Unmedicated ADHD here.
It’s absolutely true that, as individuals with ADHD, we’re motivated primarily by novelty and high-stimulus activity. This makes it difficult to stick with a long-term project like writing a book. Depending on your style, writing can become a grueling task before you’ve even started on the first draft. There is so much behind-the-scenes work to telling a story; much of it can be tedious and daunting. I drift in and out of periods of hyperfocus for writing. It’ll be all I do for a month, then I’ll put it down for a day after hitting a roadblock. Next thing I know, it’s been several months since I last opened Scrivener.
What we need in our lives to accomplish those things we want to do, but are held back from by our executive dysfunction, is structure. We do not thrive personally in chaos, though often we excel at putting things to rights. Much more than the typical person, we need order and predictability in our daily lives.
The reason is two-fold; one, because it creates a framework to harness our great reserves of mental energy. Two, because so many folks with ADHD have a disinclination toward hard, long-term activities. Things that can’t be done in a day’s work.
Especially among those of us who were diagnosed later in life, there’s a deeply-rooted aversion to failure. A couple decades of accumulated failure nudges us to avoid doing hard things, and to turn our attention toward something fun and easy, instead. That’s why I think it’s so important to create a routine and set step-by-step goals: you have to give yourself a regular, distraction-free time to write, and use a measuring stick that shows you daily progress.
The other side of the coin is the use of our natural motivators to our advantage. We must feed our passions, or we may forget why we like writing at all. We must make writing a novel, high-stimulus activity where we can, and incentivize ourselves with rewards for good progress.
So, actionable items. These are things I practice or intend to try, and you may find some of them useful:
- Use a day planner of some sort. I’m having the most success with a 30-day dry erase board, where I can write my highest-priority tasks on the side and assign a few tasks for each day.
- Schedule writing sessions, and attach achievable goals to those sessions. I will write 1,000 words; I will write one scene; I will spend 30 minutes outlining. This kind of scheduling works best for me if I simply allow myself to have it done by the end of the day, instead of putting down specific times where I must perform.
Aim low, not high. Your discipline is a muscle. Build it over time, and don’t ask more of yourself than know you can give. Lower your goals if you’re not meeting them, raise them if they become trivial. If you have any desire to keep going after you’ve hit that goal, you’ll do so naturally, because you’re having fun. If you don’t, well, you already have the next writing session scheduled.
- Cultivate writing as a habit. If you approach it as something you intend to do every day, even if it’s only for five minutes, you’ll develop a groove in your routine. Making time for writing will come naturally.
- Consider setting a reminder for your writing time. It’s very easy for us to get lost in whatever activity we’re involved with at the time, and it helps to have a nudge to break out of that flow state.
- Designate a physical space for writing. I focus best when I get out of my room and take my laptop to the kitchen table.
- Set the scene. Having the light just so, listening to music, lighting a scented candle; engaging the senses and making yourself comfortable really helps, and establishing a “ritual” you go through before writing may help set your focus.
- Reward yourself just for sitting down. I typically have a cup of tea or coffee, and that makes me look forward to starting my writing sessions.
- Put novel, high-stimulus things and activities behind writing goals (and just making a consistent effort). People do this with physical fitness all the time and it really works. I can watch an episode of this show after writing; I can treat myself to a meal once I hit this goal; I can get deep in a game after my session, or as a reward for last session.
- If you’re working on a hard, long-term project, take time now and again to make something entirely for the joy of it: write something you can complete in one sitting, write some smut or fanfiction if that’s your bag, write the little vignettes kicking about in your head. This helps me keep the joy of writing at the forefront of my mind.
- Folks who aren’t medicated for their ADHD: You may find caffeine to be a decent substitution. The right dose may help you focus and gain some executive function (too low and the effect is negligible, too high and you may swing into hyperactivity.)
I learned many of these techniques from my psychologist. For us, they’re tools to use on the daily obstacles of life in spite of our executive dysfunction, but I think they can be useful to anyone.