The ADHD Homestead | Create the life you want with the mind you have
I'm a stay-at-home mom and writer. My husband and I share a home, a charming preschooler, and an ADHD diagnosis. I believe you can work with your ADHD to create an enjoyable life and a peaceful home. Even if you don't struggle with ADHD, you'll find plenty of tips here for keeping your home, schedule, and relationships under control.
Following my post about tackling those pesky lingering items on your to-do list, a reader wrote to me with a question about laundry.
I don’t struggle to actually put it in the washer and dryer, but when it comes to putting it away I’m stuck. I currently have three baskets of clothes in my bedroom and closet. I just wear clothes out of [them] until I can combine two baskets and use the empty one to wash more clothes. Any tips on getting laundry put away in a timely fashion? Thanks! – S
Sound familiar? Almost all of us have been there. I’ve featured unpleasant chores (and how to make yourself do them) in a previous ADHDgram tip of the month, but today we’ll look at this pesky issue in more detail.
The short answer: yes, I do have some advice. But it also helps to understand why we ADHDers struggle so hard with basic chores.
You already have a working system.
Yes, you heard me correctly. S already has a system for laundry — and it’s working. The laundry gets washed and returned to a convenient location on a regular basis. S may not feel satisfied with the process, but it works at a basic level. This 80% solution is where a lot of ADHDers get stuck.
That’s because we so often use crises and deadlines as motivators. We leave a project until the last minute, then finish it in a panic. We get distracted scrolling through our phones, then realize we need to race to pick our kids up at school. And many of us put off doing the laundry until we notice we’re down to our last pair of clean underwear. Then, suddenly, we find the motivation to do it.
But once it’s clean, then what? The emergency has passed. We can’t seem to force ourselves to finish the job. As a kid, I got in trouble all the time for leaving my clean laundry in the dryer. I’d retrieve items from there as I needed them — until someone else wanted to use the dryer and my stuff got in the way.
This is a classic ADHD problem: if the task doesn’t interest us and it doesn’t feel like an emergency right now, we avoid doing it.
And yet, we need to fix it.
Just because a system is working doesn’t mean it feels right. Clearly, S wants a more organized laundry routine: one where they wash the clothes, fold them, and put them away within a reasonable amount of time. Because that feels like the right thing — the adult thing — to do.
Some organizing experts recommend that you not allow yourself to call the job finished until you’ve put the clothes away. In other words, don’t check “wash laundry” off your list until the clothes are back in your closet or dresser. Eventually, you’ll condition your brain to include folding and putting away in its definition of washing the laundry.
Except that you can’t fool your brain. You know you’ll have clean clothes to wear even if you don’t put them away. You can’t conjure motivation out of the ether simply by telling yourself “this job isn’t done until I put the clothes away in the drawers.”
Figure out why you want the process to be different.
The first step in retraining yourself and pushing this 80% to 100% is to figure out why change matters. I spend an entire section of Order from Chaos talking about this. It can make or break your attempts to improve your life.
We all know what we should do. And maybe some people can motivate themselves to do uninteresting or unpleasant tasks simply because they should. Those people most likely don’t have ADHD.
If you really want to put the laundry away, figure out why that feels like an important thing to do. Go deeper than “because responsible adults know how to put their laundry away.” Your reasons might include something like:
I feel embarrassed when I have someone over and they see all my laundry sitting out. I want to feel more comfortable inviting guests to my house.
When my bedroom looks tidy, I feel much more calm and centered. I want this room to be a relaxing space for me — somewhere I can retreat.
My wrinkled clothes are affecting my confidence at work. I want to look and feel more put together so I can put my best foot forward and live up to my potential.
Once you’ve tied fixing this specific problem — putting away clean laundry — to a deeper goal that sits close to your values or identity, remind yourself of it often. You may even want to put a picture representing this goal near where the laundry sits to remind you of what lies on the other side of your efforts.
Make the work as fun and easy as possible.
There’s no getting around the fact that we ADHDers abhor tedium (unless, of course, it’s a task that engages our hyperfocus). No matter how much you want to change your habits, it will still feel nearly impossible to initiate a boring task.
Think about how you think — and adapt your system accordingly.
Your thinking and learning style should inform how you organize your stuff. I wrote a guest post about this for A Dose of Healthy Distraction, which I highly recommend to anyone more interested in this topic.
In short, your ADHD already makes you feel like you’re fighting your brain every single day. Getting organized is hard. Don’t add another layer of difficulty by forcing yourself to use tools that conflict with your thinking style.
This is especially important if you’re what we call a visual thinker. My husband is a visual thinker. It took me a long time to figure out why he rarely put anything away in our home: his brain resists putting things out of sight. This explains why visual thinkers do so much better with baskets than with closed drawers and cabinets.
If you’re a highly visual person, you might consider alternatives to the standard out-of-sight clothing storage. I’ve seen people stack clothing neatly on IKEA Kallax shelves. I’ve seen rolling garment racks stored in a corner of the room. For some people, finding an attractive way to store things in plain sight makes it easier — or even possible — to put those things away.
Find a way to make it fun.
