Writing for a Living with ADD
There's a difference between being easily-distracted, and having ADD or ADHD: the former is a problem that can be overcome with time, effort, and dedication - the latter just really fucking chafes your ass. That's not to say time, effort, and dedication can't mitigate some of the symptoms. They can. But make no mistake, chances are good that if you don't grow out of it by the time you hit your twenties, you're in this club forever.
This isn't a sob story. I'm not here to tell you that my life is too hard. My name is Ezequiel Bruni, I have ADD, and I'm okay. I'm a moderately successful writer who mostly writes about web design. By "moderately successful", I mean that I can pay my bills, put a very small amount of money into investments, support two lovely cats, and maintain a gaming habit.
But if those little furry jerks want to go to college, they are on their own.
This is about writing, and writing for a living at that. This is about how being perpetually distracted by my own goddamned brain chemicals has affected the way I do what I do, and how I've learned to live with it. Finally, this is about sharing what works for me. If you want to skip the personal history, jump down a few sub-headings. I have more than a few practical tips on managing the condition that might help.
My History of ADD
The first thing I should probably note is that I got lucky. For one, I live in Mexico where almost everything is cheaper, which makes earning a living by writing easier. Secondly, my mother was quite supportive, in her own way.
I don't remember much about the day we first discussed the possibility that I might have ADD. I mainly remember the conversation itself. It was during the time that ADD and ADHD had entered the public consciousness, but before the accusations of over-prescribing Ritalin began.
It started, as so many things did, with Mom reading some random article. This one was about ADD. It listed several diagnostic conditions that had to be met, and suggested that if a child even met half of them, they might have ADD. I met nearly every single condition. I was not formally diagnosed until I was in my twenties, but even so, this article explained a lot.
My parents were missionaries, and I was home schooled with books produced in the United States. Schoolwork that was only supposed to take a few hours could take most of the day with me, as my brain had a habit of simply shutting down every train of thought that made me feel bored. And when I say "shut down", I mean it. Whenever I tried to power through by will alone, my mind would go completely blank, no matter how much I just wanted to get the schoolwork done with.
But my sister Mercy was my saving grace. She had already dedicated more than a few years of her life to becoming a teacher, and had spent considerable time in Colombia training other missionaries' kids. When she came back to live with us in Mexico, she took over my education. She helped me brute-force my way through every exercise and math problem. Her will, added to my own, actually had me finishing High School (or the equivalent) a bit early.
So Mercy Ruth, I am somewhat sorry for nicknaming you "Merciless Ruthless". It's still funny, though.
And Mom? She supported my interest in computers, allowing me to spend a lot of time on the family desktop that others thought was wasted. In that time, I experimented with making music, 3D graphics, photo manipulation, and web design. I think she knew deep, deep down that the missionary thing wouldn't work out for me.
And when it didn't, web design was the way I went. I actually quite enjoyed it, and stuck with it for some time, even as I transitioned from working nine-to-five to working as a freelancer. But then, one day, when the projects had dried up a bit, I thought, "Hey, I could write about this stuff. And apparently some people would pay me for it."
So I built my own blog, wrote a few pieces, and then started shopping my portfolio around, pitching articles as I went. I got lucky again, and developed a working relationship with the lovely people at Web Designer Depot, for whom I still do a lot of writing. Over time, I did less and less client work as a web designer, and more work as a writer, and the rest is history.
By this time, I'd learned that I could, in fact, power through my work when my brain just didn't want to cooperate. I also found out that this strategy resulted in poor work, and literally inflicted physical stress on my body in the form of nausea and general stomach pain. It was like my own brain, if it couldn't convince me to stop and do something else for a while, was determined to punish me for not listening.
This affected my writing in all the ways you might expect. I became afraid of that stress, and that pain. I would force myself to work, but often only at the last minute, so I'd meet the deadlines. I did some of my best (and possibly some of my worst) writing at three in the morning.
I was exhausted mentally and emotionally. I was tired of feeling like I'd never get anywhere in life because my condition prevented me from doing more than what was necessary to barely survive. I was tired of occasionally having to depend on my then-roommate to cover my expenses until I could get enough projects to pay him back.
Never mind that I was only recently removed from a community I'd known my entire life, with a
limited support system, and no formal education. I had marketable skills, but no marketing skills.
