Freelancing while ADD

I am a freelancer and I have ADHD. Although some people find the structure of a 9-5 job helpful in managing their problems, I know that I'm not the only ADHD person out there who has found refuge in the freelance world. In fact, according to Russell Barkley (a research professor of psychiatry) "35 percent of people with ADD are self-employed by the time they're in their thirties - a figure far higher than the norm." What I'm going to write about today are the problems and the benefits of freelancing while ADHD. I hope that this might be informative and encouraging for other ADHD'ers out there, while raising awareness for others.

Adult ADHD (or ADD) can primarily be characterised by the following symptoms: trouble focusing or concentrating, restlessness, impulsivity, difficulty completing tasks, disorganisation, low tolerance for frustration and boredom, mood swings, a hot temper and trouble coping with stress. These may seem like things we all deal with at certain times but an ADHD person will experience all of these symptoms continuously and often to a debilitating level. Additional symptoms include sleep disorders, hyper-focus, forgetfulness, a skewed sense of time and an increased susceptibility to anxiety, depression and addictive personalities.

(Just so you know, people with ADHD are also known for being more creative, out-of-the-box thinkers, enthusiastic, passionate, imaginative, detail orientated, spontaneous, good at motivating others, sensitive and compassionate, intuitive, adaptive, adventurous, generous, dedicated and hard-working. It's not all bad!)

There are several core issues relating to the freelance lifestyle that I want to discuss, so I'm going to split them up into sections below for ease of reading.


1. Sleep Disorders

I only recently discovered the link between ADHD and sleep disorders and it's very much been an 'aha' moment of discovery for me. Roughly 80% of people with ADHD also suffer from sleep disorders. We have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, waking up in the mornings, and sticking to a regular, 'normal', sleep pattern,  are often very restless sleepers or suffer from other issues such as Sleep Apnea.

It is also fairly common to have both ADHD and Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (DSPS). This essentially means that the circadian rhythm is abnormal. Whereas people with a normal circadian rhythm have natural sleeping hours averaging between 11pm and 7am, people with DSPS will have an irregular sleep pattern averaging around 2am to around 10am. We tend to be sleepy during the day and wide awake in the evenings. This makes it difficult to work effectively on a 9-5 shift schedule because our natural circadian rhythms do not match up to the conventional working day.

On the other hand, freelancing offers a unique freedom to set a schedule that works for us. Social convention leads us to feel guilty if we sleep in instead of getting up and starting work early. However, is there any real reason why your 8 hour work day shouldn't be 11-7 rather than the conventional 9-5? If you work from home you are free to sleep and work at the times that suit you best and for someone with ADHD this can make a real positive difference to your health and lifestyle.

(It certainly made a positive difference to me when I recently stopped trying to force myself to go to sleep around 11 and get up around 7 or 8. I feel more relaxed and rested and am more productive.)
 

2. Concentration, Restlessness and Distraction

Unfortunately, working from home can cause more problems with distraction and concentration than an office environment. If you have ADHD you may be constantly distracted from your work by the presence of other members of the household, external noise, household chores, unnecessary food breaks and lower-priority tasks. The issue of trying to complete one task before moving onto the next, or get started on a job that appears dauntingly large can be difficult to overcome when relying only on your self-discipline rather than an externally imposed working structure. However it is definitely possible. Being freelance gives you the chance to develop a personal structure for yourself and find coping methods that work for you. 

For example, if you are feeling restless and having trouble concentrating while at a 9-5 job there is very little you can do about it. You have to stay put and force your mind back on track. This is incredibly difficult to do and failure to do so may get you in trouble at work, but as freelancers we have the freedom needed to work through or around these issues. 

If you're having trouble focusing due to distractions such as housemates walking past or noises outside the house, you can play music or 'white noise' to block them out. If you can't settle down and work consistently due to restlessness, you can leave your desk and go for a ten minute walk, do some star jumps or yoga to expel excess energy. You can even try introducing regular meditation to your working schedule.

(meditation is difficult to master for the distracted and hyperactive mind of an ADHD person but has been reported to be very beneficial if you stick with it. If you don't think you can do it, read this!)
 

3. Hyper-focus

I see hyper-focus as a tool as much as a problem: a tool ADHD people are equipped with which helps to counter-act the high levels of distractibility, restlessness and lack of concentration.

Most people with ADHD are reported to have the ability to focus on a task with a single-minded intensity for extended periods of time. This may seem contradictory to the majority of ADHD symptoms but fits when you consider it another aspect of the distorted sense of time associated with it:

You've all heard the expression 'time flies when you're having fun?' Well, that goes more than double for people with ADHD. While a non-ADHD person may be surprised to realise they've been working on a task for a couple of hours already, I often look up at the time to find that I have been working on photoshop for 8 or 9 hours straight, without stopping. While in this state, people with ADHD are likely not to realise they are hungry or thirsty or even that they haven't been to the bathroom in a while! They are very difficult to pull away from this state and even if they answer a call to dinner, might not even remember that another person entered the room.

Despite how it sounds, this can be very useful. For example, all the colouring and shading on my recently completed Siren illustration was done in a single sitting, and hyper-focus can be useful if you need to power through on a commission deadline. Hyper-focus allows us to counter-balance our distracted and unproductive phases with highly focused and productive ones. However, it needs to be managed correctly to ensure you aren't neglecting your health.
 

4. Organisation and Time Management

This is really a combination beast, built from the issues of distractibility, concentration, impulsivity, forgetfulness and the difficulty in starting and completing tasks, as well as the key issue of a distorted sense of time.

If you don't have ADHD you likely see time, events and tasks in a fairly organised, linear or grid-like fashion; event A, event B, and task A, task B. You can easily prioritise your to-do list according to what is due first and have a fairly good estimate of how long something is going to take.

