5 Reasons Routines Fizzle – and How to Rekindle Healthy Habits
Daily routines fall apart for a host of reasons related to ADHD – from executive dysfunction and perfectionism to “now” and “not now” thinking. Follow this guide to help you create a routine you’ll stick to.
Routines unravel with great frequency and frustration thanks to a very Catch-22 truth about ADHD: Daily habits make ADHD easier to manage; at the same time, ADHD symptoms and executive function challenges make it inordinately difficult to establish and consistently follow routines. Not to mention the common ADHD pitfalls of perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking that derail great intentions every day.
The bottom line: Routines are supposed to simplify your life, not complicate it. Use this guide to help you understand why routines fail, and how to create and stick to a routine that fits with your life.
Why Routines Fail: Causes and Solutions to Help You Stick to a Routine
1. Your routine bores you.
ADHD brains enjoy novelty and spontaneity, the archnemeses of routine. The consistency and stability of a routine can transform the task of sticking to that routine into a monotonous, unsatisfying chore.
- Schedule opportunities for fun. Who says you can’t bring spontaneity and joy into routines? Be sure to carve out space for activities that light you up and keep you going.
- Build in positive feedback. If you know that routine is good for you despite its monotony, seek out positive feedback to provide a motivation boost. If you want to consistently wake up earlier, connect that early alarm clock to its larger purpose (a stress-free morning). Treat yourself to a reward for following through. If you can’t provide yourself with positive feedback, enlist the help of another person. Have a friend send you a congratulatory text for waking up on time.
- Give yourself permission to change routines. Accept your need to switch things up! Don’t fight it. A consistent change in routine could still be part of a structured lifestyle. Make it a habit, for example, to come up with a new routine every first day of the month.
2. Your routine feels too rigid.
Many people with ADHD associate routines with rigidity, limitations, and lack of freedom. But a good routine embodies the exact opposite of these qualities.
- Could you use a perspective shift? Your routine should free you from dealing with the overwhelm of so many daily decisions and choices. With structure, you won’t have to devote as much brain power on these choices.
- Narrow the field. Don’t over-organize your days. If your routine needs a makeover, start by naming just one aspect of your day that isn’t working for you, and one thing to address it. Slowly turn that into a habit to work into a routine later.
- Stick around to feel the benefits. All the positive aspects of a routine only become apparent if you adhere to it. Build in positive feedback (see #1 above) to motivate persistence.
3. Your routine feels overwhelming.
Putting undue pressure on yourself to create the perfect routine – one that solves all your problems and optimizes every second of your day – is by far the most common reason routines fail. Routine overwhelm can take on many forms.
- You may beat yourself up for missing part of your routine and frame your “failure” with negative self-talk (e.g., “I’m a loser. I’ll never get this right.”)
- You may feel paralyzed at the thought of following or reworking your routine (e.g. “I hate doing the same thing. It’s so unpleasant and hardly seems worth it.”)
While routines are meant to be followed, they do not demand perfection – a difficult concept for many individuals with ADHD to grasp. Without knowing it, and after a lifetime of experiencing criticism and judgment for your neurodivergence, perhaps you have developed perfectionistic tendencies that make it difficult for you to forgive yourself for the natural challenges of everyday life.
To break out of routine overwhelm and perfectionism:
- Think small, specific, and realistic. Thinking too big leads to overwhelm. Go back to the drawing board and list one aspect of your day that you’d like to improve, and one tiny, achievable step you can take toward that end. If you’d like to get into the routine of organizing your kitchen, focus on one small area at a time instead of the entire space. Say, “I’m going to spend 20 minutes clearing the sink, only.” Remember that small wins will lead to bigger ones.
- Progress doesn’t have to be daily. A few days out of the week is enough to make progress and keep overwhelm at bay.
- What works for your brain? Don’t get caught up in how you think routines should go or what other people tell you would be better. Follow what makes sense to you. Take inspiration from a young client of mine who decided to shower at night and then sleep in their clothes to reduce morning stress and anxiety.
4. Distractions and interruptions throw off your routine.
You have every intention of following a routine, but distractions and interruptions – from notifications on your phone to sudden traffic – throw off your plans. Perhaps ADHD symptoms like difficulty concentrating and even hyperfocus also interfere with your routines.
- Build in cushion time. Incorporate flexibility into your routine. Always give yourself an extra 20 minutes to make it on time (no matter what Google Maps or Waze say).
- Set up tools to help you re-orient. Get creative. Use apps, reminders, notifications, alarms, website blockers, planners, Time Timers, sticky notes, body doubling, and other tools.
- Limit distractions. Pay attention to the recipients of your attention. Rather than spend lots of energy trying to ignore distractions, eliminate them from your environment if you can. If you still wind up distracted, don’t chide yourself. (Another sign of perfectionism!) Redirect with kindness and grace.
5. You don’t feel motivated to follow a routine.
Understanding the importance of a routine isn’t always enough to inspire follow through. Transforming intention into action, after all, is a central challenge of ADHD – and why some refer to ADHD as a performance disorder.
ADHD brains live in the present and tend to discount the future, which might explain your “lack of motivation” to stick to a routine. The benefits of a routine may be too far off into the future to compel action in the present.
- Connect to your future self. Think about how your future you will feel if you don’t show up for yourself now. Visualize your future and your purpose in following a routine. Consider setting up artificial consequences to encourage follow through.
- Share your commitment with others – a type of artificial consequence that can increase accountability. Share doable goals with people who genuinely support you without judgment, and who can assist you when you face an obstacle.
- Identify what motivates you. Like artificial consequences, built-in rewards can make it easier to create habits that become part of your routine. Motivators come in all forms: words of acknowledgment from a loved one; positive affirmations; a cup of tea; a round of Wordle; a short walk. Select rewards that speak to you.
How to Stick to a Routine: Next Steps
- Free Download: The ADHD Healthy Habits Handbook
- Read: How to Change Habits — 4 Ways to Make New Behaviors Stick
- Read: Your Evening Routine Is Broken
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Real-Time Support Group session titled, “Setting Up Routines for Adults with ADHD” with Sharon Saline, Psy, D., which was broadcast via Facebook Live on October 7, 2022. Live support group meetings take place on Facebook most Fridays at 4 p.m. ET.
Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.