Have you stopped to think about your habits... I mean, really reflect on them and assess how much they help you reach your goals? If your answer is “Nope,” that’s okay. By definition, that’s the thing about habits – they are repeated, usually unintentional behaviors that you don’t really think about. You do them because that’s what you’ve always done. Especially for people with ADHD, habits are the things we do regularly that we don’t think about. And we usually don’t even realize it when we’ve developed them. If the first thing you do after you open your eyes in the morning is grab your phone to check your email or see what’s happening on social media... that’s a habit!
People usually develop habits because they’ve discovered a comfortable way to go about doing something, not necessarily because it is helpful. Habits serve a purpose, but don’t always help us to be productive. Oftentimes, you will hear people talk about “good habits” or “bad habits.” However, I don’t think assigning the label of “good” or “bad” to a behavior is helpful at all. Rather, I want to talk about a specific type of habit – a self-supportive habit.
What is a self-supportive habit?
A self-supportive habit is one that you’ve intentionally created that helps you rather than hinders you. Let’s go back to the habit of checking your phone first thing in the morning before you’ve even gotten out of bed (a really common habit for people with ADHD). When you pop into your iPhone’s inbox right when you wake up, you might feel like it’s helpful because it gives you an immediate sense of what’s going on in your work life. But it probably gives you a few other things too, like a feeling of anxiety, a sense of overwhelm, and maybe an urge to roll over and ignore the day for a bit longer. In actuality, this habit might be getting in the way of you starting the day off right... not self-supportive.
In this example, a self-supportive habit would be something that gives you a boost of energy, a sense of clarity, or a bit of structure to follow as your day gets started. For example, rather than grabbing your phone right away, what if you started your day by focusing on your own well-being? Then, after you’ve had some time to center and ground yourself in the morning, you can open your computer and read your emails. By the time you’re ready to check your inbox, your mind is ready to start work and you can hit the ground running. This would be considered a self-supportive habit.
How to create a self-supportive habit
Chances are you already have habits that guide your daily routine. The question becomes how can you go about changing these behaviors to establish new habits that are more supportive?
There is a misconception that changing or creating habits is about self-control and willpower. As Psychologist Wendy Wood says in the episode Creatures of Habit on the NPR podcast, Hidden Brain, many people believe that “If we wanted to enough, we would exert enough willpower and make it happen.” Let me tell you that’s not the case at all, which is good news for people with ADHD. The opposite is actually true – the more we try to exert self-control and willpower over our behavior, the more likely it is to backfire and drive us to do exactly what we don’t want to do.
So, if creating a self-supportive habit isn’t about willpower, then how do you do it? Good question – here are 3 ADHD-friendly tips to help you build better self-supporting habits for yourself.
Articulate the habit
By articulating the habit, you are intentionally designing the behavior. When you design the behavior, be specific. It’s one thing to say “I won’t pick up my phone until later in the morning.” It’s another thing to say “I won’t pick up my phone until I’ve had my shower and planned my day for 15 minutes.” By articulating the behavior, you’re giving yourself rules and structure to follow to help establish the habit.
Externalize the habit
New habits don’t just happen automatically. You can reinforce the new behavior to yourself by doing things like saying it aloud, writing it down, telling a friend, or putting it in your calendar. Externalizing the habit like this helps to make you more accountable – especially if you’re working with an accountability partner. It can also help make the behavior more automatic, which is key to sustaining the habit.
Connect the habit
Build your habit into an already existing routine, which can cue to your brain and serve as a reminder to practice the behavior. This also helps make the behavior more automatic, which is especially helpful for people with ADHD. You can try using this mantra to help connect two activities: When I ______, then I ______. For example: When I brush my teeth at night, then I lay out my clothes for the morning (a simple but very valuable self-supportive habit to practice).
A Few Other Important Things
Even with these 3 tips, self-supportive habits can still be somewhat challenging to develop for people with ADHD. For one thing, it’s important to remember that changing your behavior to create a self-supportive habit won’t happen immediately. In fact, repetition and consistency are two of the most important factors in creating new habits.
Also, when we’re talking about behavior we have to be aware of something called friction. Friction, in this context, means the natural resistance we might feel about doing something. Common sense tells us that the easier the behavior, the less resistance or friction we experience. The harder the activity, the greater the friction.
This friction often becomes the barrier that stops a behavior from becoming a self-supportive habit. For example, Wendy Wood shared this helpful information in her podcast interview – research showed that when people had to travel 3.5 miles to get to the gym, they had a higher likelihood of going frequently. When they had to travel 5 miles to get to the gym, the likelihood decreased. The distance to travel was the friction.
When you’re trying to build a self-supportive habit, focus on decreasing friction and increasing the ease at which you can do an activity. Ask how you can make the desired habit easier, more fun, more interesting, less taxing. This will automatically increase the likelihood of that behavior becoming a habit.
From Intentional to Automatic
As you work to create self-supportive habits, you’ll likely notice that you have to think about the behavior for a while (which means that it’s not a habit quite yet). The more you commit to the routine, the more habitual it will become. Once you notice yourself engaging in the practice without thinking about it, then you know it’s become a habit. Until then, be intentional, be specific, externalize, and most importantly, be consistent.
Looking for other ADHD-friendly resources about supportive habits? Check out this article with helpful tips to get to bed on time, this article about boosting your energy during the day, and this article with things to try for optimal functioning.
(A special thank you to the thoughtful client who shared the Hidden Brain episode with Wendy Wood with me! It resonated with him and the work we are doing together, and helped to expand my understanding of creating self-supportive habits.)