An Interview with Brendan Mahan, M.Ed., MS About ADHD and Authors
May 31, 2023
Christine: Hello and welcome once again to your daily writing habit here today on the show to talk about ADHD and authors, more specifically, the Wall of Awful™ and how it impacts authors with ADHD is an internationally recognized expert on the subject. Brendon Mahan. Here’s more about Brendan.
Brendan Mahan, M.Ed., MS., is the host of the ADHD Essentials Podcast, an internationally recognized expert on ADHD/Executive Function, anxiety, and neurodiverse parenting. He is a highly engaging, sought-after speaker, coach, and consultant. A former teacher, mental health counselor, and principal, Brendan helps individuals, families, schools, and businesses manage the challenges of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety, and neurodiversity through an approach that blends education, collaborative problem-solving, and accountability with compassion, humor, a focus on strengths and growth, and his trademark “Wall of Awful™” model.
Brendan has been featured in the Washington Post, Bustle, LinkedIn, Understood, Tilt Parenting, How to ADHD, ADD Crusher TV, and ADDitude. He has consulted on several books, is on the board of Men’s ADHD Support Group and is part of the organizing committee for the International Conference on ADHD. Contact him at brendan@ADHDessentials.com.
Brendan: Yeah, thanks for having me on.
Christine: Oh, the ADHD things. I was so fascinated. I’ll be explaining that to my listeners in a moment how I connected with you. But first of all, what are the roots of your pretty obvious passion for supporting individuals with ADHD, anxiety, and neurodiversity? And by the way, thank you for the work you do in those areas.
Brendan: Oh, yeah, thank you for the thank you, I guess. A lot of it is that I have ADHD. So that’s one route, right. But the way I got to it was that I used to be a teacher. And I connected with the kids who struggled in a way that most other teachers didn’t. And it was often the ADHD kids in particular that I was sort of connected with most significantly. And I struggled as a teacher. It’s a job that you go to college for. And then you get the job. And they don’t necessarily teach you how to do the job in college. It’s like, I just got a master’s degree in education, but that’s not boots on the ground. I’m in the classroom, and you do an internship, but depending on the guidance of the teacher that you work with, that’s going to vary in quality. So I struggled a bit, because I have ADHD.
And those two things – connecting with the kids who struggle and also struggling myself. Going “what’s up with this?” and having learned about ADHD in the course of becoming a teacher and my undergrad was psychology for a little while. I ended up pursuing an ADHD diagnosis and going, okay, cool. That’s why I get those kids. It’s because they’re me. My sort of struggles in education meant I didn’t stay as a teacher. I was at a crossroads where I was like, I can’t get better at this job. I don’t keep a curriculum. I bounced from job after job. But everybody wanted me to be a guidance counselor, because I was really good with the kids, especially the troubled ones. My decision was either be an ADHD coach or guidance counselor. So I got a second master’s degree in guidance counseling, and ended up becoming an ADHD coach, just like a good ADHD person, we aim at one thing and hit something else.
Christine: That’s really cool. So it just used to be ADD, and then ADHD, now neurodiversity so how does that affect the work you do? It seems like the spectrum was probably always there. But now it’s more commonplace and people are hearing about it better.
Brendan: Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it. Neurodiversity is a bigger umbrella then add ADHD. Right. So neurodiversity is going to encompass autism, it’s going to encompass anxiety disorders, eating disorders, which are really anxiety disorders in a lot of ways. It’s even going to encompass traumatic head injury. So it’s just bigger than ADHD, whereas ADHD is the official name now, there used to be ADD which we now call primarily inattentive to kids who can’t pay attention that well. And then ADHD is primarily a hyperactive [condition]. Previously, the kids who are bouncing off the walls. But now we have those two falling under the umbrella of ADHD and we also have the combined type of inattentive and hyperactive.
Christine: I didn’t and now you just educated me because I didn’t realize neurodiversity included traumatic brain injury and eating disorders. So you just educated me. I was thinking ADHD, Asperger’s, autism. I didn’t realize it was a broader spectrum.
Brendan: Right. Thank you for that. And I’m sure there are folks who would be like, “Whoa, pump the brakes, Brendan, that doesn’t count.” But that, to me, flies in the face of the whole idea of neurodiversity. Like, the idea here is that we want to be inclusive for people who are neurodiverse. If I have a traumatic head injury, I am neuro diverse. And so let’s let everybody in. Like my wife gets chronic migraines. To me, that’s neuro diversity. She is otherwise neurotypical. But with chronic migraines, your brain works differently.
