ADHD and artists: three tips that changed my life

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Are you an artist with ADHD? I am, and while there have been aspects of my journey that have been difficult, there have also been times when it’s felt like a real boon to my creativity. So let’s talk about ADHD and artists! 

I’m not going to get into the details about what ADHD is, how it impacts people, and how to tell if you might have ADHD. There are lots of resources on that out there, written by people who are far more qualified than I am! Instead, I’m going to talk about ways that you can be successful as an artist with ADHD. As a disclaimer, I am a novelist and filmmaker, and my creative community is full of other novelists and filmmakers. I am not a doctor or a therapist. I still think this article can be helpful to any artist with ADHD, but as with all of my advice, take what works for you and leave the rest. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on ADHD and artists.

1: Embrace your natural cycles.

Everything in life has cycles. Nature cycles through the seasons, with plants growing, blooming, and dying in their time. Human beings have hormonal cycles. The moon, of course, has cycles. And people with ADHD absolutely have cycles. I’ve found that when I’ve accepted–or even embraced–the natural cycles of my ADHD, I get a lot more work done, and I’m WAY happier with the results.

People with ADHD can struggle to focus, that’s true. But many of us are also able to hyperfocus, something which is both a blessing and a curse. When I’m hyper fixated on something, I’m so obsessively focused on it that it’s hard to do anything else. When I have to do other things, like go to work or the grocery store, I’m still thinking about the subject of my hyperfixation. When I get to sit down and put my attention on that project, sometimes an entire day can pass where I forget to eat or even go to the bathroom. Sometimes I even get bored when I have to have a conversation about a different topic! You can see how this would be an issue. Just because I’m excited about a project doesn’t mean I suddenly don’t have a job, relationships, and responsibilities. But this is also a source of strength; I once wrote an entire middle grade novel over the course of one weeklong vacation. 

If you’re an artist with ADHD, I encourage you to figure out ways to make your natural cycles work for you. If you have days or even weeks where it’s hard to focus, either take a break or find ways to accomplish something in smaller blocks of time. When you’re feeling really excited about a project and like you can give it all of your attention, see if you can go all in. When I’m ready to hyperfocus, I see where I can pull back; my job is a nonnegotiable, but I tell my loved ones I may be less available on weekends and evenings, I ask my spouse to take on a few extra chores so I can maximize productivity, and I do as much work as quickly as I can. 

I don’t want to say that you should be forgetting to eat or speak to other humans for weeks on end (more on that later) but I AM saying that if you can learn to “hack” your hyperfocus so that you’re going all in on a project AND not beat yourself up when you have days where focus just isn’t happening, you’ll get a lot more done, and probably be a lot happier, too. I’ve learned to anticipate when my hyperfocus might be able to help me; when I have a strict deadline, when I’m really excited about an idea, and when I get revision notes, I’m often able to lock in and get a ton done. When I was a teacher, I learned to turn on my hyperfocus in the summer, when I had nowhere else to be. Now that I work year round, I find that it’s easier on me when the weather gets colder because I don’t want to spend as much time outdoors, and instead want to sit in my cozy little office and write. Different things will work for different people, so take the time and experiment with what works for you. And if it’s impossible for you to control your hyper fixations and find yourself writing Hannibal fanfics when you’re supposed to be editing your work? Don’t beat yourself up about that, either. ADHD is different for everyone.

What if your big problem is task initiation? For a lot of people with ADHD, getting started on something feels like climbing an impossibly tall mountain. Especially before I was medicated, I struggled with task initiation in a BIG way. But I’ve learned to hack that, too. Sometimes it’s easy; I set a timer on my phone and tell myself I absolutely must start the task when the timer goes off. Sometimes I need to turn to my friends and family for support, and I ask them to body double with me (more on that later) or gently remind me of the commitment I made to myself and my art. Sometimes I set a deadline (or, better yet, have someone else set a deadline for me.) I put it in my calendar and then commit to a plan that forces me to have dedicated time for my project each day. 

For folks who are unmedicated or who can’t make any of these tricks work for them, remember that even a tiny step forward is better than nothing, and sometimes tiny steps enable you to do bigger things down the line. For example, I had a package I needed to return to the post office, and was having a major block around doing that task. Finally, I decided to just put the package in my trunk. The next day, I was driving by the post office anyways, and it was so much easier to just hop out of the car and mail the package than I was expecting, because I’d done my future self a favor and taken that first step. To apply this to your creative life, make a list breaking down your project into small, manageable steps. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or stuck, see if you can pick one tiny thing to accomplish. I was recently revising a novel, and while that is a big task on its own, there are lots of parts of the revision that are more manageable, from downloading a new craft book to my Kindle to re-reading one passage that’s giving me trouble. Working in order from a list makes it easier to make decisions, and it’s often less intimidating to tackle a 3 minute project than one that’s going to take an hour. Who knows, maybe getting this one task done will help you get even more done, but even if you only cross this one thing off the list, that’s progress, baby!