I usually wash our entire household’s clothing, towels, sheets, rags, and napkins once weekly. This amounts to 3-5 big blue IKEA bags. I’ve never looked at this and thought, wow, I can’t wait to get started. More often, I feel like I have an invisible force field pushing me away from the task.
To combat this, I try to connect boring or unpleasant jobs with a fun activity. Bonus points if it’s something I feel I don’t have enough time for.
In the case of the laundry, I watch TV. I have trouble sitting still or making time to watch television, even though I love to immerse myself in a well-written show. Folding laundry gives me both a fidget and an excuse to watch TV. I’ve made a rule for myself that except on special occasions, I won’t only watch TV: I have to be doing something else, too. I have a whole section of my to-do list dedicated to stuff I can do on the couch while I watch a show.
If you don’t want to give up unencumbered TV time, choose one show that you’ll only watch while folding laundry. Or try another favorite of mine: podcasts. I love podcasts, but never have time to listen to everything on my list. I’ve also created special music playlists for chores I don’t enjoy.
Whatever activity you choose to do while you fold — it could even be calling a friend or family member on the phone — make sure it’s something that will bring you joy and help you look forward to the task. Try to make it something you wouldn’t be doing anyway.
Find your Why, troubleshoot the How.
Bottom line: chores can be complicated for people with ADHD. What others seem to do on autopilot, we have trouble doing at all. These struggles can turn into bigtime character judgments.
Instead of focusing on how frustrated you feel with yourself, figure out why this chore feels like an important task to get done — and go beyond “because it needs to.” You know that already and it hasn’t helped yet. The trick is to figure out what part of your core identity and values will feel supported by your success with this chore.
Once you know why you want to do better — not why you should or why your spouse wants you to — you need to get to know yourself. Get acquainted with your brain. Work with your natural tendencies, not against them. Take a problem-solving approach instead of a try-harder approach. Think of these problems like a machine that has broken down: you need to find the broken part and repair it, not tell the machine to work harder. Same goes for your organizational systems.
When something isn’t working, there’s usually a reason. The only way to get the thing running smoothly is to figure out that reason, adjust, fail, assess, adjust, fail, and adjust again until it clicks. Does it feel good to have to troubleshoot our laundry like this? No. But when we walk into an orderly bedroom and know we only have our own hard work to thank, the reward is sweet.
We all have them: tasks that have languished on our to-do lists for months (or years). Their neighbors come and go, but these pesky buggers hang on. They usually aren’t life-and-death important, but somehow they feel like a symbol of everything that’s wrong with us.
The actual problem is often simple, but we rarely take the time to sit down and troubleshoot our process. We’re too busy berating ourselves for failing to do the simplest of things. If this describes you, give yourself a break. Adopt a problem-solving approach. Chances are, you aren’t terminally incompetent and a small tweak to your system will get things moving.
Take a look at your to-do list through the lens of these three major roadblocks.
You’re missing a necessary resource.
Sometimes we add an item to our list because we don’t want to forget it, but we aren’t actually prepared to do it yet. For example, imagine you want to hang a picture above your couch. You add “hang picture above couch” to your to-do list.
Progress, right? Except your husband moved the picture hanging supplies from their usual spot. Now you can’t find them. You also have that fancy exposed brick wall behind the couch. It might require special hardware to hang the picture securely.
If you’ve organized your to-list by context, you’re looking at “hang picture above couch” when you have time to complete a job or two around the house. And guess what? No one else is home. That’s why it seemed like a good time to get stuff done around the house. But now you need to ask your husband about the supplies and also how he hung the other pictures on the brick wall. So you pick something else from your around-the-house list and do that instead.
Later, you trip over the picture leaning against the garage wall for the twentieth time. You berate yourself for the fact that it’s still there six months after you got it framed, and you sink into a pit of rage and loathing.
If a resource or decision blocks you from doing the thing, you will not do the thing. Period. That’s because you aren’t looking at a single task, you’re looking at a project. Which leads me to…
Your task is actually a project.
I base my definitions of tasks and projects on the Getting Things Done system. A task (or next action, in GTD parlance) is a single action you can do immediately. If the task requires more than one discrete action, it’s a project. This distinction is especially critical for people with ADHD. Our weak working memory typically only allows us to hold one thing in mind at once.
Many people hesitate to call something like hanging a picture a project. We want it to sound simple. People with ADHD feel a little sketchy about projects. But hanging the picture requires us to complete several subtasks:
Locate the supplies to hang the picture.
Measure the wall and mark where we need to install the picture hook.
Ask someone else what kind of tools or hardware we need to hang a large picture on a brick wall.
In the case of my house, which is a townhouse, determine a good time to drill a hole in our shared brick wall when I won’t wake up or otherwise tick off my neighbors.
Each step in this process demands different people, tools, and decisions. The best time to hammer or drill into a shared townhouse wall may not be a time when we can ask our spouse to help us find a misplaced tape measure. And many ADHDers struggle with working memory deficits. Our brains can’t read “hang picture” on our to-do list and conceptualize the whole process outlined above.
If a task has sat on your list undone for too long, ask yourself: is it really just one task? Or have you put it off because it’s actually a few smaller tasks rolled into one? If that’s the case, you need to break it out into a project.
