Alison Renfro, Crema Group Director and Product Manager, has been grappling with adult ADHD for the last several years. She’s found ways to stay focused and leverage her ADHD within her role as a product manager and wants to share these insights with others who have ADHD or work with someone who has ADHD.
ADHD is a chronic condition including attention difficulty, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. It can show itself in different ways and symptoms can vary person-to-person.
Alison has been in product management for 6+ years, but it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. In her early 20’s, she experienced one of the worst periods of her life. School had come easily, so it was a shock to her when things became so difficult kicking off her career. It finally hit her that she was experiencing feelings she had never dealt with before—namely a lack of motivation and overwhelming anxiety from procrastination.
Alison felt like she couldn’t do anything even though things needed to get done. Depression set in, and Alison wondered if there was more to the equation. She was tired of feeling trapped.
She found a doctor that enlightened her about her ADHD and how it was manifesting for her as an adult. Dealing with undiagnosed ADHD was extremely challenging. There were days that Alison was worried about losing her job. Once she was diagnosed, she was more equipped to address the issue at hand.”
What it’s like to be a product manager with ADHD
One thing Alison learned was how she might be already supplementing her ADHD in her everyday life. When Alison opened her wallet at the doctor’s office for the first time, her doctor laughed. Alison had organized the cards in her wallet into separate, color-coded envelopes to help her distinguish between work credit cards, personal credit cards, insurance cards, etc.
The doctor explained that there are small things that those with ADHD do to help them function. Being able to organize her cards with envelopes was a tactic Alison had implemented to visually understand where everything was in her wallet—something very common with those who struggle with ADHD.
Tools and tactics for adult ADHD
Alison started picking up unconventional tendencies to help her visually remember tasks she needed to do. This included leaving laundry baskets outside her laundry room when she knew there would be laundry for her to fold. These quirks were subconscious, but they helped her along the way.
Once she recognized what she was doing at home, she tried to bring those same tactics into the workplace as well. Alison realized she needed visual cues to help her stay on track. Visual cues can help people struggling with the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ aspect that usually comes with ADHD.
One cue she brought to the workplace was very explicit to-do lists. In Product Management, you have a to-do list that can feel endless…and it’s easy to get lost. Visual indicators might include sticky notes around your monitor or a designated notebook and planner. Alison puts her ‘to-do‘ items in a planner and general notes in a separate notebook. Check it out:
However, Alison’s organization is not going to be someone else’s organization. Many product management tools offer customization that can help those who need visual cues. With Jira, for example, Alison leverages visual indicators in the backlog that may not be beneficial to everyone on her team.
Alison’s learned some lessons about organization over the years. At one point, she organized the backlog in a way that made sense to her but didn’t always resonate with clients. This was a hurdle she had to overcome. Her advice: try to understand why you want to tag something with a certain epic label or version number. Does your organization properly convey the upcoming priorities? Explain your thought process to the team and see how they respond to your methods. If they’re not receptive, try to adapt and come to a compromise.
Finding the right career fit
ADHD can be an advantage for some positions. For Alison’s role as a PdM, it was a match made in heaven. Her heightened emotional intelligence and ability to be attentive to how people are feeling has been a huge asset for her working with clients and product teams.
Product Management also requires agility. With her ADHD, Alison is able to bounce from project to project with ease — something essential to her role. Another perk to her ADHD is the excitement she feels learning new things. Moving on to ‘what’s next’ can be great for switching between tasks and projects, but it can also make some projects feel like they’re dragging on forever. ADHD gives her the motivation to see what’s coming next.
Alison recommends trying to find a role that has team accountability. She feels intense anxiety if she feels the success or failure of a project entirely on her shoulders, but Crema isn’t set up that way. She knows the team has her back and she has their back. No one person takes the blame in the Agile world and there’s freedom to fail.
It took Alison a long time to realize that she can’t use Confluence or other digital note-taking tools. For her own personal memory (non-shared thoughts), she has to write by hand. Alison is a do-er type learner, so being able to write something down and see it later has helped her retain information. Note-taking is essential, and she’s even learned shorthand to help her record info quickly.
It’s difficult for Alison to hone in on the important tasks when she’s observing and feeling everything at once. However, she’s come to accept that silencing notifications in Slack creates more stress for her than just receiving them. For some people, the notifications might feel overwhelming. But Alison has to know what’s going on. She loves to use the mark unread feature in Slack and Gmail for non-urgent messages. She tells herself: you’re letting yourself see these things, but finish up what you’re doing before you get to those things.
Using noise-cancelling headphones
Noise-cancelling headphones have really helped Alison stay focused and remain calm while working from home. For those living in noisy areas, they’re definitely recommended. You may not even realize all the distractions you’re seeding energy into, but headphones help you hone in on the tasks that truly require your attention.
Meditation & mindfulness
Feeling overwhelmed happens a lot when you have ADHD. Though Alison admits to not doing this as often as she should, she believes mindfulness can really help those with ADHD focus. Recognizing the fact that you’re overwhelmed is a great first step toward treating the feeling. Keep in mind that meditation exercises can be short and simple, like the 4 by 4 by 4 breathing method (breath in for four seconds, hold in for four seconds, and breath out for four seconds).
Working from home
As an extrovert, it was really difficult for Alison to work from home for the first 8 months. She felt overwhelmed by the number of things that she wanted/needed to do and she missed the in-person connections. The more she began to create routines and accept the things she couldn’t control though, the better it got.
In the early days, Alison would feel guilty for having a load of laundry going during the workday or not working late. She came to realize that just because you can bounce around and do a lot of things doesn’t mean you should. She let herself compartmentalize her day to avoid overwhelming her system, dedicating specific space to just eat lunch or just do laundry.
Something else that’s worked for Alison is regularly moving her workspace around. She’s moved her workspace (desk and all) 6-7 times! It may be a different wall or a different room entirely, but it’s worked wonders for her ADHD management. She doesn’t know why, but give it a try!
Let’s talk about it
We need to normalize talking about disorders like ADHD, especially within the context of a professional setting. Helping others understand the struggles that those with ADHD deal with is a good first step towards creating a more inclusive culture. Do you struggle with adult ADHD? Any tactics you recommend? We’d love to hear from you! Shoot Alison an email here.
If you’re more of a visual learner, check out the video version of this interview below.