Getting Things Done

Simplify Your Life: 7 Habits That Bring Calm and Stability

The ADHD brain craves stimulation. It often performs well amid bursts of chaos and pressure. But when stress and external pressure continuously build, our brains freeze up. To reset your brain, you must simplify your life. Here’s how.

Simplify life concept - less curved string compared to tangle string

ADHD brains often gravitate to the complicated and frenzied. Emergencies spike up dopamine flow, keeping the mind engaged and at the ready. In other words, many of us absolutely thrive in moments of pressure.

But what happens when life gives us too many fires to extinguish, one after the other? It’s an answer we know all too well in these pandemic times: We shut down.

The ADHD brain is pushed to its limits when life’s demands pile on with no end in sight. Ongoing overwhelm keeps the brain on high-alert mode, quickly depleting its resources and causing mental fog. To free up mental bandwidth, we have to streamline our lives wherever possible.

In this era of “more” – more worries, more grief, more things and people to manage at home – take these steps to simplify your life for a mental and emotional reset.

How to Simplify Your Life

Simplify Tip #1: Take a 6-Second Pause

Stress and overwhelm cause us to respond irrationally, and sometimes unnecessarily, to situations. These knee-jerk outbursts begin in the brain. It takes about six seconds for the prefrontal cortex, the “rational brain,” to receive information and “kick in” after the amygdala, the brain’s emotional processor, senses a stressful situation.

[Click to Read: Slow Down and Shut Down Stress]

But stress inhibits prefrontal cortex functioning – as does ADHD. Add in a sensitive amygdala (also due to stress), and situations that are normally tolerable are perceived as too much, causing the amygdala to take over and “hijack” the brain before the rational part can step in.

To counter this, you have to force yourself to take a six-second pause when confronted with a stressful scenario. More than that, you have to “distract” the amygdala to give your rational brain enough time to think and respond appropriately. How? By thinking complex thoughts. Some ideas include:

  • Try to list six cities that begin with the letter “P” (or a similar activity)
  • Alphabetize or otherwise rearrange a fixed or known series of items (like naming the seven dwarfs in alphabetical order)
  • Practice scattered counting (i.e. counting that doesn’t follow any order)

Simplify Tip #2: Learn to Say No

Many of us with ADHD have a self-defeating habit of over-committing. We’re first to volunteer, to run errands, and to put ourselves behind.

[Related Reading: How to Say “No”]

Saying “no” is hard for us because we’re people-pleasers – and that comes from a lifetime of feeling like we disappoint others and ourselves. But agreeing to everything only leads to more overwhelm, and more disappointment. To counter this, practice saying no with integrity. Here are some ways:

  • “I so appreciate you thinking of me, but I won’t be able to help this time.”
  • “That sounds like a wonderful opportunity, but I cannot make it work.”
  • “I know I couldn’t do it justice, and I don’t want to let you down, so I have to decline.”
  • “I’m really trying to balance my commitments, so I can’t add anything else right now.”

Sometimes, we are the hardest people to say no to. We add more and more to our full schedules (without anyone prompting us), and thus we burn out. Before taking on more, ask yourself:

  • “I am already using every minute up of my life (it’s true!). What will I need to give up to make time for this?”
  • “How important is this to me? Have I wanted this for a long time, or is it a new impulse?”
  • “In my aim for simplicity, does this activity help me reach this goal, or is it another distraction?”

Simplify Tip #3: Rein in Nonstop Thoughts

The ADHD mind rarely stops. Stress and problems are the perfect gateway for rumination, where we obsess over the issue and try to find answers. We can tell we’re in a never-ending thought spiral if we’re tense, worried, irritable, and overly emotional.

The antidote to autopilot thoughts is to disengage and pay attention to the mind, a practice otherwise known as mindfulness.

There are many mindfulness exercises that work to calm the ADHD brain or zap you back into the present. Here are some to try:

  • Thought stopping: When in a rut, pay attention to exactly what you’re thinking about, and stop it in its tracks. You can do this by saying (preferably aloud) “STOP!” or “CANCEL!” Some people also wear a rubber band on their wrist and snap it when a ruminating thought appears.
  • Repetition: Our minds especially wander when we’re engaged in mindless activities, like washing the dishes, cooking, or cleaning. In these moments, repeat to yourself the activity that you’re doing so that you stay in the present – “I’m washing the teacup. I’m washing the teacup.”

