ADHD Habit Building
ADHD brains crave novelty. This means trying to make any lasting life changes can feel close to impossible. While there is no magic tool for successful ADHD habit building, there are some things I’ve learned over the years. If you’re struggling to change your diet, exercise more consistently, or trying to reign in your self-medicating, keep reading!
When you have ADHD, you have to develop a lot of coping mechanisms just to scrape by in life. This can feel especially true for those of us diagnosed as adults. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 31 so for literal decades I was given advice that wouldn’t work for me. And, without a diagnosis, I misplaced why it wouldn’t work for me. Inundated with the toxic diet and “rise and grind” cultures of the ’90s and ’00s, I thought my inability to stick to any of that advice was a personal failure. It was because I was too weak, too undisciplined, or didn’t want it badly enough.
I cannot even count the amount of two-week challenges I started and never finished. Because truly – I have never finished a single one whether it was a sugar detox, squat challenge, or reading challenge. If you have ADHD, this probably isn’t news to you. Prone to perfectionism, the inability to follow through tends to fill us with guilt and anxiety that leads to a domino effect of more perceived failures. Failures that are absorbed as character flaws, damaging our self-esteem along with our relationship with food, exercise, and self-care.
Just Give it 21 Days
At some point, I came across a piece of advice that proceeded to mess with my head for years. It was something along the lines of “Don’t focus on changing for the rest of your life, just do it 21 days in a row.” After 21 days, it will just become a habit.” Lol no, it fucking will not. First off, I have never done anything for 21 days in a row in my life.
Okay yes, I’ve probably washed my face and brushed my teeth for 21 days in a row. It’s quite possible in junior high I watched Newsies for more than 21 days in a row. Sure, I’ve eaten 21 days in a row but now I’m getting too caught up in the literal.
The point is that this piece of advice damaged how I thought and felt about myself for years. Anytime I wanted to change something whether it be exercise or read more or to eat healthier, I’d tell myself I just needed to commit to it for 21 days. Then when I couldn’t even do that, I felt disgusted with my weakness and lack of willpower.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time considering how I went undiagnosed for so long. How did I make it to almost 30 before realizing I needed a better system? A better system for keeping track of well, everything? I’ve realized a lot of it has to do with the wildly neurodivergent household I grew up in, even if only half of us knew it at the time. My stepdad was diagnosed with ADHD and had his own set of coping mechanisms. Those coping mechanisms basically kept the rest of us afloat. Largely, with an A4 note. Anything we needed to pay, do, or remember was left on the counter in a place we’d see it when we walked in.
I unknowingly was so reliant on this system that I’m sure it was some of the cause for strife with roommates I had later. More and more things started to fall through the cracks and I slowly realized that things that needed to get done would not always be placed in front of me with an A4 paper across it to catch my attention. I knew I needed a better system. Or simply any system at all.
Pinterest had made me aware of bullet journaling and so I tried my hand at it. I very quickly realized and accepted that the more elaborate pages were not only tedious but hideous because I am not an artist and have terrible handwriting. Being reminded of that every time I looked at a page that had taken more than five minutes to make was a surefire way to make sure I stopped filling that page out. However, I did discover the benefits of simple trackers and they have been life-changing.
ADHD Habit Building
Yes, bill trackers have been wildly helpful but more than that has been habit trackers. Sure, I had seen printable habit trackers before but they never felt entirely relevant to me. Somehow, it just had not occurred to me that I could make my own until I discovered bullet journaling. (Which is possibly a testament to just how hard-wired the ADHD brain is to resist routine.)
When I first started using a habit tracker, I included things like flossing, washing my face twice a day, and way too many attempts to restrict my eating. I would put broad rules like “no junk food” and then literally watch me food-shame myself off the habit tracker. I wouldn’t want to finish the month out because I didn’t like the reminder of how much I was failing. This meant the habits I was succeeding at forging were going largely unnoticed or, worse, backsliding because I didn’t want to open the page and face my “food failures.” Slowly, I realized this was ridiculous.
