Achieving Your Goals When You Have ADHD

D.R. McElroy

You can cope with a condition that sometimes scrambles your brain. 6 min read.
Original photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash (altered by author)

Sometimes, it seems like my brain is at war with itself. I’ve struggled with Attention Deficit Disorder (aka Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) for much of my life. In another article, I talk about the effects of ADD on my daily life; here, I want to specifically look at what this condition means for me as a working writer--and how you can use my techniques to achieve your own goals.

There are two main types of attention deficit disorder: hyperactive and inattentive. A third type combines these two. Hyperactive is the one we associate with (especially male) children, unable to sit still, being disruptive in class, etc. I choose to designate this version as ADHD, though ADD and ADHD are commonly used interchangeably.

Inattentive type is frequently found in girls, who may daydream or not pay attention to the teacher, become easily distracted, or might not complete assignments on time. I choose to designate this type as ADD since it commonly lacks the “hyperactive” component of the disorder. Again, the mental health community accepts both abbreviations interchangeably.

Having inattentive-type ADD as an adult is challenging because people don’t understand what’s “wrong” with you; the strong association between ADD and children makes many people assume that adults with ADD/ADHD are immature and, well, childish. We aren’t afforded the same consideration or tolerance people extend to children with the condition, which is understandable but unfortunate.

Disciplining the ADD mind

Writing is a profession that requires a lot of self-discipline and organization to do well. Whether you’re writing books, like I do, or creating content for websites, developing a set of habits is critical to achieving your goals (and this is true whether you have ADD or not.)

Goal One: Organization

Organization is the bane of inattentive types. My brain works like a waterfall all the time: ideas flow from the mystical mountains of inspiration into the river of enthusiasm, then rage over the cataract of confusion and into the hydraulic of overwhelm. (Apologies if you don’t do a lot of river rafting.)

Without a system of organization, the dozens of ideas that occur to me each day would be lost because my thoughts flow much faster than my ability to capture and examine them for viability. It’s like being on an endless tumble down a hillside with nothing to grab on to.

Calendars work extremely well for me; I use a large paper desk pad-style calendar with room to write down everything I need to do in a given day. There are lots of apps like Asana, Evernote, or Google Calendar that can organize your schedule and send you email reminders for major events.

I have personally used all three of these, and have found them to be effective — IF I remember to enter all of my events and set up the proper notifications!

Goal Two: Project management

There are a number of ways to plan a project. Some people like to use index cards with pieces of a project written on them; the cards let you move the pieces of the project around to find the order of execution that makes the most sense. This system also makes changes to both the layout and content simple, and the cards are inexpensive.

My problem with this system is that I get overwhelmed by all the different cards and figuring out where they should go. My brain has problems with prioritizing tasks because everything is assigned the same “urgency” by my prefrontal cortex.

For fans of digital, there are several apps that are useful for project planning. Scrivener is a classic and highly-rated app for managing fiction manuscripts. It contains character worksheets, plot-planning spaces, a clipping function for research items, built-in chapter and indexing functions, and much more. This is a complex program with a lot of moving parts, so expect a steep learning curve.

Dabble is an app that could be considered Scrivener “lite”: it’s got a lot of the same basic functions as Scrivener without all the bells and whistles. It’s a lot simpler to learn and makes plotting fiction or organizing nonfiction articles a breeze. Even I have been able to learn it.

An advantage to digital is that it organizes well in a construct that is only visible when needed; this prevents the problem of “visual clutter” that so distresses ADD/ADHD brains.

If you're not a writer, apps like Trello offer scheduling, organizing, and planning capabilities that make goal achievement easier. Evernote and Notebook add the ability to record voice notes to their planning capabilities.

Goal Three: Accuracy in Writing

I’ve been a writer and editor for over 40 years. One of the gifts of neurodiversity is a talent for pattern recognition: I can spot a single number 1 in a whole page of 0’s in about ten seconds. This skill makes copy editing and proofing relatively easy for me and I enjoy it.

If you don’t have this skill, fear not. There are a ton of apps available that do a reasonably good job of catching errors; none of them are perfect, however, so always get someone to proof your copy before submitting it. Nothing says amateur writer like dirty copy!

Grammarly is an app that has become almost ubiquitous; it’s attached to many platforms (including this one) automatically and is available in a free version. The problem is, Grammarly regularly commits a number of proofing errors, including mismatching plural and singular nouns and verbs, deleting needed commas, and using inappropriate verb tenses. On a scale of 1–5, I’d give it a 3.

ProWriting Aid is better, in my opinion. It commits fewer errors and can scan your writing for a number of different categories of your choosing: reading level, adverb use, tone, comprehensibility, unique word use, and more. Most word processing software comes with some version of spell-checker/proofer.

Goal Four: Completion

Many people, not just those of us with ADD/ADHD, struggle to complete projects we have begun. Whether it’s the novel you began ten years ago (guilty) or that baby blanket or coffee table you started making and never got around to finishing, those “lost” projects haunt us all.

Completion is arguably the most difficult aspect of any creative endeavor. Sometimes, it’s fear of failure or ridicule that keeps a project in limbo; other times it’s loss of interest, changing circumstances, or just plain old laziness that keeps us from our goal.

And then there’s perfectionism, the nemesis of completion. I suffer horribly from perfectionism, which seems to many like a virtue, but is actually a curse. I’m always hypersensitive to making an error, particularly one that will live forever in the pages of a book.

In the “golden age” of publication, there was an army of editors, proofers, and fact-checkers who crawled over manuscripts prior to publication to prevent the disaster of typos or factual errors.

Nowadays, however, manuscripts may get (at best) a once-over from an editor and maybe a single, overworked copy editor (who often also does the proofing). Much of the writing done for the web is lucky to have been run through a spell-checker, let alone be thoroughly proofed. And fact-checking…

Fortunately for working writers (and anyone else trying to achieve certain goals), there are ready answers to our completion problems. Deadlines are a big help in getting things done. More than once I’ve been pushed to finish a project by a hard deadline (which is immutable) looming. Not just money but my professional reputation is at risk if I fail to hit these deadlines. And so is yours.

Deadlines are good for helping "trick" your brain into assigning urgency to tasks required for goal completion. This is especially true if the deadline is attached to an important event such as a wedding or anniversary, a paycheck, or an upcoming vacation. These are things that aren't easily moved around on a calendar and which typically have severe consequences if you miss that target date.

You’re not alone.

In addition to deadlines, there are plenty of people standing by who are eager to do the finishing work you might be dreading: developmental editors, copy/line editors, proofers, transcribers, manuscript formatters, and more can give your written work a professional polish so that it has the best chance of being accepted for publication. The same is true for other types of content you may need to produce, including videos, presentations, curricula, and hard goods. Hire a freelancer and save yourself some major anxiety.

Just keep in mind that if you have ADD/ADHD, you might have to take some extra steps that other creators don’t when it comes to organization and planning.

While ADD presents certain challenges, it is not a bar to achieving your dreams.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.


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