There’s soothing classical music playing in my office, but both of my dogs are being disruptive in their own special ways tonight. Toci has been doing her delightful little war scream at random intervals all evening because she believes there are raccoon invaders in the yard. (Possible, I’ll grant, but what does she actually propose to do about it? The average raccoon outweighs her by quite a bit, and she has, like, five teeth.) Tupac is just contentedly chewing a marrow bone and ignoring all the fuss, but that chomping sound can get a bit distracting after a while.
The dogs are definitely not the problem; they’re just where my focus gets most easily shunted off to when it slides off the invisible barrier surrounding my writing work. Writing a paragraph, even when I’m completely inspired, feels like lifting weights with my brain. This post has taken most of the day, and I keep getting into what feels like a little bit of a groove only to be pulled away by my body reminding me that food, drink, and bathroom breaks are all non-negotiable.
I’m pretty frustrated about my medication situation. I had something that kinda worked, but it started making me sick to the point that it didn’t matter if it helped or not, since I couldn’t focus through the nausea. My current psychiatrist doesn’t feel confident tweaking my prescription any more, so I’m being sent off to find someone new. In the meantime, I can use the drugs that make me feel ill, or I can do my best without meds. My best without meds is only marginally worse than my best with meds and nausea, so it’s a difficult trade-off.
I did a home sleep study a while ago, but have yet to actually review the results with a sleep doctor. I’m not really sure how helpful any answers there will be, but that could just be my general pessimism about medical stuff speaking. I’m open to being surprised, at least. I’m also tired, and sleeping ten or twelve hours a night doesn’t do as much to fix that as you’d think. It’s better than not sleeping, though, for sure. I’ve stopped pulling all-nighters and have been getting to bed much earlier than I used to. That means that even though I sleep longer than normal, I still have plenty of daytime to work with, and I think that alone helps a lot with my mood.
I’m taking steps to improve everything that’s slowing me down, and I’m still making progress. It’s hard not to be discouraged, but the progress is real, and I’m holding on to that as much as possible.
People who procrastinate tend to be overly optimistic about how long things will take. Its not that they don’t think about the time, it’s just that they tend to expect things to go well. I’m often late to appointments, because when I think about how long it takes to get to my psychiatrist’s office, I only remember the times when there was no traffic, the lights were all green, and I got there with a couple of minutes to spare after leaving late.
This kinda makes sense, because technically that is the most accurate example of how long it actually takes to drive there, but it still makes me late. Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to take that best-case scenario I came up with and tack on extra time for dealing with potential traffic, but that optimism also applies to my memories of how much the traffic could slow me down. I remember that one time I got stuck in traffic and was still only five minutes late, not the multiple times when I missed my appointment entirely due to a complete standstill on I5.
I think that the perfectionism that often comes with ADHD can be linked with this misplaced optimism when planning. When we look ahead, we often envision how everything should go, not how badly it might go. When we think about a project, we think of how it should turn out, and don’t leave ourselves much room for error, or even just for being human beings with human limitations. “Good enough” isn’t a thing that ADHD life primes us to celebrate, even though good enough on a consistent basis can be so much more powerful than occasional perfection.
When I think about doing a good job on a project, I envision perfection, not my personal best work, and certainly not my personal norm. My personal norm involves difficulty with focus, annoying nausea, rushing to finish things that I forgot, being extremely tired because of lack of sleep, and responsibilities to other people. It’s messy.
My personal best generally shows when I get lucky and none of these things wind up impeding me. Those days are my commutes without traffic. They’re the shining image of productivity that I hold up in my mind when forming expectations, optimistically believing I can duplicate that experience whenever I need to, even though many potential complications are actually out of my control. Life happens, and ADHD itself frequently makes the roads to success more trafficky. It causes accidents that can block progress for the rest of the day.
I believe that the excess of negative reinforcement that ADHD kids tend to receive contributes to this underlying belief that only perfect outcomes are worth considering. Our personal best sometimes looks a lot like the bare minimum to neurotypicals, which means we don’t get much praise for even our most extraordinary efforts. The people around us can’t always see that effort, and the results alone may not impress them. They only see that we didn’t do as well as they expected. Instead of praise for doing what we could, we frequently face nitpicking and corrections. This encourages a belief that only complete perfection will ever satisfy our parents, and later-on our partners and friends.
If our very best wasn’t good enough for others, why should it be good enough for us? Sure, we could say “screw them and their negativity” but that’s simply not how people work. We’re not designed to ignore that kind of conditioning, especially when we’re young, but even as adults. We’re likely to either give up, because we can’t do better than our best and our best wasn’t good enough, or to chase perfection till we fall apart. Often, we wind up swapping between those two, because perfectionism is exhausting, but you’re just not allowed to quit being human and become a cat.
Another aspect of this constant negative reinforcement is that we’re basically taught to ignore limitations like lack of sleep, trouble with focus, and other legitimate struggles. When we’re constantly being told that we’re lazy and just not trying hard enough, what we’re learning is that nothing is ever a reason to fail. When being tired, confused, uncomfortable, or unable to find vital materials is never accepted as a roadblock by the people around you, you learn to just not think about what might go wrong. Why should we, if it feels like there’s nothing we can do to stop having problems, and they’re not really acknowledged by the people judging us? It’s not a realistic way to engage with the world, but it’s a potential side-effect of perfectionism. We just don’t consider our own limits, because our limits have never been respected or acknowledged. Under those conditions, thinking about worst-case scenarios doesn’t feel like productive prep-work, it feels like a recipe for an anxiety attack.
