Keeping Track: Freelance Writing With ADHD

Francine Carrel is an editorial professional with over a decade’s experience. Francine can usually be found at her computer in Bury St Edmunds. Failing that, seek her in the local coffee shop. She’ll be sitting by the window with a red pen and a pile of proofreading.

I have ADHD and I write from home.

That sentence is enough to draw concerned, “is-that-a-good-idea” expressions from most people I talk to. It’s fair enough. Freelance writing isn’t the safest career option for anyone, let alone someone with a known tendency to go off joyriding with the fairies.

But… well, I like it. I enjoy the creative freedom and the endless possibilities offered by every day. I like swanning off for a coffee break at 3 p.m. and working on articles at 2 a.m. (the two are possibly connected).

I’d been thinking about taking the plunge into self-employment for a while. Then redundancy kicked me, prematurely, into the pool a few months ago. Here’s how I’m coping.

Background

I’ve worked as a writer and editor for over a decade, since I was 16, mainly in structured, full-time roles on magazines and websites.

Time management and distraction have always been a problem, although my coping mechanisms improved over the years.

In my teens and early 20s, I would let a workload swallow me until, hours before everything simply had to be done, the adrenaline would kick in and I would do a fortnight’s worth of work in a night (I’ve never experienced the adrenaline-filled daily deadlines of a news room, although it’s on the bucket list).

Later, under the guidance of a very clever editor, I learned how best to direct my creative energy.

Boring admin tasks became interesting if I spent time working out how to automate them. Insurmountable wordcounts became manageable in smaller chunks. Ideas were freely ping-ponged across the desk — and the good ones evolved.

Most importantly, though, everything was tracked and filed. My folders spawned sub-folders, my checklists were manifold, my spreadsheets gained sentience.

These complicated systems, known to us late-diagnosed people as “coping mechanisms”, slowly turned work from something anxiety-ridden to something enjoyable.

ADHD

I was diagnosed with ADHD about a year ago, at the age of 26. It was a great relief. I wasn’t broken; or, if I was, it was in a way that I could learn how to fix.

I’d been incorrectly diagnosed with, and unsuccessfully medicated for, anxiety. It’s a common story for women with ADHD.

ADHD is a controversial disorder. Lots of clever people believe that it is a mislabelled grouping of more tenuously related symptoms. Many more people (not so clever) think it’s just an excuse for laziness.

If only! Unfortunately, ADHD means that everyday things take a lot more effort.

Why? Well, ADHD affects an offensively large section of behaviour called executive functioning.

Executive functioning, when it’s, er, functioning, helps you plan, keep track of time, pay attention and — importantly for this article — bolsters your working memory and helps you think creatively.

Not-working memory

Working memory is the temporary storage system in your brain. It keeps track of the fleetingly relevant information that needs dealing with.

If you’re interested, there are lots of complicated scientific theories about working memory, illustrated by charts with labels like “phonological loop”.

But it may help to think of working memory as RAM, rather than disk space.

Everyone, disorder or not, has experienced failures in their working memory. Ever opened the fridge and forgotten what you came for? Forgotten a sentence as you spoke it? Gone to the shop for milk and come back with tinned sardines, a bag of frozen peas, three types of cheese, and no milk?

Having ADHD is an infuriating series of those events which, added together, can lead to serious problems in a person’s work and personal life.

One of those problems is a stymying of creative work.

This is a controversial statement in some circles, as ADHD relates to creativity in many ways. Rapid-fire connections spawn ideas and out-of-the-box thinking in a way many find enviable.

But while my brain has always rattled out 3,000 ideas a minute, most of the good ones evaporated before I could do anything about them. Even when I sat down to a writing project I was excited about, I would forget what I was thinking halfway through a sentence or look up the etymology of a word only to fall into the Wikipedia abyss.

Medication

With my diagnosis came a prescription for Elvanse (Vyvanse, for those in the States). The stimulant, which has an unintuitively calming effect on people with ADHD, was a revelation.

I could sit down and write for hours at a time without wanting to bounce my forehead off the screen. I could keep track of if-this-then-that problems. I could pay attention when someone explained something!

But while my meds have been a great help, they’re not a magical fix. I’ve had to continue evolving my coping strategies. They’re numerous and frequently tweaked. Even so, I still stumble (this article, for example, will hit the inbox of the graciously patient Nicole Dieker a day past deadline).

The parts of my work life that I’ve shared have been received with a sort of horrified interest — and, from many self-employed creatives, a request for details.

Tracking is only one part of my coping strategy, but it is the most relevant to the general population. So, I hope that this is useful both for those of you with ADHD, and those without.

Keeping track

One of the persistent lies I tell myself is “I will remember this”. That might be a task, a password, a birthday, the time it took me to do something, where I put my glasses… you get the picture.

I’ve recognised this flaw since my diagnosis and have started tackling it the only way I can — by taking all that stuff out of my mind and sticking it into spreadsheets, lists and notebooks. This has proved invaluable.

Time tracking

I never liked the idea of time tracking. It seemed micro-managey and unnecessary; not to mention guilt-inducing.

My, ahem, particular style of working includes hours-long diversions and rabbit holes of tangentially related research. It comes together in the end, usually, but it doesn’t look pretty on paper.

