Establishing a new behavior or building new and healthier habits is a tall order for most of us with ADHD. We get distracted or change our game plan after a week, despite our best intentions. When we miss a day of a routine, we get discouraged and convince ourselves that forming a new habit is impossible. We give up.
Many with ADHD let follow-through, or the lack thereof, 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. Their research found that it takes at least two months, and, for some, up to eight months, to embrace a new habit. The message: Missing a day here and there will not alter the end result if we just keep at it.
Here is how my clients and I have worked around our ADHD behaviors to establish better habits in our lives.
1. Start with a Small Goal
Setting small goals at the beginning of a routine prevents ADHDers from fizzling out. My client Dana says that when she exercises she feels better, sleeps better, and focuses longer. But she hasn't been able to do it consistently. She gets off to a good start, and then she stops.
We decided to focus on the habit of getting to the gym and not on the workout itself. I had her pack her gym bag, put it in the car the night before, and drive to the parking lot of the gym the next morning. That part of the routine was easy. And then, following through on the exercise part was easier after she committed to getting there with a gym bag in tow. It seemed silly to be in the parking lot without actually going in to the gym.
Even on days when she felt tired, she followed through and did at least a light workout. We also agreed that, when she forgot to pack her gym bag, or didn't want to drive to the gym, she would walk around the block after dinner. These alternatives didn't take much time and reminded her that consistency would prevent her from returning to her couch potato status.
2. Get Ready, Get Set
When training for the New York-to-Boston ride for AIDS, I found it hard to get up every day and ride my bike to work. I knew, though, that if I did not train consistently, I would not be able to go the distance come race time. I would set my alarm and get up, but then I would fritter away my time until it was too late to bike and I had to drive to work. To remind myself that getting on my bike was very important, I showered the night before and wore my biking shirt to bed. It worked for me.
3. Find Your Own Way to Motivate Yourself
Typing up the top 10 reasons why a new habit is important to them has worked for some of my clients. They framed the list and put it on their desk or nightstand. It motivates them to keep going when they miss a day. Others need a source of accountability to get started and to stick with a routine. I check in daily with several of my clients via text messages. Knowing they will get a text asking how things are going helps them avoid procrastination. If you don't have a coach, get a buddy to check up on you.
4. "Yes, but…"
My client Michelle uses the word "but" to battle her negative self-talk and excuse-making. She knows that she can talk herself out of following through on something so often that the behavior never becomes a habit. Now when she catches herself starting to make an excuse to skip doing something — like clearing off her desk before she leaves work — she adds a big "but" to the end of the sentence. For example, when she says, "I'll do it in the morning," she immediately adds, "but everybody wants my attention first thing in the morning and I know it will never get done, so I'd better stick to my game plan and do it now." Saying "but" is an ADHDer's best weapon against excuse-making.
5. "See" Yourself Succeeding
Ted admits that he has lots of bad habits, but change comes hard to him. "My bad habits are my comfort zone," he says. "It's easier to do what I've always done, even if the results get me into trouble. Change makes me very anxious."
When Ted decided to go back to law school, he bought the LSAT study guides, but never opened them. "Anxiety about taking the test made me avoid getting down to work, so I turned on the TV instead." I had Ted visualize himself sitting at his desk in a comfortable chair, flipping through his study guides, taking notes, and enjoying preparing for the exam. He worked on making this vision clear and bright. Doing this daily visualization for two weeks enabled him to study for the law boards. Whenever anxiety creeps back, visualizing helps him get back on track.
6. Use Blunt Reminders
Visual reminders work especially well for ADHDers. Margaret wasn't able to get into the habit of flossing until she put her dental floss in a see-through Plexiglass holder and stuck it the middle of her bathroom mirror. The floss stared back at her each morning. Visual reminders are a great way to keep ADHDers from getting distracted, so we can follow through on our intentions.