My desk is almost finished. We’ve been working on it for over a month, and moving along pretty steadily. A lot of elements have come together to make it work out well, and that’s making it easier to examine why most long-term projects have gone poorly for me in the past.
My efforts have always been characterized by a couple of bursts of intense interest, followed by long periods of no progress at all. If I can’t do something in one contiguous day and night, my odds of ever finishing drop dramatically. If I have to put something down, I know I won’t be able to count on having the same interest and focus the next day, much less a week later, so I feel this intense pressure to finish things all in one go. The more I care about the project, the more anxiety and disappointment I’m likely to feel about the idea of stopping work on it, and that’s not just because I’m impatient. I genuinely have good reason to worry that it won’t happen. It’s like being a little kid who’s been disappointed too many times by an absentminded parent and no longer trusts their promises, except I’m also the parent who keeps letting them down. (Fun!)
There’s also this element of general disconnection from time that seems to be common among ADHD people, and which makes long-term projects difficult. Planning to do something in the future doesn’t give me much satisfaction or security, because it feels incredibly unreal to me. Other ADHD people have told me that time can feel very unreal and difficult to track for them. Some are fairly aware of the passage of time over a day, but have trouble remembering if an event happened last week or last year. Some people have more trouble tracking time during the day, like me, but tend to tag long-term memories with timestamps a little more accurately. Regardless of how it manifests, the struggle with time is real for a lot of ADHD people.
This pretty naturally extends to the future as well, making it difficult to wait for fun things and hang on to motivation. Planning is just a whole mess, in general. Being disconnected from time can mean that mental preparation for a task doesn’t just happen the way it should, so it’s jarring when the time arrives, and that makes it harder to start up again. Stuff is either going to happen way out in the future, or it’s happening now. I’ve got plenty of time, or I’m about to be late.
It’s like having no depth perception, and watching something in the distance moving straight toward me. I know it’s out there, and that it’s probably coming here, but it’s still a shock when it suddenly arrives. It was out there in the hazy distance, and then it was close enough to touch. That’s probably not how depth perception actually works, but it’s the only comparison I could think of to express how weird it feels to know something is coming up, but to still not experience that approach in a functional way.
So, I sat down to write this post yesterday (Thursday,) but I checked my Facebook page first. I’ve been trying to help boost a friend’s gofundme page, but increasing the visibility of that post means that a very mixed bag of people see it, and some of them feel the need to leave incredibly rude and heartless comments. They’re completely normal people who could easily be your friends, family members, or fellow church-goers, but they basically revel in the pain of another person as long as that person is someone they feel free to target.
To be clear: If you go out of your way to make an immigrant feel unwelcome and unsafe in this country, you’re an asshole. The saddest part is that only one person has felt moved to leave a purely supportive comment, but I’ve deleted quite a few cruel and confrontational ones. This is all too normal.
I wasn’t feeling awesome, after reading those comments, and I wasn’t really sure what to say about it. These aren’t people who care to change. They’re generally extremely confident in their right to hurt others. They rarely face any consequences, social or otherwise, for their cruelty. Rida, on the other hand, is made unsafe by these attitudes. She lives with the consequences of this casual racism and xenophobia, and she’s still someone who devotes her time and energy to helping others. If you are able to offer her any support, either financially, by sharing her gofundme page, or just with some kind words to balance out the harsh ones, that would be greatly appreciated.
In other news, I’m finally going to do an actual sleep study, so maybe I’ll eventually start feeling rested in the morning. That’d be nice.
Man, I am really struggling to write this post. It’s not that I’m thinking about a difficult topic, it’s just that I don’t really have anything coherent on my mind. There’s plenty of stuff floating around up there, but none of it seems to be coalescing in a timely fashion. I’ve started a couple of drafts on different topics, but I’m not ready to share those ones yet.
I did go for a really nice walk around the neighborhood this evening, partly in hope of kicking my brain into gear. It helped a bit, I think. There’s a pretty little park a few blocks up from me with a really great view, and the pups and I wandered around in it for a while.
