I’ve been struggling with some mounting anxiety about writing choices lately. I tend to get into worry spirals about my plot decisions and characters and how different people I know, and lots of people I don’t know, might react to them. Sometimes I can cope with creative anxiety by emotionally pulling back from my work, especially when processing professional feedback, but I think I’ve actually done that too much. I’ve kind of lost track of my affection for Orane and my emotional involvement in her journey. Some distance is definitely good, because a writer who is afraid to make bad things happen to their good people is generally not going to tell a very compelling story.
On the other hand, though, staying that emotionally detached from the story has left me much more subject to the pressure of other people’s opinions. I can’t really feel comfortable with any of my choices because I’m not trusting my own judgement and creative intuition anymore. There’s no point writing a book entirely driven by what I think other people might think. There’s nothing wrong with writing to a particular market, but that’s not my goal at the moment and it’s definitely not what I’ve been doing. I’ve just been scared of judgement. My instinct is to escape the judgement by not writing anything anyone could possibly judge, but that really means not writing anything at all.
That anxiety reached an unpleasant peak this week, where I couldn’t even think about my work without my head just filling up with a whirlpool of worries. I literally can’t function under that much external influence, since every single thing will ultimately be judged negatively by some people and positively by others. There’s no way to please everyone, so for now I’m trying to focus inward and reconnect with my own judgement and creative preferences.
And I’m still mostly fine, strangely enough. I was kind of snowed/iced in on the hill by myself for most of the weekend, but it wasn’t too bad. I kept warm, cuddled my dogs, and focused on writing and other indoor projects. I am getting a little sick of being cooped up, though, and there’s another cold front heading for us, so that might be a little frustrating. I’m just gonna try to make the most of it.
I have gotten outside a little bit for walks the last couple days, but I’m thinking I need to find a treadmill for our basement, because I don’t want to let the weather make me quit that routine and I really am a complete wimp about the cold. My nose and hands start to hurt after about a minute of being out there right now, but I am determined to keep up the activity as much as I can because it helps so much with my focus and mood. Some days that means just chasing the dogs around the house and running up and down the stairs, but whatever works.
I’ve recently come back to meditation. It has helped me immensely in the past, but I tend to forget about it when I’m feeling good and I get more active. Over the summer, I get outside more often and the sun makes me feel better in general. In the winter, I start to get foggy, tired, and more easily depressed and anxious. I start to struggle more with repetitive and upsetting thoughts, and tend to spiral into feeling angry or depressed about things in the past. All of that hurts my overall mood and ability to be productive, and all of that is exactly the kind of stuff that meditation, even just a few minutes of meditation a day, can help to reduce.
If you enjoy the works of Sir Terry Pratchett, especially his Tiffany Aching books, then you’re already familiar with mindfulness under another name. He called it second thoughts: The thoughts you think about your first (reflexive and automatic) thoughts. Having these self-regulating thoughts is one of the signs of a witch in his stories.
Meditation in its simplest form just helps you learn to hear yourself think, and strengthens your ability to be objective about your impulses and feelings. Instead of being angry because I remembered that thing my ex did that one time, I get to think “I’m feeling angry” from a slight distance, and then have the option to watch that feeling move through my mind and body without being carried away by it. It doesn’t necessarily make it more fun to feel angry, but it means that instead of being taken over by it, I can watch it move across the clear sky of my mind like a cloud bank (or a tornado, as the case may be.) It’s darker for a while, and it might bring unpleasant things like rain and wind, but it doesn’t control me and it isn’t endless. It doesn’t always work that neatly, of course, but I’m slowly getting better at catching myself before I get swept away.
If the idea of meditation itself leaves a bad taste in your mouth for any reason, then there may be alternatives that can help you practice those same skills without stressing yourself out. The benefits of mindfulness don’t come from sitting still, or from somehow magically resisting boredom, they come from increased awareness of the moment you’re in and of the way you’re thinking.
My favorite alternative practice: Do you have a pet? Specifically, do you have any animals in your life that you like to spend time with? Animals are pretty much permanently locked in the present moment. Yes, many of them have some limited ability to plan, and they certainly have memories, both good and bad, but they’re still mostly focused on the here and now. How else would they know when it’s time to wake up from a dead sleep and shout at the evil invading raccoons? That kind of presence in the current moment is a big part of what people try to achieve with meditation, and the cool part is that we can kind of piggyback onto an animal’s peace of mind just by being with them. Do you ever just chill out and watch your cat stare out the window at birds? For that period of time, you’re grounded. Your mind will naturally wander, but every time the cat twitches her tail or chitters her teeth, you’re drawn right back to the current moment. Notice what drew you away and then admire your kitten’s finely honed killer instinct, and that’s basically all the vital bits of mindfulness meditation.
