- Many adults with ADHD struggle with structure, following rules, and creating new routines.
- It can help to identify and change one aspect of your day that isn't working for you and make it a doable task.
- Figure out what motivates you and find some accountability buddies to support you.
Many adults with ADHD struggle with structure, following rules, and creating new routines. Starting a tedious, unrewarding task can be challenging, and it can be equally tough to stay with it until completion. Neurodivergent people can be overly fixated on maintaining a routine at the expense of other things, which can turn into a vicious cycle of frustration and self-defeat.
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 meals, these routines offer the structure that assists with creating the order all of us need to get by. With practice, you can develop new habits that can decrease everyday anxiety and stress.
The Role of Habits in Routine
For many people, maintaining routines is essential to feeling fulfilled and productive in your life. They can reduce stress and anxiety and improve mental health. Did you know that habits drive much of our behavior? According to behavioral scientist Wendy Wood, 43 percent of what people do daily is made up of automatic responses.
These automatic responses consist of habit loops. Habit loops are made up of cues, repeated behaviors, and rewards that reinforce the behavior. Habits are patterns of behavior that are regularly repeated until they become almost involuntary.
Of course, some habits and routines are healthier than others. Still, either way, the satisfaction of making a habit at the moment for kids and adults with ADHD can overtake rational thoughts of making a different choice.
How People with ADHD Can Remake Their Routines
It's tough for folks with executive functioning challenges to form mental shortcuts by recalling and repeating what worked in the past, persisting despite distractions, ignoring the impulsiveness to switch gears, or giving up due to overwhelm 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 promptly, calmly, and ready for the day. Most days, though, she screeched into the parking lot 10 minutes before the start of classes, drove around frantically looking for a spot, and then ran to her class with two minutes to spare.
Bree felt embarrassed about her tardiness, disliked her high stress levels, and wanted to demonstrate a better example for her students. It felt overwhelming to her for us to pick apart her morning routine and tweak it. What was a simpler way was to commit to arriving at work 45 minutes in advance and to plan to leave her house early enough to do that.
But Bree needed accountability, or no change would occur. She reached out to her community and even her students for help. Here’s what happened, in her own words:
“I decided to get to my school 30 minutes early each day. It’s a 30-minute drive with no traffic or parking issues, so I budgeted extra time for traffic, adding 20 minutes. This meant I left for work one hour and 20 minutes early. I told my friends and family about my goal. I also told my students. Everybody was super supportive, and two of my friends and my sister offered to text or call me 15 minutes before I was set to leave each day for the first two weeks.
"I approached it one day at a time. Each day for the first week, when the school day began, and I was ready at my desk, the kids gave me high-fives. They saw my persistence! I feel so calm as I start the day now. I also get an excellent parking spot in the lot before it’s too crowded. It’s been one month of success. This is a new routine because I shifted one habit: from leaving late to leaving with enough time. I’m an adult with ADHD who has never done this successfully in the past. I feel so accomplished.”
With her community and students' support, Bree created and maintained a new routine that reduces her life's anxiety and stress.
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 that Bree was successful is that she selected one thing to work on: arriving at school earlier. Since she didn’t want to change what she did before going to work, she woke up earlier, regardless of the time she went to bed. Bree also set alarms and alerts on her phone and her computer and even bought an alarm clock. Many people with ADHD get too caught up in how to make something work because they have widened their field.
2. Organize the steps needed for your new routine.
Do a big brain dump of what needs to shift to remake your routine. Then, make a shorter list of only three things from this long list, based on the urgency or importance of the tasks. Then, break down each of these items into briefer parts.
Your goal is to set yourself up for success by changing the components of one issue (and its components) at a time. Be sure to include the types of materials or assistance you will need. Keep your expectations low: attempting 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, recognition from your boss, or the absence of late fees on your credit cards? Or is it something internal, like reaching a personal goal or the satisfaction of the accomplishment itself? There’s no right or wrong answer. Look for what’s most effective so things may change and you encounter success. It’s OK if you need external validation initially.
Changing a habit for individuals with ADHD often works better initially if the people around you notice your efforts. Bree’s students did this spontaneously for her, which touched her and helped her keep going. Is there a particular activity or words of acknowledgment that goes along with the new behavior that would feel good?
Many adults with ADHD experienced a childhood littered with criticisms, judgments, and negativity for aspects of being neurodivergent that they could not control. The positive-to-negative balance in your head is probably still terribly skewed. So it makes perfect sense if you benefit from external and internal motivation.
4. Bring the future into the present.
One reason it’s so tough to change is that the consequences of not changing may not be immediate enough to pressure you to do it now. With your now-or-not-now ADHD brain, unless the present is miserable, change won't occur. So bring the future into the present.
Consider how you will feel if you don’t follow through with the new routine that you’ve set up for yourself. Visualize your future and how you want to think about the present. Ask yourself, "Do I need to impose artificial consequences instead of waiting for natural, negative ones to occur?" and "How can you make this shift daily and nurture consistency without self-blame or shame?"
5. Find accountability buddies.
Once you’ve narrowed down the habit you wish to change, set up a clear plan, and find accountability buddies. They will compassionately and firmly help you stick to your stated goal and assist you when you face an obstacle. When publicly sharing a purpose and plan, you transform an intention into action.
Creating a new routine means changing habits and aiming for steadiness, not perfection. It’s not just about when you do things but how, what, and why. The "why" could be the reason you're holding back. In some cases, you may be attached to a particular approach that may have served you in the past. These habits are developed to help you reduce stress, avoid something fearful or uncomfortable, or decrease frustration.
Ask yourself now: Is this routine serving me in my life currently? If the answer is "yes," great. Keep going with it. But if the answer is "no," then it’s time for a change.
Nesterak, Evan. “Good Habits, Bad Habits: A Conversation with Wendy Wood.” Behavioral Scientist, 16 Dec. 2019, https://behavioralscientist.org/good-habits-bad-habits-a-conversation-w….