Really, I should have gone easier on myself. But I was convinced that if I could just fix what was
so obviously wrong with myself, then I could do anything I set my mind to. Yes, even missionaries (and perhaps especially them) tell that lie.
Even so, (and this is where I got lucky again) the local University Hospital was offering therapy visits for around ten dollars a session. So I went. And I got diagnosed, officially. They went through a few tests to make sure I didn't have clinical depression or bipolar disorder, but no. Just plain old ADD.
They put me on Atomoxetine for two years. The way they described it to me is that while Ritalin and Adderall work by stimulating the brain in a more direct and heavy-handed fashion, their side effects are often severe. Atomoxetine was supposed to be slower, but less potentially harmful, and that it would help to address the root of the problem. Probably.
Weirdly enough, this was a good time in my life. The regular therapy helped me deal with a variety of issues, and the drug. . .well the drug shot my sleep schedule all to fuck, and I have to take melatonin supplements to sleep properly at night to this day. But I think it did help a bit.
I was able to work more consistently, and work more. Too much brain stress would still hit me right in the stomach, but it didn't happen quite as often. I got a lot of writing done, and wrote some of the longest pieces of my life while getting that treatment. For reference, writing any project longer than a thousand words or so was something of a miracle for me before I started seeing a therapist.
Post-treatment, life is better, and so is my writing. But it got a little worse first. Coming down off the Atomoxetine was absolutely a good thing, but the stress of it cost me one of the best career opportunities I've ever had. I was made senior editor of a large site, and I couldn't handle it while also having my brain freak out on me over the chemical changes.
Even so, I kept writing. Well, it took me a while to pull myself together, and get a real writing schedule going again. By that time, I'd eaten through the savings I'd managed to pull together. There are two kinds of pain that stick with you a long time: getting kicked in the balls, and getting kicked in the wallet--and I'll not lie, I'm still feeling that pain just a little bit.
What I've discovered is this: my ADD is not something that can be completely fixed. Not yet. Not with the science we have right now. My time in treatment wasn't a waste, though. I'm happier, and I've grown beyond my previous limitations. But I still have limitations, and I've had to come to terms with that.
I've had to accept that I may never be like one of those writers I idolize. You know the ones: they can write for a minimum of ten hours a day with no bathroom breaks. They never run out of things to say, and they're always planning five books ahead. You know, those guys. There's been maybe two of them in all of history, and goddamnit, I'll never be one of them.
But I'm okay. I'm still writing. I've learned a lot in the past few years about how to make my brain do what I want. It doesn't necessarily happen when I want, though; I've had to make some compromises in that regard.
Okay. Done. No more personal history. Would you believe that was the short and sweet version? I mean, it was.
One Guy's Survival Guide to Managing ADD (for Writers)
Here's my disclaimer: this is not a guaranteed set of solutions for anyone but myself. I have exactly one test subject to work with, so my sample size is small enough to be irrelevant. It's worth noting that ADD and ADHD are still relatively poorly understood, and are often used to describe a variety of different behavior sets. Anyone who says psychology is useless is wrong. Anyone who says it's an exact science is wrong, too.
I've spent years developing mindsets, strategies, and general mental trickery to get me through each and every day. I've got tricks for making myself start work, and for making myself finish it. I've got tricks to help me concentrate for longer periods of time, and time-management tricks for when my brain doesn't want to cooperate. I have tricks for making myself want to work even when I'm feeling goddamned lazy, and tricks for recognizing that I really do need a break.
I figure that maybe some other ADD or ADHD-diagnosed people out there could benefit from
some of these tricks. Have a look, and see what might work for you. I hope it helps.
It Probably Wouldn't Hurt if Everyone Saw a Shrink
Okay, this isn't a "trick" so much as general good advice for everyone, ADD or not. There's a bit of a stigma attached to going to see a shrink of any kind. People tend to think that if you're seeing any kind of mental therapist, something must be really fucking wrong with your tiny little brain. Well, guess what? There probably is something wrong with you.
I don't think I've ever met a perfectly well-adjusted person in any of the three countries I've lived in. As a former missionary, I've met a lot of people. And guess what? They're all screwed up a bit by something. It may not be anything major. It may not require any sort of medication. But you can't fix problems that haven't been identified. Most people out there won't need full on therapy. But knowing that you have a small impulse control problem, or a couple of daddy issues, can help you know where to start improving yourself. It's that simple. Think of it like any doctor check-up: it's annoying and they'll bitch at you for not flossing, but it's still good for you, and can catch problems before they become more serious.
