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The Three R’s for Ruling Your ADHD

Individuals with ADHD need rituals, routines, and rewards (like watching “Sex and the City” while folding laundry) to keep us in a good place. Here are a few that help me accomplish more.

An alarm clock is essential for learning how to be on time
An alarm clock is essential for learning how to be on time

A person with attention deficit disorder may have a highly organized mind, an incredible ability to focus, and a clarity of vision beyond the normal scope, but anyone with executive function problems still has problems following steps, noticing time, and keeping to a program.

Three powerful R’s for managing ADHD recognize this dichotomy. Understanding routines, rewards, and rituals energizes our minds and focuses our attention.

Routines are patterns of action that we have internalized so deeply we can do them habitually, “on automatic.” Without routines, we have to think about everything we do. When you have ADHD, it can take up to 10 times longer to start a new habit than it does most people, because our novelty-seeking minds get bored, distracted, or have better ideas. But without thought-free routines for the repeatable tasks of self-care, putting things in their place, and getting where we need to go on time, life can be chaos. Having patterns that work for us is essential, so we have to be creative and persistent in forming them.

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A carrot in the front of a donkey and a stick in the back is the classic illustration of the rewards-and-punishment system that works for most human beings. But what we are learning now with Positive Psychology tells us that sticks don’t work as well as carrots in terms of motivation. And with an ADHD brain, a better picture would be the donkey eating a carrot as it walked, because future rewards are not as motivating for us as taking pleasure in doing things.

Building rewards into the work helps us get more done, and more eagerly. I got a key-hanger on vacation, so whenever I look at it, I remember good times and loved ones. Talking to other moms while making dinner gives my mind something to do while my hands are moving. Watching half-hour episodes of Sex and the City always makes folding laundry fun.

Rituals are like routines that allow for more reflection and soul rewards than boring daily tasks. Creating rituals around health and wellness keep us focused on the outcomes we want — dedicated exercise clothing makes working out feel special; going to the dentist or to give blood together makes it a date. Rituals around work keep us in touch with our higher purpose: We prepare for meetings by choosing an outfit and packing up our props. If we are pilots, we consciously go through safety steps before take-off. Rituals around connection — like going to church with our families, reading to kids before bed, having meals with friends — all carve out time on the calendar for things that enrich our souls.

A complex and interesting life, which is the birthright of anyone with a complex and interesting ADHD brain, becomes functional and successful with the support of an intricate web of overlapping and rewarding rituals and routines, so craft them with care!

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