(originally published October 20, 2011, updated January 13, 2022)
I know you’d really like to be able to do more of what is important.
And doing these tasks on autopilot, out of habit, would just make life easier, of course. Yet, despite wanting to have more routine in your life, you’ve also had a really hard time making this happen. And, because of these challenges, have even thought, “I guess it’s not that important to me, or I would be able to follow through.”
My guess is the habits you want to adopt are important to you! It’s just really, really, really hard to do. Really. 😉 There are a number of factors, including your ADHD, that contribute to the challenges you are having creating routines.
Fortunately, there are strategies and tools ADHD adults can use to make it easier to adopt habits so you can operate more on autopilot in helpful ways.
How Habits Help ADHD Adults Manage Their Symptoms
ADHD and structure are definitely a chicken and egg problem! That is, your ADHD symptoms contribute to your challenges with creating structure, and your lack of structure exacerbates your ADHD symptoms! Oy!
But a certain amount of structure is necessary to effectively manage your ADHD. You can get some of that structure by adopting habits. When you do this the structure of routines will help create the order that does not come naturally to you, and make it easier for you to do everything from daily tasks to demanding work projects because:
- you are purposefully deciding where to focus your attention.
- the routines become like a magnet, helping to pull you forward.
- you will be better able to resist the pull of immediate gratification.
- it will be easier to persist, as the behavior becomes more automatic.
- you will be easier to remember your intentions.
Yet, though there are certain types of structure that are generally helpful, there’s no magic kind or number of habits you need. So, you’ll need to decide this based on your needs and preferences.
Adopting Habits Is Difficult for ADHD Adults
While the structure of routines is helpful for ADHD adults, you also know it is not easy to change your habits. In part, this is because, when you are trying to adopt new habits, you also need to unlearn old habits that might be getting in the way of adopting the new habit.
These old habits might include ones you’ve used to compensate for your ADHD challenges. For example, you might decide you need to do a task as soon as you think about it instead of writing it down on a list (the new habit). So you won’t forget it. This old habit lends itself to a lot of task-switching and makes you less efficient in your work. But makes sense for ADHD adults.
In addition, your ADHD symptoms, such as distractibility impulsivity, inability to tolerate boredom, challenges with decision making, etc. also make learning new habits and unlearning old habits hard. Because of your ADHD symptoms, you may:
- find it difficult to persist and maintain interest in a routine.
- get overwhelmed and give up easily because you have challenges managing your emotions.
- literally forget your commitment to the routine because of your memory challenges.
- switch gears suddenly because of your impulsiveness.
- get distracted by all the other stimuli in your environment and just not start.
- seek out novelty at the expense of routine.
I know it sounds a bit like a Catch-22!
Adding structure will help you manage your ADHD and your ADHD makes it hard to add structure. The good news is, once you know more about these challenges, you can address them to successfully adopt the habits that will help you build the bridge between your intentions and your goals – the finish line.
Before looking at how to address the challenges of adopting habits I want to dispel a few myths.
Relying on Motivation to Adopt Habits Is Unreliable
Like many ADHD adults, when considering your challenges with adopting habits, you may tell yourself, “I just need to get motivated!” That is, you think either you have the mojo to adopt the habit, or you don’t. And, if you don’t, then, well, it’s just not going to happen…
That doesn’t need to be the case.
Think about those habits, like exercise, doing a weekly review, meditation, tending to your finances, etc., you’d like to adopt because you want the results. But either you often won’t feel like doing them or your motivation will likely be inconsistent? Remember, inconsistency is one of the hallmark symptoms of ADHD.
As if I needed to tell you that, right?
For example, have you ever been excited to pay your bills or do your finances? Sure, you may do it out of fear. But sometimes even avoiding a negative consequence still isn’t enough to motivate you to routinely follow through on tending to your finances. So, when your mojo isn’t there in the moment, you tell yourself, “I’ll do it later…”
Then your sense of self-efficacy — belief in your ability to adopt habits — takes a beating, leaving you with even less motivation. Clearly, you don’t want to rely on needing to feel motivated to adopt habits. You want to be able to follow through on your habits even when you’re not feeling it.
Relying on Willpower to Adopt Habits Won’t Cut It
Another myth you may ascribe to when it comes to adopting habits is “I just need to try harder!” I hear this one a lot, too. What you mean is you need to exert more willpower. Then, when you don’t follow through on habits you said were important to you, you may decide you are lazy… This is not true!
