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“The Willpower Workout: 5 Ways to Stop Impulses and Distractions”

“For ADHD brains with weak executive functioning, modern life sabotages our attempts to control impulsivity and distractions. Over time, this constant battle against short-term temptations depletes our willpower and weakens our ability to prioritize long-term goals.”

Full length of woman bending while standing on large pink smart phone against white background. Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Our world is filled with endless opportunities for immediate gratification — instant messages, one-click purchases, streaming movies and TV available 24/7.

For ADHD brains with weak executive functioning, modern life sabotages our attempts to control impulsivity and distractions. Over time, this constant battle against short-term temptations depletes our willpower and weakens our ability to prioritize long-term goals.

For us, the willpower to resist distractions comes down to habit. With practice and repetition, you can boost your willpower, little by little, every day. Here’s how.

How to Increase Willpower: 5 ADHD-Friendly Steps

1. Notice urges when they arise. The emotions behind an urge can tell us a lot. When you suddenly pick up your phone to check TikTok or grab a handful of chips from the pantry, what might you be avoiding? Work? Stress? Conflict?

While it may sound counterintuitive, one of the most effective tools we have for increasing willpower is simply “sitting” with a feeling or urge. When it hits, stop and take a moment to “be” with the feeling. With a long, slow breath, breathe the strong emotion in, and then blow it out — as if it were a mist, or stream of bubbles floating away.

[Get This Free Download: Get a Grip on Tough Emotions]

2. Practice waiting. When you find yourself drifting from a planned activity, stop and ask: Is this action intentional or impulsive? Is watching this YouTube video a plan I made in advance, or am I suddenly streaming out of boredom, sadness, or avoidance?

The act of intentionally waiting is a wonderful brain builder. Set a time limit before jumping into an unscheduled, impulsive activity. Give yourself 30 minutes before streaming that new Netflix show or 24 hours before making an online purchase. Often, you’ll notice that the act of waiting, even just for a few minutes, makes an activity less appealing and exciting.

Like sitting with an urge, pausing before giving in to an impulse may seem downright impossible. Start with just one or two small impulses a day, especially those that hit you most frequently. With practice, you’ll improve your ability to intentionally delay.

3. Bring a focused activity into your daily routine. The possibilities are endless here. Any activity or hobby that “arrests the attention and satisfies the soul,” as the psychologist William James put it, will do. This can be focused breathwork or meditation, knitting or needlepoint, drawing, painting, model building, baking, or even running. This practice helps train the brain to remain more centered and calm in daily life. (If it requires you to put your phone away, all the better.)

[Read: How to Practice Mindfulness with ADHD]

4. Reward yourself for not giving in to distractions. Plan your treat: “When I finish doing a task I put off, I can [insert favorite activity here].” Then do it. Each time you follow through on an intentional act and resist impulses along the way, you build new brain circuitry, strengthening those good habits while eliminating poor ones.

5. Make peace with your impulses. For so many people with ADHD, fighting off distractions and impulses will be a lifelong battle — even with practice. Mentally beating yourself up over them will only add to the emotions and triggers that drive bad habits. So, treat yourself with kindness, empathy, and even a little humor when your willpower is tested.

When you’re about to mindlessly check your phone for the hundredth time, stop and say something humorous, like, “You’ve got nothing better to do, Ms. Phone Checker? Really?” Have a gentle laugh at yourself. Remember that you’re but one person in a world full of fellow phone checkers — and we’re all trying our best to break the habit.

How to Increase Willpower: Next Steps


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