I’m working on weaning myself off using my phone to fall asleep, which is difficult, and a bit scary, because I’ve really relied on audiobooks to help me sleep for a long time. It was what I needed around the time when I started, but I think it’s become more of a distraction than a help as my general mental health has improved. Plus, I hate getting tangled in my earbud cord when I roll over. It’s so annoying.
Keeping myself occupied was a good strategy when I couldn’t generally control or predict my mental state, but I really want to get comfortable in my own head again. If for no other reason than to boost my general creativity. Taking inspiration and learning from other people’s work is awesome, but it can be hard to create your own things when you’re constantly exposed to the creations of others.
I’ve been feeling kinda crummy this past week, but I’m trying to focus on the progress I’ve made over the past few years. It’s still much easier to be generally productive than it was a year ago, and much better than a couple years ago. Like, holy crap levels of better. A not insignificant example: I haven’t missed a blog update at all this year. A few have been late, and they don’t all have much content, but I’ve managed to put one out every week, which would’ve been impossible for me to believe not too long ago.
My husband has been helping me with a fun DIY project to make my office more functional. My beat-up old desk is getting a huge overhaul, which isn’t quite finished yet. It’s useable again, though, which is the important bit. Waiting for paint and varnish to dry is hard, especially when it rains on a night that looked perfectly clear, which gets the varnish all wet again so that it takes even longer. It just needs one drawer fixed now, and some new handles and things to match the new colors. It’s all pretty now, and I like it.
I also made it to the local Sunday market with the boyfriend and found a super cool preserved salamander at the vintage store. Gotta have my weird curiosities, otherwise I won’t make the writerly strangeness quota this month and there could be dire consequences.
A lot of people say that writer’s block doesn’t exist. I’ve heard it compared to having doctor’s block, or plumber’s block. Obviously, people in other professions get stuck, and frustrated, and aren’t always feeling it, but they don’t get to claim they’re simply incapable of working because of some mysterious force. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t be encouraged to sit around for a while and wait for the inspiration to return.
Writer’s block is pretty much a catch-all term for a handful of common creative problems, and refusing to name those problems doesn’t generally help anyone. I get stuck a lot, but there’s always a reason. It’s not that the words have abandoned me, it’s often that I legit can’t picture what I meant to do next, so my brain is refusing to move forward. If I identify that internal resistance and work out a plan of attack, I can often move past it. If I just called it writer’s block, I might be more inclined to wait it out, which in that particular case would be the exact wrong move. The plan won’t get any clearer if I stop working entirely, only if I shift my focus to where the actual issue is.
It gets more complicated, though. There is always a reason when I get stuck, but sometimes that reason actually is a mysterious force that grips me and refuses to let me work. I know, I know. That sounds a lot like writer’s block. Bear with me, because it’s really not.
Most creative advice assumes that the audience is neurotypical, and that’s pretty unrealistic, especially given the high percentage of artists and writers who struggle with mental illness and/or have neurodivergent conditions like autism or ADHD. Conventional wisdom assumes that everyone is working with, more or less, the same mental and physical toolset, which just isn’t the case. There is a weird and unpredictable force that strikes some people, but it isn’t the fault of any muse (probably.) It’s called executive dysfunction, and it sucks hard.
Executive dysfunction is like a glitch in the brain’s programming. It’s that feeling when you click on an icon, and you can see it acknowledge that you clicked it, but nothing happens. So, you click it again, and nothing happens. This happens twenty more times, and then you have to stop before you throw the phone at the nearest wall, because it is infuriating. You had the thought, tried to initiate the process, but nothing happened. No error message pops up to tell you what’s wrong. It just. Won’t. Do.
This is not the same as procrastination. Stalling and procrastination are behaviors that a person can generally control, even if it’s hard. They’re not always conscious choices, but they’re avoidance habits, not an actual inability. It’s the difference between “I really really don’t want to do my homework, so I’m doing the dishes and watching this episode of Friends for the fiftieth time” and “I physically can’t seem to reach over and open my laptop, even though I’ve just been sitting on the couch and scrolling through Facebook on my phone for two hours hating every moment of it because I desperately want to be getting my work done. Now I’m hungry, but I still can’t move or take my eyes off the screen. Send help.”