Christine: That’s very interesting. All right. So for my listeners, I first became aware of Brendan through a two part animated series about his Wall of Awful™– I just love that phrase, being a word geek. I learned about him on a YouTube channel called How to ADHD which has super fun, informative videos. They break down the concept pretty nicely.
So Brendan, my understanding of the Wall of Awful™ in a nutshell, is that it’s the emotional barrier between us and the tasks we want to do. And the wall is made up of all these bricks like a brick called failure, disappointment, rejection, worry, guilt, all the other bricks from past tasks that we perceived as like failed tasks, we create bricks. And that’s what creates the Wall of Awful™. Everyone has a wall and ADHD people, neurodiverse people, they tend to have bigger, scarier walls, which I felt so deeply.
Brendan: Yeah, that’s the gist of it. And, just to kind of fine tune it a little bit. We have walls of awful for specific tasks or situations in our lives. So it’s not like there’s just one Wall of Awful™ that’s going to get in the way of us doing anything. There can be tasks that I don’t have walled off before. I’m a really good public speaker, I do not have a Wall of Awful™ for standing up in front of any number of people. I’ve spoken in front of up to 300 people – it doesn’t faze me, right. That’s not a thing for me, I don’t have a Wall of Awful™ for that, my wife would shut down. She would be like, I can’t do this. That’s a lot of people. She has trouble if there are eight people in the room that she has to present to at work or something. She would have a Wall of Awful™ for that. But I don’t.
On the flip side of that my wife does not have a Wall of Awful™ for paying bills, I completely have a Wall of Awful™for that. So yeah, everybody’s going to have different tasks that they’re going to have a Wall of Awful™ for.
Christine: I wonder how we can specifically apply this concept of the Wall of Awful™ preferably in an actionable way, for authors who have ADHD. But first of all, before we get into that, I understand that there are five ways that people try to get around their Wall of Awful™?
Brendan: Yeah, so there are five ways people try to get past the wall. Two don’t work. Three work. But one of those three is not so great. It’s not healthy.
One of the two that doesn’t work is staring at it. Sometimes we’re presented with a task that’s really challenging for us, and we’re like, that’s really hard. That’s a really big wall. And then we don’t do anything. We don’t actually engage with that task. We don’t try to do anything. We just sort of sit there staring at it being overwhelmed. That doesn’t work.
Other times, we encounter these walls. And we’re like, Oh, I’m gonna go around it. I’ll just go around the wall and go over here and do this other thing to get me around the wall. But it doesn’t. It just tends to lead to distraction, right? We tried to engage in another task to help activate. So that we can then use that activation to do the thing that we want to do, that we have the wall for. But oftentimes, we end up doing this other task. It’s easier to start and then do another task. It’s easier to wander away from the important challenging tasks that we are having trouble beginning. So going around [the wall], doesn’t work either.
The one that works but isn’t healthy is smashing the wall. That’s when I just use anger, to push past and push through this wall of emotions that is in between me and my task. Sometimes that goes outward, right? So I’m arguing with my friend, or my wife or my kid about whatever the thing is that we’re supposed to do or a coworker, like – “Fine, I’ll send the emails!” You get all aggravated and yelling.
Or we might flip it inward, and Hulk smash inward. And that’s when, like in high school, the hood comes up and you start glowering – Why do I suck? What’s wrong with me? Why am I such a terrible person? Why can’t I just do this? You suck, you suck, you suck. In both cases, we’re damaging relationships. When we Hulk Smash outward, when we smash the wall outward, we’re damaging our relationship with the person that we’re working at. And when we smash, inwardly, we’re damaging our relationship with ourselves, we’re hurting ourselves.
Now, the two that work, the two that get us past the wall. Probably what we’re going to play with the most is climbing it. And that really means sitting with these emotions, processing them, navigating them, redirecting your thoughts, reassessing how challenging this actually is and validating our feelings and concerns. So that we can get up over the wall to the other side. The other option is to put a door in the wall. And that just means changing our emotional state. So we’re listening to music, or talking to a friend, we’re doing something to just change our emotional state as quickly as possible, so we can get to the other side of the wall. Does that make sense?
Christine: Yeah, they do. And I was thinking of the two ones that don’t work that really apply to authors – inward and introversion, very much author related. And I’d seen this in my clients, authors – “I’m just a horrible writer, I’m a horrible author. I’m not meant to write a book.” And like you said, the visual of the hoodie coming up. And the trying to go around it – let’s just start doing housework. That will help me write my book. And all you do is you get a really clean house.
Brendan: Right? And, and really, those first three, staring at it, going around it and smashing it. What those are is fight, flight, and freeze. It’s the body’s stress response. So fight is smashing it, flight is going around it, and freeze is staring at it.
