The ADHD Guide to Building a Writing Habit

Those of us with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have a bit of difficulty when it comes to sitting down to write. We read the articles on finding our voice, but the act of writing, the actual moving of our fingers across a keyboard or our pen across the page, can seem impossible.

The ADHD Guide to Building a Writing Habit

We get distracted. We get discouraged. We self-sabotage. At the end of the day the screen is a blank page, the pencils haven’t been touched and we wonder how to just get the words on the page like everyone else does.

This article will show you how to finally get past the resistance that our ADHD puts up and actually use it to get a writing habit locked in.

Take out the trash

First, let’s start with a clean slate when it comes to our writing or lack thereof. Sure, you can say, “Why did I waste all the time sorting my socks when I could have written the next great spy thriller?” Let’s just move past that. Shake the Etch-a-Sketch. Hit reset. We are starting over today. We aren’t going to swim in a sea of regret about what we did or didn’t do. Today you’re a writer.

Identify the fear

Our ADHD will kick into hyperdrive at times when we try something new. Sure, we are impulsive. We go to Target for four things and come back with twenty. But when it comes to the act of writing we start feeling this clutch of fear.

What if everyone hates it? What if it’s not original? What if … what if …what if… Our ADHD just won’t let it go and once you’re ADHD latches on to something, it’s going to keep playing that tape over and over.

To get that condemning voice out of my head, I simply confront it. What if everyone hates it? Well, I probably learned how to write or how not to write along the way. What if it’s not original?

See that mystery section over there? In that mystery section, in nearly every book, someone dies, no one can figure out who did it, then someone figures out who did it and then there’s a big conflict to see if they get caught.

So yeah, there’s not much out there that’s original and some of those books sell millions upon millions. Once I answer the fear, it quiets down.

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Kill the distractions

Distractions are the arch-enemy to our writing life. Especially with being ADHD, any shiny objects in our field of vision get us off our writing game. We check Facebook and Twitter and down the terrible rabbit hole we go.

Make a conscious decision to turn off your wifi and power down your phone. Yes, power it down. Unless you are a brain surgeon on call, you’ll be fine for the 1/2 hour or hour that you’re writing. Yes, no one will be able to reach you — and I get that can cause anxiety, but you’ll feel a great increase in your focus.

(If someone has to reach you, put your phone on vibrate and turn off wifi. I’ll actually delete apps that I can get lost in.)

Set up the writing space

Did you ever try to write while lying on your bed? Fell asleep, didn’t you? Did you write in your kitchen? I’m sure you fixed twenty snacks. Our ADHD brains latch on to location to tell us what is going to happen. We sleep in a bed. We eat in a kitchen.

So what I had to do was only write in two places: a desk in my house and a coffee shop. When I sit down in those spaces, my brain will say, “THIS IS WHERE WE WRITE! I KNOW THIS PLACE!” Since I’ve developed the habit of sitting there over and over, my brain resists less and less and I get more and more writing done.

Decide where you are going to write. Make it comfortable (but not too comfortable) and make it your sacred writing space.

Pack Your bag

Your ADHD will not remind you to bring your charger or your pens. It will not remind you to bring that article or your research. There is nothing more frustrating than starting your writing and not having your tools available.

One of my mentors told me to pack a “writing bag.” A writing bag has all of your equipment for writing: computer, charger, pens, paper, notes, research, etc. I also carry an extra external battery for my phone, postcards and stamps.

And one of the best moves I made was buying another charger for my computer. One is marked with Sharpie: RYAN — HOME and the other RYAN — BAG. It’s a little extra to have an extra charger, but it’s worth it to not have your computer on 3% just as you are hitting your stride.

Also, you want to pack this bag the night before you write. You are thinking more clearly and you are not rushing out of the door. You are more apt to remember what you need to bring when you’re not itching to get to writing.

Set micro-goals

I coach a lot of beginner writers and they will say, “Well, I’m shooting for 10,000 words this week.” I’ll ask, “Have you ever written 1,000 words in a week?” “Well, no, but I figure I can just sit down and do it.”

Oh, that’s when I LOL and then ROTL.

So adorbs.

If you wanted to run a marathon, you wouldn’t give it a shot the day of the race. You’d train. You’d take small steps to get there and practice a long obedience in the same direction. It’s the same with writing.

I recommend that you sit down and attempt 250 words and sit there for at least an hour. If you get your 250 done and want to go longer, great. If you can’t get 250 words out, but you sit there for an hour, perfect. But you have to complete one or the other: 250 or an hour.

Every day just crank out 250 words. If you can do more, great. If not that’s fine. The following week, add 50 words. Make it 300. Then the following week, 350. You get it. You’ll be making strides quicker than trying to get it all done

Create a reward system

Who doesn’t like a trophy? Am I right?

When you hit a writing goal, whether it is 1,000, 10,000, or 100,000 words, have a reward ready. Maybe go to a movie. Maybe you buy yourself a set of LEGOS or a some books that have been sitting in your Amazon wish list for a long time.

Whatever it is, make sure it’s valuable and a bit healthy (if your reward is three Milky Way bars, that’s not going to be great for anyone.)

