Last fall, I decided to take myself seriously. I quit my job as a legal assistant and took up writing full-time. Of course, I knew it wasn’t going to be forever. At some point I would need to start making a steady income again. But for at least the next several months, the plan was to pour all of my energy into making progress on my writing projects.
I wish I could tell you that I hit the ground running, taught myself everything I had missed out on and finally felt like “a writer.” Unfortunately, things haven’t gone that smoothly. Without the external pressures of a job to clock into or a boss to impress, I struggle to get work done. No one will know or care if I never write a word, let alone publish something. I alone am responsible for my own productivity. The thought fills me with dread.
Trying to figure out how to get actual work done without any structure or extrinsic motivation is harder that I’d like to admit. Ever since my ADHD diagnosis, I have had to reevaluate my whole life. In college, I was so ashamed of my struggles and feared that I was stupid or incompetent. Now I know that the world isn’t built for brains like mine, and I just didn’t have the right tools or accommodations to succeed. Medication helps, but they say pills don’t teach skills. I’m doing the best I can, still trying to overcome my insecurities but slowly figuring out the rules that work for my brain. Here‘s what I’ve learned:
- Don’t try to be creative before noon. My brain (and my meds) simply won’t allow it. I have tried to fight reality, wasting morning after morning lying on the couch, beating myself up, thinking, Why can’t I just get up, sit at the desk and write? I’m useless. What’s the point of doing anything? I think it’s time to accept that it’s okay to work all afternoon and into the evening, instead of forcing myself to work “normal hours.” Mornings can be for other things — reading, watching TV, crafting, exercising, cooking.
- Know thy enemies. Specifically, screens. Nothing can give me that hit of dopamine quite like scrolling endlessly on Instagram or bingeing videos from my favorite Youtubers. When I finally snap out of my hyperfocus, I am hit with a wave of guilt. So much valuable writing time wasted. I ask myself, Do I even want this? If I really cared, wouldn’t I spend all day, every day writing? I’ve said it before, writing is slow, and there will be no quick rewards. But I don’t have to stew in shame forever; I do want this, and I do care. Writers with ADHD exist. I just have to know my enemies and keep trying to win the battle each day.
- Strive for consistency, even if the quality or quantity of writing time leaves much to be desired. Some days I just write a bunch of nonsense, like free writes I will never look at again or journal entries about how I seem to have forgotten how to form a coherent sentence. Other days I just read and research. When I review the draft I’m working on at the end of those kind of days, all I see are bullet points. But I know that I spent hours falling down (mostly) relevant Wikipedia rabbit holes, or reading a book in my genre and making notes in the margins. On the most glorious days, I enter that unexpected flow state and everything just falls into place. I have always idolized those days, and in doing so, put immense pressure on myself to have them every day. When my day doesn’t live up to that impossible standard, I beat myself up about it and feel like giving up. Before I know it, I’ve lost the very thing that was quietly giving me confidence the whole time: consistency.
- Some days I won’t write at all. It’s hard to admit. I want to prove that quitting my desk job was worth it, that choosing this path was worth it, and when I don’t make progress, I feel like shit. But I try to remind myself that I have certain barriers that are manageable, but sometimes beyond my control. My ADHD, mental illnesses and chronic medical condition occasionally conspire to ruin my life. I might wake up with a blazing headache, overwhelming fatigue, dissociative brain fog, crippling anxiety, or complete apathy. And on those days, it’s more important to take care of myself. I’m allowed to rest.
- Be prepared for spontaneous ideas. I never know when one will hit me. Sometimes it’s a dream, a bizarre interaction or a funny story. Sometimes it’s the body language of two people I see walking down the street, and the backstory I imagine for their dynamic. Sometimes it’s a deep conversation with a friend. Regardless of the source, it is best to be armed with multiple means of documentation. The notes on my phone are filled with random notes that I keep at the ready, little bits of characterization or setting for future stories. The voice memo is excellent for when I’m driving and thinking about the story I’m working on, but I don’t want to forget my train of thought. And of course, stacks and stacks of notebooks. All of these methods are fair game. I’ll never regret making note of something silly or stupid, and it’s always exciting to look back and find some cool gems whenever I am feeling blocked.
- Practice setting boundaries to protect my writing time. This one is tough. Because I’m not in an office or on the clock, it’s easy to let other activities and people take priority over my work. I might not be getting a paycheck anymore, but that doesn’t mean my time shouldn’t be respected. My fellow people-pleasers will agree that setting boundaries is hard when someone is putting you on the spot. So I started out by sending some friendly but firm messages to loved ones about the importance of protecting my writing time. Now that the seed has been planted, it’s a lot easier to bring up when I have to say no to an activity. It’s worth noting that I often need to remind myself of those boundaries as well, when I start prioritizing chores and errands over work.
If you are also working on something you’re excited about but struggling to get it done or stay motivated, I would recommend taking some time to discover the rules that work for your brain. Try working on your project at different times of day to see when you feel the most focused. Or try working through the moments when your creativity feels blocked by doing something low-pressure but still active. That could look like journaling about how you have writer’s block so you can still maintain a consistent routine, or working on something creative but completely different than your current project — recently I’ve been building a miniature greenhouse using a kit my friend gave me.
And I will tell you the same thing I constantly tell myself whenever the negative self-talk begins: Just because you aren’t making progress, doesn’t mean you don’t care. We can’t all be the kind of people who just go, “I want to do this,” and then get it done. Life is complicated, and we all have different barriers and limitations to contend with. We just need to provide our own accommodations. With my personalized rules, I’m gradually making progress and getting more motivated. I’m even starting to feel like “a writer.”