When our younger son was diagnosed in middle school with inattentive ADHD, I discovered that I have it, too. Our older son has what most people think of as ADHD: capital-H Hyperactive. Our younger son’s personality is so different that we had no idea.
Turns out, ADHD doesn’t always look the same. I thought I was just disorganized (I called it “creative”), easily overwhelmed, and a bundle of emotion. Those things are true, and they can also be symptoms of ADHD. It explains a lot.
Recently I took an online workshop with Cathy Kirch at My Writing Hero for writers with ADHD. Much of the advice given to writers – “Sit down and write already. If you really wanted to, you’d just do it.” – doesn’t work for people with ADHD, with solid scientific reasoning.
The neurotypical brain gets a ping of dopamine, a natural feel-good chemical messenger in the brain, from task completion; anticipating completing the task again triggers another ping of dopamine. Two pings of happy make a huge difference. The ADHD brain, however, doesn’t get those happy pings. We get pings from novelty. In fact, we might even have negative reinforcement from not completing the task, or doing an incomplete job, or the shame involved with all of it.
It’s a full-circle system. Also, systems can be hacked. As a writer, I can ask myself: What about the writing process brings me satisfaction? Sometimes satisfaction comes from … having written, or crafting an excellent sentence. From connecting thoughts like puzzle pieces, or sharing my writing with others. From quick-fire writing exercises, or hitting a daily word count.
When you can identify what gives you satisfaction – or joy – you can develop rituals to enhance that experience. For example, adding sensory experiences to your writing space, like a scented candle or a favorite coffee mug you use only while writing, can amp up the joy. Or pinning index cards with pieces of the project on a cork board and writing each day about the one that “calls” to you. Or writing each day’s progress on a piece of a children’s puzzle and gradually assembling the puzzle. Or pulling writing prompts from a jar and playing with words (for a set amount of time) to get the juices flowing.
There are as many hacks as people. Actually, more, since the ADHD brain wants novelty and we need more tools than we can use at once. Besides, that novelty thing? What works today won’t necessarily work next time.
The goal, of course, is to initiate and complete tasks, often when we don’t want to. Or when we want to, but can’t find our way in. The greater goal is to find flow; ADHD’s superpower is hyperfocus, though we often have trouble focusing on the appropriate area (i.e., falling down internet rabbit holes searching for the perfect quote or checking email/social media when we should be working, etc).
I can’t express how exciting it was to realize that I can use my non-linear thinking to my advantage. Rather than fight my brain’s hardwired tendencies, I can give myself permission to work differently. I don’t have to start at A to get to Z. I might start at C, head back to A, then over to T. Ooh, maybe I’ll create a game, assigning letters to pieces of my project and spelling words by writing “out of order.”
This approach will certainly help me get work done as a writer, and it will likely affect aspects of regular life that I don’t enjoy (cleaning bathrooms, anyone?). However, while it might be infinitely helpful for someone with ADHD, I bet adding joy rituals to your work – whatever that may be – can help you, too.
Today I came across this article about how to fall in love with a job you don’t like. The author states: “…job happiness can boil down to our innate desire for three things: control over our lives, positive daily connections, and joy and meaning in how we spend our waking time (half of which is at work, for most people).” Read the article and watch your own reflections spark.
We can’t control everything in our work lives, yet we can invest creative thinking into identifying what we enjoy and adding joy hacks to whatever we can’t delegate. We can’t control with whom we work, yet we can get curious about who they are and what makes them tick. We can’t control the job itself, yet we can assign meaning (i.e., when I worked at a wine bar I decided that I wasn’t just serving, I was offering hospitality – a subtle and significant mindset shift; I am a writer, but perhaps I should call myself Chief Encouragement Officer).
I told my son, now a high school senior, about joy hacks. We’ll discuss how to help him find what brings satisfaction to his “job” as a student and stock his toolbox with rituals that will provide motivation to initiate and complete tasks. We want him to always have a joy hack ready to go. Hopefully, we can also help him rewire the shame cycle in his brain with plenty of dopamine pings.
We’re all different, finding joy in different activities in different ways. Some have neurotypical brains that feast on joy all day long (Lucky Ducks!), and some of us will have to invest effort into creating joy hacks to get our brains moving in the direction we want to go. Still, there’s freedom in knowing that this is how my brain works and that there’s more joy to come as I get to it.
What brings you joy, and how will you add more of it to your day?
HUGE thanks to Cathy Kirch at My Writing Hero!