It feels a little counterintuitive to tell someone with ADHD that they just need to start some routines and they might find their manifestations to be more manageable. That’s because starting a routine hinders on a few factors that people with ADHD wouldn’t necessarily list as their strong suit:
With ADHD, the brain wants a few things – variety and newness chief among them. It’s part of what makes us so creative; we’re often really great at finding what’s next and new and exciting.
And yet having a daily routine or two can really help create a sense of structure that makes the day more manageable.
How Does a Routine Help
I spent quite a bit of time researching routines + ADHD for this post because I wanted to better understand why they are helpful. I really was looking for a deep dive explanation on what is it about structure that helps people with ADHD be more successful.
And I found very little! Most articles said the same thing – “routines are good because they provide structure”. Thank you, but still, why are they good? What is it about structure that can help a person with ADHD better manage their manifestations throughout the day?
I’m sorry I don’t have much research-backed information (if you’ve found a study please send it my way!).
However, I have some theories:
There’s comfort in predictability
Part of ADHD is living with unpredictability.
You don’t know how your emotions will change throughout the day, whether you’ll be able to focus on your work, or what ADHD manifestations are going to get in the way of your carefully drawn plans.
It can be a small comfort to know how a small part of your day will play out.
A routine provides a sense of accomplishment that we might not otherwise get to experience throughout the day
A morning routine specifically allows you to feel accomplished right away, and you can carry that feeling with you through each hour of the day.
Routines can help you work on your executive function skills
Nonverbal working memory refers to the ability to re-see past events (as well as picture what we’ve heard, smelled, touched, etc.). Essentially, it’s the ability to re-experience what we’ve done before – how it felt, how we reacted.
Doing a routine daily gives you a shorter time frame in which to pull up nonverbal working memory, so it may be easier to picture what you did during the routine the day or week before and how it went, to help yourself see the end result.
Starting a New Routine
Now we have some thoughts on why routines can be helpful, and you may be ready to start one or two. Below are recommendations on how you can establish and stick with new routines. Not every recommendation will work for you, so pick a couple that you think you can do based on your strengths, and maybe one that’s a stretch.
Just Pick One Thing
If you’re anything like me, you may have read the first part of this, and all sorts of ideas popped in your head of habits you’ve always wanted to pick up, and you’re already making a list in your head of all the new routines you want to establish.
Stop making that list and just pick one thing!
Start with low hanging fruit. Floss daily. That’s it – I’m not even going to give you any more ideas because I don’t want you to be tempted.
Establish Your Reason
Having a reason behind your routine can help on days when you don’t want to do it. If your new routine is flossing daily, why are you doing it? Because you want better breath? Your bleeding gums irritate you?
Write this down, and post it somewhere visible. Refer back on days you are just over it.
Group Routines Together
Okay you have been flossing for a month and feel ready for a new routine. The next one is 10 minutes of daily stretching! Excellent choice.
Do it before you floss.
Now you can group your two routines and make one routine – you floss, then you stretch, and that is one singular routine, not two individual routines. You have associated the two things into one collection and they must be done together. A mega-routine, if you will.
Schedule Your Routine
Make your routine a constant part of your schedule and try to do it the same time every day (make it a window if your schedule is a bit unpredictable).
Set a reminder on your phone using your to-do list, a calendar item, or whatever reminder app is most helpful. For the first few weeks, ask someone within or outside your household to also set a reminder and reach out to tell you to do your routine.
Set a reminder a few minutes before your routine starts, as well. Then, if you’re working on something else, you have more than one reminder to stop, drop and roll into the routine.
This will depend entirely on what most distracts you.
If it’s browsing on your phone, put it in the other room. If it’s silence, play music. If it’s other people, see if you can snag alone time (if you have children, please do take a moment to laugh at this suggestion).
The key is to start and finish the routine with minimal distraction. Completely cutting out distraction for someone with ADHD is unfair.
Make it Entertaining
Routines aren’t particularly exciting and you may want to spice it up. I don’t know what you find fun, but I have a pretty great Motown playlist and I usually put it on while I work out. Then, between sets I dance. I look ridiculous because I have no rhythm, but I find it shakes up the monotony.
So, if it’s not too distracting, put on music or a movie or television while you do it. Or, make up stories in your head. Win fake arguments. Take a dance break. Plot world domination. Whatever it is that puts a smile on your face while you do it.
Change Your Perspective
Start with your language. Tell someone it’s time for your routine, but don’t say “Oh I have to work out today”. Tell them you’re going to work out, you get to work out, you scheduled time to work out, or whatever variation you like. Cut “have to” out of your vocabulary. It sucks.
Then remind yourself why you’re doing it (see above for establishing a reason) and it does NOT have to be particularly noble.
Personally, I floss every day because my dental hygienist told me my gums have never looked healthier and I am determined to get her to tell me that at every appointment. Is it a weird reason? Sure. But it works on days when I think I can skip flossing.
Be Flexible and Kind to Yourself
What happens when you skip a routine for a day or two? YOU GO TO HADES. No, sorry, I was just recently watching Bring It On (I really hope you could picture that scene).
Realistically, if you skip a day or two, reflect on why. Were you extraordinarily busy and thus your routine got interrupted? Were you ill? Did you lose sight of your routine’s purpose?
Don’t beat yourself up; try to get back into it. You may need to utilize multiple strategies when you’ve missed some time to get yourself activated again.
If you can’t get back into it for multiple days in a row, decide that you’ll put it down for a couple weeks and plan a time later to try again. You might just need a break to focus on something else. When you come back, try to come back from a new angle. How can you shake up the routine to make it feel new and unique again?
Finally, Be Reflective
Not all routines are meant to be. You may only need one for a short period of time, or you may find that you’re not getting much out of it. Don’t keep doing things you loathe because you’ve placed arbitrary expectations on yourself.
Remind yourself too that you have ADHD. Your brain isn’t going to do things it doesn’t want to do. Stop trying to force yourself into neurotypical standards and learn to respect your inner workings a little more. Self-love is more important than a bedtime routine.
Do you have any tips for maintaining routines that you love?