Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
June 24, 2023

Habit-Forming 101, Part 1: How to Build Habits With ADHD

If you have ADHD, you know the struggle of trying to make and sustain new habits. The ADHD inability to form habits is real, in part because of differences in your executive functioning processes.

You may become easily overwhelmed by new habits because they’re hard to break into manageable chunks. Or you may simply find yourself becoming far too bored by the habit once the shine of newness has worn off.

I’m a therapist for millennials, and I have good news from years of working with neurodiverse folks: creating lasting habits is doable – even with ADHD. Practicing habit-forming skills, learning what works for you and your brain, and seeking support when necessary are integral parts of the process. 

In part one of this blog series, I’ll talk about how to form habits. In part two, I’ll talk about how to sustain habits – even after the initial excitement wears off. 

ADHD inability to form habits

ADHD and Habits in Adults: The Struggle Is Real

ADHD makes forming lasting habits particularly tricky. (No, it’s not just you!) This is because executive functioning in adults with ADHD is different from the executive functioning of adults without ADHD.

Executive functions are controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain and include skills like organization, working memory, attention to detail, ability to focus, and capacity for multitasking.

Additionally, people with ADHD tend to become overstimulated and overwhelmed very quickly. Sensory overload can lead to difficulties regulating your nervous system. When you’re overwhelmed by your environment, you’re more likely to experience anxiety, panic, frustration, anger, and involuntarily shutting down.

What’s more, ADHD brains are lower in dopamine than non-ADHD brains. This means that people with ADHD tend to get bored more easily than their neurotypical counterparts, and often seek out activities that provide dopamine boosts. 

All this can make forming new habits tricky when you have ADHD. New habits often require long periods of focus, consistency, and learning and paying attention to details – all of which can feel at times too overwhelming and at times too boring.

So if you have ADHD and struggle to create and sustain healthy habits, there’s nothing wrong with you, and you’re certainly not alone in your challenges. Luckily, there are ways you can learn to both form and sustain habits successfully. 

How to Build Habits With ADHD

Let’s start with habit formation. Here are two key pieces of habit formation that you can use to help you: Breaking the habit into manageable pieces and using external accountability.

  1. Breaking the habit into manageable pieces

One of the first things I help my clients figure out how to do when they’re feeling overwhelmed by starting a new habit is to break it down into small, bite-sized steps. 

I can tell you from years of working with clients that they often think they can skip this step. Pro tip: don’t skip this step.

I get the inclination to gloss over this. You might shame and “should” yourself into thinking you shouldn’t need to break down your habits into smaller steps. After all, everyone else seems to get along just fine without doing that, right?

Your brain has its own unique challenges and strengths that neurotypical brains don’t have. There’s no shame in this, despite what you may have been told. Maybe you were ridiculed by teachers, parents, or friends in the past for not being able to learn new habits or skills in the way everyone else around you seemed to. You likely internalized these cruel remarks and use negative self-talk as a motivator. The truth is, shame isn’t an effective long-term tool for positive change. 

Start with a small and doable goal. Make it as manageable as possible so there’s very little resistance to it. If you are feeling resistance when you think about performing the action, that’s a good sign that it’s too big. If this is the case, try making it smaller. 

For instance, maybe your goal is to exercise more. You may get really excited about this goal and decide to jump straight into a packed routine where you go from doing nothing to running 3 times a week, going to the gym 3 times a week, and doing yoga every morning.

You can probably see where this is going. Eventually, the initial excitement and shine will wear off, and then you’ll be left with an unsustainable plan. Every piece of the plan may start to feel overwhelming and unmanageable. If you don’t make it happen, you may feel like a failure – like it’s one more thing you couldn’t do. And then you may find yourself in a shame spiral. 

If your goal is to exercise, try thinking about the smallest sub-goal you can manage. Is it spending just 10 minutes at the gym? Is it putting on your running clothes first thing in the morning and running for at least one minute? 

These might sound too small, but coming up with the smallest possible goal for yourself can actually help keep you on track. 

Adhd habits in adults
  1. External accountability

Despite what you may have been taught, you don’t need to rely solely on yourself to get things done in life. Internal motivation is great, but if you have ADHD, you know this is a finite resource.

Instead, take advantage of external accountability.   

One way to do this is by using a body double.

A body double is someone who works alongside you. You can find dedicated virtual coworking spaces, or find a buddy to cowork with you in real life. The most important piece about finding a body double is making sure they won’t add distractions.

These body doubles can also help you form habits. Let’s stick with the example of wanting to integrate more exercise into your life. If you find someone to go to the gym or go for a run with, you’re much more likely to keep doing these things than if you just try to do them yourself. 

When you use a body double, you’re motivated in part by the presence of the other person. You naturally don’t want to let them down, which can help you stick to your goals. Plus, having another person around can make forming habits way more fun and less boring. 

Your ADHD Inability to Form Habits Doesn’t Have to Be a Life Sentence. Therapy and Coaching Can Help.

In part two of this blog series, I’ll talk about how to sustain habits in the long run. 

If you want help with forming and sustaining habits, you’re not alone. I can help. 

Together, we can create strategies for you to meet your unique goals. We’ll break your goals into manageable sub-goals, come up with ways to create external accountability in your life, and figure out how to sustain healthy habits after the newness has worn off. 

You’ll learn to let go of shaming and shoulding yourself. Instead, you’ll walk away with skills to help you create the life you want.

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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