Tools & Tricks for Writers with ADHD

Howard Tayler, Writing Excuses Podcast:

“Word count equals motivation times focus.”

If it’s motivation and focus I need, I thought, no wonder my word count hasn’t budged in weeks.

This past summer, my son was diagnosed with ADHD. And the more I learned about ADHD—the more I unlearned what I thought I knew about ADHD—the more I understood my own brain’s struggles with trying hard things, getting started, and following projects through to the end.

It’s not laziness. It’s not a lack of intelligence. It’s not a matter of not knowing what to do.

It’s a gift (curiosity! humor! creativity! intelligence! fervor! ) … and a curse.

Watch This is What It’s Like to Have ADHD on Facebook

Whether hyperactive or inattentive (me) or combined (my son), ADHD can make writing long works difficult and make multiple rounds of revision feel impossible. But when people with ADHD get published, it’s because they fought for it with an unrivaled passion unimaginable by neurotypical writers.

If you have ADHD, hopefully some of these tricks can help you get those words on the page.

Much thanks to all the users on Twitter who sent in their tips and tricks, quoted below.

Got ideas not mentioned here? Please share in the comments!

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Understanding ADHD’s Hurdles for Writers

Both motivation and focus are difficult for brains with ADHD, thanks to executive functioning disorder. But ADHD also affects writers in other ways. It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to get started on the task because of ADHD’s connection to perfectionism and the fear of failure.

The stereotype of people with ADHD is that they are messy and disorganized because they’re too lazy or unmotivated to get organized. In reality, many people with ADHD are perfectionists. “I’m an all-or-nothing type of person.” “If I can’t do it perfectly, I’m not going to do it.” “I have organizational systems for my organizational systems. None of them work!”

First drafts are, by definition, not just imperfect but often hot steaming excrement. For a writer with ADHD to get through that step of writing is frankly a miracle that we should celebrate a whole lot more.

People with ADHD also often struggle with a debilitating fear of failure and rejection.

Nearly everyone with ADHD answers an emphatic yes to the question: “Have you always been more sensitive than others to rejection, teasing, criticism, or your own perception that you have failed or fallen short?” This is the definition of a condition called rejection-sensitive dysphoria.

…The term “dysphoria” means “difficult to bear,” and most people with ADHD report that they “can hardly stand it.” They are not wimps; disapproval hurts them much more than it hurts neurotypical people.

…[Some] find that the pain of failure is so bad that they refuse to try anything unless they are assured of a quick, easy, and complete success. Taking a chance is too big an emotional risk.
ADDitude Magazine,“The Fear of Failure Is Real — and Profound”

Rejection-sensitive dysphoria plays less of a role during the actual act of writing than the career aspects of writing. Recreational writers can write for fun. Professional writers have to submit their work to people who will have an opinion about it.

Knowing that RSD is an actual thing—with a name—can help writers with ADHD better prepare for and cope with rejection.

Knowing that perfectionism and RSD can prevent writers with ADHD from even getting started on a project will better equip them to overcome them.

Let’s look at other obstacles and how writers with ADHD have learned to hurdle them.

Removing Obstacles

The two most common obstacles to writing with ADHD are 1) the internet / apps and 2) distracting environments.

I touch type alone in the dark with my laptop lid closed (Bluetooth keyboard) so I have absolutely no other input that could distract me. I can get about 2 to 3 hours of focus like that before my brain hurts. Then I go back the next day and fix all the typos. —Jared Gray

I often write in my car at a park. It cuts me away from some of the distractions of the home. The Library also works really well. —Andrew Valorson

Implementing Tools

Because of the stigma surrounding mental health, many people are wary or judgmental of accommodations or medical treatment. And yet we don’t criticize someone for correcting their nearsightedness with glasses, or scoff at a person with asthma for using an inhaler. Many people with ADHD find relief through therapy, training, and medication. And oftentimes we find our own accommodations and tools to help us get things done.

Writing the old-fashioned way not only removes the distraction of the internet, but it also gives sensory input.

I do all my brainstorming with paper and ink, for the tactile aspect. Helps me work out plot tangles, too. —Joan Albright

Writing by hand. Like longhand. Pens. Notebooks. It’s still super hard to convince myself to *start* writing, but it reduces the distraction count to basically zero. And it keeps me from falling into the seductive trap of editing. —Ben Brainerd

I use an Alphasmart or Royal typewriter which takes the internet away. I also enjoy getting up and walking around while thinking things through with a dictaphone. —Alexander Keane

Making writing into a game or competition can increase interest by introducing a sense of urgency.

I set short timers, word wars with others (one of many reasons I write during nanowrimo time,) non-food bribery (new pen/notebook at 10k 4ex) —Karen T. Smith

I set a screensaver to activate after 60 seconds so if I get distracted it kicks in. —Ty Schalter

An ADHD brain craves stimulation. My non-medical stimulants of choice are chai and Hot Tamales cinnamon candy (one I discovered while trying to stay awake while reading my Western Civ textbook in college).

