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Does journaling help with ADHD?

If you have ADHD and tried everything, tips and tricks advice is annoying.

So are elaborate morning routines that promise a lot but overcomplicate already busy schedules.

I'm cautious to flat out advise my coaching clients to try a specific tool for a couple of big reasons:

  1. Any "this works" advice can result in "I suck" if it doesn't work for you
  2. Everybody's ADHD (and life) looks and feels different

What I do know helps all of us is understanding how we work, and building a repertoire of you-shaped resources and supports you can draw upon.

I can't think of a more accessible entry point than pen on paper.

It's not sexy or shiny, but writing - if it's even 1% your jam - can be very powerful for a busy ADHD brain.

Writing forces us to uncover and clarify our thoughts.

So much of our experience stays within us and is left untested and unchallenged, a jumble of tangled overwhelm that can feel impossible to unpack.

Getting your thoughts out of your head onto paper helps you organise, process and reflect. It allows you to flex your metacognition - which is just the essential executive function skill of thinking about your thinking. 

Before you write yourself off as a bad writer...

I'm not talking a perfectly constructed essay, or flowery literary prose (unless that does it for you - then go for it!). 

I mean writing that's just for you. A resource in your arsenal to notice where your attention is going.

Imperfect, inconsistent, days-missed-here-and-there is just as good.

Even if you try it once, find it helpful, and then come back to it as a resource when you need it - that's still a great way to use journaling as a support.

(And by the way, journaling is actually just writing stuff down.)

Here are some ideas to get started with journaling (hint: journaling is just writing stuff down)

Morning pages

Morning pages is a technique that I lean on most days. And those days without fail feel a lot better. I’m less reactive, more deliberate.

My coaching clients who experiment with this approach also say it helps untangle that generalised feeling of overwhelm so central to the ADHD experience.

To call Morning Pages a technique makes it sound more complex than it is. It's a simple but super powerful practice articulated by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (plus lots of famous creative people who sing its praises). 

This is it: first thing in the morning, take pen to paper and write a few pages long hand. You follow your stream of consciousness. It’s anything and everything that pops into your mind.

I find hand-writing rather than typing to be an important part of the practice because it’s slower and less furious than jabbing at the keyboard. 

This can be a low lift meditative process as you observe your thoughts (ideally without too much judgement) and get out of your head and on the page. As Julia Cameron says, the purpose of morning pages is toprovoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand”. Don’t overthink it, just go.

End of day prompts

Not a morning person? Or maybe you end your days feeling harried or just like everything got away from you.

A very simple but effective journaling prompt for the end of the day is: “What went well?”

You can play around with this: “What am I proud of?” or “Where did I create success?” 

In all my coaching sessions we always start with some variety of me asking for a win, or what went well.

This is pretty standard in coaching land. I remember my first few sessions being coached as a client that I found this question really annoying.

The reason to deliberately notice the good things we’ve done is to retrain our brains to be stickier for success.

People with ADHD are almost universally terrible at this and have a strong negativity bias. (For example, being consumed with the to-dos you didn't knock off your list, and ignoring all the important things you did). 

By deliberately and regularly seeking out what went well, we’re training the reticular activating system - the part of the brain that acts as a filter between the conscious and unconscious mind based on interest and importance.

In crude terms, by focusing on wins - big and small - we’re changing that filter.

It's pretty cool to know that we can train our brain over time to pay attention to things that are important to us.

For an ADHD brain wired for interest, this is especially powerful. Consciously turning your mind to what you’ve done that day that you’re proud of is also a great proxy for uncovering what’s really important to you and your truest values.

Any prompts around gratitude work in a similar way. This is a great thing to do in the morning or the evening - three things you’re genuinely grateful for. I challenge you to stick to things you are genuinely grateful for, not those you think you should be. 

Journal prompts for specific emotions

Another approach to journaling is to unpack a specific emotional experience you might be having. This can be really helpful if there is a big emotional flood happening that you want to understand.

Here is a link to some really great journal prompts for different emotions: https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/journal-prompts/

Other journal prompts for when you’re just not sure and need to get started:

  1. What do you want more of in your life? What do you want less of?
  2. Start with this sentence: “Imagine a world where…..” 
  3. List three things wish you could tell a friend, family member or colleague
  4. Write a narrative about yourself that has a past, present and future. 
  5. Describe a life event that gave you big personal satisfaction
  6. What are three ordinary things that bring you joy?
  7. Describe a time when you felt inspired.
  8. What are my challenges and opportunities right now?
  9. What is my ideal morning routine?
  10. What is currently outside of my comfort zone?
  11. What do I want to say yes to? What do I want to say no to?

Life with ADHD doesn't have to be so hard.

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