No one cares.
ADHDers are notorious for resisting any tedious work, but we struggle especially hard with tasks that feel like they don’t matter. Most of us have productivity buttons that will motivate us:
Stakes: as in, a Super Bad Thing will happen if we don’t do this task, so we’d better do it because Super Bad Thing makes us have scary anxiety dreams.
Deadlines: even if we leave it until the day before it’s due, an external deadline can light a fire under us.
Appeal: we enjoy the task and will put off other, less-appealing tasks in order to do it right away.
When we don’t see anything at stake, the deadline feels far away, and the task itself lacks any kind of appeal or fun factor, we probably won’t do it. Plain and simple.
Tasks in this category can haunt ADHDers for months or even years. They’re the little things others tell us we “just have to do.” And you can find strategies to try. You can insert external accountability by asking for a deadline, sequester yourself in a coffee shop or library, or block out time on your calendar to get the task done. Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t.
Before you waste energy trying to wrangle your brain, ask yourself: what will happen if this task never gets done? You might want it to get done, but how much does it need to get done? If it’s not critical, be bold. Accept reality. Delete it and move on.
Stop letting your to-do list shame and intimidate you.
You may resist deleting incomplete tasks from your list or creating projects for mundanities like hanging a new picture on the wall. It hurts to admit we’ll never actually do a thing we set out to do. We feel embarrassed when we need to create entire infrastructures for tasks others seem to complete with very little effort. But we know the alternative all too well: a to-do list that mocks us with its very existence.
A brief note about project management
If you’re new to the idea of Getting Things Done or you haven’t read my book Order from Chaos, you may be wondering how to manage projects separate from your main to-do list. I’m working on an ADHD-friendly app to guide you through this but until then, I use Toodledo to manage my tasks. It can store individual notes and tasks within folders (aka projects) and sort them by context to help your list feel more relevant.
You can always use physical folders with old-fashioned notes inside. It’s all up to you. Whatever you choose, it should feel right for you and allow you to list tasks individually or within project folders. You’ll also want to sort based on what you can (or want to) do right now. I use context categories like office, computer, phone, house, etc. to organize my list.
ADHD can make our to-do lists feel like a place where tasks go to die. I’ve spoken to a lot of folks who don’t even want to use a to-do list. Every time they add something to it, they’re reminded that they probably won’t complete the task. But the truth is, every single task that’s lingered on your list for too long has a reason for getting stuck there.
If you’re using a to-do list regularly and checking some items off but not others, it’s time to take a look at why. Often the answer is simple: the task either doesn’t matter, or it includes too many pieces for our brains to handle all at once. Take a minute to look for these common issues. You might be surprised by what you can do.
ADHD is a misnomer. We don’t have an attention deficit, we have a dysregulation.
Many of us struggle for years trying to make sense of what that means. In some ways, it boils down to simple physics. We ADHDers have a lot of inertia.
My high school physics teacher delighted in long acronyms. Every once in a while, the sound of our class chanting one in particular drifts through my mind. OARSAR…OIMSIM…SSSD…UAUBAEAOF…
All these years later, these sound patterns have kept Newton’s First Law of Motion imprinted upon my auditory thinker’s brain. Newton’s First Law is also called the Law of Inertia.
Replace “objects” in this law with “ADHDers” and you have Newton’s First Law of ADHD.
Objects ADHDers at rest stay at rest…
I have a great work ethic — once I get started. Most ADHDers struggle with transitions. If you give us a job to do, we often feel resistant. We don’t know where or how to start.
Whether we’re in bed in the morning, sitting in front of the TV, reading a book, even just staring out the window, our brains want to keep us there. We aren’t lazy, but getting up and getting started feels crazy difficult sometimes. Heck, I even avoid getting started on stuff I want to do!
Objects ADHDers in motion stay in motion, same speed same direction…
Once you get us going on a project, look out! Some people call this an ADHD superpower <insert eyeroll here>: we can put in marathon efforts on tasks that really grab us. We focus our attention like a laser and we won’t leave it alone.
We do it writing code, wrapping up a project at the office, hunched over a craft table, or sorting all our Legos into color-coded bins. Many ADHDers possess an uncanny ability to put on our blinders and work long past when others would’ve quit for dinner or lost interest.
Even if we aren’t hyperfocused, per se, we resist changing gears. For example, I hate using the telephone. I’ll let phone calls pile up on my to-do list for months. But eventually one phone call becomes enough of an emergency that I have to bite the bullet and do it right away. Then something funny happens: I get my brain into phone mode. After I hang up, I pull out that list of phone calls and cross off five more. I may hate the telephone, but sometimes it’s easier to keep making calls than it is to make my brain switch gears to a new set of tasks.
…Unless acted upon by an equal and opposite force.
Even more than making phone calls, I avoid cleaning up our basement. The basement tends to attract clutter from elsewhere in the house. It’s easier to hide stuff down there than it is to deal with it for real.
But I also hate clutter. The mess recently got on my last nerve and I had a complete meltdown about the basement. To be fair, the whole house had been a powder keg for a while. I’d felt myself stewing about clutter in every room. But one day, something lit a spark in the basement and boom! Where once I didn’t know where to start, I now raged through the project at a breakneck pace.
