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Because There's More Than Just Motivation

Executive Dysfunction Means General Advice May Not Work For You
This is a guest essay by writer .
Possibly fittingly, I’ve been sitting around for the past five hours trying to bring myself to do something, anything, absolutely anything please brain I am begging you.
Well, here I am, finally getting to writing this when really, I should be reading (that was, at time of writing, the task I had set aside for today but had not done in any capacity at all).
I did promptly write those two sentences and then do absolutely nothing for forty minutes. I wish I were exaggerating but that’s the thing about executive dysfunction: sometimes you just can’t.
I won’t spend any more time in this post mentioning when I started then abandoned the writing of this piece, just internalize that somewhere within this post, likely multiple times, I stopped mid-sentence or mid-thought and left it to fester for a while. You don’t need to know the exact amount of time, just that it happened. It’s fine.
It’s right in there in the name: your executive functions, your ability to do your basic needs or to pull your focus to things that need to get done, are impaired. You don’t have Function. You have Dysfunction. It’s staring at your computer or your phone, refreshing the page for the hundredth time even though you really hate what you’re doing and everything is boring and you have work to do and also you really need to pee but you just can’t bring yourself to get up and go because your body is locked and refuses to move and you kind of just want to bash your head against your desk because that’s something, right?
It’s hard not to feel a certain amount of self-loathing when you know you’ve set aside time to get to writing and you really want to write but you absolutely, wholly cannot bring yourself to do it. That age old adage of “write every day” that gets repeated to be the Key to Success as a Writer? Forget about it.
“Make yourself a routine to get into it.”
“Have a to-do list.”
“Reward yourself for meeting goals.”
“Create deadlines for yourself.”
“Limit your distractions, download these applications to block sites!”
Yeah, I wish any of that worked for me.
In fact, if you’re reading this and expecting some kind of answer or solution to being a writer with executive dysfunction, I’ll spoil this post for you. I have none. My writing “schedule” is at best described as a shamble of coping mechanisms competing with each other and occasionally falling flat on their faces like the tiny, pestering gnomes that they are. Occasionally one of them breaks free from the writhing mass and I get maybe a month of good, consistent writing in, and then the others catch up and they’re back to uselessly crawling over each other. How I ever studied for exams, I’ll never know. (That’s not true, the answer was very, very badly for these reasons exactly.)
On a good day, I might be able to pick up one of those coping mechanisms and get it running on its own for just a little bit. It feels good to be able to match motivation with the actual executive function required to execute it. Some of those days go by unhindered. Some of those days, my body tenses up and says “No.”
The summer of 2017, I developed a dull, aching pain under my right shoulder blade. Within the year, it deteriorated into full upper body pain, often impeding on my ability to sleep and more often turning into tension headaches in my shoulders, neck, and jaw. By 2019, the muscles in my upper arms and thighs would keep me up at night, so tense they felt like they were burning. I spent a lot of money on physiotherapy and getting (very good!) exercise and strengthening routines that are meant to be done daily to help repair—ah, do you see my problem again?
Needless to say as good as my physiotherapist was and as bad as my body has been, routine is something I struggle with because routine is something that requires executive function. I do what I can when I remember to or when I can muster enough executive function to do the strengthening exercises I’d been recommended, but I’m still a tight knot of chronic pain.
It feels like the stars need to align according to the most sporadic, convoluted star chart imaginable for me to even be able to get any kind of writing done. If not for the executive dysfunction hampering me, it’s the chronic pain. I’ve had plenty of days where I sat down to write and could actually focus on doing so but my neck pain was so intense I had to take a nap instead. Which, I should add, only sometimes worked. Did you know you could be tense in your sleep? I once went to bed with a tension headache and woke up the next day with the very same one.
The thing about both of these is that I feel like I’m doing it to myself. That really, I’m my own obstacle. “The pain isn’t that bad,” I might tell myself even though ignoring pain is exhausting in and of itself. “I need to write, I just need to try,” I’ll think despite the hours spent sitting uncomfortably—almost painfully—but unable to move thanks to the executive dysfunction. There’s always the guilt that I’m just not trying hard enough because on a good day I can get 1k-2k words in and on an amazing day I can get almost 4k. On most days, though? Try closer to 0. And I always find myself thinking “You’re just not trying hard enough.”
Recently, I’ve been working to change my attitude toward writing. The arbitrary criteria of how much “daily writing” is required to make someone A Writer is too simple an understanding, too unkind to those who can’t be On all the time. Drafting is not the beginning or end of what constitutes as “writing” and work that comes out of strain or put down without thought may as well be just as time consuming to fix as time spent listening to my body and knowing when I can’t push myself. I know when I can and can’t get a daily word count out—I’m not going to measure my worth against a criteria created by someone who has lived a very different life than I. I’ve been unlearning all of that, working out what “writing life” looks like based off my own needs and habits and many, many coping mechanisms. It’s a process and it takes time but it’s definitely worth it.

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