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First Steps to Building Habits for Success

U.S. News and World Reports recently profiled Daniel Arrigg Koh, the chief of staff for the city of Boston, under Mayor Martin J. Walsh. Mr. Koh has an ADHD diagnosis. This, he says, has been an asset to him.

“I view ADHD as an advantage,” Mr. Koh tells U.S. News and World Reports in the article Good Habits of Successful People With ADHD. “I often have many balls in the air and am multitasking. ADHD forces you in general to be stricter with life habits. You have no choice but to discipline yourself and become more productive as a result.”

Creating good habits when coping with the symptoms of ADHD is the key to success for Mr. Koh. Those habits that have worked for him include:

  • Keeping a positive mindset
  • Making meetings brief
  • Establishing regularity
  • Making the best use of technology 
  • Organizing his inbox–deleting or archiving unneeded emails at the end of the business day

Although building habits and routines is not always easy, keep in mind that the occasional slip up doesn’t mean failure. 

“You learn to let some things go,” Mr. Koh says. “If something doesn’t work perfectly, it’s okay. I try to stick as closely to my schedule as I can and maintain my positive habits.”

Creating habits for success

ADHD affects a person’s executive function abilities, making it harder to stay organized. Therefore routine becomes an important part of behavior management of ADHD

People are more successful at creating and sustaining habits when they are the ones who identify the new habits they want to incorporate in their lives, rather than trying to do what someone else thinks they should be doing. Researchers recommended selecting the new habit and taking the steps to add it to your daily life as a starting point, rather than trying to delete an unwanted habit or behavior.

“Aim for small and manageable behavior changes,” write Benjamin Gardner, DPhil, and colleagues in Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice.  And don’t get discouraged as you stumble at the beginning; it can take up to 10 weeks for a new habit to finally settle in, they write.

“Behavior change achievements, however small, can increase self-efficacy, which can in turn stimulate pursuit of further changes,” Dr. Gardner writes. “Forming one ‘small’ healthy habit may thereby increase self-confidence for working towards other health-promoting habits.”

Starting a new habit when you have ADHD

How do you begin a new habit that can help you be more successful, either at work or in family and social life? Some people may want to work with a mental health professional or a coach who specializes in ADHD when they get started. 

Dr. Gardner and his colleagues developed a “toolbox” to help a person create a plan for a new habit:

New Habit Toolbox

• Decide on a goal you would like to achieve.
• Choose a simple action that will move you towards your goal – one you can do on a daily basis.
• Plan when and where you will do your chosen action. Be consistent: choose a time and place you encounter every day of the week.
• Every time you encounter that time and place, do the action.
• It will get easier with time, and within 10 weeks you should find you are doing it automatically without even having to think about it.
• Congratulations, you’ve created a new habit for success!
• My goal (e.g. “clear my email inbox daily”): _________________________________________________

My plan (e.g. “I will check email only three times a day and clear my email box at the end of the day”):
(When and where) ___________________________ I will ___________________________

Some people find it helpful to keep a record while they are forming a new habit. This daily tick-sheet can be used until your new habit becomes automatic. You can rate how automatic it feels at the end of each week, to watch it getting easier.

By using the steps in the toolbox, a person can identify and plan how to achieve a new habit, Dr. Gardner says.

“Learning new habits is hard for anyone, let alone people with ADHD,” Edward Hallowell, MD, says during the Distraction podcast, Tips to Adopt Healthy Habits and Create Positive Distractions. “It can seem like you’re sabotaging yourself, but you’re really not, you’re just reverting to the old habit.”

Dr. Hallowell also suggests working with a coach to help you identify and create new habits. (You can learn more at Coaching.)

“At first you’ll revert to the old routine,” he says, “but if you continue and stick with it, with the coach you can actually internalize these habits and have them stick.”

Dr. Hallowell offers suggestions to help you achieve your goals and be successful in areas of life that are important to you:

  1. Do what you’re good at doing.  
  2. Delegate what you’re bad at to others, as often as possible.
  3. Apply your energy to a creative outlet.
  4. Get well enough organized to achieve your goals.  The key here is “well enough.” That doesn’t mean you have to be very well organized, just well enough organized to achieve your goals.
  5. Ask for and listen to advice from people you trust.
  6. Make sure you maintain regular contact with a few close friends.
  7. Go with your positive side.  Even though you have a negative side, make decisions and run your life from your positive side.

Resources to help build habits for your success:

This article appeared in ADHD Weekly on August 03, 2017.

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