Atomic habits are essential for ADHD adults because they work! Atoms are the smallest unit of matter, but they make up everything around us. It’s proof that even the littlest things can make a huge impact when they work together.
Atomic habits are tiny, infinitesimal changes you make that may seem like nothing special on their own but become incredibly powerful when they’re layered upon each other.
When we get in the car, most of us buckle our seatbelts. We don’t think about it consciously; we just do it. The same goes for locking our doors at night or letting the dog out to relieve himself first thing in the morning.
Some Brain Candy
In fact, researchers have learned that habits can become so ingrained that they’re still present even after serious brain damage as long as the basal ganglia, the part of the brain responsible for maintaining existing habits and forming new ones, remains intact. For example, patients who may not know where (or who) they are can sometimes find their way home or dial a phone number they’ve called a million times…even if they don’t remember who they’re calling.
Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have issues with executive function, which makes it much harder for them to stay organized and on task. They thrive on strict routines, which means that creating positive, healthy habits is an absolute must.
Habits are great for people with ADHD because once you’ve made something a habit, you no longer have to think about it, freeing your brain up for other tasks. It’s almost like being on autopilot – and when so much of your life revolves around remembering what needs to be done and when autopilot is a pretty cool thing to have.
The Compounding Nature of Atomic Habits
If you’ve ever sat through an Algebra 2 or Precalculus class, you probably remember learning about compounding interest. (For those who slept through the class, compounding interest is interest earned on both the principle and the interest.)
To use an example from Bankrate: “If you deposit $1,000 in an account that pays 1 percent annual interest, you’d earn $10 in interest after a year. Thanks to compound interest, in Year Two you’d earn 1 percent on $1,010 — the principal plus the interest, or $10.10 in interest payouts for the year.”
The same holds true for atomic habits. If you improve by just one percent each day, you’ll be 37.78 times better at the skill at the end of one year.
Understanding the Habit Cycle
In his book, Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results, author James Clear describes the four-step habit cycle: Cue>Craving>Response>Reward. Here’s how it works.
- The cue comes first. That’s where we realize that there’s a reward to be had.
- Next comes the craving where we want that reward (and the dopamine hit that comes with it).
- How we respond to that craving will dictate what our habit becomes.
- Finally, we get to the reward where we’ll decide whether or not it was worth it.
If the reward is a good one, we get another dose of that sweet, sweet dopamine, file it in our brain as a success and act the same way the next time, eventually creating a habit. If the reward wasn’t the outcome we desired, we’ll go back to the drawing board and react differently the next time.
This is the way all habits are created in our subconscious. Unfortunately, not all of them are good habits.
4 Steps to Creating Atomic Habits
Step 1 – Make A New Habit Obvious
Creating good habits requires an implementation strategy that starts with a clear, actionable, specific goal. “I want to exercise more” is a statement, not a resolution. “I will jog for 20 minutes every day at 6:30 a.m. on the path at Fisher Park” is much better.
To further set yourself up for success, try to tie your new habit into something you already do every day. For instance, if you want to make a habit of drinking more water, tell yourself to drink eight ounces of water each time you have a snack or a meal.
You might forget to increase your water intake, but you’re not likely to forget to eat – and by stacking the habit (drinking more water) on top of something you already do out of habit (eating), you’re actually helping yourself out.
Step 2 – Make a New Habit Attractive
You’re not likely to stick to something if there’s nothing in it for you, so you need to find ways to make your chosen habit attractive. This stage is all about the dopamine loop. The anticipation of a reward is often better than the reward itself, and the dopamine spike you get just by thinking about it is actually bigger than the one you get when you receive it.
Yes, anticipating the reward is even more exciting than receiving it, especially to the dopamine-deprived ADHD brain – so making the habit attractive is crucial to help you jump the threshold between doing nothing, and doing the desired habit.
Brainstorm ways that you can make even the more undesirable habits (paying bills, doing chores, eating well, etc.) more attractive. Use the “Once I [_____], then I will [_____].” For instance, “Once I finish jogging, eat breakfast, and drink my glass of water, then I will check my social media feeds/play a video game/watch an episode of my favorite show.”
