You’ve got the laundry on. You’ve made some coffee. You’ve sat down at your desk ready for the day and you’re all set.
But then what happens?
An email from your auntie lands in your inbox. You start to reply but then your phone dings with a message from your WhatsApp neighbourhood group. You’ve also missed a text from your friend about having a Facetime meeting on Tuesday.
You deal with all that, begin replying to a work email then your partner walks in to ask you where the big felt tips are because apparently the small ones won’t do, and then the kids come barrelling in, put on your headphones, bash your keyboard and shout “Look, I’m working!”
You’re struggling to be productive. That’s perfectly understandable. You’re coping with overwhelm, uncertainty, anxiety and change. You want to work because it gives you confidence, engages your brain and makes you feel like you’re valuable, that you’re contributing. But it’s hard.
So what can we do about it?
Accept that this is our situation right now
First of all, we have to accept that in times of stress and uncertainly, our concentration will be affected. None of us can expect to work with the same focus when we’re overwhelmed or anxious. We’ll get distracted, side-tracked by the news, or suddenly have to change our plans.
I think if we accept that at the outset, we can be a bit easier on ourselves. We can try to do our best “in this situation” rather than when our environment is perfect or circumstances are ideal.
Have a schedule or routine
For people with ADHD or autism, a schedule or routine can provide the vital structure that we need.
It might not be possible to stick to it at all times – and we need to be kind to ourselves if we aren’t able to keep to it, bearing in mind we might have to switch to a plan B, or start over the next day. But simply having that routine or schedule can help, it can shape our days and remind us of what the most important thing is. Even if that’s only to get through the day.
Incidentally, while some neurodivergent people will be struggling at this time – those with ADHD who can’t focus well, or autistics who don’t like change – some are actually coping better than our neurotypical friends. We’re used to feeling isolated, we’re always living in a world that’s not really tailored to our needs, and we’re good at coming up with new ideas and solving problems. Many people I work with are not only doing fine, but are using their unique “weird wiring” to help others.
What if you’re a parent trying to work from home?
The biggest issue for a parent who is working from home while the kids are around is time.
If you are home schooling the children, you suddenly have several hours a day that you have to commit to another task. This is a huge impact on your normal schedule.
Again, accepting this is the case is the first step in how we cope. We’re not going to be able to get on with projects we were looking forward to, or we might neglect something else for the time being. That’s OK. We can prioritise the most important things and get back to the other tasks later.
Have a structured and tailored environment
Neurodivergent people (and lots of neurotypical people, come to that) normally need their environment to be structured so they can focus. Some require silence, some like music or other background noise, and for others, the environment depends on the task they are doing.
The environment may not be achievable right now, and even if it is, you might not be able to get those long blocks of time that you need. You might find that the noise of having the kids around or the prospect of being interrupted might affect your focus, even if the children aren’t in the same room.
Get up early (if you can)
Many people – both neurodivergent and neurotypical – find that the early hours of the morning are the most productive. If you’re able to get up before everyone else, you might find that you get twice as much done in that first hour as you do for the rest of the day!
Working in the evening is always a possibility too, but it depends on your individual circadian rhythms. You will probably find that you’re best at different tasks at different times – for example, I tend to do planning in the morning, and creative tasks in the evening.
And if you’re still struggling – noise-cancelling headphones could be the answer to your prayers!
Get your set-up right (for you)
Get your kit and environment as well set-up for your needs as you can.
It’s frustrating if your internet isn’t very good or you don’t have the music you like, so try to fix any of those things that are in your control. Make sure your chair and desk are the right height for you to be comfortable and if you don’t have a desk, try to carve out a dedicated space for yourself somewhere else in the house.
If you mark out your zone with washi tape it can protect it – it might sound silly but it will be much easier for your children to respect your space. You can’t sit down to work if your space is covered with crayons and toy dinosaurs!
The importance of sleep and exercise
Sleep and exercise are really important as well. You can’t do anything if you’re tired, so even if you’re struggling to sleep right now, having a good “turn-down” routine will help.
Turning screens off at least an hour before bedtime, turning off overhead lights, maybe doing some stretching, and having your book or podcast ready. These indicate to your body that it’s time to go to sleep, and it can form an important part of your self-care routine when you’re doing so much to keep working and look after your family. Having that time to look after yourself is crucial to avoid burn-out.
Many people with ADHD swear by exercise for keeping them focused. What you can do depends on where you live, but even stretching or doing videos at home will keep you in shape. It can help energise you when you’re having a slump, and will also help you sleep at night.
The importance of routine
Routine is important for all of us but particularly important for neurodivergent people. It can help those with mental health issues as well – for getting out of bed and getting ourselves clean and groomed, to help us feel better about ourselves.
I think the important thing about routine is not to beat ourselves up if we aren’t able to stick to it. We might find we don’t have the energy, or we suddenly have to do something else. I give my clients permission to switch to a Plan B, or even to ditch the routine entirely if things are going wrong. You can always go back to it tomorrow. Trying to stick to the routine when it’s just not working causes unnecessary guilt and stress.
And if you’re really struggling?
If things are very hard, I encourage people to set the bar really really low. So instead of a massive “to do” list, we just do one thing. And that one thing can be to brush our teeth. That might be enough for today.
I also tell people they don’t have to stick to unwritten rules. I’ve seen so many things telling people not to work from home in their pyjamas, but for some people (particularly autistics and those with ADHD), doing the first step is such an obstacle, that they can’t start the day.
So if you can’t get dressed today, or you can’t get out of bed, that’s fine. Grab your laptop and work from your bed for now. Maybe get up later. If you don’t have the energy or focus to make lunch, eat an apple. Drink some milk. Just do what you can.
It’s just for now
This situation isn’t forever, and neither is your mental state. Do what you can to get through it, and you’ll be in a much better state to get back to normal when the world does.
If you want help, book a session with me here. There’s no charge for the first one.