March 29, 2022

Maintaining Routines when you have ADHD

Adjusting our expectations to make our routines a game we can win

Maaya Hitomi

Maaya is an ADHD coach with a Master's in Psychology. They are the voice behind @StructuredSuccess

Maintaining Routines when you have ADHD

Being autistic means that I need routines in order to function. Yet, being ADHD, I find starting and maintaining routines incredibly difficult. Over the years, I have tried to build and manage a routine many times, and almost every time I've ended up at square one again and again. Recently, I've used three strategies that have actually helped me maintain my routines. Here's how I did it.

What makes for a successful routine?

Routines are basically any action or set of actions that we do on a regular basis. They can be simple things like having a cup of coffee in the morning with breakfast, complex things like practising an instrument or a language, or a number of actions you take in the same order. Routines can happen at a specific time or location, or be based on an event or specific circumstance. Generally, routines help us work towards our longer term goals, such as taking care of ourselves, learning, or growing.

Successful routines usually have 3 main components:

  1. a cue that tells you when to do the routine
  2. the routine itself, and
  3. a reward or sense of accomplishment for having completed the routine.

If you are looking to set up a new routine, Jessica over at How to ADHD goes into much more depth about each of these three components and how ADHD'ers might best increase their chances of building a solid routine. When it comes to maintaining an existing routine, these three components are still a good place to start.

Maintaining the main components of routine

Before trying other strategies to improve your chances of sticking to your routine, closely examining whether your cue, routine, and rewards are still relevant and effective is crucial. It is possible, for example, that you've learned to ignore your cue. This could be ignoring the alarm that you've set to remind you of your routine or changing your schedule so it doesn't go off at a time that makes sense anymore. These changes can and do happen, but without a clear, distinct, and actionable cue, we aren't likely to do the routine itself.

Another way we can fall out of regularly completing our routines is related to what happens afterward: the reward. Getting a reward for completing our routine is what makes us want to do the routine again. Unfortunately, repeatedly using the same reward reduces its value over time. This is true for everyone, but this is particularly noticeable for ADHD folks who crave novelty. Making sure our rewards still feel rewarding, or that completing the routine still feels like an accomplishment, is necessary for maintaining your routine in the long term.

If your routine, or the reward you associated with it, starts to feel a bit mundane or dull, changing it up may just inspire you to get back to your routine again. Allowing yourself to change small pieces of your routine adds novelty back into the routine and novelty is one of the main things that are naturally rewarding to the ADHD brain. This is why novelty is so useful for getting us started in the first place. Adding novelty, just like adding interest or challenge, can increase our likelihood of prioritising and completing our routine.

Changing your mindset

Beyond making sure the three main components of routine are still working for our goals, the most important step to maintaining routines is changing the way that you think about the routine in the first place. So many neurodivergent people (especially ADHD, BPD, and Autistic folks) have a strong sense of 'all-or-nothing' when it comes to routines. Whether consciously or not, we assume that if we miss our routine one time, start late, or skip a step of the routine, that we've failed, lost our streak, or given up on the routine entirely. This all-or-nothing thinking encourages us to see completing the routine as neutral or natural, and missing the routine as a failure. Considering how painful failure and rejection can be for us, this can lead us to avoid the routine altogether to avoid the chance that we might fail.

To prevent this, we need to avoid seeing our routines in all-or-nothing terms. Missing our routine one time does not mean that we will never do it again or that we have failed. Missing our routine is, in fact, completely neutral, and completing our routine is success. Reframing our habits in this way, so that completing the routine is a positive outcome and missing our routine as neutral, can take away the guilt and shame that we feel around routines and our past struggles with them. It can also encourage us to do the routine more often, even if less consistently. Speaking of which…

Embrace Inconsistency

Consistency certainly isn't my strongest skill, and I think that's something a lot of ADHD'ers can agree with. On top of that, everyone struggles with doing new things consistently. Yet, when we talk about building or maintaining habits or routines, the assumption is that we will be able to do them consistently. That is not a fair expectation for many of us and it fuels the all-or-nothing thinking that I mentioned previously.

Rather than seeing our routines or habits as something that must be done and perfectly every single time, taking a longer view when judging the success of your routines can be helpful.

For example, did you do it more frequently this week or month than you did last week or month? If so, you're succeeding.

If not, it may be time to change something or rebuild, and that's okay. Having to rebuild routines, especially after changes in our schedules or environments, is a normal part of a routine’s life cycle for everyone, including people with ADHD. Normalising to this, and removing guilt, shame, and the sense of failure from changing, missing, or rebuilding our routines will only ever make this process less damaging to our perceptions of ourselves and allow us to build and maintain routines more easily.

Maaya Hitomi is the ADHD Coach and Academic Strategist behind Structured Success, where they work with ADHD, autistic, and otherwise neurodivergent clients to develop strategies for better coping. They have their Master’s and undergraduate degrees in Psychology, and 4 years experience as an ADHD Coach. More importantly, they’re (probably) autistic, and definitely ADHD and dyslexic, and rely on their structures and strategies to support their own success. Connect with them & get in the conversation on routines on Twitter!

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