For people with ADHD, routines can provide structure that makes it easier to cope with our symptoms. Having something as part of a routine takes pressure off the need to plan ahead. When we find a routine that works, we can automatically follow it without having to make decisions about how to organize our time.
But what happens if we end up “automatically” following a routine that’s bad?
There are plenty of bad routines. Leaving tasks until the last possible minute can become a routine. Eating unhealthy food can become a routine. Really, any counterproductive action, when you do it regularly, can become a routine.
The thing about bad routines is that breaking out of them relies on skills in organization and self-regulation. It requires taking a step back from habitual actions and saying “wait a minute, this action that I’m used to doing is actually having effects that I don’t like, so I’m going to start taking a different action.”
That type of taking a step back in order to reorganize and self-regulate is an area where people with ADHD struggle.
Our deficits in planning, decision-making, self-control, and weighing long-term consequences are exactly the reason why good routines can help us. When an action that helps us becomes an automatic part of our routine, we can bypass the need to rely on those executive functioning skills.
But by the same token, when an action that hurts us becomes part of our routine, activating those skills to break out of a bad routine can be very difficult.
Something that can help with breaking out of bad routines is to try modifying them rather than eliminating them.
For example, if you have a routine of eating an unhealthy snack at a certain time of day, try replacing it with a healthy (or less unhealthy) snack that tastes good rather than getting rid of the snack entirely. If you have a routine of always watching Netflix and then doing household chores much later than you mean too, see if you can establish a routine where you do household chores first and then reward yourself with some Netflix. And so on.
The first step to breaking out bad routines, of course, is to become aware of them in the first place. So in that spirit, try thinking of at least one bad routine you have in your life that you’d like to modify. Or, if that’s too easy, come up with a whole list of them!
ADHDers do have a knack for slipping into bad routines. First you take a single action that isn’t well planned out, and before you know it, that action turns into a habit. As with many aspects of ADHD, the practical approach is probably some mixture of modifying bad routines where possible, partially mitigating them when that fails, and accepting them when necessary.