Skip to content
Home » ADHD and Avoiding Toxic Productivity with Jesse Anderson

ADHD and Avoiding Toxic Productivity with Jesse Anderson

I recently wrote about Avoiding Toxicity when it comes to developer productivity. I’ve also been doing some research into ADHD following a recent diagnosis in the family and therefore, I was interested to stumble across a video from Jesse Anderson, which explains how toxic productivity can arise from having ADHD. He also opens with the idea that there are three flaws in modelling the so-called neurotypical so-called productive behaviour. These are:

  1. Typically, work motivation is extrinsic rather than intrinsic (see Daniel Pink, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci). This means that rewards, fears or other external factors are used to motivate rather than more powerful intrinsic motivations such as empowerment through autonomy, purpose and mastery.
  2. Distractions in our productivity systems (or even the systems themselves)
  3. How these combine to produce a feeling that overwhelms those with ADHD.

The super-power ability to “hyper-focus” in ADHD could lead to behaviours where we end up buried in activities because we struggle to raise our heads out of work often enough. This could also become exacerbated when engineers are given the responsibility to manage their own workloads and schedules in an agile project. This could lead to behaviours where we end up buried in so-called productive activities for the sake of them, hence, toxic productivity.

It also got me thinking about how we address ADHD in the software world or, perhaps more relevantly, how ADHD approaches have shaped our modern software world. Although I’ve never been diagnosed, I can certainly relate to some of the symptoms of ADHD, and I wonder if I have some level of neurodiversity which could explain some of my reactions to situations at work in the past and present.

Personally, I identify with some of the inattentive symptoms of ADHD, including:

  • Lack of attention to details
  • Difficulty completing or staying on task
  • Trouble listening
  • Struggling to work with organisations of people
  • Starting and stopping jobs very easily

While I have, for the most part, learned to work around my limitations, I still find myself sometimes adrift in the middle of the project, or a sprint or even in the middle of a task. Therefore, I was fascinated to listen to this talk by Jesse and to hear about his theories for making work context more ADHD-friendly.

In particular, I love Jesse’s Four Cs of Motivation:

Captivate. Create. Compete. Complete.

Captivate: Make it interesting

Create: Make it creative or novel

Compete: Make it competitive or challenging

Complete: Make it urgent

As Jesse says:

“When your ADHD brain is struggling to work through the usual rules of decomposition when it comes to software projects, the Four Cs of Motivation can really help. Additionally, not focussing on decomposing an entire project into pieces of work, but perhaps just thinking about the first few steps and leaving it to evolve.”

This is certainly one way we can avoid just doing the work for the sake of it. By keeping it relevant to our attention and ensuring that we are focused on completion, we can keep our attention and, therefore, our intrinsic motivation high.

Acknowledging The Team Context

In order for this to work, though, we need to make sure that our work context – our managers and our team members – are aware that we need to work in a particular way. I’m interested in finding out more about how those with ADHD introduce the concept of it into their team setting. Do you recognise the hyper-focus which enables you to work in long bursts and how does this relate to the work you do alongside your more neurotypical (or just different) team members?

No matter if you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD or not, I would advise watching Jesse’s video to understand how productivity sometimes is just ‘for the sake of it’.

Acknowledging that “we’re all different” is perhaps another way of saying “we all think and behave slightly differently”. Understaing this could make a big difference in how teams manage tasks, stories, sprints, projects and each other.

No matter our level of neurodiversity, I believe it’s important to take some time to look around us and see how the way we work as individuals influences the overall team dynamic.