There isn’t an easy solution to executive dysfunction, but some of the advice for dealing with writer’s block can help a little:
“Switch environments.” Go to a friend’s house, or work in a coffee shop, or just go for a walk and then come back to it. Light a pretty candle or put on music. Changing something around you can sometimes help break through the mental barrier.
“Set yourself up to succeed.” Make your office or work-station a comfy place to be. Make sure your computer is always charged. Stick a water bottle and a granola bar near your work area, so you have them in case you’re having trouble switching tasks later. Tidy up your supplies when you’re done with them, and make sure there’s never anything physically stopping you from doing your most important tasks, because even one additional step between you and that work might be the thing that trips you up. Use the energy, when you have it, to be your own parent and take care of future you.
“Remove social media from your list of options.” This goes with the previous item, but it deserves its own section. Block Facebook, Youtube, or whatever other sites you tend to get sucked into on your computer, uninstall them from your phone, hide the icons, or just be really sure not to open them when you need to do something else, even for a second. Don’t sit down for a short break anywhere near the TV. Hide the remote. Whatever makes it harder to get trapped. It’s not a willpower problem. It’s not being weak. It’s taking care of yourself.
“Downgrade your expectations to lower the pressure.” It really doesn’t have to be good. You can’t edit a blank page, and any words that you write really are better than the ones you don’t. A practice sketch still represents valuable experience, even if it isn’t something you’ll want to show anyone.
“Review the steps in front of you.” Do you have a plan, or has the task become an amorphous blob of stress in your head? Have you written down each step you need to take, or at least gone through them in your mind? Can you break them down into more detail, or do some research about the process? Not being able to picture what’s next can trigger genuine dysfunction.
“Stop trying to do this thing, and see if it’s possible to do a different thing.” This sounds like procrastination, but it can be really good advice if you’re dealing with executive dysfunction. Can’t do the art, but you can maybe manage doing the dishes? Great! Can you feed yourself? Take a shower? Walk your dog? Write in your journal? How about a blog post? Try anything that will help you get out of the rut and into motion, because building up a little momentum is often at least half the battle. Executive dysfunction is mostly a starting problem, so see if you can sneak up on the task by going around it.
“Be patient, and wait it out.” Try not to be angry with yourself if you’re just stuck. Try to stay hydrated. As soon as the spell lifts, even if it’s right before bed, try to get a tiny bit of something done just so you can feel some sense of progress to combat the frustration, even if all you produce is a really crappy drawing of your cat, or a few sentences on a page. It’s still something. Try again tomorrow, but don’t stay up all night trying to catch up. Sleep deprivation makes everyone’s executive function worse, across the board. It snowballs.
Conventional advice you might want to avoid:
“Just do it.” Um, yeah. This generally won’t work if you’re dealing with executive dysfunction. That’s why it’s called dysfunction, not mild reluctance.
“Write/draw every day.” Maybe just modify this to write/draw/other creative pursuits every day you’re able. The idea is not to make yourself feel awful or burn yourself out, just to build up experience and skill as consistently as possible.
“Get an artistic buddy and keep each other accountable!” This can really backfire. It might work for you, but if you experience a lot of guilt and anxiety, do not let your relationship with this friend be poisoned by it. You don’t want to wind up avoiding the friend because you feel like you’ve let them down every time your brain isn’t working.
Encourage each other, absolutely, but accountability is for people who are procrastinating, not for people dealing with a disability or illness.
Here’s a suggestion that isn’t usually given for writer’s block: Seek help. Not just from a buddy, but from a professional. Mental health is physical health, and there are medications and therapies that may be able to help. If that glitchy brain is screwing up your life, get thee to a brain doctor.
Maybe this series should be titled Ideas for ADHD Creatives, not tips. Tips implies that I know what I’m talking about with a little more certainty than I actually feel, but here are my thoughts on habit and ADHD.
It sometimes seems to me that people with ADHD have a double curse. We tend to thrive when our environments are consistent, because it cuts down on distraction and reduces decision fatigue, but we are also easily bored and frustrated by sameness. We aren’t always able to build habits the same way neurotypical people do, and may even unconsciously rebel and mess up the habits that we do build when they become too constricting.
