My brain doesn’t work like other people’s.
I’ve always known that, but growing up in the 80s and 90s, there wasn’t really a word for it. I was labelled chaotic, erratic, shy, emotional, an over-achiever, a perfectionist, socially awkward and pedantic. What I now realise is that all of those things were, and are, symptoms of a neurodiverse brain.
Neurodiversity shows up in many ways. Sometimes with a formal diagnosis (autism, ADHD, depression, anxiety, dyslexia, dyspraxia, etc, etc), sometimes without. Many people are even discouraged from getting an official diagnosis because, as my GP put it, “you’re unlikely to get any actual help, and it will probably cause problems for things like insurance.” Due to unhelpful stereotypes, many people also assume they can’t be neurodiverse; and, worse, the medical establishment also incorrectly assume the same. (“You can’t be autistic, you’re too sociable,” is the number one reason that women are highly under-diagnosed with autism.) You can read more about what neurodiversity actually is here.
But, whether you’ve been given a diagnosis or not, you probably know that something about your brain isn’t quite wired the way the world seems to expect it to be. You might have…
- Trouble concentrating for long periods of time
- Problems focusing on one task at a time
- Trouble sitting still
- A fear of talking to people you don’t know
- Difficulty reading people’s emotions
- Trouble containing your own emotions
- Mood swings
- Deeply-felt reactions to (what you perceive as) criticism or rejection
- Difficulty remembering faces or recognising people out of context
- Disorganised workspace
- An email inbox that you can’t seem to keep on top of
Or many other ways that you struggle with things that everyone else seems to assume should be automatic.
As someone whose has spent a lifetime managing most of the things on that list, and a fair few besides, I wanted to share some advice for my fellow neuro-diverse folks.
There’s nothing wrong with you
First things first, remember that you’re not “broken” and you don’t need fixing. The world, and your manager, will probably regularly make you feel like you need to change to be like everyone else. But you don’t. You have your own unique skills, strengths and perspectives that only you have, because of who you are as a complex individual. You don’t want to be like everyone else, you want to be the best version of you that you can be. So keep repeating that to yourself in the face of all the messaging from a world that really doesn’t get it (yet).
Understand your own rhythm
There will be times of the day that you are super productive, and times that you can focus for a total of two minutes. There are also probably some days of the week that you are more able to focus on deep work than others. Try, as much as you can, to schedule your workload accordingly. I know I do my best work between 10am and 1pm, so that’s when I schedule complex tasks. After 2pm, my concentration has left the building, so that’s when I do admin or tasks that I find easy and enjoyable (like writing this blog!). I then have a resurgence of brain power about 5pm in the afternoon, which is not a helpful time to be doing thinking with two toddlers rampaging around, but if I can palm them off on my husband, then that can be a good time to go back to any pressing deadlines I need to tackle.
You also need to listen to your brain when it’s telling you today is not the day. Sometimes you’ll be feeling particularly low or struggling with certain issues, and pushing yourself will only make you more run down and make that struggle last longer. So, if you can, take a break that day – take time off, or give yourself simple and/or enjoyable tasks to do, and save the complex stuff for tomorrow when, because you’ve rested, you’ll be feeling better. If you have a pressing deadline and rest isn’t an option, be kind to yourself as you go and give yourself some rest time once you’re through the priority work.
Block your time
Task batching is a great method of organisation for anyone, but it works particularly well for neurodivergent people. When you’re planning your day, try to batch tasks together that require similar skills. So on a Tuesday morning you might be doing several creative tasks, but Wednesday afternoon might be when you tackle the more analytical work, for example. Taking time at the start of the week to block your time out in this way can really help to keep you on track.
When blocking your time, using a digital calendar can be a great way to keep you on track. Getting reminders for which task is next can help stop you from getting too absorbed in one thing or getting distracted by something different.
I also set reminders for absolutely everything – checking someone received an important email, for example (I put the reminder in for a few days or a week later when I send the email, otherwise I know it’ll vanish from my mind the second I press send). I even have a reminder to pick up my kids from nursery so that I don’t get so involved in what I’m doing, that I end up having to run out the door with two minutes to spare (that may or may not have happened once or twice – luckily, nursery is only five minutes away!).
Call for back-up
When it comes to things like networking events – which are absolute hell for most neurodiverse people – give yourself reinforcements. I try to find someone I know to go to an event with, so I don’t have to walk into a room of total strangers, and there’s someone “safe” to go and talk to if I’m finding it stressful. Many event organisers are now becoming more aware of how painful networking is for many people, so they’re quite open to you contacting them ahead of time and saying you don’t know anyone at the event, so can they help by introducing you to people when you arrive. That can also be a sneakily effective way of making sure you’re introduced to any key contacts you want to meet. I also love an event with a pre-released guest list so you can stalk everyone on Twitter and LinkedIn ahead of time and check what people look like, particularly if you’re worried that you’ll be expected to recognise them, but might not. (If you hold networking events and you want to make them less of an ordeal for neurodiverse people, get in touch and we can talk to you about planning an inclusive event.)
The worst thing you can do – for your working relationships and your own mental wellbeing – is try to pretend to be a neurotypical person. The pressure to keep up the pretence and the ensuing lack of understanding from those around you is not helpful to anyone. Talking to colleagues, managers and even clients where necessary about the ways you work, the best ways to communicate with you and how you can best manage your workload will lead to much more effective and positive collaboration.
Give the neurotypicals a break
We tend to assume that everyone else is completely on top of things and communicating in exactly the way they intend – we think we’re the only ones that ever struggle. So when someone says something that comes across as a bit short or cutting, or doesn’t include us in a piece of work we would expect to be involved in, we jump straight to “they hate me”, “I don’t fit in”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not wanted here”.
But maybe that person didn’t mean any of that. Even neurotypical people struggle with emotions sometimes, and they forget to do things or contact people when they intended to. And hey, they might even be masking (or be totally unaware of) their own neurodiversity that you don’t know about and struggling with their own stuff. Don’t assume it’s about you – have an open and non-confrontational conversation about what happened and your feelings about it, and allow them to share theirs. That’s much more likely to get to a positive resolution than you just being silently angry with them for the rest of time.
Have clear goals
A lot of neurodiverse people respond extremely well to knowing why they are doing something – and I am definitely one of them. Being clear on how your tasks are serving broader organisational objectives, as well as your own personal objectives, is a huge help with maintaining motivation and crafting your approach to your work.
Knowing what your goals are also keeps you focused on what tasks are really important, and which are distracting you or unnecessarily draining your time. I also find personal goals, both at work and in my personal life, help me to manage my leisure time and ensure I bring the things that really matter to me into my work.
I could probably go on for the length of a book about this topic, but hopefully those are a few suggestions to get you started on making your work life that bit easier as a neurodiverse person.
I’ll leave you with this – Albert Einstein once said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” To all my people who have absolutely everything on their desk right now because they know that if they put that piece of paper in a drawer out of sight it will vanish entirely from their awareness: you are doing great. Don’t let anyone else tell you how you should be doing organisation or how you ought to be working. Find the ways that work for you, and let your unique skills shine bright.
If you want to help your team work more effectively in a way that includes and gets the most from neurodiverse people, our Introduction to Neurodiversity training is for you. Contact us for more information.