I was diagnosed with predominately-inattentive-type ADHD in October 2017.
I finished writing my first novel in October 2016.
During the ten months I spent writing Nantais, I knew I had significant executive function problems. I’d had them all my life. But I didn’t know I had ADHD. And since caffeine betrayed me by becoming a major migraine trigger in 2015 or so, I wrote the entire novel with no chemical assistance whatsoever.
I want to show y’all how I did it.
In this post, Part 1 of 3, I want to talk about systems. Focusing on systems is more productive for me (and not just me) than focusing on goals – so I put a lot of work into my daily system.
Here’s my system and how it keeps me on track.
1. The Challenges
Like a lot of folks with ADHD, I have terrible time perception. My sense of time is basically “Now” and “Not Now” – and “Not Now” is a giant black hole from which no scheduled event will ever emerge. Basically, if it’s not in front of my face right now, it doesn’t exist to me.
Because of this, my approach to work has always been to do as much as I can while I can remember to do it. And my results have always been short bursts of productivity followed by long recovery periods.
But writing a novel is a marathon event. It takes slow, steady work over time. “Just write something every day” is great advice – if you are constitutionally capable of doing it. My system makes me constitutionally capable of doing it.
2. The Schedule
On each side of the alcove that houses my desk (more on that in Part 2) hangs a chalkboard. Chalkboard Left contains my monthly, weekly, and daily schedules. It looks like this:
Chalkboard Right, which is not visible from my bed but which is closer to my chair when I’m at the desk, contains my writing stuff. I’ll talk about Chalkboard Right in Part 2.
Let’s take a closer look at Chalkboard Left’s components.
This is a typical monthly calendar for me. I made the form in Excel. I usually have two months hanging up at any given time; here, January 2018 is hiding behind December 2017. Since December is almost over, I’ll be making February 2018 in a week or so.
Each of my days is sectioned into five components:
- M: Morning project. A 3-hour slot from approximately 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
- E: Exercise. I prefer to do this between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., but scheduled appointments sometimes require me to move it elsewhere in my day.
- A: Afternoon project. A 2-hour slot from approximately 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
- C: Chore. That’s “chore,” singular – one cleaning thing, fix, or errand per day.
- D: Professional development. Working on the novel goes here almost always.
Although they’re not listed on the calendar, I typically eat breakfast before 8 a.m., lunch between 11 and 11:30, and tea around 4:30. Dinner is usually anywhere between 7 and 10 p.m., depending on when my husband gets home and how fancy we feel like being.
I sleep from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Every day. The wake-up time is less a choice than a duty imposed by the Hungry Cat Alarm.
Sleep, meals, and exercise are the three foundations on which the entire system rests. After that come the weekly slots, then the calendars themselves.
Every Sunday, I use the monthly calendar to move things to the board for the week ahead. Here’s what this week looks like:
When I first starting using this system, I was suffering from chronic overwork. So I made a rule: In any given day, I would do only the five things on the list. If it wasn’t scheduled, I wasn’t doing it.
That one rule has changed my life.
That said, you can see here how some of the categories are flexible. For instance, Monday’s afternoon activity and chore are both “concert.” That’s because herding middle and high school students takes a lot of energy – enough for two ordinary daily activities.
Also, notice that the “exercise” slots don’t say “exercise.” Instead, they list specific things I can do, like “weights,” “rink,” “walk,” and so on. After a morning of work I don’t have the brainpower to pick an exercise. So Sunday Me schedules them ahead of time, freeing up Weekday Me to just go do the listed thing.
Other slots are flexible too. For instance, my “professional development” for Wednesday is “commute.”
Wednesdays are tough for me: I volunteer at the local Humane Society in the morning, then drive halfway across the state to see my therapist in the afternoon (anyone who has ever searched for years for a good therapist instantly understands why I make that drive).
I never have any brainpower left by the end of Wednesday, and I don’t try. Instead, I acknowledge that commuting takes effort by making the commute a separate Thing from the activities I’m commuting to.
3. On the Road
If you have ADHD, you’re probably thinking, “That’s great, but how do you remember this stuff when you’re not at your desk?”
I’m glad you asked.
This is a Google Keep note that lives on my phone. Once my week is on the board every Sunday, I type it into the Keep note. The Keep note has an alarm attached, so it pops up on my phone screen every day at 8 a.m.
If stuff comes up while I’m away from my desk, I drop it into Keep to add to the schedule when I get home. Since I will definitely forget to add it when I get home, the 8 a.m. alarm reminds me to add it the next morning.
(PS: The initials are codes for various freelance clients. If a code comes up, I check my email for their latest project specs.)
4. How the System Helps the Writing
“Professional development” is a squishy category in terms of time (as is “chore”), but when its set task for the day is writing, it happens from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. It happens at my desk. And it goes in the notebook.
I’ll talk more about the time and place in Part 2 and the notebook itself in Part 3, because they’re also integral parts of the system. In fact, having dedicated places/tools/containers for particular projects is integral to me getting just about anything done.
Why It Works
The schedule keeps me from exhausting myself. It recognizes that writing takes effort (which is why it gets its own slot), and makes it a priority in my day (you had five jobs and this was one of them!).
The schedule ensures that I can write, making it much more likely that I will.
Next time: How I arranged my workspace so I could write a novel in 10 months with untreated ADHD. Stay tuned.
Did this article help? Just want to toast a fellow ADHDer with our caffeinated lifesaver of choice? Buy me a coffee!