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Throw Me a Lifeline: Structure Versus Routine

Throw Me a Lifeline: Structure Versus RoutineStructure Versus Routine: which is better for someone with ADHD?

For many years, I’ve worked with the following adage taped in a prominent area on my desk:

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”

In spite of this reminder, somehow, I always felt like I was treading water, getting nowhere and exhausting myself.

Then I started to sink.

Trapped by false freedom

It’s well-recognized that one of the main things that people with ADHD are lacking in their lives is structure. I’ve always looked at this lack of structure in my life as “freedom.” After my ADHD diagnosis, I began to realize that, paradoxically, a lack of structure was anything but.

Where’s the freedom when you’re spending a third of your life looking for something you’ve scratched on a piece of paper; going back to a previous daytimer to find someone’s birthday; or canceling things you looked forward to because you haven’t finished what you needed to do that day?

And I thought I spoke English…

I used to brag that the only thing I do every day is get up. Now I realize that I’ve been mistaking the word “structure” for “routine,” and that’s held me back.

When I think of routine, I panic. Routine smacks to me of boredom, unoriginality, restriction, and conformity: does that sound like me? Uh-uh.

I had a vague notion that some structure in my life might help me get to where I wanted to go, but I really didn’t understand what people meant when they said, “You need to have structure.”  Saying that to me was about as helpful as yelling to someone who’s drowning to swim to shore – when they don’t know how to swim.

Structure as a lifeline

The first step I had to take was to recognize I was drowning. Thus, my ADHD diagnosis.

The next step was learning, through therapy, research, reading, talking to my friends and family, that structure actually could save my life. Meaning, get me organized enough so that I’m no longer treading water and getting nowhere.

When I look at the dictionary meanings of structure and routine, no wonder I was loathe to implement routines.

These definitions are taken from my old friend, Websters 9th New Collegiate Dictionary:


1: the act of building : construction

Building, I can get on board with. I’ve been trying to build a viable career for decades.

2 a: something (as a building) that is constructed

Absolutely. Books, magazine articles, films, and so on are nothing if not constructed.

b: something arranged in a definite pattern of organization

Ah, organization: the offspring of structure. How can I construct a kick ass piece of writing if I don’t have my materials and my thoughts organized?

4 b: organization of parts as dominated by the general character of the whole

This one made me pause and reflect on my life as a whole. What is the general character of my life? What, besides writing, performance, and creativity is important to me? Intimate friendships, making music, walks in nature, social engagement, all of these have to be worked into the structure of my life for me to feel fulfilled.

5: the aggregate of elements of an entity in their relationships to each other

What do I prioritize?  Allowing my priorities to shift and flow within a structure is important. Sometimes, family takes precedence over setting new work goals. Sometimes my friends have to understand that meeting my deadlines is more important than socializing. My true friends will not only understand, but support me in this, as I support and encourage them in achieving their goals.


1 Routine – 1 b: habitual or mechanical performance of an established procedure

How boring and soulless is that?! If I ever do anything in a “mechanical” way, it’s time to stop doing it. How many times have you heard, “pick a career that you’re passionate about,” as the key to an ADHDer’s success? Ok, do I really need to be passionate about brushing my teeth or who wins the hockey game? Maybe not. Full-time passion can be exhausting, but I’d rather err on the side of passion than apathy.

2: a reiterated speech or formula

Practice is good; spontaneity is better (for me, anyway). I learned to trust my mind and creativity when put under pressure. Adrenaline brings out the best in my writing and performances. But I’ve also learned that there is a perfect combination of research, preparation and sheer terror (of the blank screen; the deadline; the audience). Calm sets in as I get into the flow, buoyed up by advance preparation.

3: a worked-out part (as of an entertainment or sports contest) that may be often repeated (a comic ~) (a dance ~) (a gymnastic~)

Yes and no. In writing and rehearsing for stand-up comedy for example, I find that it’s best to be open to inspired spontaneity. Creative thinkers come up with some of their best ideas, funniest lines, most sublime musical expression, when they’ve trained in their field but have their channels open to the Muses’ whisperings. The danger of wandering off the path, even one you’ve laid out yourself, is exhilarating.

2 Routine – 1: of a commonplace or repetitious character : ORDINARY

Ordinary. Yeah, right.

2: of, relating to, or being in accordance with established procedure (~ business)

It takes a renegade to hack established procedure and come up with something fresh and improved.  The procedure itself had to first be created before it was established. Once creativity dies, stasis sets in. We die.

So now I know…

Now that I know why I intuitively shunned “routine,” I’m going to step up my efforts to embrace structure.

I still want my freedom, but now I realize the paradox of freedom through structure. The more organized I am, the more I accomplish, and the greater freedom I’ll have by earning and attracting new and exciting opportunities.

Bring it on!

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Throw Me a Lifeline: Structure Versus Routine

Zoë Kessler, BA, B.Ed.

Zoë Kessler is an award-winning author, journalist, and speaker specializing in women and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD / ADD).

A frequent contributor to ADDitude Magazine, Kessler has also created video, standup comedy, and guest blogs on ADHD and Marriage covering ADHD-related topics.

Zoë, an internationally recognized ADHD expert, has been interviewed on radio and featured in magazine articles, documentaries, and books on the topic of women and ADHD across North America.

Her newly-released memoir ADHD According to Zoë - The Real Deal on relationships, Finding Your Focus & Finding Your Keys (New Harbinger Publications, 2013) about life with ADHD is now available.

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APA Reference
Kessler, Z. (2014). Throw Me a Lifeline: Structure Versus Routine. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 31 Jan 2014
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Jan 2014
Published on All rights reserved.