Habits and ADHD

If you have ADHD like I have ADHD, chances are you put off those less-than-interesting tasks and responsibilities like paying the bills, business paperwork or house cleaning. “Interesting” is the key word here because, like many other people with ADHD, if I don’t find something interesting, I have a hard time starting on it and/or focusing on it long enough to get it done. In fact, I put it off in hopes I’ll feel more like doing it at a later time, date…year. In fact, it might get put off long enough that it ceases to be on my radar at all.

If I think about it, though, there are some things I manage to get done despite my general lack of interest in them. For instance, taking pills. I now take pills before I go to bed at night. By making it part of an existing routine it has become a habit, and I no longer make a conscious decision about when, where, or if to do it.

Habits and ADHD

According to The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, 40% of our behaviors are habits. These habits are created over time and stored in the part of the brain called the Basal Ganglia. In other words, many of our behaviors are automatic and no longer processed consciously. If we can create new habits or change old habits, then, we can ingrain a routine for getting those things done that we might otherwise put off, avoid or forget.

So how do you create positive habits? According to The Power of Habit, habits are created through the use of a cue, routine and reward. For example, my cue for taking pills every night is the act of turning off the lights and locking doors. This cues me to go into the kitchen and take my pills as part of an existing, going-to-bed routine. My reward is a little harder to figure out, but I suspect it is the ability to immediately fall into bed as soon as I go upstairs.

The first step, then, is to understand what habits you currently have, as well as the type of cues and rewards that have worked for you in the past. For those of us with ADHD, we might be hampered in this step by our general lack of self awareness. This is where a friend or coach might come in, someone who can go over some habits with you to figure out what has worked for you in the past or can be changed to accommodate a different task in the future.

We might also be hampered by our tendency to want immediate gratification. In other words, a reward that is too delayed in time from the cue and routine may not work well to cement a habit.

If you want a real-life example, consider the task of paying bills. A sometimes depressing and always uninteresting chore, it is a task that can be put off easily. In an effort to pay bills and consider finances on a timely and consistent basis, I created a habit wherein I go to my favorite coffee shop on Saturday morning with my bills and computer in hand. The cue is Saturday morning, the routine is bringing my bills to a coffee shop and paying them, and my reward is a nice morning out with or without a chocolate chip muffin.

Creating habits through utilizing cues, routines, and rewards has worked really well for me. What about you?

Scheduling Activities With Friends

A couple of blogs ago, I referenced an article written by ADHD experts, Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. and John J. Ratey, M.D. I keep going back to it because its 50 ADHD management tips really got me thinking. Tip number 47 advised people with ADHD to make a conscious effort to schedule activities with friends to keep connected. There wasn’t a whole lot more to the bullet point, but its inclusion on the tip list helped me to make my own epiphany: I’ve successfully self-managed an ADHD tendency all on my own. I’m that insightful and resourceful! That being said, I don’t think I’m the only insightful and resourceful person with ADHD. Anyone who’s lived with the brain wiring and functioned at all has developed strategies, whether or not they recognize them as such.

Scheduling Activities With Friends

When it comes to scheduling activities with friends, I long ago recognized that I need the social connection; but if I don’t schedule social activities at least a day in advance, they simply won’t happen. I need the scheduled activity as a goal to get from point A to point B. Point A being asleep in bed to Point B being dressed, out of the house and interacting. I don’t know why I can’t seem to be more spontaneous with social plans, but it apparently is just one more of those pesky brain-wiring tendencies.

In the end, the why doesn’t really matter. In fact, I’d say labeling it as an ADHD tendency doesn’t matter either. After all, why is someone born with two left feet when it comes to dancing or running or…painting? Sometimes, a “tendency” is another terms for describing how a person operates. When it comes to scheduling appointments with friends, I can fight it or I can work with it. And apparently, I figured out what works for me even before I received the ADHD diagnosis. All it took was a little bit of self awareness.

Structure and Staying Busy Helps ADHD

I was thinking about the old adage, “If you need something done, give it to a busy person.” I’m undoubtedly paraphrasing, and I’m going to attribute it loosely to either Lucille Ball or Benjamin Franklin; but I’m sure you’ve heard the saying in some form or another over the years.

Anyway, in my experience, the observation proves true. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this; but as an ADHD adult, it got me to thinking. In spite of the fact that being busy could easily turn into a state of overwhelm for a person with ADHD, staying busy helps ADHD overall.

Why is that?

I think being busy works for me because it provides natural limits on some of my ADHD tendencies, including time management, distraction, perfectionism and procrastination. If I have a three-hour meeting at noon and plans at 4 PM, that means I have until noon to work on that project that is due tomorrow. Life, therefore, kind of schedules itself without a lot of conscious input from me. In other words, I am forced (kicking and screaming sometimes) to prioritize as I travel through my days and weeks.

Apparently, the urgency of deadline pressure or scheduled commitment effectively curbs my tendencies to procrastinate and/or get distracted, both of which require a certain degree of free, unstructured time to really gather steam.

The state of busy also prevents me from indulging in yet another bugaboo of ADHD brain wiring: perfectionism. When I’m busy, I’m better at getting to the heart of a matter. This is undoubtedly because reworking – belaboring? — a project takes time. Those of us with ADHD may underestimate how long something takes to get done, but we still try to arrive sometime near the goal.

So, against all odds, being busy may actually help my productivity. I’m, in effect, using circumstances and commitments to create structure, break down projects and force transitions – hey, whatever works, right? The problem solver in me, however, wants to refine the strategy. What, for instance, would make the whole process a little less anxiety producing? What if I make a point of always overestimating how long I think something will take by half an hour? After all, that printer of mine only works on one out of every twenty attempts. I’ll give this a try and see how it goes.

Does being busy work for you? In what ways?