Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
September 9, 2023

Executive Functioning and ADHD: Why Habits Are Harder When You’re Neurodivergent

There’s a recent TikTok trend where users delve into the differences between habit formation in neurotypical vs. neurodivergent brains. These users, who often have ADHD, want to spread the message that the things we’ve been taught about habits aren’t always true for those of us with ADHD. In fact, there’s a whole movement of people trying to normalize the daily challenges that neurodivergent brains face, including differences in how habits are formed. Namely, these users are declaring that folks with ADHD can’t just form habits mindlessly and easily – instead, ADHD habits require continual effort and work. This goes against the grain of everything we’ve been taught about habit formation and what habits are supposed to look and feel like. 

TikTok videos aren’t science, and of course these trending videos should be taken with a grain of salt. However, as a therapist for millennials with ADHD, I’ve noticed striking similarities between these videos and the struggles of my clients. Many of my clients describe feeling deflated and frustrated by their seeming inability to form and sustain habits. They come to me specifically to work on learning tools and skills to improve their executive functioning and boost their overall well-being. They also feel like they’re somehow doing something wrong because their habit formation looks different from their neurotypical peers. They can’t just mindlessly go through the motions. If they want a habit to stick, they have to put a lot of effort into maintaining it. 

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone – and you’re not broken. When you have ADHD, your unique brain functioning makes forming and maintaining habits in the long run particularly arduous. There’s nothing wrong with you, though. Your brain just operates differently. Developing self-awareness, acceptance, and useful management skills can help you cope with your experiences and seek support when necessary. 

Differences in ADHD Habit Formation Lie in the Brain

Forming and sustaining habits with ADHD isn’t solely a matter of repeating a behavior until it sticks. Cultural beliefs around habits state that habits become mindless routines once they’re practiced and repeated enough. However, this simply isn’t the case for neurodivergent folks. 

This is because of differences in an ADHD brain’s executive functioning. Executive functions are a set of skills controlled by the frontal lobe. They include things like working memory, planning, organizing, multi-tasking, impulse control, and time management. People with ADHD struggle more with daily tasks, including habit formation, because of the differences in their ability to regulate and manage these skills. Someone with ADHD typically has trouble organizing, managing their time, remembering instructions, staying on track, and following through with a task or set of tasks. 

Executive dysfunction has been shown to lead to academic and workplace difficulties, relationship tension, and increased symptoms of mental health issues like anxiety and imposter syndrome. Luckily, poor executive functioning doesn’t have to run your life. ADHD and habit formation aren’t mutually exclusive. Building habits with ADHD is absolutely doable with the right support and set of skills. 

Executive functioning and habits in adhd

The Impact of Executive Functioning in ADHD Habits

ADHD habits aren’t mindless. They require sustained effort. This fact can be a source of shame for people with ADHD, because they feel like they should be able to breeze through everyday habits with ease and routine. After all, this is how neurotypical people talk about habits. 

There are a lot of reasons why habits require sustained effort when you have ADHD. For one thing, you’re more likely to become overwhelmed by all the steps involved in forming a brand-new habit. And once you start to feel more familiar with the steps, the habit doesn’t provide your brain with as much dopamine, which means it’s much harder to sustain. You likely struggle with boredom and lack of motivation when trying to maintain habits in the long run. Trying to maintain a habit like healthy eating, for instance, can quickly go by the wayside when foods with higher sugar and fat content provide instant dopamine fixes and are much more accessible.

Accepting that your habits will require sustained effort may sound discouraging, but acknowledging this fact can actually be empowering. If I had to take a guess, I’d bet that fighting your brain chemistry and feeling shame around your habit formation probably isn’t working for you. Acknowledging and working with what you do have can help you reduce feelings of shame and unworthiness. Yes, you’ll have to put in extra work in order to develop meaningful habits. Yes, that can be a pain in the ass, especially if your job or personal life requires constant hustle and productivity. But you can learn to manage your daily habits just like with any other task. 

Think of it like grocery shopping: most people don’t jump for joy at the prospect of going to the store, but it’s ultimately a nourishing and worthwhile activity. Having to spend extra time on your daily habits doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It’s just how your brain works – and there’s freedom in accepting that. 

How to Improve Your Executive Functioning and ADHD Habits

Creating lasting habits is doable – even when you have ADHD. Developing self-awareness, tools, and skills can help in this process. One way to improve your executive functioning and ADHD habits is to align your habits with your core values as much as possible. I know this is easier said than done – some habits are formed out of pure necessity for basic survival. That’s normal and okay. Whenever possible, though, try to cut out habits that don’t actually serve you.

Maybe you are trying really hard to stick to a meditation or journaling practice, for instance. You feel like you need to have some sort of habit like this in order to be healthy and successful, so you should yourself into repeating it most days. But maybe it just makes you miserable and feel even worse about yourself. Maybe you just hate sitting still. Whatever the case may be, cut yourself some slack. There’s nothing inherently morally superior about journaling. Maybe a mindfulness practice that would better serve you would be something like taking a walk, playing with your dog, or practicing yoga.

Another way to improve your executive functioning and ADHD habits is to learn what works to ground you when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Learning tools like habit stacking, using a timer to get through unpleasant tasks, or finding a body double can all help you manage your time and habits more effectively. 

Therapy and Coaching Can Help You Navigate Executive Functioning and ADHD Habit Formation

Creating and sustaining habits requires a whole lot of time and energy. And when you have ADHD, you have to navigate the added challenges of your brain chemistry. If you want support in navigating the challenges of ADHD and executive functioning, I'm here to help. 

I’m here to help you figure out ways to work with your unique brain chemistry, integrate habits more seamlessly into your life, and set goals to help you form worthwhile habits that last. 

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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