Brain Health

The Antidote to ADHD Fatigue and Exhaustion? Stacking Habits (and Spoons)

Why are you tired all the time? The mental energy required to live with ADHD leads to fatigue and exhaustion for many adults. The solution? Building better routines by habit stacking — because the more we automate tasks, the more bandwidth we have to tackle everything else. Here, learn 8 strategies for creating helpful new habits.

woman stacking boxes to illustrate habit stacking

Why Am I So Tired All the Time?

The Spoon Theory posits that individuals start each day with a certain amount of energy — or number of spoons — that daily tasks and activities deplete.

As you might imagine, those living with chronic conditions have fewer spoons than do their neurotypical counterparts. What’s more, tasks and activities require more spoons from neurodiverse brains, leading to daily spoon shortages (or acute fatigue). How, when, and why they expend — and conserve — energy is a critical daily decision.

So how can adults with ADHD use fewer spoons throughout the day so they aren’t left empty-handed, exhausted, and fatigued each night? Part of the solution may lie in building habits and routines that make daily tasks automatic — and, therefore, less of a drain on mental energy.

How to Build Habits That Preserve Mental Energy

A habit is an acquired behavior pattern that is regularly followed and repeated until it can occur almost without thinking. When a behavior becomes automatic, the ADHD gaps in your day close up — not allowing symptoms like forgetfulness, time blindness, and disorganization to seep through and use up spoons.

More habits mean more energy and resources left over for focus, productivity, and an overall sense of accomplishment. Here is how to build them effectively:

[Get This Free Download: The Daily Routine that Works for Adults with ADHD]

1. Evaluate Your Current Habits

What activities do you engage in habitually already? Are they helpful? Jot down a few of your current routines and habits for getting up in the morning, eating meals, preparing for work or school, and navigating other tough spots in the day:

  • Do you make sure to have coffee or tea in the morning?
  • Do you have your clothes laid out the night before?
  • Do you search for your keys every morning? Or do they stay in one place?
  • Do you collapse when you get home from work?

For each habit, ask yourself…

  • Is this working for me? Consider how many spoons the habit requires, and whether it’s worth the expense. Is the habit causing stress or otherwise interfering with your schedule? Could it be improved or replaced? List two habits that are working for you, and two that aren’t.
  • Be proactive, not reactive. What do you do that makes a task go smoothly, thereby requiring fewer spoons? Can you apply that technique to other parts of your day? What repeating tasks can be automated?

2. Start Small with New Habits

Identify one task you’d like to put on autopilot. Make sure it’s a small, easy task where success is likely. This may help to motivate you to develop more complex habits.

[Read: Want to Change Your Bad Habits? Do These 2 Things]

Time and place matter. Only begin forging a new habit when you can fully focus on the change you’d like to automate. Some experts recommend starting a new habit while on vacation or otherwise removed from your typical environment, when all your cues and routines are already scrambled.

3. Use Habit Stacking

Launch a new habit successfully by stacking it right before an already established habit.

Assume that you’re already in the habit of making coffee each morning. As the coffee brews, use that time to work on a new habit, be it prepping your dinner, practicing mindfulness, making your bed, engaging in light exercise, etc.

Habit stacking is based on classical conditioning, which shows that linking a new activity to an automated task is more likely to lead to success. We can generally add up to three new behaviors in a chain before an existing habit.

4. Track and Reward Your Successes

To motivate sustained effort, devise a system for recognizing your progress. It can be as simple as making a checkmark on the calendar every time you complete a new habit, or logging it via one of many available apps on the market.

Make sure to reward yourself as well. You can put money in a dedicated jar, but stickers also work for many adults!

5. Use Reminders to Solidify Habits

Think of ways to hold in your mind both the habit and its “why.” A strategically placed photo or memento can work (like taping your dentist’s bill beside the bathroom mirror to remind you to floss). Simple alarms are also effective, as are the many available habit-tracking apps. Keeping a literal spoon around might also do the trick.

6. Assess Setbacks with New Habits

If you’re struggling to cement a new habit, ask yourself:

  • What are the current barriers to success?
  • What can you change in your environment to help you succeed?
  • What can you do to make the desired task as easy as possible to achieve?
  • What has helped you succeed in the past?

For example, if your goal to eat more nutritious foods isn’t going as planned, is it because the food is out of reach? Can you bring those foods to a prominent location in the refrigerator or at work? Is your current plan unrealistic? Perhaps it’s better to introduce the new food as a snack or a small side rather than to plan a dinner around it.

7. Ask for Help

ADHD coaches can help guide and support you in your goals. Psychologists and therapists can also help uncover what’s really blocking you from creating and/or maintaining healthy habits. Sometimes, all you need is short-term, focused assistance to get on track. If you seek professional help, make sure you find someone who understands ADHD.

8. Be Patient

Setbacks are normal. It’s unreasonable to expect to stick to a new habit 100% of the time. Preparing for setbacks helps avoid surprise and stops us from beating ourselves up.

Have a plan to motivate yourself when things don’t go as you’d hoped. It might be calling a friend, reading an inspirational quote, or listening to a calming song.

Remember that building habits is a numbers game. The more you do it, the easier it will be, until it finally becomes automatic — saving you your valuable spoons.

Fatigue and Habit Stacking for ADHD Adults: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “The Healthy Habits Playbook: How to Make Meaningful Changes Actually Stick” [Video Replay & Podcast #361] with Michele Novotni, Ph.D., which was broadcast live on June 29, 2021.

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