Not so the ADHD mind. It has been suggested that people with ADHD don't 'see' events but 'feel' them; we experience time as a diffuse collection of events that are connected by the people, activities and emotions involved in them, rather than in a linear sense.

When applying this to a to-do list, tasks appear as a jumbled mass of mixed priorities and mental association. It seems as if there is a single insurmountable mountain of a task bearing down on you, which is incredibly daunting and stressful. Even if you start one job, you will be constantly distracted by the other things on your list, unable to put them out of your mind and impulsively flitting between them, slowing progress on all tasks.

As a result an ADHD person may be notorious for leaving things to the absolute last minute while they try to avoid the mental stress associated with their list of tasks, or for forgetting important aspects of a task even if it is something they do regularly. We find it very difficult to prioritise and to get started on a project and issues with concentration and distraction make it hard to finish. 

The lack of externally imposed deadlines in many freelancing business tasks makes it particularly difficult to prioritise and act on to-do tasks because they can be put off indefinitely without any clearly defined negative effects. 

Knowing this it may seem that the structure of a 9-5 working day is just what an ADHD person needs to organise themselves, but I feel that it's more of a temporary crutch. It may keep you on a schedule during the working hours, but still leave you with a chaotic and disorganised personal life, or your productivity and self-care may be regulated for a certain period of time under a regular schedule but become incredibly erratic when an anomalous task or event is introduced.

Working independently forces you to become more organised to overcome these issues and I have found that creating a personalised organisational system has dramatically decreased my stress levels and increased my productivity.
 

Managing the Problems

The key to tackling these core issues is to create your own personal system to organise your life. I use a multi-step planning system, as well as a few other techniques, to keep myself on track and stop myself from feeling over-whelmed, which I'm going to share below in the hope that it might help someone else to manage their problems:
 

  1. I give myself a regular 'bed-time' and pre-sleep routine and try my best to stick to it. Lack of sleep can exacerbate symptoms of ADHD as it become even harder to concentrate for long periods of time and you become more irritable.
     

  2. I set double-alarms to remind myself to eat meals or take breaks at regular intervals, as well as to give myself warnings when I need to leave the house. This makes it easier to break away from a task I'm hyper-focusing on without feeling disgruntled or irritated and ensures I take care of my health as well as my work.

    I also sometimes use music playlists I have created to be 1 or 2 hours long. If the music stops, I need to take a break from the screen and check the time and my schedule. This is less intrusive than an alarm.
     

  3. I break down to-do tasks on my lists into smaller bite-sized chunks. For example, if I am working on a new illustration the to-do tasks will be; research, thumbnails, rough outlines, final outlines, rough colour, flat colour, shading. This way the daunting job of 'make an illustration' becomes a collection of smaller and much more manageable tasks.
     

  4. I write down every to-do task and deadline I can think of in a project planner with four sections. Usually I divide it into the themes of Creative Tasks, Business Tasks and Home Tasks. The fourth section is for weekly 'Master Lists'. At the beginning of each week I check priorities and deadlines, then take 6 to 8 items from the three themed lists and place them on the Master List for the week.

    This planner changes my old chaotic piles of to-do lists into a cohesive and categorised system which is far easier to manage. It breaks down an endless stream of tasks into manageable weekly chunks and helps me to focus on the task at hand, rather than thinking about the countless other things I could be doing.
     

  5. If I have a new project idea, I write it into my planner as a future set of tasks. Once I've stored the concept this way, I don't have to worry about losing my 'spark' of inspiration and can re-focus on the task at hand.
     

  6. I use colour-coded post-it notes to add the weeks to-do tasks onto a weekly wall planner with time slots that I made for myself. This helps with time management by giving me a visual representation of the week ahead. If I have too many post-its to fit on the wall planner, I know I'm over-reaching myself and I need to re-prioritise and scale back my tasks for the week.

    The colour-coding helps me to balance my attention between creative, business and home tasks. I include social activities and museum drawing in my green 'home' post-its so if there isn't enough green on the table then I'm not giving myself enough time to relax, and if there isn't enough yellow then I'm neglecting the business side of things and so forth.

    The post-its also allow me an important element of flexibility. Dealing with changes in a regular schedule is very stressful for a person with ADHD. Using movable post-its for my planning allows me to accommodate unforeseen alterations to my week without having to-do items drop of the map entirely.
     

  7. Finally, I keep a calendar which I use to highlight deadlines and future tasks which need to be remembered but are not relevant to the immediate weekly schedule. This helps me to keep track of long-term goals without having them clog up my list and planner system. It can also be worth-while writing up your own OGSM (Objectives, Goals, Strategies and Measurements) table to help plan your freelance business structure for the year.

 

Though it isn't infallible, this personal scheduling allows me to function effectively in a freelance capacity and manage my lifestyle without being subject to constantly over-whelming stress levels. I try as much as I can to schedule business tasks before creative tasks so that I don't avoid them and can use the creative tasks as a kind of reward system for having completed the business-related ones.

These methods of scheduling may not work for everyone but they can be a useful framework to start figuring out what works for you. Some people use diaries instead of wall-planners and calendars, some people use not-lists to help them stay focused on a task, and there are many other techniques which can help. There are a lot of helpful articles and tips to be found online and there are life-coaches specialising in ADHD who can help you to identify your main issues and figure out the best way for you to manage them. (Some of the techniques I use were taught to me by local ADD coach Rebecca Champ. Check out her site for useful blog posts for people with ADD.)

I hope that some of you have found this article interesting, informative and/or helpful. If you have anything to add or want to ask me any questions, please feel free to leave a comment or message me.