It feels great when you can easily start and follow through on a task or activity that is important to you, right?
But contrast that with those times that it feels like you are wading through quicksand, due in part to the challenges that come with your ADHD symptoms. It can be frustrating, to say the least. And I know you may be hard-pressed to come up solutions.
While I write about many ways to make this journey easier for you, the one strategy that stands out in terms of helping to mitigate the challenges you may experience is creating habits.
Borrowing liberally from Mini Habits by Stephen Guise and The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg I’ll explore below the ins and outs of how you can make habits your go to strategy for executing with greater ease.
Relying on Motivation to Ensure Follow Through Is Unreliable
First, let’s dispel a few myths.
It is not unusual for a client to tell me, when discussing their challenges with executing, “I just need to get motivated…!”
Of course, it is much easier to tackle a task when you feel like doing it — are motivated. But what about those times when you:
- can’t wait until you feel like doing it? It needs to get done right away, and you don’t have the luxury of waiting until your mojo is there.
- will never feel like doing it no matter how long you wait? Will you ever really get excited to pay your bills and tend to your finances? You get my point.
And, when you decide to put off doing something until you feel like it, telling yourself, “I’ll do it later when I’m up to it,” the work may simply not get done. In addition, your sense of self-efficacy — belief in your ability to follow through — will take a beating, leaving you with even less motivation.
Clearly, waiting for motivation is unreliable. And often you need to be able to deliver on a consistent basis, not just when you feel like it, right?
Willpower Can’t Always Get You to the Finish Line
In addition, clients will also tell me, “I just need to try harder!” What they mean is they need to exert more of their willpower. You may also believe this about yourself, if you think you are lazy and just don’t try hard enough. Like my clients, I bet this is not true!
Psychologist Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower, and the foremost expert on the topic notes that willpower is the energy needed to exhibit:
- control of thoughts
- control of emotions
- impulse control
- performance control (focusing on tasks)
Hmm, I bet these sound familiar. They should. These are the same areas that are challenging for you because of your ADHD. Bottom line your ADHD makes it hard to exhibit willpower.
Even without the challenges of ADHD willpower is a limited resource. Sure, you can take steps to strengthen your willpower. But no matter how hard you try you still will never have an inexhaustible supply of willpower.
So, just as with motivation, you can’t rely on your willpower to consistently execute.
How Habits Can Make Follow Through Easier
Now you’re probably wondering, “If I can’t rely on willpower or motivation to get things done, what am I going to do?!”
You’ve heard we are creatures of habit, right? In fact, most of what you do now you do out of habit. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, while we think we may be making decisions each day, we’re actually on autopilot for 45% of our day.
For example, like many people, I get up every morning and make coffee. It never varies, and I never struggle to do it because it is a habit. When you get up tomorrow morning pay attention to how you go about your day to see how this is true in your life.
In addition to making follow through easier, cultivating habits helps you to manage the challenges of your ADHD as:
- you are purposefully deciding where to focus your attention.
- it makes getting started easier. Habits become like a magnet, helping to pull you forward.
- it will be easier to remember your intentions.
- being able to persist will be easier, as a habit by definition is automatic.
Habits, whether good or bad, make it easier to execute.
How Your ADHD Might Make It Harder To Create Habits
While habits can be helpful, you also know establishing habits is hard, made even harder because of your ADHD. Until your habit is truly on autopilot:
- because of your wonky working memory, you may often forget to do it.
- you may not feel like doing it because it is not stimulating enough. Remember it is your brain chemistry, not that you are lazy.
- if there are other stimuli pulling for your attention, you may get easily distracted.
- you may switch to another task because you are bored.
In addition, you may doubt your ability to establish habits because you have such a long history of failures in this area. And so now you may expect to fail in establishing habits. I get it.
While it is definitely a challenge to create routines, there are ways to make it easier.
Decide on a Habit and Make It So Small You Can’t Fail
So far I’ve told you can’t rely on motivation and willpower to consistently execute. And I’ve also told you how hard it is to create habits. Now it’s time to look at what you can do to make follow through easier
One strategy you can use to make it easier to execute is to create mini habits, which Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits, describes as a habit that is “stupid small.” Here are some examples of my clients have used:
- Look at your calendar for the next three weeks to start a habit of doing a Weekly Review.
- Process — file, scan, shred, etc. — one piece of paper a day to clean up your physical space.
- Meditate for one minute each day to become more mindful.
For many adults with ADHD creating routines can be daunting, to say the least.
The beauty of this system is that, while you are focusing on creating the habit, you will likely feel very little resistance because it is so easy to do. And then over time, you’ll be able to leverage this sense of success as you build the habit in the way you envision.
Decide Whether to Use The 4 Triggers to Create Your Routine
You may decide not to use one of the 4 triggers other than time to cue your Mini Habit. That is, you may decide you only need to do your mini habit before you go to sleep. And, because it is so “stupid small,” that is possible.
But when you expand your mini habit into a full habit this will no longer be sustainable, right? So, once you’ve decided on your mini-habit you may want to use one of the 4 triggers to cue the mini habit you are trying to create. This will make it easier to establish your full habit when you are ready.
As I mentioned above, you may decide you just need to do the routine before going to sleep.
Alternatively, schedule a specific time. For example, you may decide to do your “mini weekly review” — looking at your calendar for the next three weeks — at 9 am Friday morning. The advantage of this is you will have a time in place when you decide to enlarge your habit.
While I don’t recommend this 3rd option, especially for adults with ADHD, you can also do the routine each day or each week when you feel like it. The downside of this option is that it may not get it done when your mojo just isn’t there. I think you know what I mean.
Location is also a powerful trigger to cue you to do your routine.
And, as you know adults with ADHD are prone to going off track because of the many distractions in their environment. One way to mitigate this is to choose a location relatively free of whatever may be distracting for you. Changing locations also serves to cue you, “I do ‘this’ here.“
So, for example, you may choose to do your weekly review at a coffee shop every Friday morning before you go to work.
Enlisting the help of other people to hold you accountable is a familiar cue, right? Since mini habits take a few minutes to execute it may not make sense to use other people while you are establishing your habit. But you may want to think about using this cue down the road.
For example, when you get to the point where you are walking further than down to the end of the block, you could ask a friend to go walking with you once a week.
Last, people will often try to adopt one habit by attaching it to another habit — a preceding action.
As I noted in the example above you could decide to meditate right after lunch. It doesn’t matter where you are or what time of day it is. Right after you eat lunch you meditate for a minute.
If you are like many adults with ADHD, decision-making can be a challenge. Attaching your mini habit to another firmly entrenched habit can make it easier to follow through, as you will not have to worry about when you’re going to do it.
Track Your Progress
You’ve already tried and failed at creating many routines, right? Part of the reason might be you didn’t have a plan for how you were going to sustain your efforts.
Tracking your progress in a place that is easily accessible can help you by both serving as
- a visible reminder of your intention. Otherwise, as you know, “out of sight out of mind.”
- a reward for following through. Go ahead put a gold star on the calendar.
It doesn’t matter how you track your progress as long as it works for you. You can use one of the many of the available apps like Beeminder or Habitica or you on a calendar / piece of paper you post in a place that is easily accessible.
Want to Learn More?
If the above whetted your appetite to learn more about how you can use mini habits to build a foundation from which you can continue building, check out Guise’s Mini Habits.
At only 120 pages you may just be able to finish it. 🙂