Welcome to week three of my ADHD and creativity series! During Week 1, I talked about how exercise shattered my writer’s block and helped me double my word counts from February through March. Last week, I talked about how meditation helps facilitate the growth of new dopamine receptors to help soak up all those lovely exercise endorphins, and how meditating when transitioning between tasks helps me focus better.
This week, I’ll be talking about my pre-writing ritual and how writing at the same time every day, doing the same things before you write each day, or both can help get your brain primed for creative work.
First, on my pre-writing routine. I’m religious, so I’ll say that up front. I also write full time, so I have a bit more time for a lengthy writing ritual before I start my work each day.
After breakfast, I head downstairs to my mini-gym and do the first of two short workouts (around 30-45 minutes each) each day. I then move over to my altar room and do a set of daily prayers and devotions to align myself with my purpose. A version of this could be a mind-clearing meditation or a short daily reading related to whatever it is you’re writing about, if you’re not religious. I then head to my office, power up the computer, and dump 3 pages of stream of consciousness into a running word document I use as a journal. If I’m stressed out about anything, having doubts, anxieties, in a really good mood, or just can’t stop thinking about something, writing it all down REALLY helps with purging it before I get started.
I then do a 10 minute meditation, cement my purpose at the end, and start my first writing task of the day. I break my day into two deep work (read: writing) periods and two shallow work (read: journaling, blog posts, correspondence, marketing, submissions, lunch, etc) periods, and I’ll cover why I do this next week. Suffice to say my first deep work period follows the above, and for my second I do my second workout and another meditation.
Doing this specific set of tasks each day before I write brings two main benefits. One: it ensures I actually do these things consistently every day. Journalling is known to help aid in emotional regulation for both ADHD and neurotypical folks, and getting crap out of my head before I start writing means that crap isn’t going to stop me from writing. We’ve already talked about the myriad benefits of meditation. And working out. By making each of these steps a part of my pre-writing ritual, I’m training myself to get them done every day, and giving myself the best time frame to reap the immediate benefits to my productivity in that moment.
The second is a bit more complex. A daily ritual, like a habit, activates parts of the brain your mind comes to associate with tasks that come afterward. E.G., if you drink the exact same tea just before you start to brainstorm for writing, or wear the same hat or outfit or go to work at the same time, the parts of your brain that work together for brainstorming light up like neon signs in Vegas immediately afterward. This works particularly well if you can do these things at the same time every day, as this adds the dual benefit of engaging your Circadian Rhythms, or the parts of your nervous system involved in when to be more active and when to sleep.
So what can you do if you can’t write at the exact same time every day because of a day job with an unpredictable schedule or something else? This is where the behavioral rituals really shine. Back to the tea example – if you use a number of different herbal teas and only drink them just before you engage in a specific writing task, then your brain will come to recognize those sensory experiences as being prep for practicing that task.
Tea isn’t the only thing you can use, obviously. Specific exercises, particular visualizations for meditation (there’s a fantastic creativity meditation on Headspace that works really well for this), putting on a whistling kettle or playing a specific musical album, the sky’s the limit. As long as it’s something you only do before you engage in creative work, most things that engage the senses in some way can function as a pre-writing ritual. The key is consistency. If you choose a musical album, you can’t just randomly play it in your car or you’ll be working against all that training you’ve put yourself through to tie the sounds with writing.
And it does take a bit of training. It took me about two months before my pre-work ritual really sank in, and it may have even been sped up because I’d been doing at least a few of those things for years before writing prior to the setup of my office. The level of detail and complexity of behavior is a personal choice, but I caution you not to give up on the practice if it takes a while to sink in. Often the shift in mindset is a subtle one, and you won’t really physically see the benefits unless you’re doing some kind of tracking outside of just word counts.
I have my word count and habit tracking spreads opposite each other in my bullet journal so it’s really easy to see what happens if I skip one of my essential pre-work rituals. Having the immediate feedback and seeing the numbers grow over time confirmed my internal feeling that this pre-work set of tasks really does benefit me.
Next week I’ll cover Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport and why I segment my work day the way I do. This particular post extends beyond creative work, and I’m hoping some of you can find some use for it in your day jobs as well. See you next week!