How New York Times-bestselling author Jenny Lawson manages adult ADHD: I 'set realistic goals for myself'

"When it's bad, I often struggle to remember simple things."

Jenny Lawson.
Courtesy Henry Holt & Company

Jenny Lawson has had a storied career as a writer. All four of her books, including her most recent, 2021's "Broken (in the best possible way)," are New York Times bestsellers, and her site, The Bloggess, has been nominated for multiple writing awards. In 2019, she opened a bookstore, Nowhere Bookshop, in her native San Antonio, Texas.

Lawson writes with candor and humor about life with her husband, daughter, and cats, as well as her struggles with depression, anxiety, and rheumatoid arthritis. She also has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a neurological disorder that impairs the brain's executive functions, which enable us "to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully," according to Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child.

ADHD is "not an episodic thing," says J. Russell Ramsay, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's probably with you from early on."

In terms of prevalence, he points to a 2006 University of Michigan survey of 3,199 adults ages 18 to 44, which estimated that 4.4% of adults in the U.S. had ADHD. Those numbers are still relevant today, he says, and the disorder can still go undiagnosed and untreated.

Especially for those who are undiagnosed, ADHD can have a major effect on all aspects of life, including work and finances.

Below, Lawson chats with Grow about what she's had to cope with, and how, to continue growing her writing career. For example, I "set realistic goals for myself, even if that means turning down projects I really want to do," she says.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

When and how did you discover you have ADHD?

My psychiatrist diagnosed me as an adult. I have always had problems concentrating but it became so bad that I was missing deadlines constantly and it would take me an hour to do something a neurotypical person could do in half that time.

It caused an incredible amount of anxiety.

What's it like for you to have ADHD as an adult?

I think it's different for everyone but for me it is a paralyzing sort of distraction. Sometimes it feels like I've literally been drugged. 

When it's bad, I often struggle to remember simple things, including things as basic as my Zip code. I start a project and then drift off to another one I suddenly remember is late and then forget to go back to the first one. In fact, I was supposed to have answered these questions a month ago and I'm just now doing it after a (very kind) reminder.

Some people think it's laziness but it is incredibly frustrating and maddening for the person dealing with it because they are working just as hard, but with less rewarding results. It can feel like you're a failure when in fact you're exhausted from all the projects you've half done. 

Recently I went to toast some bread to make lunch and when I tried to put the bread in there was already bread in it. That had been toasted. Yesterday. Apparently I'd tried to make the same sandwich the day before and completely forgot to get past toasting the bread.

It's like living with a maniac who leaves reminders all over about how badly you're doing things.

How have you treated the disorder?

I do a lot of different things to try to treat the disorder, including medication (which I sometimes forget to take), and making lists (which I almost immediately misplace). I also try to get enough sleep, to take walks outside, to cut down on caffeine, and all the other things that help keep it slightly more in check.

ADD meds make a giant difference to me but they also have a side effect of adding to my anxiety, which is not great because I already have anxiety disorder. 

It's like living with a maniac who leaves reminders all over about how badly you're doing things.
Jenny Lawson
Author, "Broken (In the Best Possible Way)"

I listen to pink noise on YouTube, which I don't entirely understand but it's sort of a static that drowns out the distracting noises of lightbulbs (my husband insists that lightbulbs don't make noises but I assure you they do) and helps me write. 

It's also quite nice because the pink noise video only lasts about 20 minutes so when it ends I know I've actually worked for 20 minutes straight and it can be really helpful to be able to see concrete accomplishments like that.

Any advice for other people who aren't neurotypical?

Find what works for you. For me, any electronic noises are very distracting so I often go outside to work.  

One of the things I think we don't talk about enough is how important it is to forgive yourself for not being perfect, or more accurately to remind yourself that having mental issues is not actually something you need forgiveness from.

It's very easy to hate myself for being so much slower than most people but in some ways my racing thoughts give me strange and wonderful thoughts that maybe the "average" person will never have.

My brain may be broken but it offers much more good than bad and I think it's important to recognize that having minds that work differently from each other can actually be wonderful.  

For credible information and guidance for professionals familiar with adult ADHD, go to Children and Adults with ADHD, the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, or the American Professional Society of ADHD and Related Disorders.

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