If you have ADHD, chances are you’ve got a love-hate relationship with habits.
It can be so easy to develop unhelpful habits, and frustratingly difficult to develop desirable ones. While this is true for most people, it can be especially difficult for those of us with ADHD. I’ve found that one of the biggest reasons for this is that most people don’t have a clear understanding of the difference between habit and routine (myself included, until I created a learning module on habits for the Shimmer app). They are not synonyms!
In this post we’ll cover the difference between habits and routines, why it matters, and how ADHD plays a role.
A routine is “a series of behaviors frequently repeated in performance of an established procedure.”
For example, when you were a kid, adults had to remind you at first to wash your hands after using the bathroom. You had to focus on all the steps - turning on the water, wetting your hands, soaping up, rinsing, turning off the faucet and drying. At this point, washing your hands was a routine.
A habit, on the other hand, is “a behavior or action that you do often and regularly, so that it becomes nearly or completely involuntary.”
Habits are a type of learning; by forming a habit, our brains are able to free up processing power to focus on more complex tasks - like “muscle memory.”
In the handwashing example, eventually, you no longer needed a reminder. You didn’t need to focus on all the steps involved in order to remember how to do it. You began to wash your hands automatically, without really thinking about it. That’s when it became a habit.
One of the main reasons people struggle with habits - ADHD or no ADHD - is an expectation that with enough practice or repetition, anything can become a habit. And that would be great, right? If you could turn things like journaling, exercise, or doing the laundry into a habit - again, meaning that you do them on ‘autopilot’ - life would be so much easier!
Unfortunately, habits don’t work that way - and when we go into habit building with the expectation that eventually the action or behavior will ‘sink in’ and become easy and effortless, we set ourselves up for failure. We think, “I’ve been trying so hard to do this, but it hasn’t gotten easier,” and assume that there is something wrong with us - which saps motivation and adds to our wall of awful, making the task harder instead of easier.
While there are some things that can become habits over time, it’s not going to happen with every behavior. What determines this is motivation.
Neurologically, motivation comes from the desire to avoid or escape pain and discomfort. For example, we feel hungry, and we eat. We feel lonely, and reach out to a friend. The pleasure we get from a behavior comes after we’re prompted to act by the motivation to alleviate discomfort. Habits and routines follow this same rule.
Remember the example of learning to wash your hands? At first, you may have experienced discomfort from doing it. “Ugh, I have to do this instead of going back to my toys.” Now that it’s a habit, you probably experience discomfort from not doing it.
So a habit feels uncomfortable when we don’t do it; routines can feel uncomfortable (e.g., difficult, tiring, tedious) when we do them.
Often, we avoid tasks that cause discomfort (paying the bills, doing the laundry, opening the mail) with procrastination. We avoid the task and experience relief (if temporary).
Procrastination is a good clue that the task is a routine - something that causes discomfort to do - instead of a habit. In fact, the habit in this case is the procrastination - because the action (doing something else instead) brings relief.
Another challenge - adopting a new habit often also means unlearning an old habit. And our old habits still exist because they’re helpful to us in some way; they provide some measure of relief or pleasure, even if they also create challenges.
For example, maybe you know you struggle to remember things, so you adopt a habit of completing a task as soon as you think about it. This old habit is still helping you get the thing done - but it also makes you more prone to distraction and involves a lot of task switching, which decreases efficiency and causes fatigue.
Many of our ADHD symptoms can make adopting a new habit or routine more challenging. For example, we may struggle with:
Understanding these challenges is crucial for developing strategies and interventions for managing adult ADHD. Virtual ADHD coaching, therapy, and a supportive environment that provides structure and consistency can all contribute to overcoming these obstacles and facilitating the establishment of effective habits and routines.
Yes, online ADHD coaching can be beneficial for individuals who struggle with building routines and habits. An adult ADHD coach focuses on addressing the unique needs and challenges associated with your ADHD symptoms. Here are ways in which Shimmer’s affordable ADHD coaching can help with building routines and habits:
Establishing and maintaining the habits and routines you need to be successful is much more complex and challenging than many people realize. For people with ADHD, even more so. The good news? You don’t have to go it alone.