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January 18, 2022

Freelancing with ADHD

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As a freelance journalist who was diagnosed with ADHD 18 months ago, I’ve developed all kinds of ways to make the freelance experience easier and more productive. Here are my best tips.

In some ways freelancing is the ADHDer’s worst nightmare. We’re people who, by definition, struggle with organisation, focus, and prioritising and completing tasks. So working alone, without external structure or motivators, often facing a pile of boring but crucial admin, sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Equally, though, people with ADHD may find flexibility, variety and a controllable environment enable them to do their best work. And for that, freelancing is a hundred times better than working in an office. 

For years, I combined freelance work with office employment, but in my early thirties I quit office work altogether to go fully freelance from home. I then promptly fell into an ADHD hole (procrastination, guilt, anxiety, burnout) which it took me some time to climb out of. It wasn’t that I didn’t get my work done – I always did… in the end. But the stress of all the last-minute deadline dashes ensured I took little pleasure in my work and rarely managed any creative flow. I’d suspected I had ADHD since my early twenties, but it only now became clear I needed support. I went to my GP and eventually ended up with a diagnosis of ADHD Inattentive Type.

Mine isn’t an unusual story. Beck Thom, who runs Body Curious sex coaching in Leicester, describes going freelance in her forties as ‘the tipping point’ for her – where her struggles became so overwhelming she was forced to seek diagnosis. “Going freelance made me happy because I was following my calling,” she says, “but I struggled with all the everyday organisational tasks around that – things that didn’t come naturally to me and I found boring.”

But while freelancing can bring ADHD problems out of the woodwork, the flexibility of self-employment may also allow us to seek unusual solutions to the quirks of our brains.

The first step could be diagnosis 

While not everybody feels the need for ADHD diagnosis, it can be helpful for many reasons. Perhaps the most crucial benefit is access to ADHD medication, which can change people’s lives. And armed with a diagnosis, you can apply for an Access To Work grant (see below). If you are employed as well as freelance (now or in the future) you may also be entitled to adjustments in your working environment and practices, as ADHD is covered under disability laws.

If you think you may have ADHD, take a reputable online ADHD test, print out the results and take them to your GP. The NHS waiting list for assessment can be long (18 months in my area), but there is also the private route if you can afford to take that.

Access To work grants and ADHD coaching

The DWP’s Access To Work fund isn’t well publicised, but it exists to help people with disabilities to stay in work. I received a grant for ADHD coaching, but you can also get grants for things like software (for example speech-to-text or mind-mapping) and training in how to use it. The application process is surprisingly quick and painless, and I found myself looking for an ADHD coach within a few weeks of applying.

I took my time finding the right coach, and I had phone consultations with about five people before starting work with Carolyn Green, a CBT therapist and neurodiversity coach who also has ADHD. Having started sessions, I can honestly say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for my professional development. Carolyn told me: “The most important thing to look for in a coach is an open mind. Coaching from a neurotypical perspective can sometimes be too uniform and prescriptive for people with ADHD. ADHD has its challenges but also has some real benefits and it’s about finding the best way to embrace the benefits and harness the challenges to suit that client’s life.”

All about dopamine

I always vaguely knew there was a connection between the neurotransmitter dopamine and ADHD, and that it was related to executive functioning (the set of mental skills that allow us to pay attention, organise ourselves and plan and execute tasks). But since I started coaching I have learned there are things I can do to boost dopamine to make it easier for me to focus.

Carolyn says: “Dopamine is part of your internal motivation system. People with dopamine working effectively can make themselves do things simply because they know they need doing, even if they don’t particularly want to. But if you have ADHD, possibly due to a lower density of proteins known as ‘dopamine transporters’ in your brain, you do not have the ability to internally motivate yourself to pay attention to things that don’t interest you.”

So for me, that’s the more mundane parts of my job, like tax returns, but can also relate to creative tasks on topics that I’m not immediately drawn to. However, if I do something that boosts my dopamine levels before I start one of these tasks, it’s easier to get into it. Exercise can boost dopamine, as can meditation and yoga. For me, living by the seaside, getting down to the beach for a blast of sea air works.

The other aspect of dopamine is that it provides the feeling of reward. If your dopamine is not working properly, you may not get enough of a feeling of satisfaction after completing a task to make it worth doing. One way of getting over this is to ‘externalise the reward’ – basically, plan something enjoyable for straight after you complete a set task, whether it’s an episode of your current Netflix fave or ordering pizza.

Practical organisational strategies 

Lack of structure is a nightmare for the ADHD person – and as a freelance you have to find ways to implement it for yourself. Different things work for different people. Beck, for example, uses the Pomodoro Technique (a time management tool that breaks your working time down into 25 minutes of activity followed by a five minute break). An essential component for her is to do these in parallel with another freelance friend who has ADHD, checking in with the friend before and after via Skype. “This ticks so many boxes for me,” she says. “Company, structure, accountability… and it optimises my focus. The time limit means that I defeat procrastination and the five-minute break helps me to take a healthy rest and prevents any unhelpful hyper-focusing that might be undermining my overall success.” 

Amy Durden, a London-based therapist who has ADHD combined type, and works with many neurodivergent clients, says one of her top tips is having a paper diary rather than an electronic one. “I need to physically hold things for them to register in my brain,” she says. “Taking my diary out of the digital sphere made a huge and instant difference to my tendency to overbook things. Seeing the week laid out and using different colours to mark work and personal activities has reduced my stress levels.”

However, while neither of the above techniques work for me, I do find bullet journaling very useful. It takes to-do lists, which I love, and makes them much more streamlined and effective. The inventor of the bullet journal, Ryder Carroll, actually has ADHD, so it makes sense!

Make the most of your freedom

Freelancing often means you can control your working patterns and environment and experiment with what works best for you. Amy says: “Working as a freelancer means being able to set my own hours, enabling a schedule that is kind to me. This is especially helpful regarding sleep difficulties and my need for more admin time. I can also have more control over the working environment and tailor it toward helping with focus and concentration. For instance, keeping my office space clear and visually under-stimulating.”

I personally need to be able to switch tasks regularly to keep my brain going. Sometimes I need to blast out music that stimulates my brain, sometimes to calm it (I recommend Focus At Will for this), sometimes I need to stop working altogether and do something completely different for a while. At home, I have the freedom to do this whenever I need it and it has made me much more productive than I ever was stuck at a desk in an office, trying not to fall asleep.

Find your ‘super powers’

While there are lots of difficulties involved in having ADHD, there are also some positives that are very useful in a creative career. My ability to hyper-focus means I can easily absorb information about a subject that interests me and churn out ideas on how best to write about it. When I care about something, I really really care, which means that as long as I find the right subject area, I bring passion to my work.

Beck says that her ADHD brain helps her with her work with clients. “Busy ADHD minds often make quick connections which can yield important therapeutic information or lines of enquiry,” she says. “And ADHD people’s brains function well on adrenaline. Seeing as I am pretty terrified of public speaking, this explains the Zen-like calm and clear, sharp focus which comes over me at one of my group workshops as everyone looks at me to get started!”

Freelancing has allowed me to refine what my areas of interest are and helped me find enjoyment and flow in my work in a way that I never could in an office. It just took me a bit of time – and a bit of help. 

Aly Fixter is a freelance journalist and communications consultant who edits Spooniehacker, an online magazine by and for disabled, sick and neurodivergent people.

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