Stop Shooting Yourself in the Foot
Thoughtlessly following your impulses can lead to a world of pain. Name your bad habits for what they are and release yourself from their grip.
If you have ADHD, you know all about impulsivity — taking action or saying something without thinking about it first. In my book The Gift of Adult ADD, I talk about some of the benefits of impulsiveness — taking risks that can pay off, for instance, for many with ADHD. However, the problem with taking action without thinking about it is obvious. Here are some common examples:
- Drinking too much and paying for it the next day
- Indulging in promiscuous sex
- Stalking people on social media
- Spending too much money
- Eating unhealthy food
Advertising is designed to make you want to buy things you don’t need, eat foods that aren’t good for you, and to care about things that aren’t in your best interest. While many of us are swayed by these pitches, people with ADHD are sitting ducks.
Make a List and Check It Twice (or More)
One strategy I developed to work with clients who are impulsive is to have them write down, on a 3 X 5 index card, or input into their smartphone, a detailed description of the bad things that happen when they indulge in an impulsive behavior. Many times it takes only one pause between impulse and action to stop the action. Imagine seeing a glazed doughnut at Starbucks, and then pulling up a note on your smartphone that reminds you of the consequences of eating it:
1. I will feel guilty all day.
2. I will feel foggy-headed and tired from the sugar crash.
3. I will avoid eating the rest of the day and then get a starvation headache later in the afternoon.
4. I will never meet my goals to slim down and get into 32-waist pants.
After reading that list, how likely are you, on a scale of 1-10, to order the doughnut? A 2 or 3, at most?
A client of mine, Don, watched Internet porn every chance he could. It was easy to access on his iPad, and there was nothing stopping him from watching it. I had him write out a list of problems that porn created in his life. He read them every time he was tempted to log on to his favorite sites:
1. He could pick up a computer virus, causing his iPad to crash.
2. He might not be able to perform in sexual situations, because no woman could compare to what he saw in porn.
3. He was losing interest in his girlfriend, who felt rejected.
4. The more porn he watched, the more hard-core porn he needed to get stimulated (he was truly afraid of how far he might go in searching for a thrill).
5. He spent so much time watching porn that he wasn’t fulfilling his commitments at home and to friends and was falling behind on the job.
After committing to reading his “bad list” before watching porn, he gradually limited his use. Eventually, he was able to be intimate with his girlfriend again and to meet his goals at work. He continued to log on to a handful of porn sites from time to time, but he was now able to limit how much of it he watched.
Review Your List Daily
The second step is to review your written reminders every day. It is not enough to write out the consequences of the behavior you are trying to change. Think of it as taking a daily dose of vitamin C to ward off a cold. Reading your list regularly is preventive medicine.
To ensure that you read it, use prompts. Type your “bad list” into your smartphone and set reminders to read it. Or write the list on a card and put it in your purse or wallet. If the material isn’t sensitive and personal, you could even write the list on a big dry-erase board at home.
Call It What It Is
One way to remember the negative consequences of your destructive behavior is to give it a name that labels it a bad habit. My client who had a habit of getting angry with important people in his life, and who insulted them to their faces, realized how destructive his behavior was. He would fly into a rage when others challenged his plans, or, in some cases, his demands. He had been doing it for years.
After many failed relationships and problems at work, he learned that it was not good to get angry. He wrote out the consequences of this behavior, which included lost jobs, lost customers, and lost romantic relationships, among others. To seal the deal, he called it what it was: “I shoot myself in the foot every time I get angry.”
It’s easy to fool ourselves about our impulsive habits, and to pretend that they are not holding us back. When we call out a bad habit for what it is, we see that it keeps us from what we want. You can overcome bad habits when you call them what they are.