If you’ve been on TikTok lately, you might have noticed that it seems like everyone and their mom are suddenly being diagnosed with ADHD. For good reason—women go undiagnosed for longer because they often present as inattentive type rather than hyperactive, and many girls learn to hide their symptoms. Women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s are discovering this about themselves for the first time, often after the diagnosis of their children.
Though many remain undiagnosed, researchers estimate that between 10 and 20 percent of the population have some form of neurodivergence. I believe that there is a lot of overlap with those in the creative fields, with increased creativity being one of the benefits of a disordered brain.
I was diagnosed in college, after changing my major for the third time, but I have learned more about challenges that stem from ADHD and what to do about them from TikTok, seeing a psychiatrist regularly, and well … living with myself through a pandemic.
I find it hilarious that all year I kept saying to myself, “I should be better at this by now.” As if just getting used to surviving and parenting through a pandemic would make me less dysfunctional.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
Surviving was hard enough, maintaining a creative life? Even harder. So, every time I hear the advice to “write everyday,” I want to punch something because if I could, I would! (Emotional regulation is also a challenge for people with ADHD.)
Let me break it down. One of the key challenges of ADHD is task initiation. If I could do task initiation, if I could start the thing, it wouldn’t be a challenge, hence the advice to just “initiate the task” is not helpful.
That’s where I come in. We are going to learn to work with our brains instead of against them.
I’ve compiled a list of real-life, crowd-sourced, tried-and-tested tips and tricks to help with a myriad of struggles like task initiation, planning and organizing, time blindness, sensory processing, rejection-sensitive dysphoria, poor working memory, auditory processing, emotional dysregulation, and waning interest. Not to mention distraction and impulsivity. If that feels like a lot ... it is. No wonder the ADA classifies this and other neurodivergences as a disability.
ADHD has traits in common with autism, anxiety, OCD, and depression, and many of these traits can get in the way of maintaining a creative life. This list of tips is not exhaustive, but if you are struggling with any of these issues, including perfectionism and imposter syndrome, they just might help get you unstuck.
As always, this list is not diagnostic and please contact your doctor for further evaluation.
Don’t write everyday. I hereby absolve you from the guilt, shame, and torment of all the “shoulds” neurotypical people use in their creative advice. Writing habits are morally neutral.
The goal of creative habits should be function, not morality.
Does it work for you? Does it allow you to be creative? Does it encourage you to experiment? Does it seduce you? Does it make you feel free?
In applying standards of productivity to creative work, we have been asking all the wrong questions.
Have you ever been able to work better in a crowded coffee shop than at home alone? Do you like to take group art classes? You might be seeking a body-double without even realizing it. Having another person present, not working with you but near you, can help get you into the flow. This can help with task initiation in addition to staying on task as it provides a mirror for your work and a reminder of what you are there to do whenever your mind strays.
It works in person and online, so set a FaceTime date or look online for body-double matching services. It’s a thing!
This is for when you do have a goal to work or practice everyday. The key is to find a daily habit that you do naturally and pair that with something that is harder to do or remember.
Have coffee everyday? Make that the time you journal. Or do a little sketching, or brainstorm projects. Take your vitamins, brush your teeth. Whatever you struggle with, we don’t judge.
Observe your natural habits and inclinations and use them to your creative advantage.
Set an Art Trap
I’m borrowing this one from Elizabeth Gilbert, but it works. For those who struggle with working memory, out-of-sight is out-of-mind. If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. The trick here is to gather the supplies that make you tingle with excitement. I'm talking multi-color pens (LePen anyone?), fresh notebooks, sticky notes, paint brushes, sketch pads, embroidery thread, whatever it is.
DO NOT PUT IT AWAY. That’s it. Make a space that will only be used for art so that every time you pass by, it calls to you. Bonus points if you lay out a blank page every night. Double bonus points if you leave yourself a note with the next step so you know exactly where to start when you sit down.
Time blindness is real and it works both ways. We don’t know how to estimate how long something will take, and we can’t tell how much time has passed. There are multiple kinds of visual timers (Time Timer being the OG) that illustrate how much time has passed or how much time remains. This can help give you a sense of how long things actually take and a pinch of deadline anxiety that works to propel some people to the finish line.
This can also help with task initiation when motivation is low because you can set a minimum or a maximum. Ten minutes is a lot more manageable than an hour, and once you’re in it, you’ll likely want to keep going. And if you don’t, it’s no big deal, because creative habits are morally neutral.
I first learned the term “rage quit” from 13-year-old gamers, but obviously, I love it because what can be more satisfying or freeing than to throw in the towel and walk away?
Due to Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, I once quit for two months just because I thought someone didn’t like my script, not because they actually told me that—they hadn’t even read it yet. The struggle is real (as Bri Janes brilliantly describes here), and quitting resets the power balance.
My favorite thing about this strategy is that when you return to your creative practice, it’s because you want to, because it’s calling, and you choose to answer.
Meds Are Not a Crutch
Nearly every cis white male “genius” in every creative medium self-medicated in some way. See your doctor. Take your meds. Allow yourself to be supported.
Exercise, Meditate or Something
Cannot vouch for these, but my doctor says they work.
Ask for Accommodations
Okay, I feel like this might be the hardest one to put into practice. When creating for yourself turns into creating for and with others, it can be tricky to navigate. Reasonable workplace accommodations for people with a diagnosed neurodivergence is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Some examples include things like working from home so you can control the sensory environment and limit distractions, setting a flexible work schedule, and flexible deadlines. (I could not have finished this piece if not for the flexible nature of Pipeline Artists.)
It Takes as Long as It Takes
We all know that comparison is the thief of joy, but in creative work it is also the thief of sanity. Repeat after me: THY NEIGHBOR’S WORD COUNT IS NONE OF THY BUSINESS.
I like to think of ADHD creatives as sprinters and neurotypical creators as marathoners. It just takes us more energy to cover the same amount of distance. They break their work into parts, work a bit each day, and pick up where they left off. We are either in the flow or not, and it takes a lot of support to get in the flow and a lot of recovery when we come out.
Let me remind you of some success stories who went at their own pace.
Allan Scott worked on The Queen’s Gambit for 30 years before he got it made. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote several versions of Hamilton that evolved over years of staged revisions. Jordan Peele dreamed of Get Out for a decade before he got the go-ahead and wrote it in two months. Billie Eilish’s mother let her children stay up as late as they wanted as long as they were creating.
We have day jobs, we have children, we have alarm clocks and doctor’s appointments, but if we pay attention to what works for us, if we accept that everyone is different, and it takes as long as it takes, then we can arrange our lives to suit how we work instead of the other way around.
Things That Count as Writing
- Making a playlist
- Talking to yourself in the mirror
- Watching TV
- Listening to a craft podcast
- Talking to others about art
- Experiencing other forms of art
- Whatever refills your creative well and inspires you
Limit Social Media
Lol jk, jk. It’s designed to hold our attention and exploit the lack of a village community in our modern lives. Good luck.
If you really want to torture yourself or you’re on a deadline, you can go to your phone’s accessibility settings and turn everything to black and white, sucking the joy out of the experience.
I want to wrap this up by saying: if you struggle, you are not alone, creative habits are not one size fits all, and I’m here if you need someone to shut down the bullies in your brain that tell you you’re not doing enough.
You’re doing great.
*Feature Image: "Thoughts Fly Free" by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)