My last editor insisted on it, though, and I came to see things his way.

Time tracking, from his point of view, wasn’t to keep tabs on the staff. Rather, it was to get an accurate picture of how long certain tasks took.

This was vital on a magazine, and it’s proved just as important to freelancing.

Guesswork is deadly to deadlines. Humans display a touching but unfortunate tendency towards optimism when it comes to time.

We go by how long we think a task should take, rather than how long it took last time.

Last time, we reason, we had that Dropbox disaster to deal with; and then Windows started updating halfway through the sync. Plus, we’ve learned how to streamline the workflow. This time, our task should take half as long.

Bollocks will it.

If issues arose last time — be they tech, tardy contributors or natural disasters — they can happen again. You should assume they will.

By looking back on the past (say) ten repetitions of our task, we can make an educated, data-based estimation of the hours it will take next time.

An added benefit of time tracking is the slap in the face. Seeing your time spent on billable work vs time spent faffing about with website tweaks, admin and “short breaks” — all in trackable, trendable, analysable units — can be alarming.

Don’t beat yourself up over the results, though. Just look for ways to change the trend (see “problem solving”, below).

I don’t use any app for time tracking (although I’m very happy to receive suggestions). I have a colour-coded spreadsheet, which I use to mark half-hour slots. Any less is unhelpfully granular; any more ends up being vague. Your mileage may vary, but I highly recommend staying away from units of less than 15 minutes.

Output tracking

I like to charge per word written/edited, or per job. It stops the awkward conversations with clients that begin, “This should only take you a couple of hours, right?”

However, I’ve always found it easier to visualise earnings by the hour. I’m contrary like that…

So, I designed a couple of trackers on Google Sheets. Different tasks take different amounts of time and effort, so I wouldn’t recommend keeping everything on one sheet — especially if you offer several services (e.g. writing, line editing, and proofreading).

Input for each sheet:

  • Price charged for job/milestone/1,000 words
  • Target wordcount

Input for each session:

  • Date
  • Start/finish time
  • Start/finish wordcount

Output:

  • Words written/edited
  • Minutes spent writing/editing
  • Words per hour
    • Per session
    • Average for job
  • Hourly rate
  • Words until target
  • Estimated hours needed to reach target

You can see mine here, but I recommend tweaking it substantially to suit your own work.

Earnings tracking

Urgh. I hate this bit. But it spirals out of control very quickly if you ignore it.

For all matters taxation, I suggest investing in accounting software, even if you’re running a very small operation (Freshbooks is my favourite, but there are merits to all the main players). If you can afford it, I suggest investing in an actual accountant on top of that.

But for your everyday “what am I earning” tracking, a little spreadsheet again does the trick. Mine has a new page for each week, five columns and a tally for:

  • Hours worked
  • Billable hours worked, and on which job
  • Money earned per hour worked
  • Average hourly rate
  • Total earned weekly

If things start looking ropey (e.g. my hourly wage is appalling, or I’m working 14 hours a day), I can cross-reference with my time tracking sheet and try to figure out where I’m going wrong.

As well as this, I keep an easily checked sheet of how much I’ve paid into the joint account (for rent and bills) and how much I’ve paid down my credit card (which I now do not spend on, under any circumstance!).

Habit/life tracking

This is less essential than the other three categories, but far more interesting.

I started tracking various health and mood metrics when I was given ADHD medication. My heartrate, weight, food intake, sleep, and med efficacy all interacted in a way that tickled my fascination and hypochondria.

For instance, the tracking helped me to realise that my medication works far better if taken after a breakfast high in protein and fat. Apparently, that’s not the case for everyone, so my tracking gave me insight I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

I’ve since added a few more trends to keep an eye on:

  • Weather (Sunny/Rainy/Overcast; Cold/Warm/Hot): I get up earlier (and thus achieve more) when it’s sunny; I end up doing more deep, problem-solving work when it’s rainy; and I’m bloody miserable when it’s cold
  • Exercise (Yes/No): Yoga, more specifically. It’s one of the few activities that quiets my internal chatter, and it seems to have a positive effect on my work
  • Productivity (1-5): Not easy to track objectively, so I give myself a score out of five each day
  • Mood (1-5): Ditto
  • Dog (Home/Not Home): The dog goes to work with my husband three days a week. Unsurprisingly, having her here decreases my productivity
  • Socialised (Yes/No): See ‘isolation’, below
  • Cycle (various): I use Clue to track menstrual/hormonal stuff. This is particularly important for women with ADHD, as our cycles affect how well our meds work

For this type of tracking, I do have a favourite app: Exist. You can make custom tags, which is invaluable for strange-living creative sorts. It also works out correlations and trends.

Conclusion

As you can imagine, all of this gets a bit tedious once you’re past the fun setting-up-spreadsheets part (well, it’s fun for me).

Unfortunately, I don’t have a fix for that — being your own boss means you’re in charge of your hours and creative direction, but it does mean that you’re also in charge of all the rubbish stuff that your old boss did. Like, for instance, shouting at you about deadlines and productivity. (Note to self: do not shout about your deadlines. It upsets the dog.)

It’s not for everyone. It might not be for me forever. I can see myself heading back into more structured jobs one day.

But for now, as I finally learn how to work well, it’s the perfect environment.

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