How to Make Adult ADHD Work for You

(This article appeared originally on NextAvenue.org.)

The last word of ADHD is Disorder (it comes after Attention Deficit Hyperactivity), but successful online entrepreneur Peter Shankman, who discovered he has ADHD in his 30s, believes this chronic condition is anything but a disorder.

adult adhd rewire pbsIn fact, Shankman calls ADHD a “gift” in his eye-opening new book with a mouthful of a title, “Faster Than Normal: Turbocharge Your Focus, Productivity, and Success With the Secrets of the ADHD Brain.” He fervently maintains that adults with ADHD have advantages at work and in life over those without it.

He writes that people with ADHD “can hyperfocus on things that interest us, we tend to do really well at things we enjoy doing. We’re enthusiastic, creative, willing to take risks, innovative, intuitive, spontaneous, compassionate, persistent and have the brain processing power of the world’s fastest computers.

As such, we can connect seemingly unrelated dots, see the forest for the trees in ways that ‘regular’ people can’t even fathom — oh, and by the way, we can usually do it at the speed of sound.”

The key if you have adult ADHD, Shankman said in his hyperactive, sometimes hyperbolic, speaking style, is knowing the life hacks to make ADHD work for you.

I recently spoke with Shankman—the New York City-based creator of the Help a Reporter Out service that finds experts for journalists—to hear about those hacks and his advice for people whose loved ones have ADHD. Did I mention that Shankman is also a skydiver, an Ironman triathlete and the host of the “Faster Than Normal” podcast?

What made you want to write this book?

Peter Shankman: Over the course of my life, I’ve been told that I do strange things and act weird. It took me years to figure out why ‘normal’ people don’t act like me; I have ADHD. So I launched the Faster Than Normal podcast and sure enough, I found that people like Tony Robbins, [author and marketing guru] Seth Godin and the founder of JetBlue [David Neeleman] all do things this way, too. I said to myself: ‘Let’s see if we can’t turn this into something bigger.’

People say that ADHD is a negative. No, it’s the greatest gift in the history of the world. I am so lucky to have it.

What do you mean by ‘Faster Than Normal?’

PS: The normal brain creates dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline and drips them out when they’re needed. They’re the chemicals that make it easy for humans to concentrate and stay focused. When you have ADHD, you don’t have [enough of those things]. And that’s why they put people on medication, essentially. But if you can figure out a way for your brain to give you those things on demand, you are creating a faster than normal brain, essentially.

You’re against taking medication for ADHD?

PS: I’m not anti-medication, but I’m not for using it as a first line of defense. I’m living proof. I have a prescription (for Concerta) and I rarely take it. I call it my ‘expense report medication’ — when my assistant says my expense report is due by noon, I take the medication. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I have other ways to handle my ADHD.

Like what?

PS: I know that if I have to be in super-hyperfocused mode, a workout will give that to me and make my brain faster. That allows me to do things people think are crazy and can’t be done.

This morning, I was in a 6 a.m. spin class. That’s the greatest feeling in the world.

adult adhd rewire pbsWhat was the significance to you of learning that you had ADHD?

PS: It cleared a lot of stuff up. Growing up in ’70s and ’80s, it wasn’t called ADHD. I was told to sit down because I was disruptive. Now there’s a label. It has proved to me the reasons behind all my craziness.

What percentage of adults do you think have ADHD but don’t know it?

PS: There are tons of undiagnosed people out there. I know it’s increasing rapidly. People in their 30s, 40s and 50s are having kids that are diagnosed with it and then they say, ‘Maybe I [have it], too.’

You say that one of the biggest advantages and disadvantages to having ADHD is that your brain doesn’t play by the same rules as everyone else’s. What do you mean by that?

PS: Illegal drug use, substance abuse or addiction of any kind is another negative commonality among people with ADHD. A lot of my friends will go out for a drink and have one or two and go home. I don’t know how to do that. I quit drinking because I won’t have just one drink.

People order pizza and they put the leftovers in the fridge; I don’t. Leftover pizza doesn’t exist in my world. When you have ADHD, you have to be aware of what you can and can’t do.

How has having ADHD helped your career?

PS: I live with a mindset that if I have an idea, I’ll try it. If it works, great. If not, I’ll learn something from it.

You say you’ve learned to teach your body to make more “focus and happy” chemicals on demand and live your life so you don’t need to constantly rely on your body making more, as “normal” people do. How do you do it?

PS: I won’t go to a meeting without running up three flights of stairs. Then I’ll be able to give you my attention for the next 45 minutes. When I’m on a plane for 14 hours, every 90 minutes, I’ll drop and do 20 pushups.

You say that short-term fixes to deal with ADHD often have serious and unwanted consequences. What do you mean?

PS: Short-term fixes involve a lot of negative things like alcohol and drugs. The problems is, those things aren’t natural, and the downsides are way too difficult.

What are a few of the best things people with ADHD can do in their work lives to become more successful, productive and focused?

PS: One is to work out every morning. You don’t have to do Ironman like I do. A 20-minute walk or a spin class is fine; something that changes your brain chemistry.

The second thing: Eat better. Eating crap turns you into crap.

Eliminate choices from your life as much as possible.

And have a place of focus where can work out your creativity and sit down without being interrupted.

Any technology tools that help?

PS: I like the OmmWriter app: It’s a word processing app that strips off everything that could bug you. It shuts down all your other alerts, things that could pop up from your computer when you’re trying to get something done.

You say that work deadlines are very important to people with ADHD. Why?

PS: When you have ADHD, “soon” is not an actuality. It’s not real. If you tell me you need something soon, I’ll wind up dropping it and start to work on something else. But if you say you need it Thursday at 4, you’ll get it on Thursday.

What’s your advice to people who don’t have ADHD but live with, or love, people who do?

PS: Understand that it is never our intention to cause trouble or hurt you. We’re working our asses off not to do that. We do things that are incredibly stupid, but we are not stupid. We’re trying our best.

Indulge us! If I have a great idea I want to share with you, I’m not looking for notes on why it’s a terrible idea. Give me an hour to enjoy this great idea I think I have. Tell me later what your concerns are, but let me have fun with it now.

Richard Eisenberg

Richard Eisenberg is the senior web editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and managing editor for the site. He is the author of “How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis” and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping and CBS MoneyWatch.