Overall, my diet wasn’t that terrible and it just seemed absurd to let my entire day be dragged down over a single cookie. I started breaking down my all-or-nothing mindset into sections. Instead of “no junk food,” I broke down “junk” into categories: cookies, pastries, chips, and candy. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like I spoiled my whole day with a handful of chips because I could see how much “junk” I hadn’t consumed despite obsessing over it so much.
How I Hacked My ADHD Habit Building
I didn’t. Because the truth is, I still have never done any of these things 21 days in a row. ADHD habit building to 100% perfection is impossible – and that’s okay. Using a habit tracker helped me accept that by showing me the bigger picture. This allowed me to see food less extremely which means it also triggered my demand avoidance less so I wasn’t eating candy out of some twisted resistance to listen to myself out of subconscious spite.
Admittedly, my relationship with food has done a 180. While I originally started using these tactics before I was diagnosed, medicating my ADHD has impacted my appetite. Combined with work and wedding stress, there are too many days I don’t eat the minimum calories needed to support basic organ function (that’s 1600 calories for those of you playing at home.) Younger me would have loved to be my current size and eat candy whenever the impulse hits the way I do now, but current me knows I feel weak and crappy when I’m not treating food as fuel.
Realistic ADHD Habit Building
While my relationship with food is still a struggle, albeit for entirely different reasons (namely: resenting that I need to eat at all sometimes), I know I do better when I’m using a habit tracker. Left to my own devices, “What do I want to eat?” is too often answered with “Nothing.” and “What should I eat?” leads to an internal battle of demand avoidance and texture aversion.
However, when I’m actively using a habit tracker it feels like more of a choice than a demand. Sure, crossing things off throughout the day gives me that nice little dopamine rush but not crossing things off also holds me more accountable. It’s one thing to make an impulsive choice to eat chips for dinner at the end of the day but when I actually have to look at how often I’m making those choices, it makes it easier to start making better choices.
Admittedly, the weekends are often a no man’s land for checkmarks. But by allowing myself those off-days of dopamine chasing (and recognizing them for what they are) it helps me to be less hard on myself. When I’m less hard on myself, it’s easier to make better choices.
Tips For ADHD Habit Building Trackers
- Don’t ake it entirely food-based.
It puts too much focus on food which leads to feeling pressured and demand avoidance. Food is a difficult area for neurodivergents and you’ll likely have many missing checkmarks on your food sections. That gets discouraging and triggers feelings of failure – we’re aiming for the opposite of that!
- Include something that is already semi-routine.
Changing multiple habits is hard. By including something that’s already semi-routine, you’ll get some easy checkmarks. This will help you see the progress you’re making and encourage you to stick with it.
Keep It Positive
- Add something you enjoy.
If you’re trying to change too many difficult things at once, it gets overwhelming and feels like a punishment. Add things that help you look forward to the habit tracker so you’re more likely to be consistent. For me, this is reading. I love reading but it’s easy to get caught up in my day and forget to make time for it. Including it in my habit tracker reminds me to bring my book to read on the bus or while waiting for an appointment.
- Put a simple, low-stakes task on your habit tracker.
Changing food or exercise habits is both physically and mentally challenging. It requires a lot of planning and executive dysfunction to mentally prepare and follow through. And, not to be a downer, but if you don’t succeed at making any necessary diet and exercise changes, your physical and mental health will suffer eventually (if it’s not already.) You know what’s great to try but doesn’t really matter if you don’t? Using cuticle oil daily. Remembering to moisturize your feet. Deleting screenshots you took throughout the day but will never need again. Including simple, low-stakes tasks can help encourage you to be consistent with your habit tracker. As you get more consistent, you’ll start to see days where the only thing you didn’t do was the low-stakes one(s) and that’s actually really fantastic when you think about it!
While habit tracking has been very beneficial for me, it still may not be for you. There is no catch-all ADHD hack because every ADHD brain is different. I am also autistic which means my brain is sprinkled with conflicting spices. The important thing is to keep looking for what works for you. Give yourself credit where there’s progress and use that to refine your approach. We can’t actually be perfect humans who do everything perfectly all the time. We can only work to make progress and sometimes progress starts with a few simple checkmarks.
If you want to try out some of the habit trackers I’ve created, you can get my ADHD habit tracker printable bundle from my Etsy Store.