Successful Freelancing with ADHD and Other Brain-Based Conditions
If you continuously struggle to stay organized and tend to work long hours to compensate for daily distractions, learning about productivity can mean wading through a body of presumptions. The advice of self-help materials–repeated in a myriad of online resources–can be difficult to follow, as there are relatively few productivity resources that openly acknowledge the impact of physical and mental factors on concentration.
Standard self-help approaches (“get up earlier” or “retreat from all distractions”) typically are not the most useful solutions for chronic productivity problems because they are built on several myths:
Myth: Everyone is born with the same executive functions and brain makeup.
Myth: Productivity is entirely a question of effort. Everyone can learn the necessary skills to improve focus. If you don’t succeed at first, try harder.
Myth: Brain-based conditions are unrelated to work performance and productivity.
Myth: Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition found exclusively in children.
The reality looks quite different.
It has become recognized in recent years that brain-based neurodevelopmental conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affect between 30 and 40 percent of the population. The term neurodiversity encompasses a long list of conditions. Rather than medical deficits requiring treatment, they are now perceived as individual sets of strengths and weaknesses.
The new perspectives driven by the growing awareness of neurodiversity are also challenging the idea that everyone should be expected to conform to a single standard of productivity. Many “expert” opinions about focus and work performance are not only outdated, but can also have toxic effects. For example, teachers and parents admonishing young children to “sit still” and “pay attention” may unconsciously treat shorter attention spans as a moral failure and personal shortcoming.
Counter to common perceptions, organization and personal productivity are not universal skills that can be learned from books. As defined by the Center for Accountability in Science, ADHD is a neurobiological condition characterized by chronic inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity which interferes with normal functioning or development (read more). Symptoms can be confusingly vague and are therefore significantly underdiagnosed, especially in women. ADHD was long considered a condition affecting younger children and predominantly boys. Scientists now recognize that symptoms continue into adulthood in more than three-quarters of cases. ADHD is also frequently linked to other brain-based conditions such as anxiety or depression.
Challenges encountered by adults with ADHD may include
- Difficulty predicting the passage of time, overly optimistic scheduling
- Impulsive decision-making
- Hyperfocus: Getting lost in a single activity that may or may not be relevant
- Mood swings and unpredictable productivity levels
- Difficulty planning and organizing long-term tasks
- Inconsistent daily routines
All of these challenges can lead to problems in conventional workplaces and produce higher stress levels, particularly when superiors and coworkers expect neurotypical standards of behavior and performance.
As a self-directed work activity that allows greater flexibility to structure working hours and manage workloads, freelancing is a good fit for people coping with brain-based conditions. This article suggests a few ways to successfully approach the associated productivity challenges.
Although ADHD is typically described in terms of the problems it causes, it has also been linked to the skills that characterize excellent linguists:
“[…] ADHD may bring with it… the ability to think more creatively. Three aspects of creative cognition are divergent thinking, conceptual expansion and overcoming knowledge constraints. […] Previous research has established that individuals with ADHD are exceptionally good at divergent thinking tasks […] college students with ADHD scored higher than non-ADHD peers on two tasks that tapped conceptual expansion and the ability to overcome knowledge constraints.” (Scientific American)
The following steps may be helpful if the symptoms of a brain-based condition are causing chronic stress in your life and freelance business:
Learn as much as you can: Knowing and understanding your condition is a proactive way to arrange your work schedule. There are plenty of excellent podcasts about adult ADHD that discuss the many unpredictable ways of our brains at work. Make it a goal to know what helps you function best. To arrange your freelance tasks, it is beneficial to be clear about your most creative hours and your biggest distractions. In addition, everyone has personal sensory preferences that are associated with the most productive way of working. For example, if you prefer to process information by listening, you can use a dictation program to read a translation back to you during the final editing step. Those who need to keep moving to do their best work may find that sitting on a ball chair can promote concentration.
Understand how you handle time: Everyone has an individual time horizon, the time we can accurately predict and schedule. Freelancers with a short time horizon may be tempted to take on more work than is reasonable because the necessary time to complete it seems vague and manageable at the time of accepting a project. If you are a time optimist, your scheduling will tend to overlook the inevitable effect of disruptions and the need to accommodate the demands of daily life (walking the dog, buying food, etc.). Some people also find that it takes them a long time to recover from distractions such as a personal conversation or a phone message. These distractions have to be factored into your project time calculations.
Build manageable self-care routines: Physical and mental balance is important for all freelancers, but it must be an integral part of your day if you grapple with a brain-based condition. It may be tempting to accept interesting freelance projects, but an overloaded schedule will leave you no room for proper breaks, enough sleep or regular exercise. You will easily regain the time invested in self-care activities as a result of regained focus. When choosing activities, go for doable and practical rather than cool and exciting. For example, walking in your neighborhood may not sound as grand as playing tennis, but you can squeeze walking time in much more easily and adjust the walking distance to your schedule.
Keep your project schedule flexible: If you struggle with periods of low concentration or brain fog, it is essential to leave gaps in your schedule. Saying “yes” to too many things, including social activities and volunteer commitments, can create enormous stress. It may be helpful to think of time as your currency: Working late into the night or skipping meals to meet deadlines comes at a higher cost.
Create rules for decision-making: If you tend to make impulsive decisions (and especially if you are a people pleaser), set up a few rules that slow you down, for example:
- Deliberate five minutes before you accept a new project, to evaluate how it will fit into your schedule. (Note: Platforms/clients who are unwilling to give you minimal decision time are not ideal business partners).
- Ponder thirty minutes before you make a purchase, to deliberate further.
- Take one day before you volunteer in an ongoing capacity, to consider how much time you can invest and what you may need to eliminate from your schedule to accommodate the new commitment.
Find accountability: Don’t insist on dealing with problems on your own. Studies have documented that non-judgmental accountability can be highly beneficial for people with brain-based conditions such as ADHD. There are many paid and unpaid options for accountability, both privately and in groups. For example, group members can opt to log into Zoom sessions to create the atmosphere of a study hall or reach out to each other with daily reminders. As a side effect, people in accountability groups also discover that they are not alone with a specific challenge and that others may have come up with helpful workarounds.
As scientific understanding of brain-based conditions evolves, we continue to discover helpful strategies for accommodating the associated challenges. Freelancing can be a good fit for the unpredictable energy levels and fluctuating focus of conditions such as ADHD. To build and maintain a successful business as a freelance translator or interpreter, strive to abandon the all-or-nothing thinking that tends to exaggerate the negative side of things and make use of all available resources to create a model that fits your personal needs and allows you to thrive.
About the Author
Dorothee Racette has been a full-time freelance GER < > EN translator for over 25 years. She served as ATA President from 2011 to 2013. In 2014, she established her own coaching business, Take Back My Day, to help individuals and organizations solve problems related to workflow and time management. As a certified productivity coach (CPC), she now divides her time between translating and coaching. Her book Complete What You Started (2020) provides a blueprint for carrying big projects across the finish line. Her website can be found at www.takebackmyday.com.
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