ADHD-Friendly Habits: 12 Tips To Healthy Sustainable Behaviors
ADHD-Friendly habits can be hard to establish. However new behaviors help you build healthy habits. And when you are thinking about building sustainable habits, you need to involve a complex series of decisions, commitments, boundaries, and strategies. Each can be challenging with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Distractions, impulses and conditions constantly interrupt a great, well-intended plan. And despite our best intentions, missing a day or two of a newly forged behavior can exponentially discourage us making new habits nearly impossible to attain.
We get derailed…
And we get distracted…
Then we get very tired…
And then we become dysregulated…
So we give in…
And far too often ultimately give up.
Many with ADHD let circumstances, or lack of followthrough, knock them off track. Recent research conducted at the University of London dismissed the common belief that doing a routine for 21 consecutive days is the key to making it a habit stick. It doesn’t. In fact, this study found that it takes at least two to eight months of consistent behavior, to embrace a new habit – that means you’re going to need to do both change your expectations, then change behaviors, and then do them consistently in order for them to stick.
That’s why it makes sense to change the goal from ‘building habits’ to simply repeating healthy behaviors, for far longer. The message: train for the marathon, and stop focusing on the 5k when it comes to changing behavior. Additionally, lighten up. Missing a day or two does not alter the end result if you focus on starting fresh and getting back on the horse after you fall off. This awareness can free you from focusing on failure, and instead focus you on your commitment.
So, now that you know that you need to focus on repeating behaviors for a much longer period of time, it’s best to take a more grounded, and comprehensive approach to sustainable, healthy habits. Here is how I help clients work with their challenges to create ADHD-friendly habits and to establish sustainable behaviors as Essential Structures in a life that fits.
1. Create winning conditions
Winning conditions are the environmental, behavioral, and physical conditions that help you. Instead of working against things that you are not good at, it’s much easier to create a habit when there are fewer barriers to getting started. For instance, if you’re planning your afternoon run, it’s much easier if you have already set out your exercise clothes and sneakers.
2. It’s ADHD-friendly to zero in on 1 at a time and decide
So often, ADHD makes you feel ‘flooded’ – everything is ‘the most important thing’ that has to all get done around the same time. When we pause to consider all the different options and opportunities we have to create habits, our brains feed us a litany of never-ending thoughts – and it makes it almost impossible to chose. However, to build a habit it’s important to make choices. Your pre-frontal cortex needs clarity in order to help you problem-solve, so making decisions is essential to help you get started.
3. Try before you buy
ADHD brains love all or nothing. However, it’s really hard to build habits if you commit to something you don’t even like. That’s why it’s essential to give yourself a trial period before you commit to a habit. Trying something several times will give you an idea of whether or not you like it.
For instance, when I started jogging on the treadmill this winter, I gave myself a 2 week period where I committed to treadmill walking/running 4 days a week. I did it for 2 weeks and found that I liked it enough to try to create a habit. During the 2-week period, I experimented with different times of day, different workouts, and different programs on the treadmill before I landed on a habit I wanted to try. This gave me a trial period of success before I committed to a more specific workout. In this way I was able to decide along the way and parse out the decisions until I had broken through the initial surface tension of activating a new thing.
4. Establish control limits
Control Limits are rooted in TQM (Total Quality Management). In order to keep processes functioning control limits are the established measures. To establish integrity and keep a process ‘in control’: engineers define a lower control limit and a high control limit. Anything outside of this means the process is ‘out of control’. This concept can easily adapt to behavioral goals because too often lofty goals are unsustainable.
So an ADHD-friendly habit is to start by focusing on your lowest control limit as a first step. Think about what will be the most minimal way to deliver a successful outcome. Use this statement as a model to try for yourself: I will feel good if I can do X at least X days a week. Then make the lower control limit your target.
When you do this, your goal becomes a no-brainer. It should be absolutely doable so you focus on success! When working out on the treadmill I started by walking at least 1 mile and at least 4 days a week. I could always do more, but this made my goal attainable, which made it possible, doable, and ultimately achieving success. Just starting small eventually supported a much larger commitment that has become the habit. Start small so you’re able to just start.
5. Contingency plans are ADHD-friendly habits
My sister’s winning formula is to always have a Plan A and make a Plan B (and often a Plan C) – just in case. Building habits is tough, and it’s exponentially harder with adult ADHD. That’s why it’s critical to help yourself through breakdowns, mishaps, and small setbacks by having a backup plan, just in case things go wrong.
6. Identify potential obstacles and breakdowns before you start
One of the common errors for ADHDers is planning everything around perfection, yet never getting started. This ‘glass-half-full’ approach to life is fun and refreshing but this thinking tends to gloss over and minimize the tough stuff, making it hard to work things out when stuff happens. Instead of always planning on the best-case scenario, it’s a good habit to consider potential obstacles and breakdowns.
Listing the potential breakdowns and obstacles is a great way to anticipate what could go wrong so you’re not derailed if something weird happens, or when the unexpected comes up.