2: Find the productivity tools that work for YOU.

I personally cannot stand the Pomodoro technique. This technique is commonly recommended for people with ADHD, but I find it a horrible distraction. However, it works like a charm for a ton of my neurodiverse friends! There are tons of hacks, tools, and techniques designed to help people with ADHD get more done. Your task is to sift through them and figure out what works best for YOU personally as an artist with ADHD (or ADHD tendencies, I don’t know your life.) Here are a few that either I love or come highly recommended by my artist friends.

  • The Pomodoro technique. I know I just said I hate it, but it works so well for so many people. Essentially, with this technique, you have periods of work followed by shorter periods of rest. A 25 minute work period is followed by a 5 minute rest period, and this is repeated four times until you reach a longer rest period. This works well for people who struggle with time management and time blindness. There are lots of apps and online timers that will automatically do this for you, or you can go old school and set your own timer.
  • Visual timers. Similar to the Pomodoro technique, this is a way to set a specific amount of time to be your work block, and then, if you’d like, a specific amount of time to be your break block. I personally like longer work blocks than Pomodoro allows (at 25 minutes I’m usually just getting into the flow) and then counter that with longer break blocks (5 minutes doesn’t feel like enough to pee, get a new cup of coffee, grab a snack, stretch, etc) but the truth is they are very similar techniques. When I was a teacher for neurodiverse kids, I used the visual timer a LOT, and I found it worked for me, too. I’ve linked to one I think is cute, but there are tons of options out there, including apps you can download on your phone.
  • Walking while working. Do you ever feel like your best ideas come to you when you’re on a walk, driving, or taking a shower? Do you find it impossible to focus on someone talking to you unless you’re doing something with your hands, like knitting, doodling, or even scrolling on your phone? If that sounds like you, walking while working might be the right hack for you. As I write this, I’m walking on my desk treadmill. Obviously it’s more of an investment than some of these other techniques, but I can’t stress enough how much it’s helped me. This won’t work if you’re, say, trying to focus on painting, but if you’re writing or doing any kind of administrative work, and you can spare the space and money, a desk treadmill could be perfect for you. I swear by them now.
  • Body doubling. This is a relatively easy to implement technique; all you need is a willing friend! Think of body doubling as having an accountability partner. It could be as simple as texting a friend and setting up a virtual productivity date, where you both accomplish whatever it is that you’ve been putting off at the same time. It could also be as involved as creating a regular coffee date with a buddy where you both get stuff done while you enjoy a cappuccino. I wrote a whole novel that way, just hanging out in my favorite cafe with some writer buddies, and I was so much more focused.

3: Create the right environment for you to thrive.

I’ve already written a whole article about creating your dream workspace, so I won’t get into that too much. But, as an artist with ADHD, your environment is important, and you need to take data on yourself to figure out what would help you thrive. Here’s an example: my very neurotypical husband works from home, and he has a great office, with big windows that let in a ton of natural light. He chose to position his desk by the window that faces our backyard, and put a bird feeder right there so that he can watch the birds throughout his workday. If that were my office, placing my desk there would mean I got nothing done. I’d be in my birdwatching era. Art would be over.

Instead, I positioned my desk against the wall, where there were no distractions. I figured out ways I could decorate my space without distracting myself (think plants and crystals rather than elaborate pieces of art) and figured out what seating works best for me (I simply cannot function in a traditional office chair.) When you’re working on your art, take note of what is and isn’t working. Does music help you focus or does it turn into a singalong? Does working in a coffee shop provide just the right amount of input, or do you get caught up in the barista’s conversation? If you turn out all the lights and light some candles, does it make you feel cozy or like you’re in a cave?

I think the biggest thing I want to say about ADHD and artists is that you need to give yourself grace. Building a life in the arts is difficult for most people, and people with ADHD have their own unique struggles. I know it’s a cliche, but this is a marathon, not a sprint, and you have plenty of time to tweak your process and learn new skills and techniques regardless of what stage of life you’re in. Give yourself permission to struggle without seeing it as a failure, and things will be much, much easier. 

Does any of this resonate with you? Do you have your own thoughts on ADHD and artists? Reach out on my instagram and let me know, I’d love to hear what works for you!

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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