People with ADHD avoid unpleasant tasks, but if something becomes enough of an emergency or triggers enough of an emotional reaction, we can really show up. Unfortunately, sometimes we require an epic meltdown to break the motivational logjam.
Likewise with hyperfocus. For an ADHDer deep in the zone, a simple “hey, we need to leave for dinner in 15 minutes” or “you’re going to be late for work” won’t cut it. Same speed, same direction, remember? The “equal and opposite force” will likely be that stomach-dropping moment when we look at the clock and realize we should’ve been arriving somewhere by now. Then we’ll put down the hyperfocus task and run around the house gathering our things and yelling “oh sh*t oh sh*t oh sh*t.”
If ADHD is a problem of inertia, that means we need a greater equal and opposing force to change our course. We won’t respond to the quiet knowledge that we should do this or we’ll be sorry if we don’t do that. If we’re resisting a transition, sometimes nothing short of a disaster will move us.
Inertia has its pros and cons, of course.
I don’t see this added inertia as a gift any more than I see it as a death sentence.
Yes, inertia sucks sometimes. Focusing on one activity to the exclusion of everything else is so rarely practical. Sometimes we ADHDers keep going on a task when we really need to take care of other responsibilities. And once in a while, it’d be nice to knock out a tedious job before it became an emergency. To be able to make smooth transitions between tasks at appropriate times: the impossible dream, right?
And yet, my single-minded focus on a project like cleaning out the basement — and my ability to ignore physical exhaustion almost entirely — sometimes cancels out my procrastination on those same tasks. It feels good to turn myself loose on a project that has felt stalled for years and see miraculous progress in such a short time.
I have to admit, sometimes I wish I had more trouble starting certain projects once that hyperfocus motivation kicks in. Seriously, folks. Where would we be if we always stopped to consider whether we’d actually finish a project before we started it?
And there’s the rub: once our epic inertia encounters that equal and opposite force, we’re right back where we started — whether we’ve reached an acceptable stopping point or not. Physics has no memory or feelings. Objects at rest and in motion have no sense of their own importance. And our ADHD seldom bends to human whims, either.
I have a complicated relationship with New Year’s resolutions. I bet a lot of ADHDers do. Setting intentions for the year ahead — or imagining the future at all — brings up conflicting emotions. I usually process them in this order:
Yay! A clean slate! Anything is possible!
This feels wonderful. I love imagining all the great things I’m going to do.
Setting goals gives me hope that this year, I’ll finally make a positive change in my life.
But setting goals also reminds me that I’m not the kind of person who actually achieves anything.
Watching my hope and enthusiasm slowly deflate makes me wish I’d never considered setting goals in the first place.
And that’s on a good year. We’ve all had years when we’ve started and ended with #4.
Setting goals with ADHD: should we even bother?
ADHD makes us vulnerable to several goal-setting pitfalls. Among them:
Setting too many goals (we can’t pick just one!)
Setting unrealistically ambitious goals
Not connecting our goals to anything we set out to accomplish in previous years
People with ADHD love to imagine Big Things. New Things. Without that rush of excitement, what’s the point?
Other times, we get so caught up in the fun of setting New Year’s resolutions, we forget to ask ourselves why. Why is this important? How will this goal help me become the best version of myself?
We end up with a set of impossible goals that make us feel like a failure, even though they don’t serve our core values anyway.
Sometimes I think I shouldn’t set goals at all. My daily habit hearts — tiny though they may be — have helped me achieve more than any “real” goals ever have.
But then I think no, I can’t let ADHD take this from us. So many ADHDers want nothing more than to express a desire to do something — something that takes more than a day or two to accomplish — and then actually do it.
Milestones, even if they’re just putting up a new wall calendar, provide a good excuse for reflection. For a moment of meditation on who we are right now and who we’d like to be in the future. To that end, if you’re struggling with ADHD and want to make some resolutions, here’s where I recommend you start.
Get to know yourself. Accept yourself as you are. But don’t expect the whole world to accommodate you.
I occasionally hear from people who refuse to view ADHD as a problem. Who feel like my writing perpetuates stigma against neurodiverse people. I also hear from people who have suffered intensely for most of their lives. They have no qualms with the label. They’re relieved to be able to name the issue and develop coping strategies. I can see both sides, and I land somewhere in the middle.
As you head into the new year, know it’s possible — and healthy! — to accept two parallel truths. ADHD doesn’t doom us to failure. It doesn’t mean we should go through life always feeling defective and broken. And yet, we ADHDers have serious foibles. Sometimes our brains make it tough to conform to the world’s expectations. We live in both of these realities.
Adults with ADHD have a lot of trouble doing anything tedious or unpleasant simply because we should. Others’ expectations usually won’t provide sufficient motivation for long-term success. We need to figure out why we want a clean house, or to pay our bills on time. Not the obvious reasons — all variations on “it’s part of being an adult” — but the reasons that come from our own hearts.
