutierrez is the founder and CTO of Appfluence, an award-winning software company that focuses on helping busy professional make the most of their limited time, better organizing emails, projects and meetings. Priority Matrix has been recommended by ADHD experts as a useful tool to help manage time, tasks and life priorities. Appfluence is producing this interview series to highlight the tools and techniques that top experts find most effective. If you would like to suggest a new topic or interviewee, please reach out to us.