Music helps me focus. Energetic heavy metal or Orchestral stuff. But it’s what I write that matters. I have to be doing something tight in and sensory. It has to feel like I’m living what I’m writing. And Caffeine. Stimulants help with ADHD. Ritalin is a stimulant.
I also use tools like Habitica to show myself progress beyond wordcount and keep me accountable. Habitica is wonderful. The widgets are super handy. (At least on Android.)—Andrew Valorson

It takes time and lots of trial and error (under the supervision of a trained physician) to find a medication and dosage that works for ADHD, because every brain works differently. To be honest, I haven’t found anything that works for me yet without side effects I just can’t deal with. But my son started thriving on the very first stimulant we tried for him.

The most difficult and crucial part is getting proper treatment. I struggled undiagnosed for YEARS. Find what works for YOU. I’ve seen the timer (Pomodoro) method mentioned, which really helps me. Weirdly enough, writing in public (library, cafe) helps too, though it seems it would be distracting. I can’t sit still at home. Oh, and meds and coffee. —Elizabeth Perry

I know I said earlier that apps can be one of our greatest distractions, but certain apps can also be our greatest tools. Check the resources at the bottom of this post for recommendations.

Allowing Certain Distractions

I believe in accepting that my attention will be misplace and allowing controlled distractions. At my house, the distractions are never controlled because I have small, unpredictable children and am randomly reminded of chores.

At work, a controlled distraction might be having a Netflix show playing in the background while I’m working on nonverbal tasks.

At home, I might listen to an audiobook while doing chores.

When I’m writing, I’ll go to a coffee shop or library, where the comings-and-goings are expected. I can’t listen to stories or watch a show, obviously, but I do listen to a playlist that evokes the right mood. When I know what songs to expect, I can tune it out enough to focus on writing. But if I accidentally turn on shuffle, that control is gone, and I’m distracted when a song is played out of order.

I like playing music (without lyrics) to engage the part of my brain that likes to wander.—Joan Albright

Undoubtedly, inevitably, I still get distracted by ideas or my internal editor while writing, so I give myself permission to write annotations—otherwise I’ll be consumed by them for fear of forgetting them later. If I’m writing longhand, I leave about a one-inch margin on the edges for notes. If I’m typing, I mark notes with three slashes /// so I can find them later.

Harnessing Hyperfocus

Hyperfocus can be how and when you get the words down. I call myself a binge writer because I usually end up writing in big marathon sessions.
The other day when I was working from home, I got a great idea during a midday  shower. As soon as I got out, I wanted to write my ideas down. Before I knew it, it was two hours later, the sun was nearly set, and I hadn’t had lunch yet. Also I was still in my towel. I definitely did not clock eight hours of work that day.

Sometimes you can trick yourself into hyperfocusing by removing obstacles, gathering all of your tools ahead of time, and setting a timer. If you know that you’ll take a break once the timer’s done, you’ll be more likely to allow yourself to focus during “focus time.”

timer method. though, part of my problem is I have a hyperfocus problem and can write for 10 hours without moving/eating/anything which pisses my doctors off. —Jasmin Nyack

For physical, visual timers, I highly recommend the Time Timer, which was recommended to me by two different therapists my son was seeing as well as his summer camp director (who specializes in ADHD and child development). We have two of them, the classic and the magnet. The classic I bought from Lakeshore Learning; you can get it from Amazon, but if you do, please use smile.amazon.com to benefit the nonprofit of your choice. The magnet I had to order direct from Time Timer. Yeah, the price is kinda steep for a timer, but with half of my family with ADHD and half unable to tell time, a visual timer like these was desperately needed.

For virtual timers, see Forest and 30/30 in the resources below.

Resources

Technology

Here’s a list of apps and sites that might be worth looking into:

  • 750words.comFirst month free, paid membership following. Turn writing into a habit with this cloud-based writing software that tracks your progress and challenges you to write 750 words each session. If you can write during work breaks, use your work email and turn on daily email reminders. I set the notification to come before a peak writing time, and set the text color of the writing window to light gray so I’m less likely to read what I’ve written.
  • Cold Turkey WriterFree download. Pro version $30. This app doesn’t let you do anything else on your computer until you’ve written a set amount of words or for a set amount of time. It’s good for hyperfocus, but not good if you have to consult notes or change music. The pro version has some swanky advanced features.
  • FreedomFree trial. Monthly, Yearly, and Forever pricing. Freedom blocks the internet, social media, and apps across your devices. Sign up, and once or twice a year, they do 50% off the Forever pricing. I did this … but I keep forgetting to turn it on before working …
  • HabiticaFree with in-app purchases. Habitica is turns your life into an RPG by rewarding you for establishing good habits. I was introduced to it by Susan Dennard originally. It was too complicated for me, and I lost interest too quickly, but the interface is great, and with no price tag, it’s worth trying.
  • ForestFree with in-app purchases. It has abit of a learning curve, but this app goes beyond a simple timer and motivates you to keep working, both with little quotes and with a bush or tree that grows as long as you keep working. (Hint: The circle around the tree is how you increase/decrease time.) Having happy little trees on my screen did keep me from checking my phone for texts, Twitter, or Facebook for an hour. I think it would work well at work, too, if I remembered to turn it on, but keeping my phone in my bag is just easier.

Further Reading

 

Tools & Strategies for Writers with ADHD | LaraWillard.com

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