For example, I love to run. Well, I love it while I’m running. And I love the feeling of being in shape, especially when I go surfing or skiing or hiking and get to reap the benefits of these good habits. But I won’t make time to put on my running clothes, go for a run, and shower afterward just because it’s good for me.
So I keep my values in the front of my mind. I practice mindfulness while I run. I bring awareness to the good feeling I get from exercising. And I follow a bunch of ski resorts on social media. This puts skiing in the front of my mind every day. A ski vacation six weeks from now may as well be a lifetime away for someone with ADHD. Those vivid images make me feel like I need to get ready right now.
It can be as simple as pausing to appreciate how differently our brains function in a clean space vs. a cluttered one. Or journaling about what financial insecurity is costing us, socially and emotionally. Maybe we need to imagine our kids five years from now, writing about their parents. How do we want him to describe us? What changes are necessary for us to get there?
Lasting change is hard. People with ADHD struggle to put consistent effort toward a single goal over time. If you want to succeed, you need to get to know yourself. Figure out what you want more than anything in the world, and how it ties into these deceptively simple “part of being an adult” tasks you’re failing at right now.
Let go of one thing that doesn’t serve you.
We ADHDers get overwhelmed easily. We say yes too often and have a hard time saying no, even when we know we should. It’s easy to overestimate what we actually have the time and energy to do in a day.
A lot of my past New Year’s resolutions have focused on trying harder and doing more. I’ve scolded myself to get my act together. I’ve taken away hobbies or leisure time activities because I felt I hadn’t earned them. As I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve realized I had it all backwards.
Instead of demanding more of yourself and insisting you figure out a way to handle what’s currently on your plate, try removing something instead. Don’t resolve to do more or try harder. Resolve to clarify your intentions and make room for what’s important. It all starts with letting go of that first thing.
And once you come to know and accept yourself, including your true values and desires, it’ll get easier to see where you need to let go.
Sometimes — maybe even most times — ADHDers don’t realize we’re making a scene until it’s too late. This can humiliate and infuriate our spouses, especially at social functions. Other couples look like the perfect team, sending and receiving signals on their own frequency. They save each other from discomfort rather than tossing each other under the bus. Why, we wonder, can’t we be more like them?
While we may never be just like them, we can improve our social game. Since social cues don’t come naturally to many of us, we have to be a bit more intentional. We need to work harder. But we aren’t doomed to social disasters, and the path to recovery often begins with those signals. We need a discreet way to throw a flag on the field and alert each other to bad ADHD behavior.
Why are partners with ADHD such a social liability?
Distraction, impulsivity, and stimulation-seeking behaviors turn us into walking time bombs at social events. Many interactions between mature adults require attentiveness, self-awareness, and restraint. In fact, it’s easy to assume these qualities define adulthood, as if we all grow into them naturally. People with ADHD often do not.
Sometimes we forget subtlety exists…
For whatever reason, many of us possess a near-total ignorance of unspoken social cues. This may come from distraction, hyperfocus, or a combination of the two. We get so wrapped up in what we’re thinking or saying, we completely forget to “read the room.”
Socializing also requires a lot of focus. I get so flustered trying to manage Basic Conversation Stuff — i.e. talking and listening — that I forget to stop and assess others’ reactions to me. When we ignore clues like body language, facial expressions, or passive verbal hints, we risk snowballing our social faux pas. For the partner standing next to us receiving the signals loud and clear the whole time, this can be mortifying.
…but other times, we self-medicate our way out of boredom.
Grown-up social events can be a little boring for people with ADHD. When ADHDers feel understimulated, we tend to self-medicate. Alcohol, conflict, and inappropriate behavior give our brains a little dopamine boost — usually at someone else’s expense.
For example: before his ADHD diagnosis, my husband made a sport of embarrassing me in front of other people. This usually consisted of inappropriate insults and/or oversharing. When I inevitably got upset, he accused me of lacking a sense of humor. (Editor’s note: this behavior is in total conflict with my husband’s true character. Since being diagnosed with ADHD and starting meds, he no longer does this at all and he feels pretty bad about his past behavior.)
A lot of people think ADHD medications help us focus at work or at school, but they aren’t necessary anywhere else. Not so. These medications raise our baseline level of stimulation. Raising that baseline helps us behave appropriately in social situations. Whether or not you take medication for your ADHD, be aware of your natural drive to self-medicate with undesirable behaviors.
We need to take responsibility for our ADHD’s impact on social situations.
I’ve heard it before and you probably have, too: people with ADHD are the life of the party, right?
Well, sometimes. Some of us get a reputation for being more fun or carefree. Personally I’ve always skewed more toward anxious and overwhelmed, but I get it. People with ADHD, especially the more extroverted among us, can really get the party started.
This can become less appealing as we get farther into adulthood. Behaviors that may have seemed cute or funny or brazen in our early 20s can seem hurtful, immature, and obnoxious later in life. Others expect to be able to rely on us as parents, spouses, and professionals. And we expect our fellow adults to take us seriously.
In other words, we hit a point where we need to reign it in. Otherwise, our behavior can erode marriages, derail professional opportunities, and poison friendships. Thanks to spotty self-awareness, many of us won’t be able to reign it in on our own. This is where a spouse (or trusted wingman/lady) can help us fake it ‘til we make it.
