For adults with ADHD adopting the right habits is one of the most powerful ways to make execution easier because you no longer have to decide when or how to do something.
You just do it because, well, it is a habit.
You might be thinking, “Sure. Right. Makes sense. I’ve tried…It is really hard.”
You’re right. Adapting new habits is hard. And shedding old habits that get in your way is equally difficult.
But there are strategies you can use to make changing your habits easier.
The Habit Loop
We already act out of habit for much of our day.
In fact, according to studies by Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, almost half of our behaviors occur in the same place every day and are cued by our environment.
That is, though you may think you are going through your day intentionally making choices, about half of the time you are just acting out of habit.
Over time your routines became firmly entrenched because of the habit loop, which is comprised of three parts:
- The routine is what most people think of as the habit.
- The cue / trigger can be thought of as the prompt for the routine.
- As soon as you experience the cue, you begin to crave the reward. Then you begin your routine, which gives you the reward.
What if you want to change your habits?
The 5 Triggers
The key to changing your habits is to change one or more of the 5 triggers below that can cue the habit you are trying to adopt or drop:
- emotional state
- other people
- preceding action
So, let’s take a deep dive into each one below.
Location is one of the most powerful triggers.
Think about walking past a jar of candy at work and grabbing a few pieces because, well, they are there. How about when you walk though your kitchen and grab some chips without thinking?
Another great example is when people opt to join a gym, though they have equipment at home, albeit collecting dust. Many find that the gym — that specific location — is a more effective trigger to get in the habit of exercising.
I use location to ground my writing habit by sitting in the same chair to write. Always. Every week day morning.
If these examples sound familiar, you get the power of location.
Your Turn – Using Location
And, if you want to adopt a new habit, think about how you can use location.
For instance, if you would like to plan first thing in the morning, but now you start your day looking at your email, change your location. Rather than plopping down in the same spot and going on autopilot, start off the morning in another room or sit in a chair in another part of your office.
Likewise, if you want to shed a particular habit, consider whether you could avoid or change the location.
For example, if you commonly surf the web when you are tired or bored in the late afternoon, work in a different place for a while, like a conference room, rather than at your desk.
Time is another strong trigger for habits.
What do you do when you wake up every morning? I bet you have something specific you do, and you don’t even think about. It just happens because that is what you do at that time.
I make coffee and then sit down to write every week day morning. I don’t ask myself, “Should or I shouldn’t I?” It is morning. I make coffee. I write.
Think about what you do out of habit at other times of your day. For example, you might
- snack mid-afternoon when you start to get tired and have a hard time focusing.
- watch TV at night after a long day.
- check your email first thing in the morning.
You get the idea.
Your Turn – Using Time
In the example of planning your day, schedule a specific time. You might try first thing in the morning before you even open your email.
And, if you want to stop doing something at a particular time, consider doing something else at that time.
If you are snacking or surfing the internet mid-afternoon, it is unlikely you are thinking, “Oh, it is 3:00 pm, time to eat or look at Facebook.” It is just that time of day. Maybe you are typically bored or tired at this time. An alternative might be to go for a walk with a colleague at that time.
Of course, you know your emotional state is another strong trigger for your habits.
And, as an Adult with ADHD, this one is particularly important to understand because of the challenges you may have with emotional regulation.
Do you find yourself doing any of the following when you are overwhelmed?
- over eating
- hyperfocusing on your work
- surfing the internet
- doing whatever seems easiest at the moment, but not what you intended
You probably also have habitual responses when you are angry, feeling shame, sad, bored etc.
I know when I’m bored I’ll eat anyhtingggg, really. And, when I’m overwhelmed, I tend to overreact to the slightest thing.
Your Turn – Using Emotional State
If you want to respond differently to your emotions, rather then act out of habit:
- First, pay attention to when you feel the emotion.
- Then, if possible, take a break when the feeling arises.
- Do some deep breathing, really.
- Last, consider what you need to do in order to respond the way you want. Do you need to talk to someone, let it go for the moment, journal, exercise…?
Learning to respond differently to your emotions is really tough, but possible with practice.
It is always easier to adopt a new habit or unlearn an old habit if you have a partner in crime, as the accountability is an exceptionally powerful trigger.
A familiar example, of course, is exercising with other people. It is often easier to follow through if you make a commitment do it with someone else, right?
Similarly, if you want to adopt a new way of planning projects at work, it will be easier if you can get your colleagues on board to do it the same way.
On the other hand, you may want to drop a habit you engage in more frequently when you are with other people. Maybe you eat or drink too much when you go out with certain people.
Your Turn – Using Other People
What is a habit you would like to adopt? How can you enlist other people to help you? Who are those people?
And, if there is a habit you would like to drop, do you need to:
- stop hanging out with certain people?
- change the activity you do with those people?
When it comes to habits, other people can be your most powerful ally or a roadblock.
The last trigger is a preceding action.
- Think about when your phone rings. You pick it up.
- Each time you get in a heated discussion, you eat something sugary.
- And when the email notification pops up, you look at your email.
- Maybe after every stressful staff meeting you “check out” and surf the web.
You can see the power of preceding actions in the formation of habits.
People will often try to adopt one habit by attaching it to another habit — a preceding action. So, people who want to take their medicine consistently might put it next to their toothbrush. They are already in the habit of brushing their teeth, and that preceding action is the cue to take their medicine.
And, if you want to drop a habit, think about whether you can get rid of the preceding action. For example, if you want to stop looking at your email so frequently, turn off the notifications — the preceding action.
Your Turn – Using Preceding Action
Think of a habit you are trying to adopt. What other habit you currently have can you attach it to?
How can you minimize or get rid of altogether a preceding action for a habit you would like to drop?
Putting It All Together
Now that you understand the five triggers, it time to experiment with using one or more to adopt a new habit or drop an old one.
You don’t need to consider all five at once. But whichever you choose, make it specific.
It is not enough say you are going to journal in the evening. Better to decide you are going to journal:
- after I brush my teeth -preceding action
- by 10:00 – time
- in the chair in my bedroom – location
Now it’s your turn…