A big part of having systems in place to help you with executive functioning is that you need to have good habits. Learning how to hack your habits can help. The number one thing I see with people who have executive dysfunction is that they give up on things too soon. If something works, you can repeat the success, but you need to form habits around that strategy or tool in order to reap the benefits.
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Willpower vs Habits
Many people say things like, “I would do x, except I don’t have the willpower.” We hold the idea of willpower up as something we don’t really have control over. That’s because when we start a new thing or make a change in our lives, it often starts with willpower. If we don’t see immediate results, willpower fades and we give up.
This holds true for everything from exercise programs to building executive function skills. I’m not going to tell you that willpower doesn’t play a role—it does. However, I don’t talk about willpower. I talk about mindset and making choices. You can control the choices you make and where you place effort.
Have I enjoyed waking up early every day for the last 16 years to get my kids to school? Hell, no. I’m a natural night owl. Mornings are rough. But I build habits around what I need to do. The kids have to get to school. They need to bring lunch with them. This has nothing to do with willpower. I do what I need to do, but I use habits to make it automatic.
When you first start building a habit, willpower (or whatever you want to call it) will wane. Change is hard. But understanding the process will make it easier for you to stick it out. You know that there will be light at the end of the tunnel (even if you can’t see it yet). Do little things to make the routines easier so they can form into habits.
But how long will it take? That’s the million-dollar question. For many years, people quoted science as saying it takes 21 days to build a habit. In fact, the study referenced said that it would take a minimum of 21 days. People kept forgetting the minimum part.
Since then, more studies have been done and a more accepted timeframe is at least 66 days and up to 254 days. That’s anywhere from just over 2 months to 8 months. It takes 66 days for the routine to become automatic.
This information is especially important for neurodivergent people. Habits and people who struggle with executive functioning (especially my ADHD people) is a catch-22. You need the structure that habits provide to be successful but building the systems that will create the habits are hard.
It will probably take you longer to form habits. Part of why you need to form the habits is that you’re bad at things like planning and time management. It’s easy to get frustrated and believe you won’t be able to make it work.
If you go into it with the right mindset—it takes what it takes—you’ll be less likely to give up. Keeping in mind that it’s a process can keep you on track. Another important note for ND people is that researchers also found that slipping up and missing a day doesn’t reset the clock. It doesn’t impact habit formation.
Benefits of Habits
Take a look at your morning. You probably do the same thing every day: get up, get dressed, brushed your teeth, and have a cup of coffee. You don’t have to think about what the next steps are—you just do them. Unless you have executive dysfunction. Then you might have to think about brushing your teeth. On the trip from your closet to the bathroom, you might forget what you were supposed to do when you got there. Building habits means you don’t have to think about it.
Routines simplify our lives. When you do things automatically, it frees up your brain space for other things. You will be more efficient and you will find more time because you’re not wasting time and energy trying to figure out what you need to do.
Create a Habit in 3 Steps
Before you can implement a new habit, you need to think about what you want and what’s most important. This is a critical step for neurodivergent people. You can’t try to implement 5 routines at once. That will lead to overwhelm. You need to figure out what’s important to you—not necessarily what others say. If it doesn’t resonate with you, it will be harder to follow through.
Be specific as you decide what you want your new routine to be. Instead of “I want to exercise more,” try “I will walk for 30 minutes every day.” Remember SMART goals. The more specific you are, the easier it will be to implement.
2. Set reminders
For the first few days of a new routine, you’re excited and things will go smoothly. But once the shininess of the idea wears off, so does the motivation. It’s easy to slip back into old (sometimes nonexistent) routines. If you have ADHD or anxiety or depression, slip-ups will happen. Reminders become your friend.
Don’t wait for your motivation to lag. Set up cues and reminders right away. The habit starts with routine. For many neurodivergent people, they need a cue to remind them to start the routine. It might be an alarm sound, or it might be a sticky note. Committing to doing the routine at the same time each day helps.
Once you complete the routine, celebrate. Your ND brain loves reward. Give yourself a pat on the back for doing the thing.
3. Daily Routine
As mentioned above, the habit starts with routine—doing the same thing over and over. Routine isn’t necessarily automatic. That’s what happens when it’s habit. Utilizing the cue-routine-reward system will keep you on track until the routine becomes habit.
Because building new habits is hard, sometimes we need to trick ourselves into following through. Here are some hacks that you might want to try:
- Add it to your to-do list—this one seems obvious, but not so much for those with executive dysfunction. Back to the idea of brushing your teeth. You might feel weird setting a reminder for that because other people don’t need a prompt. They just do it. You can’t just do it. That’s why you’re here. Add the things to your planner or to-do list as a reminder.
- Let it be known—talk to friends and family members about the habits you’re trying to form. They can be accountability partners who can help keep you on track. Caveat: choose people who you know will be supportive, even when you slip up. You don’t need other people making you feel bad.
- Build on existing habits—adding to an existing habit is easier than creating a whole new habit. If you currently have a solid morning routine, add to it. Take your 30-minute walk before you do the rest of your morning items. If you already do a weekly grocery list, add in creating a menu. Adding a step is so much easier than starting new.
- Make mistakes hurt—not physically. Give yourself a consequence for not following your routine. I’m cautious about this because punishment can be defeating for some people. You know yourself. If this is too much, don’t do it. But, if you don’t take your daily walk, you don’t get to have a latte on the way to work. If you don’t create a meal plan for the week, you don’t get to go to the restaurant for Friday’s dinner.
- Accountability partners—this is more than just having your family’s support. Having an accountability partner can help keep you motivated. An accountability partner is someone who is trying to build the same habit or has the same goal as you. You check in with each other and keep each other motivated.
- Strength in numbers—if a partner is good, a group might be better. Create a group challenge to meet your goals and build your habits. A little competition might make it fun.