Flag on the field: let your spouse alert you to bad behavior
The person standing beside you may be your best ally in your quest for social success. They’ll see things you miss and help you learn to recognize when you’re doing That Thing again. Work with your partner to establish a clear signal — something only the two of you will understand — to alert you to problem behaviors. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Make sure help is both offered and accepted.Many adults with ADHD carry emotional baggage from late diagnoses and previous social failures. This can make us hypersensitive to criticism. We often perceive it as rejection, especially when it comes from a romantic partner. People deal with this all kinds of ways but unfortunately, one of those ways includes lashing out at the source. Just like you can’t force a person to take medication for ADHD, you can’t force them to accept your help or advice. The ADHDer must both agree the behavior is a problem and express a desire for you to help point it out.
Make it explicit and intentional (don’t leave any room for doubt).
My husband spent years elbowing me or kicking me under the table only to have me embarrass him by halting the conversation and saying, “what!?” The very same impairments that put us in social hot water make us unlikely to catch your subtle hints about it. Agree on your signal beforehand and make it easily recognizable. You may even want to practice at home with just the two of you.
Use humor when you can.
Years ago, something provoked me during dinner with my husband. Maybe I’d had a long day at work. Maybe the salt shaker fell over. It doesn’t matter. What matters is I pounded my fist on the table so hard, several months’ worth of crumbs ejected from the crack where the leaves join together. After a tense silence, we both laughed until our sides hurt. For a long time after that, my husband would give me a meaningful look and bring a fist down on his open palm to let me know I was overreacting. The funny memory always helped to deescalate the situation.
Work on one thing at a time.
Whatever you do, don’t create an entire sign language vocabulary to flag every problem behavior you want an ADHD partner to correct. In addition to making them feel like they can’t do anything right, most people with ADHD can’t keep that many things in our head at once. We’ll get overwhelmed, and it’ll all go out the window. Choose one priority — say, oversharing, loud talking, or overstaying one’s welcome at dinner parties — and use your signal to help develop self-awareness around it. Wait until you’ve experienced some success, then leverage that new confidence to address the next priority.
Check egos at the door.
If we want to fix the problems ADHD has created in our adult lives, we need to get very realistic with ourselves. For example, our household has had to learn to take the question “did you take your meds today?” in stride. This, like any flag on problem behavior, is based in practicality, not judgement. ADHD affects our behavior and our perceptions. While it might sometimes hurt to have someone point that out, we have to trust others to keep our best interests at heart. We have to them to help us grow. That’s part of what a strong marriage is all about.
By that same token, never use a signal to scold or criticize. Use it to help and support. A perceived personal attack will always put the other person on the defensive and degrade their trust in you. Not only that — and I admit this is my personal opinion here — contempt is perhaps the worst toxin you can introduce to your marriage.
Please join the conversation in the comments! Have you and your partner tried signals to help derail bad behavior? How do you send a message without making things worse?
For ADHD families, the holidays can feel chaotic, stressful, and overwhelming. Those of us who travel for most major holidays wrangle not only with the preparations, but with the disruption of our daily routines. Add children into the mix and the challenges multiply.
This year, don’t let holiday travels end in resentment or meltdowns — from you or your children. Here’s our family’s best advice for surviving the season with kids and sanity intact.
Get over your FOMO.
People with ADHD tend to want it all. Maybe it’s time blindness, but we forget that these years with young kids will be over before we know it. It’s easy to feel unfairly burdened or restricted.
Now, I’m all for teaching kids to behave appropriately in restaurants or while attending family functions, but your children won’t be welcome everywhere. They won’t be able to keep up with an endless parade of late nights, either. And you can’t count on sleeping in after your own late-night carousing because most young kids wake up early. You’re going to have to say no to some of the fun stuff.
Even though it may not seem this way today, your kids’ childhood will pass by relatively quickly. Parents with ADHD may struggle to internalize this because the future doesn’t feel present and real like right now does. However, you have to make peace with the current reality. You’ll gain more freedom and flexibility in a few years.
Be flexible, but be realistic.
Sometimes your family will attend events that ask a lot of the children. Maybe they’ll be up hours past their bedtime, or maybe they’ll be asked to dress nicely and sit still for a long time. You — and they — need to be flexible. It’s not always appropriate to say no.
If you find yourself in this situation, you have to allow time on either end to rest up and wind down.
For example: as strict as I usually am about bedtime, I recently let my five-year-old stay up until 11:00 p.m. at a family destination wedding. It went great, even though he’d already stayed up a little late for the rehearsal dinner the night before.
That’s because I insisted he get to bed by 7:15 every night leading up to the wedding. Yes, we were visiting out-of-state family. Yes, everyone wanted to hang out late into the night. And yes, I took flak for being too strict and not letting him stay up. I didn’t care. I was willing to be very flexible with bedtime for the wedding, but only if the kiddo went into the weekend well-rested. It wasn’t easy, but it paid off where it mattered.
Remember: sleep deprivation intensifies your ADHD symptoms.
