“Just sit down and write.”
“It’s not about having time, it’s about making time.”
“If you really cared about writing, you’d do it.”
The problem with most writing advice is that it assumes what works for neurotypical writers will work for all writers.
But for writers with ADHD, these refrains only serve to make us feel worse.
Wanting to write but, inexplicably, not being able to, is like being trapped in a glass box where you can see the other side—can see other people doing it—but everywhere you turn you’re bumping into an invisible obstacle.
Once I started working with more writers like me—writers with ADHD—I began to realize that these invisible obstacles weren’t laziness or procrastination or lack of motivation.
They were part of the ADHD experience that most writers (and most writing coaches) don’t understand.
What follows are strategies I’ve used to help both myself and other ADHD writers make more consistent progress on a regular basis. Here are some simple steps you can take to create a writing schedule that works with your ADHD—instead of against it.
Understand executive dysfunction and hyperfocus
Executive dysfunction is an umbrella term for difficulties with the brain’s “command and control” functions, like planning, organization, self-control, etc.
One executive function that many ADHDers struggle with is the ability to initiate tasks or activities. In other words, we may really, really want to do something, but we can’t press the start button.
This can look a lot like procrastination, and people with ADHD often grow up being told that they’re lazy or unmotivated.
In writing, not being able to initiate a task (like drafting, or reading, or revising) can feel especially frustrating, and it’s easy to get down on ourselves. In reality, ADHD writers are facing a barrier that other writers may not struggle with to the same degree.
On the other hand, many people with ADHD also have the ability to focus intently on one subject or task for a really long time. Once we start, we won’t stop. This “hyperfocus” is a tool not everyone has, and it can be used to our advantage.
Taken together, ADHD’s executive-dysfunction-plus-hyperfocus means that getting writing done may not be a matter of preventing distraction, but a matter of overcoming executive dysfunction and triggering hyperfocus. Some call this “getting in the zone.”
What makes writing feel satisfying?
The difficulty initiating tasks is why the question of “feeling motivated” may be rather irrelevant for many ADHD writers.
We’re often told, “if you really cared about it, you’d make time for it.” This is far more damaging than helpful.
We don’t need to “get motivated”—we need infrastructure in place to help us move from executive dysfunction to hyperfocus.
Instead of asking “what motivates me to write,” ask yourself, “what makes writing feel satisfying to me?”
For example, you might feel satisfied when you craft a particularly juicy phrase, or when you get to sit in the warm sun and scribble in your favorite notebook, or when you hear a friend praise your work.
Use this to think about what routines, rituals, or structures you can lean on to make “the zone” easier to get into.
For me, I feel satisfied when I finish a piece, section, or chapter. Since “finishing” in writing is a bit of an unstable term (when is a piece really finished, anyway?) I find that having small, actionable tasks on a to-do list helps me initiate the writing task because I know what I’m supposed to “finish.”
Trial and error: learn what works and what doesn’t
It can take time to figure out your writing practice. This is a reality universal to all writers, not just writers with ADHD.
This may mean a period of trial and error. Do you write best in the morning? In the afternoon? Do you write best with music on in the background? Do you write best in silence or with white noise? Etc.
For the ADHD writer, this is also about figuring what helps you trigger hyperfocus and initiate writing (and what doesn’t).
For some, the structure of a rigid, regular schedule makes this easier. For others, it’s more useful to set up a ritual that can be implemented based on more flexible cues.
While ADHD is certainly more complex than—squirrel!—feeling distracted, distractions can still be an issue for ADHD writers.
Recognizing and anticipating possible distractions can help us manage them when they come up.
Decide what distractions you’ll allow before you start writing. For example, are you going to work on one piece, or are you going to allow yourself to jump between projects if you feel like it?
For distractions you’ve decided you won’t allow, set up your writing space accordingly.
Do you get easily distracted by phone notifications? Maybe set your phone to do-not-disturb. Do you find yourself going into deep research dives when you don’t need to? Maybe disable your wifi for an hour.
For more tips on writing while distracted, check out my blog post on turning distraction into productive writing.
Get others involved
ADHDers work great under pressure. Many of us work especially well under deadlines.
The problem is, it can be difficult to stick to the deadlines we set for ourselves.
The good news? There are a lot of ways to set external deadlines even when you’re not working directly with a publisher.
Tell a friend your deadline (or have them set one for you!) and have them hold you accountable. Join a writing group or workshop in which you share your work at regular intervals. Set up a writing date (even a virtual one) with another writer so you can write together.
Be gentle with yourself
Cultivating a writing practice is a process—you probably won’t nail it the first go. Things may not go as planned, and that’s okay.
The key is to be kind to yourself.
As ADHDers, we’re so used to hearing that we’re not trying hard enough, or that we’re not doing everything we can. We don’t need our inner voice yelling at us when we mess up.
And if you’re having troubles shifting that voice, listen to mine:
Remember that even if you struggle, even if you haven’t written for months—you’re still a writer, and your journey is valid.
Most of all, remember that you’re not alone.
For those participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this month, I have a special group set up on NaNoWriMo.org. Space in this group is limited—please email me if you would like to join us.