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How to Build Habits that Stick & Ditch Those Stubborn Bad Ones

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

If you have ADHD, you've probably heard of the advantages of habit building. I know, the consistency and inherent boredom of building habits can feel like actual physical pain for ADHD brains. But if we can figure out how to push through that discomfort, we can reach a level where the habit becomes automatic and thereby easy to do.

Here's Why Habits Are good for ADHD Brains

1. No Need for Motivation

Habits are things we do on autopilot. Every morning once we're in the bathroom, we brush our teeth. Every night before I go up to bed, I lock the doors. When something is automatic, we don’t need motivation to do it. Dopamine is our motivation neurochemical, and since ADHD involves a difficulty regulating dopamine, relying on motivation is not a great way to move forward and thrive with ADHD.

2. Overcome Decision Fatigue

Ever heard the term "decision fatigue"? The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain. When we habitually do something at the same time every day/week, we don’t need keep on deciding when to do it.

3. Remember Stuff!

ADHD brains are notoriously weak when it comes to working memory (remembering while doing). We can't hold things in mind well while doing something. Once a habit becomes ingrained, you don't have to keep remembering, like taking out the trash or where you put your keys.

4. More Headspace

Finally, when you don’t have to think about doing something, it frees your brain up to think about more interesting things; like if you give a mouse a cookie, is he gonna want a glass of milk with that? Remember that one? I used to read it to my kids - ugh they're coming home soon, they need lunch! Etc Etc Etc...

Highway to Habit – How the Brain Builds Habits

When we do something for the first time, like put keys in the basket when we walk in the door, a tiny little neural pathway begins in our brain connecting the door to the basket. Creating this habit is hard in the beginning, its like hacking away at the jungle with a machete. But every time we do the behavior, the path widens a little bit.

This "widening" is called myelination [If you're not a brain nerd like me, skip to next paragraph]. The way a neural pathway thickens is with a fatty sheath around it called myelin.

It acts like insulation wire, so that neurons can send brain messages faster and more efficiently (habitually).

With enough repetition, your new habit grows from a jungle path to a country road, to a street. Eventually, when you've automated the behavior, it's already become a fast lane highway in your brain.

That's also why it's so hard to stop an ingrained habit. When you get stressed, your neurons fire speedily down the highway that triggers you to bite your nails, for example.

Atomic Habits

I just finished reading a great book called Atomic Habits by James Clear. So much of what I do with my clients involves habit building and this book presents the process logically and methodically. Here's my summary of his 4 Laws to Atomic Habits:

How to Instill A New Habit - Law #1: Make it Obvious

How can you make the habit easy to remember? Use reminders with loud alarms. Lay your sports shoes next to your bed if you want to work out in the morning. Design your environment to support your habit with visual cues. Write "Wallet, Phone Keys" on a mirror or window near the front door. Get a big, bright basket to put your keys in when you walk in the door. Buy neon Post-Its and use them as reminders.

How to Instill A New Habit - Law #2: Make it Attractive

There's a psychological pattern that goes on when we perform a habit, called the Habit Loop. First there's the cue - the trigger that makes you do something. You see the pastries in the office kitchen, for example. Then there's the actual behavior - You take a pastry. Finally, there's the reward you get for doing the behavior -"That tasted good!"

Making your desired habit attractive is what makes your brain say, "Oh yeah! Let's do that again!" [Fellow brain nerds - Remember myelination above? So it turns out it's not just repetition that thickens a neural pathway. It's also rewards.]

Basically, the thing that makes us repeat a behavior is the reward we get for doing it. When the reward does not come fast enough (like when we build a habit of eating vegetables with a meal - the reward comes much later, when we feel good or look good or reach a better level of health) we need to build in our own interim rewards, so our brains can say each time, “Yeah! I wanna do that again!”

This is especially important for ADHDers, who have been described as "short-sighted" towards the future - something has to be closer in time for us to be able to respond. So giving yourself a more immediate reward after sticking to your habit is like bringing the reward forward, or keeping it in mind by linking it with mini rewards along the way.

Another way to make doing the habit attractive, is to pair it with something you want to do. Every time I go for a run, I will watch an episode of my favorite Netflix series after. Every time I clean the bathroom, I listen to my favorite podcast.

How to Instill A New Habit - Law #3: Make it Easy

How can you make it as easy as possible to do – remove as much "friction" between you and your habit. How can you simplify? I'm a little embarrassed about this, but it illustrates my point well. I wanted to make it as easy as possible to go for a walk every day, so in order to remove almost all the friction, I bought silicon shoelaces so I could just slip on my walking shoes and not even have to find a place to sit and ties my laces: ) Height of laziness or smart move? Well, I am walking more.

Or you can connect your habit to something you already do at a certain time of day- do a plank every time you boil the kettle for coffee. Lock the doors every time you go to bed. This is called habit stacking. The first action triggers the next.

How to Instill A New Habit - Law #4: Make it Satisfying

Track your progress with a habit tracker. Start a streak and challenge yourself not to break the chain. The cool thing about streaks is that the more you continue, the more satisfying it all looks. Oh, and by the way, acknowledging progress is another thing that gets that myelin growing. Think progress over perfection. If you slip up, just jump right back up on that horse.

Breaking Bad

Interestingly enough, if we take these 4 rules and invert them, we have a great plan for reducing a bad habit -

How to Break a Bad Habit – Law #1: Make it Invisible

It's kind of like "out of sight out of mind" – put junk food behind closed doors. Leave your phone in another room at bedtime. Remember the habit loop above? First there's the cue, the trigger. This rule means figure out your trigger, and then remove it or distance yourself from it as much as possible. Cues can be intangible too - a time of day, a particular emotional state, a preceding behavior. Do what you can to change these, and you'll find it easier to change your bad habit.

How to Break a Bad Habit – Law #2: Make it Unattractive

Think of that cheesecake in the fridge as globs of fat and sugar. List the costs of continuing with your bad habit and then figure out how to keep those costs in mind when you more need to.

If you want to get out of bed early, have someone take your blanket and pillow away when it's time to get up. If you want to get off the couch, have someone play loud annoying music for you.

How to Break a Bad Habit – Law #3: Make it Difficult

Increase friction - add to the number of steps involved to reach the habit. I had this really bad habit of opening Facebook on my phone every time I had a free second. So I added 2 steps. First, I took the app off the home screen. Second, I put on an app locker so I have to type in my pin every time I want to open the Facebook app. It's not perfect, but it gives me a few more seconds to think if this is really a good use of my time. I also don't keep junk food in the house, If anyone wants, myself included, we have to walk down the road to the candy store.

How to Break a Bad Habit – Law #4: Make it Unsatisfying

Create a habit contract. Make the costs of your bad habits public and painful – if I don't exersise 3 times a week, I will be on toilet duty for two months. There's a great app called Stikk. It works by using a "Commitment Contract"- a binding agreement you sign to ensure that you follow through with your intentions, utilizing accountability to get your habit to, well, stick. You can even put money on the line- and have it go to a cause you hate!

Some Final Words

  • Don't try add too many habits at a time. Pick one or two keystone habits that could have a big impact or encourage other good habits as a by product.

  • Connect to your inner resources - What is 1 good habit that you have/had? What made it a success?

  • Even when you forget, do it as soon as you remember, even if not convenient. Forgetting is not failure, it’s part of developing the habit.

Good Luck!

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