Time & Productivity

7 Self-Defeating Behaviors That Aggravate ADHD – and How to Fix Them

Intentionally or not, you probably engage in behaviors and habits that make your life harder than it needs to be. It may not all be your fault, as ADHD has a way of prompting and even encouraging these actions. Here, understand the most common self-defeating behaviors among adults with ADHD — and solutions for each.

self defeating behavior

The way I see it, those of us with ADHD are born with our plates already full, and it’s on us to avoid piling on more troubles and obstacles. And yet, we do – over and over again. Poor decision making and self-defeating behaviors – from swearing we can multitask to disparaging ourselves when the inevitable happens – aggravate our ADHD symptoms, or just make daily living needlessly complicated. In the long term, these behaviors block us from reaching our goals – and full potential.

In no particular order, here are the most common counterproductive tendencies I see among adults with ADHD, and steps to start fixing each one.

Self-Defeating Behavior #1: Poor Nutrition

The ADHD mind and body are delicate. It’s well known that what we eat impacts our energy, mood, symptoms, and overall functioning. But reliably incorporating nutrient-dense, energizing foods can be a chore, especially for those of us with poor planning and organizing skills, or difficulties controlling urges for other foods.

To fix this:

  • Know how you respond to foods. You might find that having a protein-filled breakfast helps you feel focused and energized through the day. The same is often true for complex carbs, which provide a steadier stream of energy because they take longer for the body to break down than do simple carbs (white breads, refined foods, etc.). Keeping hydrated can also go long way toward feeling energized.
  • Identify and replace. Make a list of your typical breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks. Note all the instances where you’re eating foods that don’t make you feel your best (processed foods tend to do this). One by one, try replacing each meal with an alternative that works for you.

[Download This: What to Eat (and Avoid) for Improved ADHD Symptoms]

Self-Defeating Behavior #2: Excessive Screen Time

TV screens, laptops, phones, video games, tablets – we need many of these gadgets to work, to stay organized, and to remain connected. But too often, our ADHD brains slip into a near-addictive use of these screens for unfulfilling purposes. They end up stealing our precious time, and can interfere with sleep, work, school, family time, and other enriching endeavors.

Strive to create a balanced screen time schedule with do-able limits. Start by following these steps:

  • List all of your media habits. For a couple of days, keep a close eye on how much time you spend with a screen in front of you and for what purposes. Depending on the phone you have, you may be able to easily get screen time metrics through the device itself.
  • Identify one media habit you can reasonably modify. How often do you use your phone to scroll through an endless list of gloom-and-doom headlines or status updates? Nowadays, it’s a common and unhealthy media habit. Keeping up with current events is important, but grabbing your phone every second to read newly published articles is futile, and can negatively impact mental health.
  • Replace said media habit with a productive/enriching activity. For the example above, try setting a time/article limit, or dedicate your time to reading one newsletter roundup at the end of the day. If you’re spending hours watching back-to-back TV episodes, try spending some of that time talking to a friend or with your children.

[Read: These 6 Healthy Habits Can Improve Memory & Focus]

Self-Defeating Behavior #3: Beating Yourself Up

Adults with ADHD are masters at acknowledging and remembering past failures over successes. Paying too much attention to our mistakes leads to negative self-talk, which has real emotional and physical costs.

The good news is that this counterproductive habit can be reversed with self-coaching:

  • Notice negative self-talk. Stop and listen to what’s happening in your mind every once in a while, and try to actively catch yourself in moments of negative headspace. You might notice how rarely you show compassion toward yourself or ignore everyday achievements. This is the first step to achieving more balanced self-talk.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. Granted, this is easier said than done for many of us. Still, try this out by looking for humor and grace in moments where you mess up. I often laugh at myself when I do something ADHD, but I never call myself a “dummy,” which was my nickname growing up. The truth is, we all are where we are. We may not be where we want to be, but our successes are always going to outweigh our failures.
  • Track your successes. Every millimeter toward completion of something is a success. To go further, score your wins, and you’ll soon find it easier to pay attention to their sizable impact in the long run.

Self-Defeating Behavior #4: Psyching Yourself Out

Fear, indifference, and disarray are the key barriers to action; they’re why we procrastinate and psych ourselves into thinking we can’t accomplish anything. Disarray, in the form of indecision and paralysis over what to start and how to start – is one of the most common ADHD problems. But we can overcome this hurdle if we only retune our brains:

  • Pick just one thing and proceed. If it feels impossible to make priority distinctions on a packed to-do list, then we are justified in throwing a dart and doing the one task it hits. Give yourself the freedom to choose one item, almost at random, and proceed.
  • You don’t need the full picture. We often psych ourselves out when we want to have all the answers before taking the first step. Avoid this by taking that step anyway. The next step and the following one will clear up with every decision.

Self-Defeating Behavior #5: Multitasking

A classic ADHD issue, multitasking results in many unfinished projects and stress over not finishing what we start. We solve this problem by first recognizing that multitasking is a myth because it assumes we can shift our attention from one item to the next seamlessly. It’s a recipe for disaster, especially for the distracted ADHD mind.

You can cut the urge to multitask with this “labeling” trick:

  • What I’m doing now. State out loud the activity of focus.
  • What I’m not doing now. If distractions start to creep up (like a text from a friend when you’re cleaning the kitchen), label them as items you are not doing. Again, saying it out loud helps.
  • Important, but not what I’m doing now. Life happens. Your boss may ask you about an item as you’re focused on another. In these cases, try to wrap up what you’re doing before shifting to the new but important task. Ask your boss for 20 minutes before you can turn your attention.

Self-Defeating Behavior #6: Doing It All Yourself

Before asking others for help and dispersing tasks, we must first understand the distinct steps required to reach the goal, which requires a skill set not commonly associated with ADHD. We often don’t know how to clearly describe what is needed to get something done.

Adults with ADHD are also bad delegators because we carry a lot of self-esteem baggage. We may not feel entitled to ask people to do things for us.

There are two quick solutions to this problem:

  • Think through the task. Ask yourself how you would explain the problem to someone with no familiarity with it. Take all the time you need to write it down or record yourself thinking it through, including steps to resolve it. This will usually clarify what tasks you can start to delegate.
  • Delegate with a smile. If you’re having trouble asking for help, try complimenting the person you’re asking on their ability to do the task brilliantly. In the end, it’s a win-win.

Self-Defeating Behavior #7: Worrying

Worrying fatigues and depletes the ADHD brain. It burns scarce mental fuel and makes you less able to take on a tough task when the time calls for it. Creativity and problem solving are also locked out when the mind spirals. To tone down on worrying:

  • Remember that the past is gone. No amount of stressing will change what happened. But we can learn how to move forward and possibly prevent the unpleasant situation from repeating.
  • The future is not predictable. Unless we’re strategizing solutions to a foreseeable problem, we’re wasting our time and energy imagining the bad things and feelings to come.
  • Listen to your inner dialogue. As with negative self-talk, try to catch yourself in moments of worry. This simple act alone will remind you that worrying is a pattern of thinking about imagined things. You can then choose to problem-solve, or not worry about the situation at all.

Self-Defeating Behavior: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Seven Fixes for Self-Defeating ADHD Behaviors” webinar (ADDitude ADHD Experts Podcast episode #106) with Alan Brown, which was broadcast live on May 21, 2015.


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Updated on January 19, 2021

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