In my article, “Decisions, One of the Hardest Things You Do,” I described the amazing power of routines, habits and systems to reduce the decisions you make. Making decisions is hard work, and adults with ADHD struggle to make decisions more than most. Replacing decisions with routines gives you more energy. But, I often hear new clients (or people who’d love to be my clients, if they only believed it would work for them) say they can’t develop routines, systems or habits.
If You Think You Can’t
I choose my clients carefully. If you can’t imagine at least a tiny light at the end of a long tunnel, even the best coach in the world can’t help. You don’t need to believe in your unfailing ability to make your dreams come true. As an adult with ADHD, you’ve faced too many setbacks and fruitless struggles to have absolute faith, either in yourself, or in anyone who says they can help you achieve what you haven’t been able to on your own.
When I first meet a client, I often hear a familiar story. Imagine Stan calls to inquire about coaching for his ADHD. Even though he’s not happy, Stan works in the same job he’s had for years (or if he’s lost his job, probably not for the first time, he works in the same career) and he doesn’t like it. It takes all his time and energy. He leaves the office late, so tired he can only collapse in front of the TV, lacking energy to engage with friends or family, and he crawls out of bed the next morning to do it again.
When I tell Stan I work with Creative Geniuses, adults with ADHD who are bright, creative and ambitious, I hear Stan snort and I know he’s checking if he dialed the right number. Stan remembers being like that, but no longer. I want to encourage Stan, but encouragement isn’t enough unless he can find at least a nugget of self-confidence, a belief in the possibility that things could get better.
What does this have to do with routines, habits and systems?
Duane, my husband, an adult with ADHD (and my guinea pig), felt trapped in his life too. He believed he couldn’t develop routines or change his habits. But our lives are controlled almost entirely by routines and habits. Duane wanted to be an artist, but he didn’t have time to draw or paint. His job took all his time and energy, condemning him to an unfulfilling life.
And although Stan is unhappy, he’ll stick to his routine. If he loses his job, he’ll find a similar job. He watches TV out of habit. Though he’s convinced he cannot develop routines and habits, routines and habits (that he created!) gave him the life he wants to escape!
Ironically, routines and habits provide the fastest route to create the life you want. Duane’s poor impulse control and attempts to self-medicate (common in ADHD adults) led to an unhealthy lifestyle. Duane was more than 100 lbs. overweight, smoked two packs a day and never exercised on purpose! Every attempt to change his life (quitting smoking, crash diets, joining a gym) ended in failure.
You create your new life, whether you change your health, your career, your relationships, or all of the above, by developing routines and habits that guide you gently in a new direction. When you give your life a drastic makeover, you lose your existing routines and habits. But since you actually do want to get rid of them, who’d suspect there’s anything wrong with that? The problem is that without existing routine and habits, you have nowhere to anchor new ones.
Baby Steps Will Get You There
Rather than changing his lifestyle all at once, Duane took baby steps, anchoring new routines and habits to the existing ones. True story; to begin exercising, Duane decided to walk around the block each time he went outside for a cigarette! It’s far easier to develop a new habit by anchoring it to an existing one, even if you know the anchor habit will eventually disappear. Today, Duane no longer smokes; he exercises regularly, and has lost over 100 lbs. (and has kept it off for more than 10 years.)
This approach is guaranteed to work, but when Duane goes from morbidly obese and smoking two packs a day to a healthy lifestyle within one paragraph, you might think the changes took as long to make as they do to describe. It didn’t, and you can’t instantaneously duplicate those results in your own life.
You can take the first step, but it’s the beginning. Beginning is fantastic, amazing, beautiful, even magical, but no matter how your beginning turns out, you need courage to take the next step once that first step works (or doesn’t.) Some steps will fail. Perseverance matters more than any one event.
I am picky choosing my clients because beginning is not a magic ticket to freedom. That first step is the tip of the iceberg. And unless you can imagine that light at the end of the tunnel, you probably won’t try. And if you do try and it doesn’t work (and by “work,” I mean getting you 100% of the way there) you’ll quit.
Instead, you’ll keep your job (until you can’t anymore), you won’t have time and you won’t enjoy your life… but you’ll accept it because you everyone says you should be grateful for what you have. You fall for, “You need to face reality.” But “reality” is a lie. If you don’t get what you want, it’s because you believe it’s impossible, and if you get what you want, it’s because you start, even though you know it’s impossible, and you keep at it even though you know it won’t work, until one day you look around and realize, you did it. When I choose a client, it’s someone who’s ready to start even knowing it’s impossible. When we work together, you’ll be surprised just how far we can get.