Time to reveal an open secret. I’ve got ADHD. Like, hardcore developmental I-couldn’t-get-homework-done-as-a-kid-but-passed-all-the-tests ADHD. And yes, you read the name of the blog right. I’m also a woman. And, to top all of it all off, I’m a writer.
Okay, now that I’m done being sarcastic, I should probably mention that all those things together are exactly as challenging as they sound. Probably more so. There’s a cacophony in my mind, like a concert going on all the time that only I can hear. And when I’m trying to pay attention to someone speaking, or something I’m supposed to be doing, like you know, writing, I have to push through the concert and force my bucking attention to stay there. Whether my interest is fully engaged or not.
This second point is really powerful. For those of you who are blessed/cursed with ADHD as well, you’ll likely have some idea of what I mean by interest fully engaged. My nervous system doesn’t let me do things unless I’m so hooked I lose track of time. “Well Ali, why don’t you just make yourself get engaged or interested? Think about the good things that’ll happen in the future, or the bad stuff!”
Rewards and punishments don’t really work an an interest-based nervous system. The problem with trying to think of the future as though it were now is that my brain is already off listening to the concert of my other thoughts or staring at some speck on the wall I hadn’t noticed before that kinda looks like Elvis’s head. And it’s easy to belittle this kind of problem when you don’t suffer from it. For my fellow neuro-divergents nodding along right about now, I have good news.
There are things you can do to help improve your attention. And for those of you who aren’t, but still want to help improve your focus for the times you suffer from wandering attention, stick around. You might find something useful here too.
Recently, I joined Weight Watchers. This isn’t an ad for them, though I’ve lost 16 pounds so far and am pretty happy with the program. When I joined, I was pretty sedentary, but over the past few weeks I’ve been doing daily workouts through one of their partners, Daily Burn. Again, not an ad, I’m just pretty happy with the service, though if you do decide to try it out they’ll give you a free month because they’re awesome like that.
At first it was friggen hard to get myself to do it. Why would I want to make my whole body sore when I could be sitting on my ample rear tapping away for the benefit of my readers and the kind authors who send me their books for review? But after about a week, I noticed something.
I have a FitBit tracker (all the brand name drops in this post!) and one of the features I use the most is the sleep tracking function. After a week, my total minutes spent in deep (theta level) sleep increased by fifty percent, my time to fall asleep decreased by thirty percent, and my minutes spent awake (people wake up periodically in their sleep naturally, so I’m not weird here) was cut in half.
So why should the writers in the room care? My word counts also doubled with no additional work time on the days I worked out. I’ll let that sink in for a sec. Remember what I said about interest based immune systems and immediate rewards? Seeing this was my hallelujah moment. And it gets better.
I’ll do a post on meditation next week, but I’ll simply note here that I’ve been pairing my workouts with 3 minute meditation segments when I transition between writing tasks. For me, writing tasks are segmented into four groups: Drafting (duh), Editing (reviewing notes from my writing group, line edits, structural commentary, reviewing my outline), Generative Work (outlining, prompt writing, world building, 1st person POV rants from characters so I can get their voice down), and Correspondence (answering your emails, sending out requests of my own for Covenant of the Hollow reviews, chatting with colleagues about events, etc).
Each of those tasks engages a different part of my writing brain and requires a different sort of attention, so the meditation smooths the transitions between them. I did this long before I started exercising, but the exercise gave a specific boost to my performance that, when paired with the meditation, engaged the ADHD state of hyperfocus without any additional effort on my part.
Meditation helps the body build additional dopamine receptors, which ADHD folks and those suffering from chronic anxiety and depression don’t have as many of as neurotypical folks. Exercise causes a MASSIVE release of dopamine when you’re done. That sore feeling after a workout, and the subsequent warmth all over your body? That’s a flood of dopamine similar to the flood you were looking for if you ever got into your fridge after a breakup or played video games for hours on end.
But wait, there’s more! Exercise also helps build new neural pathways. Translation: it makes learning and holding one’s attention easier. It does so by facilitating production of BDNF, a hormone essential to the production and maintenance of neuron pathways. If you meditate during or after exercise, it can also help with the construction of those wonderful dopamine receptors I talked about earlier, which help your brain become more responsive to the “feel good” you get after doing something hard. Or working out.
Armed with this information, I tried walking on my treadmill when I got stuck on a particularly difficult transition point working on Covenant of the Hollow. Anyone who’s read it and is reading this would understand why I’d get stuck a few times working on it. It’s an immense plot spanning centuries, involving equal parts political thriller, cosmic horror, hard science fiction, and alternate history genres.
Getting on the treadmill with no distractions (and this is the key right here, because it didn’t work with music or a podcast) broke through all my blocks within 15 minutes. Who wouldn’t want a cure for writer’s block as simple as throwing on some running shoes and heading outside or hopping on the treadmill? I got hooked.
Keep in mind exercising didn’t eliminate my need for medication. It did, however, increase its effectiveness. I can feel when my Ritalin LA kicks in, and after a workout, I can jump right into my work without the itch to hop on Facebook or call up a friend instead of whatever set of tasks I laid out for myself that day.
I’m thinking of doing a series on ADHD, attention, writer’s block, anxiety, and tools and techniques you can use to break through it. It’ll be primarily aimed at creative types, but anyone can use it.
What do you think? Is that something you would be interested in? Is there a particular topic you’d like me to cover?
Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email over on my contact page. I’d love to hear from you.