Pull the trigger

By developing a habit you won’t have to push yourself to get your writing done. It will start to become a natural part of your day and the actual joy of writing will happen. Your ADHD won’t keep you from writing, in fact, it will encourage it because you’ve removed the obstacles and built in a reward system.

Give it a go. And I’m curious…

Have you discovered any tricks for overcoming distractions to write? Share in the comments.

Ryan McRae is the founder of The ADHD Nerd, a blog dedicated to helping people with ADHD be more productive, focused and happy. He has spoken all over the world, including Afghanistan. He is an Apple fanatic, voracious reader and lover of things pumpkin flavored. Get a copy of his FREE book , Conquering the Calendar and Getting Things Done.

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26 thoughts on “The ADHD Guide to Building a Writing Habit

  1. Good advice to start small with your target word counts, Ryan (whether you have ADHD or not – making each milestone immediate and doable makes it much easier to increase your targets as you go). Thanks for your take on writing and avoiding distractions.

    1. You’re welcome Bridget! That’s how I’m able to punch out 1,500 words a day, but that’s because I started SLLLLOOOOOWWW.

  2. I put earbuds in, but not listening to any music. If it’s extremely noisy and I cannot escape the distractions due to construction etc. I put on some of my own music and can then concentrate better.

    1. I love me some earbuds. When I work with buddies, TWO earbuds in means: leave me be. ONE in means I’ll take a question. NONE in means we can chat or bring me ice cream.

  3. I use the reward trick, usually an hour of reading time. It works great for me. Need to learn to shut off the distractions, though.

      1. Facebook and text messages, mostly. I like to use noisli for background, so I don’t like to turn the internet off. Need to just log out of facebook during writing time and put the phone on silent.

  4. I use beta waves to get concentrated and avoid distractions. As for Lyndsay, earbuds do the trick for me, but adding the Beta Waves track from YouTube really boosts my productivity and helps mw think clearly. I also have to put my smartphone in a drawer!
    Thanks for this amazing article!

    1. I’m totally checking out these Beta waves you are talking about. That sounds awesome. I listen to Spotify’s Deep Focus tracks. . . that’s my jam. But I’m on that.

      Oh my smartphone I have to scold and put in a drawer as well. You’re welcome.

  5. Listening to music has helped me the most. Walking around and writing while adventuring are more practical for someone like me, with ADHD. When I get to walking in the park and pull out my notepad, I can get 1 to 2k words written easy, but when I sit down I start to fidget and can’t stay put. It’s hell when that happens. I do think the suggestions are great, just when it’s really ADHD, they can be quite difficult. The rewards are always a good idea.

    1. That’s great that you figured out how you work! I need to try that (and I might try walking and speaking into my phone and transcribing it later.) (And you burn calories while you write. That’s a great two-fer.

    1. Yes! This has helped me a lot. When I’m using a notebook, Twitter is NOT just one click away. Also I reward myself with nice pens and pretty inks.

        1. I’ve gotten pretty bad with the pens lately… I’m fondest of my Pilot Metropolitan fountain pens, a couple from a newer company named TWSBI, and a couple Lamy Safaris. I like the selection of ink colors from J. Herbin best.

      1. I do the same. I mean with the pens and inks (and notebooks, you cannot have too many of those) as rewards. Lately, I have adopted Neil Gaiman’s method of using two different coloured inks, on alternate days, for the same text. Very good to visualise progress.

  6. Great post, Ryan! I really like the idea of writing in the same place every time to “train your brain this is where we write!” I’ve had to deactivate my FB account because the distractions got so bad! Music helps, too. I also follow on Spotify : Superior Study Playlist

  7. Time-based rewards work the best for me. If I reward myself with time reading or playing a video game before bed, the sooner I complete the task (by focusing on it!), the more time I get.

  8. THank you! I was glad to find this article of yours on Jeff’s blog. I’m working on more drawing than writing, but your ideas will work. I will be implementing the one hour rule as soon as I finish typing this. I’m walking directly to my drawing table. Sitting in one place for an hour will be a challenge. What do you think about setting a timer?

  9. This a great article! It’s me to a “T”. I absolutely can’t concentrate unless my space is tidy so I do that, first. It’s sort of a segue into my task. I also set a timer for 30 minutes at a time.

  10. I know I’m a little late to the game, but had to comment because this hit home in so many ways for me. One of my issues is my writing space. I have an office with a small desk that I have my laptop set up on, but behind me is my treadmill and workout area. I have no other space in the house to set up this stuff (either the desk or the treadmill). Any suggestions on how to better separate this (if at least only in my mind)? Thank you

    1. I’d say put a tarp or some kind of cover over the treadmill if there’s absolutely no other way to have both. Alternatively, is your PC a laptop or desktop? If it’s a laptop, perhaps try setting up a writing space in a couch or recliner in the living room or bedroom (but try to stay away from the bed, it’s the worst thing you can do for yourself to get the habit of working in your bed.)

      If it’s a desktop, I think the only option aside from mindfulness and behavior techniques would be to seriously find another place to write/work. If the treadmill is that distracting you have to choose one or the other for that space. I’m always going to advocate for keeping the treadmill because health and activity are important.

      But never forget that workspaces/work desks really can be moved just about anywhere. You’d be surprised at nooks you’ll find when you rearrange other furniture.

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