Remember, as Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower, notes, willpower is the energy needed to exhibit:
- control of thoughts
- control of emotions
- impulse control
- performance control (focusing on tasks)
Aren’t these the challenges you have because of your ADHD? Yes, they are! So, obviously, your ADHD makes it harder to exert willpower. In addition, it is a limited resource. So, no matter how hard you try, you’re eventually going to be running on empty when it comes to willpower.
The bottom line is, just as with motivation, you can’t rely on your willpower to consistently follow through on the habits you want to adopt.
Now on to seeing how you can more easily adopt the habits you want.
#1 Focus On Forming New Neural Pathways
According to studies by USC psychology professor Wendy Wood, almost half of our behaviors occur in the same place every day and are cued by our environment. Another name for these is habit loops, which are comprised of a cue, a routine, and a reward.
So, you already have many habits, though you may not recognize them as such.
Ultimately, when trying to change your habits, your goal is to rewire your brain’s neural pathway for that behavior. Because, when you are able to do this it will be easier for your brain to repeat the pattern without much thought or need for motivation. Because, yes, it will be a habit.
And this will happen when you repeat the behavior enough times.
For example, when you are overwhelmed by a work task (cue) you might surf the Internet (routine). And then when you do this you may be soothed by the cute cat videos and are no longer stressed out by the report that you’re not doing (reward). It is so automatic that you may not even recognize it as a response to being overwhelmed!
To change this habit, the first step is to decide which routine you want to change. If you want to stop surfing the Internet, you’ll need to decide what you will do instead when you are overwhelmed and want relief. That is, what will be your new routine? Instead of falling back on your old “stress routine,” you might:
- get up and take a walk or meditate for 1 minute.
- then identify the source of the overwhelm. Maybe you don’t know how to do the task.
- and subsequently decide what would help decrease the overwhelm. Do you need to reach out for help, create a plan, defer the task for another time, etc.?
To learn more about the habit loop, check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
#2 Start with Something Small and Doable
One way to make it easy to rewire the neural pathways in your brain to make it easier to act is to start with many habits. These are habits Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits, describes as a habit that is “stupid small.” That is, it should be a behavior that is so incredibly easy to do you should feel very little if any resistance to acting.
This will help you focus on the repetition rather than the ultimate habit you envision achieving. Then in time, the circuits in your brain will be rewired such that the behavior will be automatic, which, of course, is the definition of a habit. Again, think about brushing your teeth. Not hard to do, right?
The goal, in the beginning, is to just focus on the repetition.
For example, maybe you have thought of creating a meditation habit. But, like many other adults with ADHD, decided it’s just not possible. It is possible. If you are curious, stop reading and try this one-minute meditation. Were you able to do it? Sure, you were.
If you do want to try meditation, use the above one-minute meditation first thing after getting out of bed for 15 days or more if you want. Notice how it becomes easier. That is because the habit is changing your brain, and then this rewired brain circuit helps “pull you forward.”
And then, when meditation or whatever behavior you want to do routinely becomes a habit, you may decide to leverage it and build the habit in the way you envision.
If you’re interested in more ideas, check out Guise’s list of mini habit ideas. Also, here is a short accessible video describing the connection between your brain circuits and habits.
#3 Adopt An Experimental Mindset When Changing Your Habits
To persist in your attempts to change your habits it will be important to be compassionate and patient with yourself. That is, make sure you allow for imperfection and focus on the incremental progress you are making. I know if you are starting with many habits the progress may feel particularly insignificant.
Focus on starting where you are. In the example of meditation, you will have a greater chance of building the habit by starting with a minute each day than if you try to meditate for 1/2 an hour each day. Because that’s not going to happen, right? 😉
And then acknowledge your successes along the way, despite the challenges. If you miss a day, you miss a day. But, if you beat yourself up, you will be less likely to be motivated to start again the next day. So, to be able to better persist remind yourself of what you’re doing right along the way.
And think of it as an experiment. Instead of being judgmental, just be curious about what happens. Because remember the more you can persist, repeat the behavior, the better the chance you have of it becoming a habit.
Rinse and repeat!
When you are ready to leverage your mini habits to create the habit you envision, the next step is to learn how to use the 5 Habit Triggers to change your habits. Part 2 will show you how you can do this.