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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.

Impulse Evaluation Action

Let's take a look at some typical ADD (ADHD) impulses - some good, some not so good - and consider ways to handle them.

Angry Impulses

"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 before acting?

  • Consider changes on the job - change of supervisor, change of job responsibilities, help with current project?

  • Getting more effective treatment for depression or anxiety before deciding?

  • Waiting a week or two to see if your feelings are still as negative?

  • 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.

Empathetic Impulses

"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 action.

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.

Enthusiastic impulses

"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 create!

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 impulsivity.

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).


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