Living closely with an animal comes with great health benefits for humans, benefits that already overlap a lot with the physical and mental health benefits of meditation. Any animals you hang out with (or garden patch you’re weeding, or landscape you hike through, or kiddo playing with legos, or maybe even a puzzle game on your phone if you need technology involved) can help keep you grounded while you practice.
If you have ADHD, your mind already works against you when it comes to focusing on something repetitive. That’s exactly why meditation can be so helpful for us, if we can manage it. It’s like strengthening a weak limb by exercising it, but if you can’t stay engaged with the practice in the first place, then the limb never gets strong enough to make the process easier. Picking something that sparks interest but is still soothing, like stroking a dog’s fur (or in my little dog’s case, soft skin and fuzzy pajamas) can keep an ADHD brain present when counting breaths would just get annoying.
The point isn’t to never let your mind wander away from your calming activity – in fact, if your mind never wanders then you’re not really getting the benefits of meditation. Meditation benefits us when we catch our minds wandering, note the type of thought or feeling that took us away, and go back to tracking the rhythm of our breath, or the cute snoring of the animal under our hands. Even if you immediately get distracted again by worrying about their vet bills, that’s just another chance to come back to the process. It helps that they’ll inevitably stretch or yawn or purr in their sleep, which drags you back and gives you extra chances to notice that your mind has wandered and where it went.
Bonus: The idea is to notice your own thoughts in a non-critical way, so try to think of your mind the way you think about your pet’s natural behavior. Getting distracted by something flashy and wandering off to investigate is just their nature, and it’s ours as well. Our minds are designed that way, especially the minds of ADHD folks. It used to be highly advantageous to be able to plan and dream up new solutions to old problems, all while keeping watch for a lion in the brush, grinding grain or weaving with our hands, and listening for a child or a neighbor in trouble. It’s definitely not always as helpful to us now, but our minds are simply always going to wander to the past and future (when we’re not hyper-focused, anyway, which is a different ADHD strength that comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks.)
The final great thing about this kind of mindfulness practice is that it can even be done when you’re being physically active. Walking your dog? Walking meditation. Playing with your cat and a string? Still counts. I adore watching my dogs eat their meals, because they’re so happy and enthusiastic about it, so I always spend that couple of minutes twice a day holding their bowls for them and just enjoying their single-minded pleasure. As long as you’re being intentional about an activity, and you can notice your own thoughts as they happen, you can get the benefits of meditation. Even just five minutes of practice every day, or just once or twice a week, is basically guaranteed to provide some good for your brain and your life. Even if you don’t notice a difference, there’s pretty much no downside to taking a few spare minutes to enjoy a simple pleasure and practice being understanding with yourself.
The Headspace app is really handy, and can be used for free. They also have a subscription system that gets you access to more features. The app lets you set reminders for meditation, it offers little tips at customizable intervals, and offers guided meditations of different lengths so you can choose exactly how long you want to commit yourself for every time you sit down to meditate. They also offer bedtime tracks to help you relax and get to sleep.
The Insight Timer app is very simple. It lets you set a timer for however long you want, and then choose from a set of pleasant little bells and chimes as your alarm. I think it has some other features, but that’s really all I use it for.
I’ve been walking a lot more, lately. It seems kinda vital to take advantage of these last bits of nice weather before things get truly wintery and unpleasant. Walking is my favorite form of exercise, and it’s been recommended by a surprising number of successful writers throughout history as a form of meditation when inspiration is lagging. It’s peaceful, the scenery provides stimulation for the imagination, and moving around is generally pretty good for the whole system. I’ve known for a long time that people with ADHD in particular tend to have better focus when they get exercise, but it has to be somewhat consistent to be effective, and consistency is difficult when you’ve got ADHD. Somehow, though, I’ve managed to get something like a routine established.
There’s a beautiful bike path around a lake near my place, and I love going out there, even though my dogs absolutely lose their tiny minds at the sight of all the fat and insolent squirrels who taunt them from the sides of the trail. It takes us a lazy hour and a half to go around the lake, and I don’t usually spend the time specifically thinking about anything in particular. I think it’s been helping with my general mental clarity, which makes it easier to choose to keep going out, and to make choices about what to do with my time without getting overwhelmed. I’ve always unconsciously classified walking in pretty places as “the stuff I do when I should probably be doing the dishes or writing.”
That was not great. Jogging around the neighborhood will never be my thing, even if it might seem more efficient, or like a “better” form of exercise, or whatever other judgement I had in the back of my mind about the whole thing. It’s boring, it hurts, and my dogs would rather tie their leash into a bow around my legs than trot faithfully at my side. It just doesn’t work for me, but walking in a spot with some good trees and water does, and I can do it for a long time before I get bored or tired.
We’re often taught a very adversarial approach to exercising our bodies, but healthy movement really doesn’t have to be any kind of a punishment to be beneficial.
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.