I am pathologically incapable of performing uninteresting tasks. And I hate myself for it.
First I should probably explain what ADHD really is. It is a deficiency of specific neurotransmitters in the brain. Or "malfunctioning" neurons which flush the neurotransmitters too early. Or both. This results in neurons not firing when they should. Disclaimer: this is my understanding, I am not a neuroscientist.
The primary consequence is that people with ADHD have little control over their ability to focus attention on tasks. Two common tricks that we use to focus are pressure (deadlines, something broken in production, etc) and being genuinely interested. Especially strong versions of these stimuli can push the ADHD person into a state of hyperfocus. In this state, the body can completely forget about sleep, food, and bathroom breaks while the person works or plays furiously. The counter-balance to that is when not stimulated, the ADHD brain cannot engage in planning or organizing tasks.
It is not about willpower
Everyone experiences lack of motivation sometimes. A non-ADHD person has to muster the willpower to do uninteresting tasks. For an ADHD person in this state, their brains are chemically preventing them from concentrating. So it is like piloting an airplane through a hurricane... willpower is not enough to get you through.
There are actually 2 other behavior areas affected by ADHD: impulsivity and hyperactivity (edit: and emotional dysregulation, but this is harder to quantify scientifically). And there is a spectrum of severity.
Certain (now rare) occupations or lifestyles are well-suited to the differences in thinking of an ADHD person. So in those cases it may be a benefit rather than a problem. In the more sedentary modern life that most of us live, ADHD makes things quite difficult but is highly treatable with medicine and/or therapy.
For me personally, hyperactivity and impulsivity are milder. Those are usually the things that cause frustrated parents to have their child examined. And so I went undiagnosed for the first 41 years of my life. Instead I came to understand myself as a lazy and undependable jerk, whom I loathed.
However, I did not make it through 20 years as a software developer by getting nothing done. With a lot of struggle, I organically adapted to my limitations.
Some people can trick themselves into getting things done by setting fake deadlines. This unfortunately has no effect for me. Even when other people give me deadlines, when I can tell they are arbitrary (which they usually are), they provide no stimulation for me. What does work along these lines is when immediate help is required (production issue, mentoring, etc).
Aside from emergent situations, the only thing that keeps me on task is being interested in the subject matter. And I only stay interested while there is a mystery left to solve. Earlier in my career my code looked like it was written by many different people. Because in a larger app, I would switch between many different approaches before I finished it. Trying interesting new approaches was the only way I could focus on writing code.
As time went on, my interest went from tactics in the small to application organization and then whole system design (architecture). It is perhaps fitting that the area that came to interest me the most about software was the area where I struggle the most personally: how to organize things.
Eventually I became valued for my expertise. Because I had tried or researched a lot of things, and I remembered what did and did not work about them and why. And I could synthesize solutions that matched the problem constraints. Although introverted, I learned also to talk with customers to tease out those problem constraints.
I never cease to be interested in designing solutions. But the main problem is that most companies need someone to fill in code primarily and design solutions a relatively small percentage of the time. Even as a lead developer. And after 20 years, it has gotten very hard for me to find interesting things in coding.
Management would be another option, except that I have little tolerance for authoritarian structures (top-down management). The way I approach my teams is by providing information and guidance, but letting them decide. And I prefer to be approached in the same way. I find the prospect of enforcing the arbitrary and unexplained whims of those "above" me onto those "below" me to be an intolerable situation. So that rules out management in most companies.
I must periodically change jobs or I will probably get fired. Keeping up with the routine of an office job eventually becomes extremely challenging. When I first start a job, it is an exciting time and it is easy to keep up the routine. There is a lot to learn about the position, the company, the team dynamics, the subject matter, etc.
But eventually things start to get comfortable. And with all my heart I wish that meant I settled into a routine. But instead it means that there is no longer enough stimulation to engage me in the routine. I start coming in a few minutes late. Then it gets later and later. I don't miss scheduled meetings. But eventually I might come in afternoons or call in for a mental health day.
Some of this issue is sleep. I do not feel tired at night. If I try to go to bed my mind is still occupied or I am still locked on to an interest (research, video game, personal coding, etc.). I cannot transition to sleeping. Many times I go to bed anyway. Sometimes there is sleep, but often I will just lie in bed awake most of the night with my mind racing. I have typically found it best to just get up and do whatever is stuck in my mind to release it. Then I can sleep. But that means I stay up late.
