Project Management

Understanding attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and tools to stay on track

By Stefanie Klein

Heavy workloads and client stories can affect attorneys physically and psychologically. It is important to actively work to stay healthy. For more information, go to

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Good intentions lost in a pile of clutter. Procrastination. Days that disappear in projects that never get finished or never get off the ground. Forgotten tasks, misplaced documents, and unanswered emails. Is this what life sometimes feels like?

You may not recognize these phenomena as signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. But ADHD is not just about little kids who can’t sit still. For stressed out lawyers, an understanding of the disorder, and its presentation in adults, can provide answers to crippling cycles of procrastination, anxiety, and depression.

The Science of It
Two chemicals in our brains, dopamine and norepinephrine, affect our focus and concentration. If regulation of these chemicals is awry, the result can be not only attention problems but also emotional volatility and addiction.

For a lawyer, if a task is interesting or if a crisis or a deadline raises the stakes, dopamine is released and focus is easy. If a task is less interesting, with a longer-term timeline and no immediate reward, the ADHD brain does not release dopamine, leaving the lawyer with no mental energy. In a brain that also releases insufficient norepinephrine, the result is distraction, depression, and fatigue. If the brain releases too much norepinephrine, the lawyer may experience anxiety, or become hyperfocused on matters counterproductive to the job at hand.

What ADHD Looks Like in Lawyers
Any of the following may characterize a lawyer with ADHD:

• Significant difficulty in starting, organizing, and planning uninteresting, low-stakes tasks;

• Being easily distracted and getting lost in thought;

• Quickly moving from one idea to another or one thing to another;

• Difficulty stopping activities or behaviors that are of high interest, even if they are preventing the completion of assignments or negatively affecting relationships;

• Significant difficulty following through with time deadlines in low-interest activities;

• Difficulty regulating emotions, such as getting easily frustrated or overwhelmed to an extent that affects personal and work relationships;

• Difficulty retaining instructions, staying on topic, and noticing cues to accurately read people;

• Low self-esteem due to poor motivation and difficulty getting tasks completed;

• Decisions being made impulsively and a desperate search for novelty; and

• Poor impulse inhibition.

This Is No Way to Practice Law
If the list above feels too close for comfort, you are not alone. Trying to practice law while experiencing these distractions makes an already stressful profession even harder. As life feels more and more unmanageable, anxiety increases. Without steps to address the situation, the lawyer may be overcome by feelings of defeat and negative self-worth. We already know our profession has more than its share of substance abuse and suicide; leaving ADHD unaddressed and untreated is simply an unnecessary risk.

Non-pharmaceutical Strategies
If our ADHD didn’t have us so overcommitted and behind on everything, maybe we’d have time to get it diagnosed, right? But even without a formal diagnosis or prescription, help is available. In addition to ADHD’s brain chemistry components, external environmental factors, especially technology, affect attention and emotions, increase stress, and need to be managed. This is good news because it means there are strategies aside from medication that can help mitigate the effects of ADHD on our professional and personal well-being.

Here are a few suggestions:

• Have a daily planner, and prioritize tasks for each day. This is critical.

• Break each task down into its necessary component steps, keeping them simple, clear, and achievable. Write the steps down in the daily planner, so that you don’t have to try to remember them.

• When you plan your day, give yourself more time than you think you need for each task.

• Reduce environmental distractions in the office, including visual and auditory distractions, especially when tackling low-interest assignments. Use headphones and music, if that helps. Close the door or take yourself away from your office altogether— leave your phone off and take the project to a quiet, boring conference room, away from your email and the internet.

• Consider enlisting help from someone you trust at work, a kind of work coach to whom you can be accountable for starting and maintaining your organization and planning. If nothing else, go bounce an idea off of a colleague and see if that helps create energy for you to refocus on what needs to be done. If it does, you can use that trick whether the person helping you—an assistant, peer, or boss—knows he or she is your work coach or not.

• When you find that you can’t get traction on a project, ask yourself what the obstacle is—what is holding you back? Is it not knowing what to do? If so, who can you ask or where can you look to find out? Or is it not having things assembled to get started? If that’s it, then what do you need to find or ask for or research and how are you going to go about doing that?

If you think this applies to you, help is out there! For information and answers about ADHD, go to

Acknowledgements For the scientific and diagnostic information in this piece, the author relied upon “Getting a Handle on ADD” by Greg Crosby, published in the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program’s In Sight, Vol. 88 (December 2012). TBJ

Emma HanesSTEFANIE KLEIN represents businesses and individuals in state and federal courts, at the trial and appellate levels, in bankruptcy proceedings, mediations, and before arbitration panels. When she is away from the office, Klein enjoys eating her husband’s cooking, listening to her sons’ laughter, and curling up with a good book, some warm cats, and a faithful dog. She serves on the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program Committee of the State Bar of Texas.

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