And if you think you have ADD, but have not had it confirmed by one or more professionals, get
on that, if it's financially feasible.
The first thing I have to do to manage my ADD is to get my head in the right place. And I can't just do this once. No, that would be too convenient. I have to remind myself of these basic principles every single day for the rest of my life. Let's get started:
Get Over the Guilt; Find What Works for You
Non-ADD people, this is what you have to understand. We do not like getting constantly distracted by every little thing. Most of us have a general sense of priorities, and having our own brains actively fight against our productivity is draining, and not a little frustrating. It sucks. We (or at least "I") look at people who can successfully hold down nine-to-five jobs with a fair bit of envy.
As a freelance writer, the chances that I'll get even close to that kind of schedule are minimal. And that's a good thing. The nine-to-five is dying. Maybe it was never good for us. I couldn't find a lot of research on that specifically, but I did find that business blogs and news sites have been documenting the steady decline of traditional working arrangements for years.
• The 9-to-5 job is dying (Business Insider)
• Why Millennials Are Ending The 9 To 5 (Forbes)
• 5 Reasons Your 9-to-5 Routine is Killing Your Creativity (AIGA)
• The digital future of work: Is the 9-to-5 job going the way of the dinosaur? (McKinsey & Co.)
• The Death of the Workday: Is 9 to 5 Working Obsolete? (Business.com)
• Is it time to abolish the nine to five? (The Guardian)
Okay. Point taken. Time to stop being jealous. You can't let yourself feel guilty for not being able to handle things the same way other people can. Spend enough time moping, and you'll never get any work done. The simple fact is that you have got to find out what works for you, and you alone. You need to find the conditions that allow you to be as productive as you can be.
For me, that's freelance work. I desperately need to set my own schedule, or my brain will just shut down like it did in the old days. You might be able to hold down a more regular job, at a regular office by just making a few changes to the way you work, or you might go freelance like I did, but you need to find your thing.
You do this by listening to your body, and your brain. When your brain is about to shut down, you won't be able to do good work. If you're distracted because your body feels like crap, that won't work either. Find your patterns. When do you usually enjoy working the most? What do you need to do for yourself before you can sit down and focus? Discovering these things will likely lead to better work, and more of it.
Discipline is Overrated, Until it Isn't
I briefly mentioned my personal experience with just "powering through" my mental blocks with sheer willpower, and how that affected me in negative ways. That's what happens when you're relying on willpower alone for an extended period of time. You basically just run out of energy, and the stress on your body can be rough. I cannot depend on discipline alone, and you may find you have the same problem.
However, it's only a really bad thing if that's your only coping strategy. Simply forcing yourself to work should not be the first thing you try, but it's a good skill to have for emergencies. It should be a last resort.
As a writer, there will occasionally be times when — even if you're doing everything right — you will need to just brute force it. There will be rush jobs that come out of nowhere, and deadlines that feel like they snuck up on you because other parts of your life kept you busy. There will be days when none of the usual tricks work, and you just need to make yourself get started.
Strategies, Tips, & Tricks
Okay, so you've got your head more or less on straight. You're determined to find what works for you, and listen to your brain/body. What next? You could try some of the following.
Embrace the Work Binge (Carefully)
My mood tends to swing between "fuck this", and "I'm going to fix the whole planet with my words!" At least it's less severe than when I was a teenager. I still have a tendency towards binging on things, and this applies to my playtime, my work, and it's exactly why I can't work out like I used to.
I've learned to take advantage of work binges by approaching them carefully. If I just let that urge to make stuff take over, I'll likely work until I burn out. When I burn out, it takes forever for the work binge mood to come back.
Instead, I manage the binge. I vary my tasks by working on one article for an hour or so, and then I work on another. And then I might work on my site for a bit. The variety keeps me from getting sick of any one thing before I can properly finish it.
I also set hard limits on how much work I'll do during a work binge. As Hemingway said, "Always stop while you still know what will happen next." Stopping before you run out of ideas gives your brain something to look forward too, and a starting point when you're ready to work again.