Remember that the goal of mindfulness is not to completely stop a wandering mind (that may be impossible with ADHD). There is always a benefit, however, to noticing our thoughts.

Apart from mindfulness, seek other activities that boost feel-good energy and help keep you calm, like dance (or another exercise), yoga, quality time with a loved one, drawing, listening to music, or simply lighting a scented candle.

Simplify Tip #4: Clear Physical Clutter

Physical clutter creates mental clutter. Ensuring that our spaces are kept clear of clutter calms the brain, allowing us to live a much more present and simple life. To tackle clutter:

  • Acknowledge it. We often hide from mess by ignoring or downplaying the mountain in front of us. We can’t confront the problem if we don’t accept that one is there – so start acknowledging! Take note of the piles around you and get things off the floor to prevent accidents.
  • Narrow your focus. Even if there are multiple spaces to tackle, start with only one (preferably your bedroom first). Schedule a specific time to start cleaning, and make sure to not exceed two hours. Take three slow, deep breaths before starting. It’s easiest to start by throwing out trash, then focus on the items that have a home and need to be put away. Bills and paperwork that need to get done can follow, but don’t stop the decluttering process to pay them or do anything else – simply stack or file the documents in order of importance.
  • Leave “breadcrumbs.” If you’re interrupted or don’t get to finish an entire section at once, leave notes and other reminders to yourself on your progress and next steps.
  • Don’t know what to do with some stuff? Take note of the items and put them in a labeled box. If you can go an entire year without opening the box, that means you don’t need what’s inside, and can toss or donate the items.

Tips for clearing a bedroom

Your bedroom especially should be a simplicity oasis. To give it a quick makeover:

  • Hang up clothes (keep clothes off your bed, chair, floor, etc.)
  • Make your bed
  • Declutter the bedside table
  • Temporarily cover up areas with significant clutter using a large sheet

Simplify Tip #5: Get Better Sleep

A lack of replenishing sleep can impact our cognitive functioning, mood, ability to handle stress, and overall health. There can be no simple life without prioritizing a good night’s sleep. Use these tips to troubleshoot sleep problems that commonly accompany ADHD:

  • Have a bedtime and stick to it
  • Turn off electronic devices well before sleep time
  • Use earplugs or a white noise machine to quiet the mind and drown out other distractions
  • Change out your pillow at least every one to two years. Adjust pillows as necessary for proper spine alignment
  • While a hefty investment, consider replacing your mattress if you haven’t done so in the past 7 to 10 years
  • Use light-blocking curtains and eye masks
  • Keep the bedroom at comfortable temperatures for sleep. A cooler room is often better for sleep

Simplify Tip #6: Know Thyself

Cluttered, distracted lives have the added consequence of making us lose ourselves. Knowing who we are, where our strengths lie, and what fulfills us is crucial to simplifying our lives. These crucial bits of information bring meaning into our lives and grant us needed clarity to carve our hours, days, and paths forward.

If you’ve lost touch with yourself, find your way back by thinking about core you (save these in a journal!) –

  • What do I represent?
  • How can I be of service?
  • What are my top 5 strengths?
  • What do I love to do?

Part of knowing yourself is also learning to trust yourself. Simplify the number of “experts” in your life – be it authors, podcast hosts, and other personalities – all of whom come with different agendas and instructions. No one knows you like you know you.

#7: Commit to Simplicity

Simplicity is a life-long commitment. As such, you must treat this like any goal, and plan for it.

  • Take a moment, be it weekly or daily, to make sure your time includes actions that support your vision. Invite yourself to take something out of your schedule, and replace it with mindfulness, an activity you love, or anything that keeps the bigger picture of simplicity in mind.
  • Adults with ADHD tend to fall off the wagon after an initial commitment. That’s OK – find ways to remember your ultimate goal, be it reminders, sticky notes on the mirror, or weekly check-ins.
  • Support is essential. Find someone who believes in you – a coach, a friend, a mentor, a therapist, and/or a loved one. Ask them to reflect on your progress.

Simplify Your Life with ADHD: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Time to Reset: Simplify Your ADHD Life in the New Year” with Linda Roggli, PCC, which was broadcast live on January 12, 2021.

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