A final example of all this in action: I wound up writing most of this post at 2am on Thursday and then finishing it Friday night, because I didn’t expect to need more than a couple of hours to wrap it up. That’s how long it usually takes me to edit a post when I have most of my thoughts on the page in advance, I’m very focused, and nothing pulls me away from the computer. It is not how long it actually takes me on average to finish a post, but my brain refuses to accept most of that imperfect data. It’s tainted by all those other factors. Even when I’m literally writing a post about this phenomenon, it still gets me.
Edited to add, because I got a bit carried away and forgot to actually articulate the tip: I guess the point here is really just to consider what might be affecting your expectations, and try to compensate for that with better context and more self-compassion. You’re not wrong for struggling, and the things that stop you are legitimate and worth considering. Both your best and your norm are good enough, and being able to live with those standards will take you much farther than perfection ever will.
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.
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 was sicker than I thought, but I’m finally getting over it. It was just an annoying flu-like virus, but it left me super tired, and that forced me to deal with the fact that I was also making myself super stressed out, which definitely wasn’t helping my immune system. (Seriously, I caught that damn thing and developed noticeable symptoms in like eight hours. Not great.)
I’ve never been able to do enough, in my life. I’ve always been functioning at way less than normal capacity, so I’m honestly kind of unable to think of myself as overworked, because the primary message I’ve always gotten is that I should be doing a lot more than I am. I never had a reason for the fact that I did less than other people, so it makes sense that I never learned to recognize my personal limits. They weren’t legitimate limits, they were just me not trying hard enough.
I’m still frustrated as all hell that I can’t magically leap from undiagnosed ADHD and years of totally unhelpful conditioning to being a medicated and functional professional, but I should probably acknowledge how impractical that expectation is. I should also probably be working harder to change the weird coping mechanisms I’ve developed, because they mostly suck.
In the past, being stressed was pretty much my way of showing that I cared. I felt guilty and anxious about not being able to do all the stuff I was supposed to do, and that seemed like a necessary form of penance. Like, if I was gonna be useless, the least I could do was feel bad about it, and then hopefully the people around me would see that I was trying. I also just figured that feeling bad enough about it might eventually motivate me to stop sucking at everything, but this was not the case, because that’s not how it works.
Basically, I spent a long time assuming that the problem with me was that I didn’t feel bad enough to change, or that I wasn’t throwing enough pure effort into things. I have been stressed and upset and anxious a lot over the years, but I’ve never been working too hard. I was just lazy. Working too hard is reserved for people who get results.
Being stressed has never made me consistently productive, but it was usually enough to boost me through those last-minute procrastination sessions where I’d finish something in one night that should have taken me weeks. That was the only way I could get any results at all. Unfortunately, now that I can actually do more on a regular basis, it’s also wearing me out more. Being in that guilt and adrenaline mode every day just doesn’t work.
It does, in fact, make everything much harder, and it also makes me catch every germ that so much as glances my way. So, I’ve been sleeping a lot this past week, and eating semi-regular meals, and not doing very much else. I’m gonna try again next week. I’m also going to try not to see being slightly more “legitimately” stressed as a sign that I’m finally doing something right, but I think that’s gonna take some time to shift.
A day may come when I’ll sleep like a person instead of a raccoon, but it is not this day. Nor was it any of the previous days this week. On the upside, I have toast. Toast is excellent. I also got to go to the park with the pups and the boyfriend on Sunday, which was super nice, so technically I’ve been outside and seen actual sun pretty recently.
I’ve been trying to make my bed every day, even when I haven’t exactly slept in it, and found that it does make a surprising difference in my general chill level. It’s comforting to have a spot in the house that’s always neat, and it makes it more inviting when I actually do convince myself to lie down. Plus, it feels good to have taken even a small constructive action early in the day.
I recently finished reading The Power of Habit, which said something about small wins and how they help build momentum. The idea is to warm up with small, manageable tasks that give a sense of accomplishment and progress to work from. I feel like if I can get better at that, it might help with the executive dysfunction issues, because part of the problem there is that I tend to constantly feel like I’m waiting for some condition that’s right for getting started, even though I know that there’s nothing to wait for.
Experience should have taught me by now that it helps immensely if I just stop waiting to start whatever big task has me stalled and do something less intimidating, like loading the dishes or feeding the snakes. Switching gears is often the only thing that’ll get me moving, no matter how hard I feel like I should be focusing on the more important or time consuming task. Forcing it can be extremely pointless when willpower simply is not the issue, and as a matter of practicality, I really need to admit that and stop allowing myself to stall out. It’s not a conscious decision, but there are conditions that make it worse, and they tend to coincide with the typical responsible-work-ethic suggestions I grew up with. The common wisdom says to focus on the hardest task first and offer yourself some sort of reward for later, but I’ve found that that particular strategy can actually freeze me in my tracks for an entire day. If I had just gotten the dishes done, or gone to the park, or even just enjoyed the bath or snack that I was planning as a reward, I might have unfrozen myself earlier. Relabeling a distraction as a small win can sometimes yank my brain out of ruts much more effectively than just trying harder.
In that spirit, I’ll also say that it’s nice to be scheduling this on time, and I’m gonna count that as a medium-sized win even though it’s not all that much of a post.