Writing While ADHD

I won’t lie. Writing while ADHD is a challenge! There are many benefits to ADHD, such as the ability to think quickly and generate galaxies of original ideas, as well as an enhanced capacity for hyperfocus and flow. It’s always good to remember that ADHD isn’t an “illness,” but rather a less common type of brain wiring. Still, ADHD can make the act of sitting down and putting words on the page trickier than it is for people with other types of brains. What I’ve learned from more than a decade of writing while ADHD is that we simply have to work with it, not against it.  

This post is divided into three segments that address specific ADHD concerns: the necessity of minimizing distractions, the efficacy of establishing a routine, and tricks for overcoming executive function disorder. All of this advice applies to people without ADHD, but it’s critical to those of us whose heads are buzzing with ideas yet who find it difficult to write.

Minimizing Distractions

Virginia Woolf famously established the necessity of a room of one’s own. Writing is a solitary activity, and it’s important to minimize distractions so you can hear yourself think. Unfortunately, avoiding distractions is difficult for many people with ADHD, and it can sometimes be necessary to take extra steps to create a comfortable work environment.

The easiest way to make a quiet space is to stay away from the internet. This is just as obvious as it is problematic, as it negates many of the tools used by other writers, such as Discord-based writing sprints, music channels on YouTube, and online countdown timers. This also means that you can’t do research as you’re writing, meaning that you’ll have to set up a system of annotations to return to later. Nevertheless, the internet is kryptonite for people with ADHD, and it’s best to limit access while you’re writing and editing.

In addition, it goes without saying that your phone should be nowhere near your hand. If you have pressing business or emails that need to be taken care of, promise yourself that you’ll handle it after you finish writing. Many people with ADHD are excellent multitaskers, but writing demands focus.

ADHD gives us intense powers of concentration once we’re able to focus on one task, so it’s important that this concentration isn’t misdirected. Because of our brain chemistry, people with ADHD tend to gravitate toward the most high-stimulation activities available, so we need to be extra careful to create a quiet physical and mental space free of distractions.

To summarize: Be kind to your ADHD brain by putting away your phone and staying off the internet while you’re writing.

Establishing a Routine

Many writing guides stress the importance of establishing a routine. Putting your butt in the chair can be difficult for everyone, but it’s especially difficult for people with ADHD, many of whom find it almost impossible to concentrate if we’re not feeling motivated. This is why it’s crucial for those of us with ADHD to put extra effort into training ourselves to get into an appropriate headspace to write.

Having a quiet environment free of distractions helps immensely, as does having a set time of day for writing. If you use medication, it’s helpful to sync your writing time to your medication schedule. It also helps to schedule your writing in accordance to the natural flow of your mood and energy. While some writers are capable of carving out small blocks of writing time during their daily schedules, this isn’t a feasible strategy for most people with ADHD. Instead of fitting writing into a pre-existing schedule, many of us have to rearrange our commitments to work and education in order to solidify a routine for writing.  

The process of establishing a routine tends to take longer for people with ADHD. Some days might be painful, especially at first. Because we can’t choose how our brains are going to function on any given day, it’s important to be patient and kind to ourselves in order to keep the routine going. If you can only write for twenty minutes during your designated time before getting distracted, consider it twenty minutes well spent. If you can only write for five minutes, that’s okay too. People with ADHD tend to be susceptible to burnout, so it’s important to give yourself time to adjust to a new routine and not to push yourself if you’re not feeling it.

The important thing is to stick to your routine, no matter what. It will take time – three or four months at minimum – but you’ll train your brain to appreciate the routine instead of resisting it. With practice, this routine will help you trigger your ADHD superpowers of concentration when you need them. Knowing with certainty that you’ll be able to access a state of flow is the key the what is perhaps the tallest hurdle for writers with ADHD: overcoming executive function disorder.

To summarize: While paying attention to the natural fluctuations of your focus and energy, set aside a specific time to write every day, and be kind to yourself if some sessions aren’t as productive as others.

Overcoming Executive Function Disorder

Let’s say you have a fantastic idea, and you can’t wait to start writing. You’ve written any number of stories or essays before, not to mention school assignments and social media posts. Even though you acknowledge that writing is work, it’s work you love doing…

…and yet somehow you just can’t bring yourself to do it. It’s like there’s an invisible force field around the project, and no amount of good intentions (or pressing deadlines) will help you get past it. You’ve settled into a writing routine, and you’ve minimized the distractions around your writing space, but you still can’t get started.

This is when it helps to be sneaky. You have to trick yourself into opening the document and putting your fingers on the keyboard. The easiest way to do this is to shift the goalposts of what you count as a successful writing session. Maybe you can’t write a page. So what? You can write a sentence instead. So what if you can’t write a sentence? You can write a short list of sentence fragments. It’s all good. If you can’t focus today, there’s always tomorrow.

Once you get started, you’ll usually end up tricking yourself into meeting your original goal, which is fantastic! Sometimes it’s just not working, and there’s no helping it. And that’s okay! You don’t have to play by the same rules as other writers. If you end up with just a sentence, you’re doing great. (True story: Some of my most successful publications were written at a pace of one sentence every day.)

Delayed gratification isn’t something that most people with ADHD are equipped to handle, so another useful trick to getting around executive function disorder is to treat yourself before you start writing, not as a promised reward. Go ahead and eat a piece of chocolate or drink a cup of fancy tea as soon as you sit down. Physical motion often helps ADHD people focus, and a pantheon of respected writers have said that they do their best work after taking a walk. The brains of people with ADHD aren’t wired to get serotonin from the expectation of a reward, so it helps to treat the opportunity to sit down and write as part of an integrated ritual of self-care.

To summarize: If you find it difficult to start working, shift your expectations of what you need to achieve – and maybe treat yourself before you start writing.

Again, most of this advice applies to almost everyone. Our brains operate along multiple spectrums of how we process the world, and ADHD doesn’t manifest in the same ways or the same degree for everyone. That being said, it’s important to remember that issues that may not be a concern for other writers may be a barrier to an ADHD writer. Creating a distraction-free space and establishing a set routine is extremely helpful to those of us writing while ADHD, as is learning how to treat writing as a reward to be enjoyed instead of a task to be completed.

This post is concerned with the broad strokes of general practice, but it would be interesting to hear the specifics of other writers’ experiences. What are your strategies for keeping your ideas and research organized? How do you stay on track with larger projects? While you’re in a period in when your brain isn’t cooperating and your writing progress is incremental, how do you deal with the anxiety of not being as productive as your peers? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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This post originally appeared on Get Your Words Out, a community of writers aiming to maintain healthy creative habits and writing productivity. Membership to the community opens at the beginning of the calendar year, and its content is limited to members who maintain their writing pledges, but the GYWO Twitter account is accessible to everyone and posts encouragement, prompts, and writing resources at a steady but manageable pace.

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