By making the habit attractive, you’re making it more likely that you’ll stick with it.
Step 3 – Make The Desired Result Easy
We’re all human, and humans don’t like to do hard things. We’re all just looking for the path of least resistance, so don’t set yourself up to fail by making your new habit hard from the get-go.
Remember, any progress is progress. Repeating the desired behavior over and over again is what builds a habit. Therefore it’s more important to create a repeatable behavior than the amount of time you spend on the habit. Doing something for two minutes every single day is more beneficial than doing something for ten minutes twice a week.
To effectively use atomic habits for ADHD adults, do whatever you can to remove any obstacles in your path. If you want to eat better, get rid of all the junk food in the house. To journal more, keep your journal and a pen within easy reach so you don’t have to get up to get it. If you want to stop biting your nails, keep them cut short so there’s nothing to bite.
The easier you can make things for yourself, the better!
Step 4 – Make it Satisfying
When you have ADHD, anticipating a reward may be more beneficial than the reward itself, but that doesn’t mean the reward shouldn’t be satisfying, too! In fact, seeking satisfying things is much easier for ADHD adults, than focusing on stressors.
One caveat: A reward should never hinder the habit you’re trying to create. While it’s tempting to reward yourself for saving money with a shopping spree at the end of the month or for eating healthy six days a week with a “cheat” day on Sunday, this actually works against you rather than for you.
Conversely, Atomic Changes Can Help You Break Bad Habits
Some people really struggle to break bad habits that are already in place. But bad habits can often contribute to burnout. The same principles can be inversely applied to breaking undesirable habits. In order to break a bad habit you should:
Try to make a bad habit invisible.
The old saying – Out of sight, IS often out of mind – is especially true for many ADHDers. If you’re wasting too much time gaming and want to stop endlessly playing, unplug it. Or put the console in the garage. TO ADMake it disappear so you can more easily inhibit unwanted behavior.
Make the unwanted habit unattractive.
Change the way you think about the habit and remind yourself why you’re choosing to break it. “Smoking that cigarette may make me feel better for five minutes, but it makes my clothing smell, affects my health, and costs money that could be better spent on other things.”
Make a bad habit harder to do.
Another way to use negative atomic habits for ADHD is to make the unwanted habit harder! For instance, if you’re trying to curb your online spending, delete the apps for your favorite stores, remove your saved credit cards from your phone and computer, and unsubscribe from their email lists. An essential atomic habit for ADHDers who struggle with money is to make spending harder.
Back in the day when people swiped for purchases, I had a debt-ridden client who froze her credit cards in ice! With apps, one-click ordering is far too easy. But too many online purchases are very difficult to track. If you’re in trouble with spending, shut down the pipeline of endless temptation and unsubscribe! When one-click ordering isn’t available and your inbox stops overflowing with messages screaming “Free Shipping” and “Today Only: Save 45%”, you’ll find it a lot less tempting to order things that you don’t need. A great app to help you manage the never-ending unwanted email marketing is unroll.me – This app helps you easily unsubscribe from retailers with one click!
Make doing the old thing truly unsatisfying.
Good habits should lead to rewards; bad habits should come with consequences. Find an accountability partner to answer to for your slip-ups. Often, the shame of having to hold yourself accountable for your actions is enough to help you break an undesirable habit.
Baby Steps and Small Changes Create Big Impacts!
Atoms are minuscule, but we’d be nowhere without them. To use atomic habits for ADHD, put your efforts toward small, easy tasks. Make them easy to repeat, and help yourself by stacking the new and novel with the known. Just as atoms make up the chair you’re sitting in, atomic habits make up the person you are. Start creating yours today and see how much your life can change for the better!
Are you struggling with adult ADHD? Are you looking for systems and strategies to help you manage your diagnosis? Let’s talk! Your FREE Discovery Call is just a click away.