This article is inspired by Tessa Flattum’s article, “How to Write a Novel with ADHD”. I self-diagnosed my own ADHD after my son was diagnosed as a child. I have written three non-fiction technical books on cybersecurity. I agree with his general observations, but my own experience is a bit different.
First, she points out that ADHD manifests differently in different people. Definitely true. We can’t even tell which strange behaviors are part of this so-called “disorder” and which are separate, annoying parts of our underlying selves.
Second, I agree that attention isn’t the problem, it’s the distribution of attention. Flattum calls him bike. Others call it the shiny object problem. We work on something, interest wanes, then attention shifts to something else. She refers to this as dopamine motivation: we don’t get enough dopamine as we near the end of things, so other things grab our attention.
If I’m motivated to do something (like writing this post), then I focus on it to the exclusion of all other things. Or at least I focus on it until my available time or concentration runs out. These days, I leave half-finished blog posts in my wake. Now that I’m officially retired, I’m not trying to do anything more fancy than blog posts. I usually finish them before I lose interest, even if I’m interrupted. But not always.
Flattum makes five observations and recommendations on how to complete your job while dealing with ADHD:
- Learn your biorhythms. If you’re not a morning person, don’t try to be one, or vice versa. I agree. ✔︎
- Try panting your novel. It seems to mean: once you have your general idea, start working from the seat of your pants (I guess). Don’t waste too much time making plans you won’t follow. I disagree and will discuss. ✘
- Get a body double. In other words, do your work around people who do similar work. For example, try writing in a coffee shop or library with other working people. I agree because that’s how I finished my thesis, but it became less important as I got older. ✔︎
- Use a reward system. It’s about getting a shot of dopamine when you’re making “good” progress without necessarily finishing something. Set yourself a short-term goal (like finishing this blog post) that may be less than ideal (writing a book or a separate part of one) but at least represents progress. Reward yourself when you achieve this goal. I disagree because I personally lack the discipline to refuse the award. ✘
- Have plenty of snacks and drinks on deck. I disagree because hunger rarely makes me stop when I’m really focused on a task (like right now). But I agree with the concept: having the essential resources at your fingertips so as not to be interrupted in your work. I achieved this by enlarging, then multiplying the video screens, and by working near my shelves. ✔︎
Planning versus execution
I’ve struggled with the related engineering problem for most of my life: we want to separate the design process from the implementation, but we can lose the benefits of the design in the implementation. When I worked in software engineering, the design process helped us clarify our thoughts and assumptions. The process most often failed if one person did the design and another did the implementation, unless we could somehow ensure consistency. For example, we can generate model code from the design itself to use in the implementation, or we can test the software against the documented design. These don’t really apply to the design and construction of manuscripts.
I usually make sketches and use them to construct my written materials. Typical planner software provides headings and subheadings, and I can attach zero or more paragraphs of text to each. In college, I used ThinkTank and PLUS to write articles and complete my thesis. MORE died out when Apple moved from its original Macintosh software base to Unix-based OS X. After that, I used the plan built into MS Word and all the other writing apps on my Macintosh.
The outline provides my pattern for the document: chapters, sections, subsections, etc. The attached text paragraphs provide the Implementation. The outlines are hierarchical and my technical non-fiction is generally hierarchical. The sketch software allowed me to rearrange sections and subsections as I fleshed out a document. The outline would then evolve as I added text to the document. When the sections got too big, I could rearrange the structure to accommodate the extra text.
The outline also gives you small bursts of completion. You can fill a sub-sub-section with the text it needs and you have completed part of the project. If you’re inspired to write a lot of material, you keep writing. The map reminds you of where you’ve been and where you’re headed with the discussion.
Writing without a plan
That said, let me talk about how I wrote this particular article. I started with a pretty clear and precise vision: to use Flattum’s comments as a starting point to discuss my own experience. The only thing I really wanted to discuss was my use of outlines. I have not detailed this discussion or the order in which I would cover them.
As I wrote without further planning, even in my mind, the article digressed on a software engineering issue that is close to my heart before discussing how I use outlines. One could say that the only paragraph on the subject in the previous section is the last.
The bottom line: you need to find a process that works for you.