Getting up in the morning isn't hard when I already have something on my mind or am looking forward to something. But on an average day, I lay in bed letting my mind wander until eventually it hits an interesting thought. And only then can I get up. And usually being late to something (pressure-induced focus) is required to finally get up. Days which I know have particularly uninteresting tasks, I keep thinking about them, but it provides pressure against getting up. On days when I call in, I have usually laid there in bed for a long time, unable to move. But as soon as I call in and no longer have to worry about it, I think of something that gets me out of bed. It could be as simple as a delightful cup of coffee.
When things start to get comfortable at work, the danger begins for me. I reckon this takes about 2 years. I will probably have started coming in late well before that as I got used to the office situation. But by 2 years I will probably have gotten comfortable with the code base. And I cannot focus to work on it anymore. Then I need to find another job to restart the process before I get fired.
I have actually stayed 5 or 6 years at a couple of jobs and never gotten fired. Miraculously in some cases. I think it is a combination of trying to change projects or positions within a company to reignite interest. And also when approached about my inability to follow routine I own it and try to figure out ways to adapt. They don't last but I try.
If I keep soldiering on and manage not to get fired but also not change the situation, I eventually become deeply unhappy. Depressed even.
None of this is even to mention the effects of ADHD on my personal life. I can probably count on one hand the things I do as consistent routines. Actually the only things I can think of are making the bed and making coffee when I get up (not necessarily in the morning). Pretty much everything else might stabilize for a week or two, but will eventually be in flux as to whether and when I do it.
I learned long ago that joining any groups that had routine activities was a recipe for disappointment. It is especially bad because I tend to go all-in at first. But then when it becomes routine, I cannot even show up anymore. This hurts everyone's feelings as they think I do not like them anymore or I got offended or whatever. And I didn't even know why myself.
As you might imagine, this has some detrimental effect on relationships. I am amazingly blessed with an angel of a wife who has put up with me for 13 years, not even knowing I had an illness. We have certainly had arguments about me not helping with chores or sleeping during the day or playing video games for 12 straight hours to the exclusion of all else. But we always kept trying with each other. As I write this I realize that I in no way deserve the grace that she or my children have given me.
I also feel an immense guilt for not being able to write code some days (or weeks). I feel that I am hurting my team and my company and my salary would be better spent on others. I feel that I deserve to be fired as a matter of fairness.
An outside observer might think it should have been obvious that something was wrong. And to a degree I have always known something was wrong, that some "normal" things seemed really hard for me. But I was led to believe from early age I was being lazy and selfish. And that is what I thought was wrong and told others was wrong with me. I didn't exactly behave like that, but sometimes it fit.
And it gets attributed to personality. For example, my wife showed me the Type 5 Enneagram, which is said to have limited energy so they are very careful about how they spend it. It seems to fit some of my behavior quite well, so people assume it is part of my personality.
What actually made me think that my problem might be an illness was a video called Devs and Depression that @ben posted in a comment several weeks ago. So glad Ben posted it and I saw it.
Right now I am in a waiting game. There seems to be more demand for mental health professionals than supply. Especially during this time where everyone is forced into new social patterns. I had to wait a few weeks for a therapist appointment. And am currently waiting another month to see a psychiatrist to get further testing and probably a prescription. Meanwhile I am languishing in the guilt and shame of what most employers would deem inexcusable negligence. An unfortunate but familiar companion to me.
Normally I would have already sought another job, for all our sakes. Except I love my company and my team, and we are on the verge of some growth. Growth that could provide me an opportunity to change roles to work that fits me better. And I could get medicine soon. Which might make things better. I don't even know what the world might be like if I am able to directly control what I can focus on. Or if I am far too practiced in my current approaches to be able to. I tear up when I think it possible that I could have a daily routine last for more than a couple of weeks. It seems too much to hope.
So here I am with seemingly everything on the line, waiting to see what situation resolves first. It is not the most comfortable state.
There is a strange phenomenon when someone discovers they have ADHD as an adult. After some initial joy there is a period of mourning. I wrote about mine here.
The reason I wrote this post was to share my experiences and raise awareness. ADHD is not a made-up thing or because parents are being too soft (opinions which I have held in the past). It is not in the person's control. It is a significant problem. It is easy to miss, and people with it are conditioned to hide their difficulties. People who have it end up with self-esteem problems because they are constantly expected to do things which are very hard or impossible for them but 90% of people seem to do with ease.
Consider that you never really know what is going on with a person's behavior. And they may not know either! If you feel safe doing so, lead with compassion and offer your support. Help them find out what's wrong. You could be a life-saver.