Impulsivity at Work
Kathleen G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
In the context of ADD (ADHD), impulsivity is almost always
portrayed as a bad thing, a "symptom" that needs
to be eliminated, a sign of the disorder. While it's certainly
true that some impulses can cause enormous harm, both to yourself
and others, it's also true that some of ADD (ADHD) impulses
are right on target - good impulses that result from a flash
of creativity, humanity, or enthusiasm. The trick is to take
enough time between impulse and action to evaluate and engage
in creative problem-solving.
Let's take a look at some typical ADD (ADHD) impulses - some
good, some not so good - and consider ways to handle them.
"Take this job and shove it" is an impulse
that many people have experienced. But most people, upon evaluation,
don't take immediate action on it. The impulse to leave the
job may be a very healthy one, but the evaluation process
should involve a plan of action that doesn't hurt you or others
in the process. What does the evaluation process involve?
Ask yourself a series of questions:
What's driving this impulse?
Immediate frustration or long-term dissatisfaction?
Over-reaction due to a string of frustrations? Or realistic
response to unreasonable job demands?
Dislike of my immediate supervisor?
Inability to meet this particular job demand?
Untreated depression or anxiety?
Pre-menstrual intensification of feelings?
What's the best plan of action?
Talk the feeling over with a good friend or partner?
Evaluate the pluses as well as the minuses of the job
Consider changes on the job - change of supervisor,
change of job responsibilities, help with current project?
Getting more effective treatment for depression or anxiety
Waiting a week or two to see if your feelings are still
Working with an ADD (ADHD) career counselor to think
about other, better alternatives?
When should I take action?
Your plan of action might include several of the options
listed above. If your final action is to resign from your
position, get help to consider the best timing for this action
as well as the best way to effect the action.
Talk to your supervisor about job dissatisfaction while
expressing responsible concern for the needs of your employer
- working to create a win/win situation - you leave with a
strong letter of recommendation and they have the opportunity
to find a replacement for you that doesn't put current workplace
needs in crisis.
"Sure, I'll be glad to help." We can get
ourselves in trouble with the best of intentions! Remember
the paving on that "road to hell"? That doesn't
mean that we should squelch those good impulses - we simply
need to go through the same process of evaluation before
Caring responses need to take care of everyone
involved. For example, a co-worker might tell you that
their parent has become suddenly ill in a distant city and
they need your help - perhaps to complete some work that has
been assigned to them, or perhaps to fill in for them at work
during a time that you had planned to take vacation days.
Your immediate impulse may be to say "of course,"
however, without stepping back to evaluate, your kindness
may be accompanied by unintended pain. What about your family?
What about your promise to your spouse to take time off? What
about the activity you'd planned to share with your child
during that time?
Take time to think about the effect your impulse will have
on everyone involved. Usually, the best way to evaluate is
through talking with the "significant others" who
will be impacted by your decision.
"Hey, why don't we...?" ADDers can often
be a driving force on the job if they have interest and enthusiasm
for their work. They may be a font of creative ideas during
a brain-storming session. They may often think of possibilities
and connections that their non-ADD colleagues miss. These
creative impulses can be one of the great ADD (ADHD) strengths
in the workplace as long as they are tempered through that
middle step of evaluation before action.
Sometimes a string of enthusiastic impulses can work out
for the best. Pat Quinn and I engaged in a runaway string
of enthusiastic ADD (ADHD) impulses when we set to work editing
our book, Understanding Women with AD/HD. We established
an initial outline for the book, but over and over, our impulses
got the best of us. As Pat or I met different people at conferences,
or read different articles related to gender issues, we continued
to think of topics that we'd omitted from our book. One thing
led to another and before we knew it, we had an incredible
expanding book on our hands. I was locked in front of my computer
day and night, writing and editing, having less and less time
for time with family and friends as I frantically worked to
complete the book. Finally, in August of 2001 the first draft
was completed - an 800-page gorilla we'd never intended to
I called Pat Quinn to announce this unwieldy page count.
She responded with a groan, "We can't publish an 800-page
book - no one would read it, and we couldn't charge enough
for it to afford to print it!" What to do? Thank goodness,
another creative ADD impulse followed! "Let's divide
it into two 400 page books!" I responded. And thus were
born, with little planning or forethought, Understanding
Women with AD/HD and Gender Issues and AD/HD. A
happy ending - and an illustration of the bright side of ADD
Whether on the job or elsewhere in our lives, our goal isn't
to stamp out all impulsivity! It's not just a "symptom"
- it can also be an asset - if we learn to harness it by adding
a touch of creative problem-solving to the mix.
Resources for adults with ADD (ADHD):
ADD in the
Workplace by Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D. contains more valuable
information about how to function well on the job for adults
with ADD (ADHD).