7. It’s ADHD-friendly to experiment and try things while you gather data
If I had a nickel for every ADHD Adult who tried something a few times and then stopped with “It didn’t work” or “It didn’t stick”, I’d be wealthy beyond measure! Doing something once to several times DOES NOT MAKE IT A HABIT. But, giving yourself an on-ramp period of time where you can experiment with different things to try them on and decide how it works for you! This on-ramping is a way to start slowly. Instead of beginning with a resolution, begin instead with a learner’s mentality. Consider your new habit to build a destination, and experiment with different things to be a time of learning, awareness, and forgiveness.
8. ADHD-friendly habit: Pre-decide
Another ADHD-friendly habit is to pre-decide, and then build external accountability measures to ensure success. Why? With ADHD you want to try to avoid making weighty decisions in the moment. Often folks with ADHD find it difficult to shift out of their current physical state. Therefore starting is harder than staying in a sense of homeostasis. So, in order to make it easier, pre-decide the key accountability measures of when, how and who you’ll do it with.
Identify when, how, and who to get in action
WHEN will you do this? Time-anchor actions
Select a moment in time to start a task so you have time to work from. Identifying when to start the task is essential because it helps anchor you to time. You can always delay the start, but when you’ve pre-decided the start time, it’s harder to ignore, especially if you’ve predecided the next two elements.
HOW will you take steps? Define completion
Your brain can get hung up on details and shut down or give up. To make action more available, chart out the steps you will take to do something. You can get fancy and create a work breakdown structure, flowchart, or storyboard, or just a numbered list of steps you need to take. A step-by-step procedure is an ADHD-friendly way to lower the threshold to action.
WHO will you do this with? Build accountability
One of the best ADHD-Friendly ways to build habits is to externalize accountability. In other words, you’re more likely to show up for a morning run if your buddy is waiting on you. SO, figure out WHO will support you with this action and enroll that person in the payoff.
9. Entertain your internal monkey while doing mundane things
If you get easily bored, try consistently combining something enjoyable with something you find boring. The goal is to entertain the limbic (monkey brain) enough so that it doesn’t interfere with your focus or cause you to quit before you finish. For instance, if you don’t like doing the dishes, listen to fun music while you do them. Or, play a podcast or binge-worthy Netflix series while folding laundry. When you provide your brain with some candy (entertainment) while you do the thing you don’t like, the combination is a winner! Linking two tasks together helps you get started, focus to stay on task, and avoid ‘quitting’ before you’re done.
10. It is ADHD-friendly to identify your big why, your benefits, and payoffs
ADHD brains are all about context. They constantly connect the dots and pull the pieces together. That’s why it’s important to keep the benefits, payoff, and big why top of mind. Some ADHD-Friendly ways to do this are to write things down in terms of a mantra or goal. And, if goals aren’t your thing – write down your Pay-off or Big Why. For me, I get on the treadmill so I can be healthy, fit, and active. I want to be able to do physical things to keep up with my husband, play hard and have adventures. I don’t want my physical limitations to hold me back.
So, when you can hold your BIG WHY, benefits, and pay-offs top of mind, you’re more accountable. You CAN do hard things.
Another way to connect to context is to experiment with I am, I will, and I do statements. Present-tense awareness is critical to help stay out of the sticky ADHD symptoms. When you self-identify in the present you bring those bigger benefits, pay-offs, and purpose to decisions at the moment. So instead of using your ‘state of being’ as the driver of decisions (as in I don’t feel like it, or I would work out but I’m tired), use identity statements aligned with your big why as in I work out, I am a runner or I eat gluten-free.
11. Begin with the end in mind – Name the finished outcome before you start
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey named this Habit 2. And, naming an outcome is a very ADHD-friendly habit. One of the best things you can do for your ADHD brain is to define your outcomes before you start. When you know when you can quit, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. This ‘container’ floods your system with norepinephrine and dopamine to help you finish. And, there’s no purer ADHD-friendly fuel than task completion. Getting things done is one of the best ways to build healthy, sustainable habits.
12. Batch like tasks together – create habit stacks
Success breeds success and when you have success, your ADHD brain experiences a feeling of accomplishment. When you string accomplishments together, you create associations between tasks and make them easier to accomplish. Also, stringing like tasks together moves the start line and end line for your brain – allowing you to stay focused just a little longer. Many clients experiment by combining different tasks together to see what flows best to achieve more success. You’re naturally building behaviors and batching actions into cadences and habits.
In conclusion, habits are the RESULTS of repeated actions. Habits are achieved when you have sustainable, reliable behaviors. This is why the most ADHD-friendly habits begin with repeatable, sustainable behaviors. When you create a habit, you need much less brainpower to do things. This builds success and more success keeps you motivated to take more action.
So, use these twelve tips to build your self-awareness and continue to take action until you achieve your goals. Repeatable, sustainable behaviors become habits that produce confidence and accountability for how you are living. In this way you can evoke change, align resources, and repeatedly meet your needs.