And just so you know, I’m a little bit more of a writer than you might expect. Because when I taught English I used to teach sixth graders how to write and how to be motivated to write and how to get that stuff done. My toolbox is pretty hefty when it comes to this stuff.
Christine: Let’s dig into that. So as an ADHD expert, and an English expert, what can you tell us about writers and ADHD? How does that little dance go?
Brendan: One of the biggest problems with writing is that done is not the same as finished. Especially for folks with ADHD, but I imagine this would be for anybody who wants done and finished to be the same thing. Right? So doing the dishes, done and finished are generally the same thing. I go, I do the dishes, there’s no more dishes. I’m done. And I’m also finished doing the dishes, right?
As opposed to something like mowing the lawn. Done and finished can be different when you’re mowing the lawn because I can go mow my front yard and be done for the day, but I’m not finished mowing because I still have a backyard to mow and when I mow the backyard the next day, now I am finished mowing the lawn.
You can’t write a book all in one clump. You can’t even read a short story all in one clump. But especially for neurodiverse folks and folks who have ADHD, there’s this all or nothing thinking that comes in. And we feel like we have to do the whole thing until it’s finished.
So I just can’t do it. I don’t know how to do this if I can’t do it all at once, because I have this all or nothing frame. Does that make sense?
Christine: It does. And the most infuriating thing I think, on the done versus finished conversation is that books technically are never done. You have to send them to the publisher. But as writers we could work on our books forever. I think that’s the most infuriating and frustrating thing. Even when you technically are done with the manuscript and you send it to press, it’s like, well, you could edit it for the rest of your life. So even when it’s done, it’s never finished.
And I wonder if just knowing that kind of contributes to the Wall of Awful™– like, even if I complete this entire manuscript, it’s never going to be completely finished, because there will always be things that I can do to it. But at some point in the middle of done, I’m going to have to send it off to the publisher. I wonder how that affects people’s ability to sit down and start in the first place, knowing that technically a book is never finished.
Brendan: Yeah, if you are trapped with perfectionism, you may very well never start. Anything, right? Like, it doesn’t have to be a book, it can be anything. If I can’t finish this, I can’t start it. And if I can’t do it perfectly, which is my definition of finished, I can’t do it.
As opposed to I can finish this, even if it’s not perfect, I can just call it finished, I can just decide I got as far as I need to get. It’s not perfect, but nothing is, perfection is an illusion that doesn’t really exist. And all it does is cause problems. So I’m just going to decide that done is better than perfect. And when I’m finished, I’m gonna say done, even if it’s not perfect, and I’m going to turn in my manuscript.
Christine: And that’s the only way books get done or finished. That’s the only way books get published is when people are able to do that. But I do see the challenges with this for neurodiverse folks. I have a perfectionism thing, freely admitted, it’s something I’ve been working on a lot this year and in recent years. But yeah, it’s like nothing would ever get published, if we were waiting for perfect.
Brendan: Yeah. And there’s another hack for this that I’ve used with a few clients who are doing writing stuff, specifically around books and done not perfect. I’ll say to them, we have an editor, right? And they’re like, “Yeah, but it’s not perfect.” But you want to let your editor do their job right? Don’t you want to give them the dignity of their expertise, so that they can then do whatever editing they’re going to do and come back to you with that?
And then all of a sudden, my clients have this new perspective on stuff. Your constant need for perfectionism, you’re almost not respecting your editor. You’re not respecting their expertise. And most of the people I talked to are experts in their field, writing nonfiction, a lot of the time. Respect your editor. They’re respecting you and your expertise. That’s why they asked you to write the book. Now respect their expertise by giving them what you have and letting them figure out what needs to get tweaked and what doesn’t need to get tweaked. And even if they come back with stuff needs to get changed [or vice versa about things you aren’t happy with]. They know better than you do. They know what good enough looks like for them. And they’re the ones that you’re doing this for anyway. So let them tell you what good enough is.
Christine: And most of the writing process is very inward. It’s a one-person show, it’s a one person game. They’re used to being by themselves and writing their manuscripts. With my coaching clients, I have a talk with them when we’re about to go into the editing. Then, when you’re ready to publish a book is, there are more and more people involved. This is now a team sport. I realize that you’ve been by yourself and you’ve been making decisions on your own behalf, but there are other people involved now. And like you’re saying, Brendan, respect those people, respect your team. There’s an editor, a publisher, a format person, a cover designer, a typesetter and more. There are going to be more and more people involved. We’re about to go from a one person sport into a team sport. So let’s have a conversation about that.
