Brain hacks for writers with executive dysfunction

Have you ever had sleep paralysis?
Waking up to find yourself unable to move and speak?

To me, that’s what executive dysfunction can feel like. But instead of not being able to move completely, you just can’t move in the right direction. You can’t force yourself to open the book, to pick up the toothbrush, to open that word processor. Instead, you’re pacing up and down the hallway, panicking.

ED is like a goodie bag that comes with ADHD, a disconnect between the brain and the body. It makes it difficult to initiate tasks, to switch between tasks, to control impulses, to focus and to not focus on the wrong thing. It’s not laziness or lack of motivation. It’s not anxiety or overwhelm (although it’s definitely anxiety or overwhelm-inducing).

Tips like “build a habit” or “start small” don’t always work for ED because you can feel paralysed by the tiniest things. What works then? Creativity! Coming up with hacks to outsmart your own brain and then switching it up before it catches on.

Here are 10 brain hacks that help me switch from mum/work mode into writer mode:

  1. Taking a power nap. Set the alarm clock for 10-15 minutes and have a snooze. If that doesn’t work just lying down with your eyes closed, doing breathing exercises, meditation or whatever helps to do a quick reset.
  1. Taking a shower. Running water helps to calm the mind and get the creative juices flowing.
  1. Taking a walk. Works on the same principle as the first two, but especially great for working through plot points you’re stuck on.
  1. Working on an unrelated writing task. E.g. I find Drabbles (100 word stories) extremely satisfying, because it’s a new, tiny, finished product. They only take a few minutes to draft, and you can ride the wave of satisfaction into a more difficult task (e.g. your WIP).
  1. Set time aside to do another important task like… cleaning or budgeting. And procrastinate by writing.
  1. Check in with your bodily needs. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Toileted? No, seriously. Those can be distracting. Plus if you happen to reach the nirvana of hyperfocus you may not get a chance to check in with your body for the next ten hours.
  1. Write on your phone (this is my favourite one). They say smaller tasks feel less overwhelming but so do smaller screens!
  1. Incorporate movement. When sitting still feels like torture, I pace back and forth while typing on my phone (but make sure you do it safely, not around moving cars and stuff).
  1. Cheat on your WIP… with your WIP. If you have a synchronised app like Google Docs or Office360, have your WIP open on multiple devices like your laptop and your phone. Switch between the two when feeling like you need distraction.
  1. Writing at odd times and locations. Creatures of habit thrive on doing things the same way. But monkey-brained creatures of chaos need novelty. Change things up often, accept that brain-hacks only work until they don’t, and be prepared to invent something new.

What are your favourite brain hacks?!

Your “easy” is someone’s “impossible”

Have you discovered the book-writing secret that will help everyone? We need to talk.

I often see privileged and/or ableist statements floating around the writing and creative communities.

E.g. “I’m a single mother with five jobs, and I wrote 50 books last year.” 

Okay, good for you. You should be proud. But somewhere there is a person with zero kids and zero jobs, and just one chronic illness. And that person has written zero books because on their good day they only managed to shower. And you have zero rights to judge them.

The fastest person in the world can run 45 kilometres per hour. Doesn’t mean the rest of us can. Not with all the self-discipline in the world. And just because you’re managing to do all the things, doesn’t mean others can keep up with your level of productivity.

“You need to prioritise your art.”

Fine. What do you suggest I de-prioritise? My kid? Or the job that keeps a roof over our heads? Because that’s literally all I have time and energy for. I barely watch TV. Sometimes I listen to audiobooks while driving her to school. I skimp on cooking and cleaning. And I’m STILL flat out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making excuses. I HAVE written a book. I AM getting short stories published. I’m doing it. Not as fast as I want, but I’m making it happen. And it’s through none of your “shoulds”. It’s NOT through having a routine, or writing every day, or setting a timer for fifteen minutes. It’s not through self-discipline or building a habit. It’s through constantly coming up with new hacks to trick my stubborn brain. It’s through seizing every unplanned downtime. It’s through radical opportunism. 

“But my advice is proven to work.” 

That, my dear, is called survivorship bias. I’m sure your approach worked for some people who have similar inner-workings to you, but there are many for whom it didn’t. Yet those people aren’t accounted for. It’s not the failed attempts that get the airtime.

Yet, your experience IS valuable. I’m absolutely not saying that you should stop sharing it. No, no, no. I’m just asking that you share it with compassion and kindness. Because you can’t shame anyone into improvement. You cannot invalidate people’s struggles and limitations because “you have struggled too,” or “you have struggled more.”  You can’t help anyone by making them feel less than when they don’t fit into your one-fits-all mould.

Trust me, I know. I’m good at school, at work, and at solving big problems. I’m useless at the little stuff, like remembering appointments or closing the fridge door. And if I had a penny for everytime someone said “you should just pay attention” or “you should just write it down,” I would’ve paid off my mortgage long ago. Instead, I’ve spent hours of my life crying over spilled milk, wishing I was “normal.”

But I’m not “normal.” Not in the neurotypical sense. And understanding this, I have accepted that certain things – things that don’t even cross most people’s minds, like how much eye contact you should be making with the supermarket checkout operator — are going to be really, really hard for me. And “just setting fifteen minutes aside for my art” isn’t going to cut it. Because my brain buffers. And it buffers a lot.

So, when I share tips or experience, I try to present it as personal and subjective, e.g. “This is what works for me.” “This is a hurdle I’ve faced and this is how I’ve overcome it.” “This is what I tried and it worked until it didn’t.”

And if you’re offering coaching services, you can similarly use examples from your work that don’t imply a one-fits-all solution. E.g. “Jane Blogs was going through such and such, I taught her to do X and Y, and this was the outcome. I can show you how.” And when somebody tells you they don’t have time, or energy, or can’t stick with a routine or a habit – believe them. Just because it’s not your experience, and perhaps not most people’s experience, doesn’t mean it’s not theirs. And maybe you aren’t the right person to help them, and that’s okay. The least you can do is make them feel seen and valid and not like a failure.

And for the odd-balls like me, who don’t fit the mould – don’t despair. Just because you haven’t found something that works, doesn’t mean you won’t. Keep searching, keep asking, keep speaking out. Share what works and what doesn’t, so we don’t feel so alone. Be radically opportunistic and make art. Once a week, once a year, or once a decade. I believe that you are doing your best.