Many adults with ADHD find it difficult to structure themselves, follow rules and create new routines. Starting a tedious, unrewarding task can be difficult, and it can be just as difficult to stick with it to completion. Neurodivergent people can be too obsessed with maintaining a routine at the expense of other things, which can turn into a vicious cycle of frustration and self-defeat.
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Routines highlight how we spend the hours of our days and the days of our weeks. Whether it’s morning, bedtime, exercise, cleaning, self-care, or mealtimes, these routines provide the structure that helps create the order we all need for ourselves. manage. Learn more about the steps you can practice to develop new habits that can reduce daily anxiety and stress.
For many people, maintaining routines is key to feeling fulfilled and productive in life. They can reduce stress and anxiety and improve mental health. Did you know that habits determine a large part of our behavior? According to behavioral scientist Dr. Wendy Wood, 43% of what people do every day is automatic responses.
These automatic responses consist of habit loops. Habit loops are made up of cues, repeated behaviors, and the benefit of doing so. Habits are patterns of behavior that repeat themselves regularly until they become almost involuntary. Of course, some habits and routines are healthier than others. Either way, the satisfaction of making a habit right now for children and adults with ADHD can outweigh rational thoughts of making a different choice.
It is difficult for people with executive functioning problems to create mental shortcuts by remembering and repeating what has worked in the past, persisting despite distractions, ignoring impulsiveness to shift gears, or giving up in due to overload and distress.
Recently I worked with a client named Bree on time management. She wanted to arrive at her job as a middle school math teacher quickly, calmly, and ready for the day. Most of the time, however, she rushed into the parking lot 10 minutes before class started, drove frantically looking for a parking space, then ran to her class two minutes early.
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Bree felt embarrassed by her lateness, disliked her high stress level, and wanted to set a better example for her students. It felt overwhelming to choose her morning routine and change it. What was simpler was to commit to arriving at work 45 minutes early and plan to leave your house early enough to do so.
But Bree needed to be held accountable or no change would happen. She reached out to her community and even her students for help. Here’s what happened, in his own words:
“I decided to arrive at my school 30 minutes earlier every day. It’s a 30 minute drive with no traffic or parking issues, so I allowed extra time for traffic, adding 20 minutes. This meant that I left for work an hour and 20 minutes early. I told my friends and family about my goal. I also talked to my students about it. Everyone was very supportive, and two of my friends and my sister offered to text or call me 15 minutes before I was ready to go every day for the first two weeks.
I approached him one day at a time. Every day of the first week, when the school day started and I was ready at my desk, the kids gave me high-fives. They saw my perseverance! I feel so calm as I start the day now. I also get a great parking spot in the parking lot before it gets too crowded. It’s been a successful month. It’s a new routine because I changed a habit: leave late to leave with enough time. I am an adult with ADHD who has NEVER done this successfully in the past. I feel so accomplished.
With the support of her community and her students, Bree has created and maintained a new routine that reduces anxiety and stress in her life.
Let’s look at five key aspects of setting up and maintaining routines for adults with ADHD so you can achieve similar success.
1. Name one aspect of your day that isn’t working for you
Be specific but with a narrow focus. This is what you want to change. One of the reasons Bree was successful is that she chose one thing to work on: getting to school earlier. Since she didn’t want to change what she was doing before going to work, she got up earlier, no matter what time she went to bed. Bree also set alarms and alerts on her phone and computer and even bought an alarm clock. Many people with ADHD are too preoccupied with how to make something work because they have expanded their domain.
2. Organize the necessary steps for your new routine
Do a big brain dump on what needs to change to redo your routine. Then, make a shorter list of just three items from that long list, depending on the urgency or importance of the tasks. Then, break each of these down into shorter parts. Your goal is to set yourself up for success by changing the components of a problem (and its components) at a time. Be sure to include the types of hardware or support you will need. Keep your expectations low: Trying to change too much too quickly usually doesn’t work and people give up. Make your goals achievable and simple.
3. Identify what motivates you
Is it something external? Like an exceptional coffee, the recognition of your boss, or the absence of late fees on your bank cards? Or is it something internal, like achieving a personal goal or the satisfaction of accomplishment itself? There is no right or wrong answer. Look for what is most effective in bringing about change and achieving success. It’s okay if you need external validation initially.
Changing a habit for people with ADHD often works best initially if people around you notice your efforts. Bree’s students did it spontaneously for her, which touched her and kept her going. Is there a particular activity or words of appreciation that accompany the new behavior that would make you feel good?
Many adults with ADHD have experienced childhoods littered with criticism, judgment, and negativity for aspects of neurodivergence that they could not control. The balance between positive and negative in your head is probably still terribly skewed. So it makes perfect sense that you have both external and internal motivation.
4. Bring the future into the present
One of the reasons it’s so hard to change is that the consequences of not changing may not be immediate enough to prompt you to do so now. With your ADHD brain now or not now, unless the present is miserable, no change will occur. So bring the future into the present.
Think about how it will feel if you don’t stick to the new routine you’ve set for yourself. Visualize your future and how you want to think about the present. Ask yourself, “Should I impose artificial consequences instead of waiting for natural, negative consequences to occur?” and “How can you make this change daily and foster consistency without feeling guilty or ashamed?”
5. Find responsible friends
Once you’ve defined the habit you want to change, make a clear plan and find responsible partners. They will help you with compassion and firmness to stick to your declared goal and will assist you when you encounter an obstacle. When you publicly share a goal and a plan, you turn intention into action.
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Creating a new routine means changing habits and aiming for stability, not perfection. It’s not just about when you do things, but how, what and why. The “why” could be the reason you are holding back. In some cases, you may be attached to a particular approach that may have served you well in the past. These habits are developed to help you reduce stress, avoid something fearful or uncomfortable, or lessen frustration. Now ask yourself: is this routine currently serving me in my life? If the answer is “yes”, great. Carry on with that. But if the answer is “no”, then it’s time for a change.
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