Brendan: Yeah, yeah. Like writing a novel or a book gives you the illusion that it’s a one person show in a way that something like a comic book or a movie or a TV show doesn’t. Right? We know there’s other people involved in those other mediums. And it’s easy to forget that those other people exist when we’re writing our book, because we think it’s just our book. And unless you’re self publishing, and probably not even then because hopefully you have someone else editing and proofreading, still, it’s not just you. Yeah, it’s a team effort. And you just have to be able to be okay with that.
Christine: That’s a transition I see with authors coming out of the writing cave and coming into the light. There are other humans here and now you’re going to have to talk to them.
Brendan: Right. And like, and there’s an exercise slash hobby that I think is really good for authors to play around with. It doesn’t have to become like a lifelong obsession, but it’s the thing that’s popular right now, which is Dungeons and Dragons. Go play Dungeons and Dragons for a little while. Because all that game is, is cooperative storytelling. There are rules that you follow in the course of telling this cooperative story, but it’s a collaborative story. Especially if you’re precious about your stories. You play that game with some people for six months to a year. And you’re going to let go of some of that preciousness because everybody at that table is trying to tell the same story. And they’re also trying to tell their stories. And you can’t do both. You have to learn how to flex with your story so that the team story can get told. It’s useful in the as a sort of lens shifting exercise.
Christine: I’m not that familiar with Dungeons and Dragons or that genre of storytelling, I wonder if there’s like a futuristic sci fi version?
Brendan: Oh, absolutely Sci Fi. I haven’t lifted Ethan Roman’s role-playing game in my basement that I’m waiting to give to my wife. But I have to get her hooked with D&D first and then I’ll be like, you want to try this? That’s trickier to learn. There are spy role playing games and science fiction, like you said, There’s horror. There’s one where you’re a cartoon. There’s a bunch of different kinds of role-playing game genres. It’s not just D&D. D&D is just the only one anyone knows about.
Christine: So the focus of this show mainly is how to help writers establish a daily writing habit or just a regular consistent writing habit. How does our conversation today lend itself to creating a writing habit?
Brendan: Some of this is probably stuff you’ve talked about a lot, right? Because there are certain guideposts concepts that matter. Are you scheduling that time? Is it on your calendar? Like I write from whatever o’clock to whatever o’clock. Also, are you prioritizing that time? Because that’s not the same as scheduling, right? I can put something in my calendar and then not do it, because I do something else instead. Are you prioritizing that time? Are you communicating the importance of that time and the significance of the walls you’ve placed around it to the stakeholders in your life?
People with ADHD, we tend to prioritize urgency over importance. And urgency just means it’s important right? Now, it doesn’t mean that it’s important in the big picture. So if we don’t make it clear that like – “Look, mom or dad is writing their novel or their nonfiction textbook or whatever, from four in the afternoon until 7:30 at night, every day, that’s what I’m doing.” If we don’t communicate to our family, that’s what’s going on they’re probably going to interrupt right?
And it could be something as intense as a kid coming into the office in a panic because they can’t find their toy. But initially, their panic is huge and you’re like – “Oh my God, what’s going on?” And then you find out they don’t know where Polly Pocket is, or it could bet hat your spouse is making dinner and doesn’t know where the tongs went.
That’s not okay, because the ADHD person probably will get up out of their chair and go looking for Polly Pocket or the tongs, especially if they’re stuck. If they’re in the flow for writing, they might stay. But if they’re stuck, they’re going to just go look and lose 15, 20 minutes. But really more than that, right? Because if I lose 15 minutes looking for tongs, now I have to get back into the book and get back into where I was and transition back in. I might lose another 20 minutes doing that. So we have to communicate with our stakeholders in our lives that what’s going on.
We also have to be able to set realistic goals, realistic expectations, and plans around what it is that we’re trying to do. You might be trying to establish a daily writing habit, and I fully support that, but you might find out that that’s not a thing. Like maybe I can only really devote three days a week to my book. That’s three more days than you were doing a month ago, like devote those three days and everything that you hear on this podcast applies to those three days. It’s okay, if you can’t be perfect and do it every day. That’s okay. Perfection is the [enemy] of accomplishment. So avoid perfection. Am I hitting the kind of stuff that you need?
Christine: Yes, absolutely. And you know, my regular listeners know that when I say daily writing habit, I’m really meaning consistent writing habit. Like you’re saying, three days is better than the zero you did before. We’re always looking for gradients of improvement. I think subconsciously, when authors are not setting those boundaries, and those rules and expectations with family members, I wonder if there’s like a piece self-sabotage there, because then it’s – “Oh, well, I tried to write but then everybody interrupted it so it’s their fault that I stopped.”