Travel and holidays create major disruptions to our structure and routines. Even people who enjoy going to bed may stay up a little later to cram in extra time with long-distance friends and family. To some extent, these sleep sacrifices are normal and expected.
They also come at a cost, especially for people with ADHD. Sleep deprivation creates ADHD-like symptoms in neurotypical people. Along with the disruption to your daily routines, lack of sleep will make your ADHD worse. If more than one person in your family has ADHD — which, let’s face it, is more likely than not — the problem multiples exponentially.
If you decide to skimp on sleep for yourself or your kids, do it with an awareness of the consequences. Know you may have days where it seems like everyone is off their meds and at each other’s throats. Think about the implications for increased risk of traffic accidents. We all spread ourselves thin during holiday travels, but remember the holidays are supposed to be fun. Out-of-control ADHD behavior can ruin the fun — if not for us, for the people who have to deal with us.
Set clear and fair expectations with your co-parent.
Plan how you will divide childcare responsibilities in advance. When our family travels for the holidays, we’re usually traveling to see either my side or my husband’s side of the family. This affects how we share responsibilities. I’m much more likely to let him sleep in when we’ve traveled to see his family. He likes to stay up late catching up with his brothers, and I think that’s fair. When I want to spend time with my family or friends, he’s there to step in.
With ADHD families, these arrangements need to be clear and intentional. Don’t wing it. People with ADHD need concrete, explicit requests. When I want my husband to get up and make breakfast for the kiddo while I go surfing, I tell him so. If he feels overburdened, I expect him to say exactly that — not wait for me to figure it out because it “should be obvious.”
Remember that “fair” might not always mean dividing time and childcare responsibilities 50/50. However you work things out, make sure no one feels unfairly burdened and everyone gets a break.
Be true to yourself.
Know what your family’s true values are. Know what you need. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself, even if you’re making an unpopular decision.
It may be small, like my decision to put my son to bed early in the days before a wedding even though his cousins were allowed to stay up later. Or it might be bigger. Several years ago, I announced we would no longer make an effort to see everyone over Christmas. We’d take turns spending a few days with one of our son’s grandparents each year, and open our home to anyone else who wanted to come to us during the months of December and January. It was a difficult choice. I feared disappointing someone or creating resentment, but my first priority was making sure our family actually enjoyed Christmas.
Beware of shoulds, which I talk a lot about in Order from Chaos. People with ADHD sometimes have a hard time articulating ourselves. We also struggle to say no. This can lead to us doing a lot of things because we think we should. Like spending 12 days traveling to each of our parents’ homes so they can see our kid for Christmas. Sometimes too much is simply too much, especially for families with ADHD.
Also consider what kind of ADHDer you are. My son seems to generate energy at parties. As long as he’s surrounded by people, he can keep going forever. I’m an introvert. I get overstimulated easily by large social gatherings or noisy environments. That means my brain will short-circuit after a while and I’m liable to have a complete meltdown if I don’t carve out some alone time. Any family with ADHDers has learned the hard way that meltdowns — from kids or adults — can be sudden and explosive. Take care of yourselves and try to avoid them.
Accept that the basics are harder for you, and that’s okay.
In my most recent ADHDgram, I wrote about not settling for less. Just because we have ADHD doesn’t mean we should give up. We shouldn’t accept a lower quality of life because that’s just part of the ADHD package. It’s not. But ADHD does make certain things more difficult, and that’s a reality we need to face.
Planning a trip, packing bags, and getting out the front door are more difficult for families with ADHD. Sitting through family dinners can be more difficult. Being away from home and having our daily routines disrupted can cripple our cognitive function. Jet lag or simple lack of good sleep can make us feel like we’re off our meds. We struggle to keep ourselves out of heated political arguments with relatives. It’s tough to put others first and offer to stay home with the kids while our spouse grabs drinks with some high school buddies. All these little exertions of self-control add up.
And because this stuff — basic life stuff, really — is harder for us, we need to take it easy. That’s why I quit the 12-days-of-Christmas-traveling habit. It’s why I let people make fun of me for going to bed early. And it’s why I pack my running shoes and go out for an early-morning jog by myself on days when we’re expected to attend a big party. The struggle doesn’t mean we can’t be happy or have a good time, but it does mean we ought to know and take care of ourselves. We aren’t superheroes, after all. We’re just humans with brains that need a little extra TLC sometimes.
I have a passion for organizing and I swear by an empty email inbox. This might lead you to assume I love Gmail. It has a ton of great features to help us keep incoming messages under control. We have the Priority Inbox, the new(ish) snooze feature, and the categories to sort our inbox into tabs. At least, these features seem great. I actually don’t like any of them, and I think they can be a big liability for people with ADHD.
If you use these features and find them helpful, by all means use them! I would never discourage anyone from using a tool that works. Used wisely and intentionally, any tool can help the right person. But the same tool can also become counterproductive, especially if it’s used without a good strategy or if it isn’t the right fit for you.
Excuses, excuses: there’s never a good time to do something we don’t feel like doing.
