We all form and sustain our habits, whether good or bad, because of some reward we anticipate we will get.
For example, I have a habit of getting up early in the morning and writing. The rewards I get are:
- knowing that I am helping my readers
- being able to use my writing as a platform to attract prospective clients
- and minimizing the overwhelm I experience when I think about other projects I could be doing, too
But I’ve finally opened my eyes to the fact that there is a problem with my routine. You see, when I sit down to write I spend way too much time “kinda, sorta writing.” It could look like this:
- start writing
- check email – go back to writing
- look at a website prompted by an email – go back to writing
- maybe brush the dog’s teeth (no kidding!) – go back to writing
I now see that I’ve been using my writing in part to avoid making a decision to work on new projects. Instead I’ve been playing it safe by keeping to my writing. I even convinced myself that, if I write even part of the time, it is good enough because I’m working…
But this routine is not really serving me well. I’m wasting time – time that I could use on other projects. If only I would make a decision.
As an adult with ADHD, I bet you’ve also created some of your habits as a coping mechanism for the overwhelm you experience as a result of your challenges.
You can change this.
The Habit Loop
The first step in changing a habit is identifying and understanding the components of your habit loop.
Though you may know these by different names, every habit is comprised of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward.
The routine is what most people think of as the habit. In my example, I get up in the morning and sit down for a period of time ostensibly to write, even though I’m doing other things during my “writing time.”
The cue can be thought of as the prompt for the routine. One of the cues for my morning routine is feeling overwhelmed.
As soon as you experience the cue, you begin to crave the reward. You then begin your routine, which gives you the reward. It is through this habit loop that over time your routines become firmly entrenched.
In my example, as soon as I begin writing, I feel a sense of relief from overwhelm. After all, I tell myself, “I’m working!”
Overwhelm and Your Routine
When you feel overwhelmed by work you need to do, decisions you need to make, relationships you need to navigate, etc. what do you do? That is, what is your routine?
While it likely looks different depending on the context, do you…
- shut down and stop working, engaging with people or making decisions?
- find a distraction, like web surfing, watching TV, working on an easier project?
- hyperfocus on a relatively unimportant task?
- decide that a task, while previously important, is not worth doing?
- eat or drink too much?
- do something else?
Not sure what you do when you are overwhelmed?
Try this. Over the next few days notice when you are overwhelmed. Then write down what you do next.
At some point when you became overwhelmed you began engaging in a particular routine. And the overwhelm went away… Now you anticipate and crave this reward, relief from your overwhelm.
So, whenever you feel overwhelmed in a particular context, you will out of habit engage in a certain routine.
It is so automatic that you may not even recognize it as a response to being overwhelmed.
Ready To Change Your Habit?
If you want to respond differently, the first step is to identify the specific routine that you want to change. For example, maybe your response to overwhelm is to shut down.
If this is the case, the next step is to figure out how you can get relief from the overwhelm without shutting down.
- If you are overwhelmed by a big project, creating a plan can help.
- If the source of your overwhelm is having too much on your plate, you may need to decide what to keep on your plate, defer, delegate or drop.
- Maybe your overwhelm is from needing to make a difficult decision and you need a strategy to figure out what to do.
Then, instead of falling back on your old routine, next time you feel overwhelmed, ask yourself, “Why am I overwhelmed?”
And experiment with one of the strategies I suggested above.