Brendan: And sometimes, especially for ADHD people who have to wander around for a little bit before sitting down in their office to write the thing. And then they start writing the thing, and it doesn’t quite hook them. So they stand up and go somewhere else for a little while, and then go back to their office. If you’re working like that, and your family is home, it’s a recipe for disaster, right?
So what I would recommend is, buy a hat. That is your “mom or dad is writing” hat with that bad boy on your head. Tell everybody what it means. And then wander if you need to wander, just train your family to ignore you when you’ve got the writing hat on. And if your ADHD is bad enough, train the family members who would be comfortable doing so, to redirect you. When they see you wandering around for too long wearing your hat -“Aren’t you supposed to be writing?” And if you can’t handle your spouse saying it, assign it to a kid. It depends on your relationship and your perspectives and all that stuff. The hat can cue other people to say – “You’ve been in the kitchen for 10 minutes, you’ve got your toast? What’s going on?” And if you live by yourself, which some writers do, and I did for a while, it’s just for me, a sensory, tactile reminder.
This is another sort of psychological thing. If you work from home, get dressed to write, put on your writing uniform. Wear something that smacks of professionalism, so that you’re in that mode when you go to write. Because if you’re hopping on a bed in your PJs and sitting down at a computer, unless that’s your jam, it’s probably undermining your productivity around how well you can write because you’re not framing your approach to the day in a way that is taking writing seriously.
Christine: True. I’ve been working from home for decades, and I don’t dress like I would dress for the office, but I don’t just show up at my desk here in my home office in my pajamas. I just have to change into something that resembles a human being. So what would you say is the number one ADHD takeaway you have for authors today?
Brendan: Perfection is the enemy of progress. You don’t need to be perfect. Good enough, is good enough. Do the thing. I think that’s what has come up most throughout this conversation.
Christine: Great. And given the theme of the show habits, what are your favorite habits in your life, writing or otherwise?
Brendan: I think my favorite habit is my calendar. I use a Google Calendar to keep track of my day. The only stuff I put in there are times that I’ve committed to other people. This conversation is in my Google Calendar, but I have two hours between the end of this conversation and when my kids get home, two and a half hours. Where I don’t have any appointments with anybody. So that space is for my to do list. Then I’m going and doing the stuff that’s more flexible. But what I like about the Google Calendar is that it helps me visualize time. In my habit of always putting stuff in there, I can look at the Google Calendar and see how busy or not busy my day is. I can see what parts of my day are busy or not busy. And that lets me figure out what I’m doing with my empty time so I can use it more effectively.
And also because it can be shared with my phone and with my wife and with my kids, eventually. They’re 14 and they don’t quite need my calendar yet. It makes it even more accessible, right? Before I go to bed, I look at my calendar and see what the next day’s gonna look like. When I wake up in the morning I look at it again, because I usually don’t remember because I have ADHD. But when I’m looking at it the night before, I’m kind of thinking through what I’m going to do. Okay, cool. And then I wake up the next morning and I look at it again. And I’m like, oh, right, because yesterday I was thinking I need to do this, this and this right and helps me remember, I jot down anything on my to do list. It’s not there. And then I’m off to the races for my day.
Christine: Similar thing, but I have like a daily [tool I call a] work grid that I use. And by the way, do you have a writing hat and what does it look like?
Brendan: I have a Dungeons and Dragons cap. Yeah, yeah. I’m a big geek. I also majored in comic books in college
Christine: Anything you’re working on that you want to tell us about in your world, projects, books, big ideas, adventures, summer adventures?
Brendan: I have my podcast too, called ADHD essentials. 258 episodes at the moment and it’s full of all kinds of stuff. And I’m actually in the process of writing a book about the Wall of Awful™. At the moment, it’s more like a weekly writing habit. I do it on Fridays. And that’s time that is devoted to me, it’s walled off, even though it’s not to someone else. It’s for me for the book I’m devoting my time to. I was supposed to start writing it, like three years ago, and then COVID hit and just threw my life like everyone else’s life into chaos. So now I’m resuming the book and back to it.
I also do a lot of work teaching parents how to parent more effectively. That’s one of the primary things that I do. And everybody is like – “You must be wicked busy.” Well I wouldn’t be if I wasn’t living my values and prioritizing my kids over my business like I would tell anyone else to do. So unfortunately, I didn’t get it [the book] 3 years ago. I didn’t get to leverage it. But you now I’m back.
Christine: Brendan where is the best place for people to learn more about you and your work and to contact you?
Brendan: They can just go to ADHDessentials.com.
Christine: Thanks for being on the show today, Brendan. Really appreciate it.
Brendan: Thank you for having me.