ADHD Adults

“My Formula for Personal Change”

Feeling like disorganization and poor time management are thwarting your goals for success? Learn how to reprogram old habits, and turn high energy and impulsivity into positive attributes.

how to change habits when you have adult ADHD - morning items and plan
All set to start day with good new habits - coffee, glasses, laptop, and checklist

If you have ADHD, you and I probably have similar characteristics: Though you struggle with symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness, you have had some success in life, thanks in no small part to the people around you who accommodate you when your ADHD characteristics pose problems.

My wife, Dolores, is a middle-school teacher; being organized is essential to her job. She manages her life according to a motto: “a place for everything and everything in its place.” I’ve always wished I could be like her!

Here are her tips for training the ADHD brain for better organization and productivity:

Disorganization

Keeping my side of the bedroom in order always seemed too hard. For years, Dolores kept her side of the room irreproachably neat, while I kept my side as best I could. Countless times I tried to organize my stuff. I never attempted to make big changes, because when I did that, I knew I would fail. So I tried small things, like not leaving books on the floor next to my side of the bed or putting my running shoes back in the closet. But none of these micro-moves lasted for more than a week or so. I was full of good intentions that never seemed to take hold.

Then I learned why. My ADHD coach, Victoria Ball, said one day, “You know, Greg, people with ADHD take 10 times as long as others to learn a habit and one-tenth the time to forget it.”

Her insight reminded me of Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey talked about developing the habit of being proactive, and suggested that you think of yourself as a computer that needs to be programmed. Highly effective people, he says, program their own computer.

[Self-Test: Is Your Clutter and Disorganization Out of Control?]

Poor Memory, Time Management

My coach’s comments made me realize that my ADHD brain (or computer) is different from that of most people. Mine thrives on creative, surprising, fun-loving programs. But its habit-forming function needs upgraded software. For other people, a task becomes a habit after doing it two or three times. It takes people with ADHD 20 or 30 times to accomplish the same thing.

I decided to apply this insight to organizing the bedroom. I made a list of the things I should do each morning before leaving for the day, and taped it to the top of my dresser. It included all the things I might forget to take with me, as well as some things my wife had been asking me to do for years — everything from removing papers from the floor to turning off the light and raising the shades halfway, the way she likes it. I didn’t tell Dolores about it. I hoped she’d notice.

It took four months before I could do the morning routine 25 times in a row without forgetting anything. My side of the room has been almost as neat as Dolores’s for two years now. And, yes, she noticed.

Talkative, Poor Social Skills

I also used this technique to change some habits at work. I tended to be so vociferous during brainstorming sessions that others around the conference table shut down. One colleague told me that I exhibited “despotic enthusiasm.” I wanted to be more measured in my contributions.

[Read This: Is Your ADHD Causing Social Slip-Ups?]

I set two rules for myself during group discussions. I didn’t speak until at least three other people had spoken first, and I didn’t contribute a second comment or question until at least one other person had offered a second comment or question. Any questions or comments that I didn’t have the chance to express, I talked over with people individually after the group discussion.

It took me three months before I got through 10 meetings following these rules. I still have to remind myself every so often that this is a habit I want to keep — otherwise my brain will drop it. Now colleagues encourage me to share my ideas.

Has the technique turned my life around? Do I have a place for everything and keep everything in its place? No. But I have a formula for personal change that allows me to enjoy my characteristics – my creativity and impulsivity – while forming better habits about things that are important to me and to those I care about.

[Read: 8 Ways to Get Better at Small Talk]

Updated on November 8, 2019

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  1. Hi Greg,
    I’m wondering if you have the reference for the 10times as long to learn, 1/10 the time to forget” statement. I’d like to see the source. Thanks!

  2. Greg-
    I’d also like to see the research behind your coach’s claim that it takes people with ADHD 10 times longer to learn a habit and a tenth of the time to forget it. Those numbers seem suspiciously round to me. Would like to know if they are actually grounded in science. Thanks!

    1. I am assuming that this is based on personal experience only. And it kinda feels correct, at least in my case. Changing a habit or learning a new one seems to be a lot easier for “normal” people.

  3. Why is there always this expectation that we need to be putting all this effort trying to be more like other people think we should be? Constantly trying to squeeze ourselves into other shapes?

    I’m getting on a bit now and got really tired of all that a while back. It’s just too exhausting. Instead I have gradually shaped my life to fit me, my comfort and my needs.

    1. According to psychologist Leon Festinger:
      “We have a fundamental need to evaluate ourselves, and the only way to do that is in reference to other people.
      People evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to other people for two reasons:
      First, to reduce uncertainty in the areas in which they’re comparing themselves.
      And second, to learn how to define themselves.
      Human beings can’t actually define themselves intrinsically or independently. They can only define themselves in relation to someone else. The tendency to compare ourselves to another person decreases as the difference between our opinion or ability and the other person’s increases.
      In other words, the more similar we are to another person in some way we think is important, the more we tend to compare ourselves to that person.”

    2. Well it helps if you pay your bills on time and can save money and so forth. Honestly I think a huge key is simplicity and minimalism. I don’t think your decorating should be so sparse it is ugly but the stuff out should be as minimal as possible. It helps keep the mind uncluttered.

  4. Brian,
    Great article! I don’t care whether you can prove the 10x / 1/10th ratio. I know it takes me a much longer time to learn a habit and how quickly I can drop it!
    One thing you did, but didn’t spell out, I will! You worked on one habit at a time. So many articles on this website throw many ideas or out at once, which is better for reading and inspiration, but worse for actually implementing. And that is precisely where my ADHD Operating System needs the most help!
    I’ve learned, as perhaps you have, that if I just pick one goal, like training myself to keep track of my keys, that I’m more successful in actually accomplishing that particular goal. Then I can move on to setting up automatic bill pay on one bill, etc.
    Anyway, the article resonated with me! Thanks for reminding me!

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