Much attention is devoted to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The condition affects a person’s ability to focus and to control behavior and activity level. But what happens if someone discovers that he or she is struggling with ADHD as an adult? That’s where Abigail Wurf of the District comes in.
Since 2009, Wurf has been coaching adults struggling with ADHD. Typically, she meets with clients weekly or every other week to help them work toward long-term goals, whether it’s starting and finishing tasks, getting organized, focusing or coping with frustration. The real impact of these challenges can be felt both at home and at work.
“Overwhelm for people with ADHD is completely paralyzing,” Wurf said. “Well, people without it feel that way — you can feel anything ADHD people have. But ADHD people have these as sustained, long-term feelings. You can be paralyzed about something and you just don’t know how to break free, where to start, and you really need help to get out of that. And you will stay paralyzed even as it causes great detriment to your life.”
Wurf knows firsthand how tough that can be. She went largely undiagnosed, save for learning difficulties, until adulthood. Despite this, she succeeded in college, co-owned a dance studio, helped run a dance company and worked as a choreographer until back surgery left her nearly unable to walk. A decision to change her life’s course — to pursue a graduate degree — meant she needed to be re-diagnosed with learning difficulties within three years of going back to school. Her ADHD diagnosis was a revelation.
After her studies, she trained to be a life coach, eventually choosing to work solely with clients who have ADHD.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution; every client’s struggles are different. But Wurf said that most people with ADHD, many of whom have trouble with executive function (the set of cognitive skills that allows people to plan and to achieve goals), want systems that they can count on to help organize aspects of their lives.
“Most of us make hugely complex systems, so complex that once we have made the system, we can’t remember how it works, so we don’t use the system,” she said.
One system she recommends, the “launching pad,” is simply a place to put the things needed most to get out of the door. For men, that’s their wallet and keys. Women can use it for keys and a purse.
Wurf also suggests that people assign specific chores to a particular day (for example, make Mondays laundry days). Schedule chores with a buddy to ensure they get done. And make “the quick pickup” a habit to control chaos.
“Before you start getting ready to go to bed at night, set a timer for three to seven minutes and pick up everything that is in the wrong room and quickly distribute them to the right room,” Wurf said. “When the alarm goes off, you’re done. If you just get in this habit, you can hold the tide back a little bit.”
Wurf works with clients to overcome ADHD at work, as well. The interplay of ADHD and workplace demands can test employees and employers, Wurf said. Understanding how best to exploit the positive aspects of the condition can help improve productivity. People with ADHD do best when they choose a career that ignites their curiosity, she said.
“If it is something of intrinsic interest, we go into hyperfocus,” she said. “You just become in a tunnel, and you cannot see left nor right, above nor below. You are completely enthralled. But we don’t make choices as to what we hyperfocus on.”
When people are excited by their work, hyperfocus can be beneficial to the project. Wurf said many people with ADHD have become successful entrepreneurs in part because of this.
“A woman in the book called ‘Working’ by Studs Terkel once said: ‘People want a calling.’ This idea is super-important to people with ADHD,” Wurf said.
Wurf teaches clients to set a timeline with mini-deadlines instead of one big deadline. She also recommends that employees with ADHD keep a cheat sheet — information they must have handy — available for instant recall. Also, Wurf recommends that employees’ paper file systems mirror the way information is organized on their computers.
“Make the system as simple as possible,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s just one more deterrent to putting something away.”
Wurf, whose book “Forget Perfect: How to Succeed in Your Profession and Personal Life Even If You have ADHD” comes out in February, enjoys helping people with ADHD find their strengths.
“It’s so exciting because I see people move forward, and they are so excited about it,” she said. “ADHD doesn’t vanish, but you can really build a life.”
By understanding her ADHD diagnosis and discovering her own strong suit in coaching, Wurf, too, has moved forward.
“I know now I can manage anything that’s thrown at me,” she said. “You develop resiliency, which is a gift.”
Stein is a freelance writer.