If you’re one of the ADHD folks who struggles to build habits at all, no matter how many times you do the same thing, you may find even the simplest repetitive tasks frustrating. I hate brushing my teeth, personally. It bores me. My impression is that for neurotypical people, toothbrushing is mostly an autopilot experience, but that’s not how it is for me. Every day, I have to make the choice and spend that willpower to get my teeth brushed, every time. The habit that is supposed to make it an automatic action doesn’t ever seem to kick in. This has left me feeling kind of like a failure, because I’ve heard all my life that good habits are all I lack to be a more productive person. (Gotta love that old “you’re too smart to be failing” speech.)
I’ve read The Power of Habit, and it was definitely a very interesting book that I’d recommend to anyone who finds the human brain fascinating, but my brain’s not really on board with the whole habit thing. ADHD folks have probably all been told at one point or another that they’re just being lazy because they won’t develop a consistent work ethic, and it sucks, because ADHD is not a mindset problem. It’s a fundamental difference in brain function, and many neurotypical people fail to grasp that concept. If your brain has never let you down in this way, it’s hard to understand that there’s a gap between your choices and your ability to execute them consistently. Brains are complicated machines, and they can break down in confusing ways, and thinking harder at the problem is not always, or even frequently, a solution.
So, why might routine or ritual potentially be more helpful than habit? They are pretty similar.
Well, for one thing, it takes a little bit of the emotional pressure off. If you can’t form the habits you want, or if your habits are unreliable and require more energy to maintain than you feel they should, it’s easy to get discouraged. A ritual or routine is something you do regularly, but they don’t carry the same expectation of some kind of internal change or impetus. I kinda like ritual right now, because it even carries a little bit of the connotation that it’s supposed to take some energy to complete. The ritual has value in itself, and you can feel good that you completed it without being frustrated that it didn’t happen automatically. The energy put into the task is part of the act.
A routine can be more mindless, though still lacking that expectation of increasing ease over time, but a ritual is supposed to be a bit of an event. Both can be really helpful.
People with ADHD are always going to have to work a little harder for their consistency, but it doesn’t have to be a massive drag. It’s okay to find ways to make consistency fun, or at least bearable. So, when you sit down to work, maybe light a candle. Do some breathing exercises that make you feel good. Make some tea, coffee, or fizzy juice. Put in headphones and turn on loud bouncy music, if that does it for you. Take a few minutes for mindfulness meditation or yoga. Have a shower and scrub off all your self-doubt before you go to the blank page, or take a bath with nice scents and focus on your muse. An act of self care, like toothbrushing, can at least become a little more tolerable when seen in that light, and not just as an annoying requirement. Treat yourself and your time like you’re special and important. (Or mystical, if that’s your thing. It’s not mine, but hey! You do you.)
Speaking of mysticism, I’d also like to point out that ritual can shift mindset very effectively, which is why it’s so integral to religion. The right ritual can take you from stressed to calm, or put you in a more focused headspace. Whether a reliable habit forms around it or not, it can still encourage your brain to respond to triggers that help you get ready for work, or for creative thinking, or whatever it is that you want to do next.
It’s possible that when you take the pressure off your ADHD brain to build habits, and instead lean into the intentionality of your regular actions, you might be able to build habits after all. If not, then you’re still taking care of yourself, and you’re still getting what you need to do done, it’s just maybe happening in a way that acknowledges your natural inclinations a little better.
The other nice thing about rituals and routines is that it’s okay to change them. It’s okay to add new things, and remove parts that don’t work for you anymore, and to choose new routes with prettier scenery. Habits are usually meant to be static and reliable, but neither of those is a major characteristic of ADHD functioning, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. All those life-hacks for preserving mental energy by having a wardrobe of nothing but grey hoodies and jeans, so you never have to choose an outfit in the morning, aren’t gonna work for everyone. It’s okay to keep things fresh. What matters is what you get out of those repetitive actions, so if you don’t get what you need out of a routine, feel free to change the way you go about it.
I went on an impromptu road trip to Vancouver Island this past week with my Grandmother and my aunt. I’ll probably talk about some of the details of that trip, and how it happened, another time. Here are some pictures that I took along the way.