Start with Other Work First
Sometimes I'll start by doing some dishes, tidying up, or finding some other productive task to do before I start writing. The small feeling of accomplishment I get after completing these basic tasks is sometimes just enough of a kick in the dopamine gland to get me started on more complex work.
Organize Without Obsessing
Obviously, you need a system for organizing your tasks, your files, and your brain. I personally make a new folder on Dropbox every month, and fill it with the articles I'm writing for that month. Then I archive it, make a new folder, and move on.
I came up with this system after years of trying out different tools, methodologies, and systems. It got to the point that I would happily distract myself by coming up with new ways to get my work done, without actually getting any of it done. I had to learn to just put a basic process together and go. And if I find something in my process isn't working, I iterate while I work until I find a more efficient way.
Look for Ways to Enjoy Every Task
I listen to audiobooks when I take my long walks or runs. I listen to music while I cook or clean. In short, I've found ways to make tedious work more enjoyable. Do the same with your writing. Is the article your client commissioned rather dull? Spice it up with a joke, even if you'll have to take it out later. Look for new and interesting ways to express concepts you've expressed before. Try some new words on for size.
Hide some subtle but inoffensive jokes and references. See what your editor will actually publish. Okay--if you're writing copy for a corporate site, for example, that idea might not work. But look for a way to amuse yourself. Even if you don't do the eight-hour days, you're going to spend a lot of your time working. You might as well.
One trick I've adopted fairly recently is to take a page from video games. In many games, levels, missions, or quests will have a primary objective, and then any possible number of optional objectives. I do this every day: I assign myself a limited set of primary goals. Outline one article, write five-hundred words in another, exercise, and pick up tortillas, as one example. Then I'll pick a goal or two for what I call the "bonus round": start working on the article I just outlined, sweep up out back. If I'm feeling especially brave on a given day, I'll pick a tertiary set of goals, and call it the "insanity round." More often than not, I'll get everything on the list done. But even if I don't, I'm a lot less stressed, because I focused on my most important tasks first, and got them out of the way.
A lot of people swear by having some instrumental music on while they work, and I'm one of them. I find that having that background noise occupies the part of my brain that would normally be looking for distractions while I work.
Chang Your Strategy When You Need to
Sometimes work just isn't going to be all that fun, no matter what you do. The usual motivational tricks I use typically don't work as well in these cases, so I have to change up my strategy. Binge-working is only going to drive me nuts, so I typically just do a little bit of this sort of work at a time, with lots of breaks.
Tools I Use
As I mentioned above, I've found that I do better when I don't worry so much about which tools I'm using so long as they get the job done with minimal fuss. For my writing, I keep it fairly simple:
Use this or any note taking app that works for you. I find Google Keep's relative simplicity makes it faster and easier to find whatever I'm looking for. I do probably need to go back and clear out some old notes, though.
I don't often take on overly-complex projects, but when I do, Trello helps me out a lot. I set up a simple Kanban-style task management system, and use that to keep track of what I'm doing.
Minimalist Text Editors
This is a big one for me. I love to write in Markdown, and otherwise just forget about formatting. It lets me focus on writing. As a web designer, it's far too easy for me to get lost in the minutiae of how a document looks, so taking most of those "designery" options away from me is great for my productivity.
As for specific apps, I'm currently in love with Typora. It's currently free while it's in beta, and it's cross-platform.
This might be the most important tool in my virtual toolbox. Shutting down notifications is one of the most wonderful things I've ever done for myself.
This occasionally backfires on me by way of distraction, but man do I love having dual monitors. Having your article on one screen, and your research on another, for example, is just so very convenient. It's easier for me to visualize what I'll write next when everything's right there in front of me.
Lots of people out there live with and manage their ADD every day. Some of them do it while surrounded by people who seem convinced the condition doesn't actually exist, and yet they do it. I've done it. All it takes is the will to look at yourself, without judgement, and find out what works. It takes a shitload of trial and error.
I hope that, if nothing else, I've given you some new things to try.
Ezequiel Bruni writes for a living, and that's worked out surprisingly well for him. He also plays video games, listens to a load of sci-fi/fantasy novels, plays with operating systems and productivity software for fun, and is actually kind of amusing at parties (so long as they're parties where you can actually hear people talk). He especially enjoys long walks on back roads, and ironically referring to himself in the third person. You can find more of his work at ezequiel.works.
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