On being diagnosed with Adult ADHD

June 01, 20215 min read

Early 2021 was the lowest point in my career.

Objectively I was doing well: I had worked continuously throughout the pandemic, being paid very well to work for a globally recognised brand, able to learn new technologies and work from the comfort of home.

But I dreaded Monday mornings. I dreaded those 9:30 stand-ups. I was struggling with the work, spending my evenings and weekends playing catch-up and still feeling like I was underdelivering.

Sure, there had been points in my career where I’d disliked the work, but they were normally the result of external factors: a bad client, unreasonable deadlines, a terrible codebase. I could always close my laptop safe in the knowledge that I’d done my best in the situation. But this time I had no one to blame but myself.

It was the first time in my career where I’ve thought “I’m not cut out for this”.

Lazy and/or stupid

This was a feeling I first encountered at university where, despite being genuinely passionate about the subject, my grades were (at best) average. I could not retain any valuable information from lectures and assignments were challenging and delivered at the last minute.

I might have seemed lazy or disinterested, but I would happily spend my evenings and weekends working on personal programming projects. I might have seemed stupid but in my spare time I would learn concepts more advanced than the syllabus.

It was around this time I discovered Life Hacker, 43 Folders, and the world of “productivity porn”. I thought that my problems could be solved with GTD systems, or $20 Mac apps, or a new notebook. I hoped I could rewire my brain to sit at a text editor and churn out brilliant code for hours upon end.

At the age of thirty five, and thirteen years into my career, I was no closer to figuring this out.

Working from home throughout the pandemic, with a myriad of distractions and lack of accountability, gave me flashbacks of university.

The penny drops

I’d heard the term ADHD and shrugged it off as an over-diagnosed condition for kids who can’t sit still and overly-caffeinated millennials who just have too many tabs open. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough to identify the symptoms in myself, or maybe I was put off by the process of seeking a diagnosis: I wanted an app, or a book, or an over-the-counter supplement.

Then I saw this interview with ADHD coach Brett Thornhill.

Thornhill, who was diagnosed with ADHD in his forties, recalls the first conversation he had with his therapist:

“I can’t have ADHD. I hold down a job, and have a house, and pay my bills…”

“Yeah, but how hard is it?”, she replies.

“It feels like I’m walking through three feet of water most of the time. I’ve spent most of my life thinking I was either lazy or the stupidest person in the room.”

Suddenly everything made sense.

I wept.

In March I received a formal diagnosis for Inattentive ADHD.

My therapist suggested that the fact I was diagnosed so late, and had managed to forge a successful career, was the result of having established my own coping mechanisms or invested more effort to overcome those obstacles.

As with the transition from school to college, and its lack of structure and increased autonomy, the transition from the office to working from home removed many of those coping mechanisms.

Working with a diagnosis

Receiving the diagnosis has allowed me re-frame the problems and make changes to the way I work:

Dealing with vague, open-ended tasks

In many respects software development is well suited to the ADHD brain: we are encouraged to work in smaller increments, with clearly-defined success criteria, and the success of our work can even be established with an automated test.

But often you are tasked with something big, and vague and without a definitive outcome or deadline. Where do you start? How long will this take? How do you know when this is done?

It is important for me to break these tasks down into smaller units, define their criteria, and ask for more regular feedback.

For those bigger tasks, the ones you just have to hack away at, I find the Pomodoro Technique helpful.

Reading and presenting

I’ve never been a particularly fast reader, often re-reading the same line several times without processing the information. Similarly, I often trip over my own words when speaking publicly.

Over the last few years I’ve tried to learn from audiobooks and video tutorials.

When speaking I’ve begin to use notes to outline what I want to say, rather relying on my memory.

Processing and retaining verbal information

Just like in the university lecture hall, receiving information verbally is unreliable for me. This is a particular problem when important information is exchanged on video calls.

I’m learning to take more notes or ask for things in writing.

As a software engineer I urge my colleagues to keep information in the tickets. This benefits the whole team.

What’s next?

In contrast to early 2021 I am again enjoying my job. I am confident in my abilities, aware of my weaknesses, and doing my best work.

I am about to start medication, hoping to round-off the cognitive/motivational edges that I cannot work around.

If you’re reading this and recognise any of the traits, or would like to know more about ADHD, please get in touch (sam@samuelcotterall.com).