Features like Priority Inbox, tabbed inboxes, snooze buttons, etc. offer us easy, guilt-free procrastination. If we don’t feel like dealing with an email right now, the app gives us permission not to. Even more dangerous, it makes us feel like we have dealt with it. We sorted it, after all. We snoozed it. It’s safely off our plate.
That is, until it returns. And when it does, it returns alongside the daily influx we already find so unmanageable. So we snooze again. Or we leave our Social and Promotions inboxes for another day. Then we snooze another batch of messages and tell ourselves we’re keeping up.
Every inbox problem has a root cause. If you can’t process your email inbox to zero every day or two, you have either a processing issue or a volume issue. Maybe you’re getting too many emails and you need to unsubscribe from a few of them. Or maybe you don’t have a functioning task management system. You’re afraid to let an email leave your inbox because you might forget about it. It’s also possible you’re spending too much time trying to resolve each email completely as you open it. We’re all guilty of skipping over messages we don’t feel like dealing with. None of these root issues will improve with a snooze button or a tabbed inbox.
ADHD makes us more vulnerable to a system’s flaws.
Not only do computer algorithms usually leave the root issue unresolved, they aren’t perfect. I’ll be the first to admit I never, ever check my spam folder to see if anything has gotten in there by accident. Fortunately, Gmail’s spam filtering is extremely accurate. I can’t say the same for the algorithm that sorts the tabbed inbox into promotional, social, and priority messages.
This is why I turned off the tabbed inbox feature the same day it appeared in my Gmail account. For people with ADHD, putting something out of sight can put it very far out of mind. I don’t look at my spam folder because I forget it exists. If I kept my inbox sorted into tabs, I would forget to look at all but one of them: the first one I see when I open the app.
Any new tool needs to earn its keep.
Every rule has its exceptions. Lately, I’ve experimented with Gmail’s snooze feature despite my reservations. It can help with messages received after my normal work hours. Say I can resolve a message in two minutes, but I need to be at my office computer to do it. It feels wasteful to enter this into my task management system just because I’m sitting at the dining room table instead. I’ve been snoozing these emails for the next time I expect to be in my office (usually 8:00 the next morning).
In this case, all of the alternatives are worse than the snooze solution Gmail offers:
Write a quick response, file the email in an appropriate folder, and add an item to my task management system. Far too much hassle and overhead for something that would take two minutes in the office.
Leave the email in my inbox to deal with the next day. Prevents me from reaching inbox zero as often as I’d like. Clutters up my view and increases the risk I’ll miss an important email in the list.
I don’t categorically oppose all automated email features. However, we ought to consider their risks and costs before embracing them. Every time I snooze a message, it’s like putting a physical item back into an inbox basket. This input will now come in front of my brain two times, at minimum, instead of one. That hardly seems like a benefit, except in the rare case like I described above.
Likewise with automated sorting. If I allow Gmail to sort my messages by category and importance, I accept a lot of increased mental overhead. I need to remember those other tabs exist in my inbox. I also need to motivate myself to check them, even though Gmail has determined for me that they aren’t a priority. This feels like more of a burden than a help.
Don’t let automation hide bigger problems.
It’s tempting to snooze any message I think I don’t have time for, or that doesn’t feel a priority given my other responsibilities for the day. That’s the slippery slope that makes me so hesitant to use these extra inbox features in the first place.
I dedicate an entire section of my book Order from Chaos to accepting reality. In this case, that means admitting to myself that when it comes to certain emails, I will never feel I have enough time to deal with them. I will never consider them a priority over my current project load, nor will I be interested in getting them out of the way.
That’s a good indication I need to find a way to stop receiving those messages in the first place or find a way to deal with them immediately even though I don’t want to. People with ADHD struggle to do anything “even though we don’t want to.” We don’t need a bundle of supposedly helpful tools to help us put off the tedious work of managing our email. What we do need is a more realistic approach to email that allows us to empty — and I mean truly empty — our inboxes on a regular basis.
What are your biggest email challenges and questions? Tell me in the comments below and I may use your feedback to inform future posts.
This is a guest post from Jenny Wise of Special Home Educator. Thanks, Jenny, for addressing a topic near and dear to my heart (and brain)!
Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash
Many children (and adults) with ADHD experience issues with sensory processing. This can manifest in over- or under-sensitivity to sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and touch. The term “sensory processing disorder” is used as a catch-all to characterize all of these processing issues.
Sensory processing disorder is not an official clinical diagnosis. It does, however, seem to impact a lot of people on the ADHD and autism spectrums. Sensory over- or under-stimulation can have a big effect on your child’s mood, behavior, and cognitive performance.
Sensory integration therapy is a type of occupational therapy used to help children develop appropriate responses to stimuli. While children suffering from significant sensory processing issues should be treated by a qualified professional, parents can proactively incorporate aspects of sensory integration therapy around the house. This will help create a safe, fun environment where your child feels comfortable and secure. Your child’s bedroom is a great place to start.
Setting Up a Sensory Bedroom
A child’s sensory bedroom should grant them the autonomy to increase or decrease stimuli based on their needs. The bedroom provides a comfortable environment where the child can explore various sights, sounds, textures, and even forms of movement. With repeated exposure, they become familiar with new sensory information. This improves their tolerance toward things they may previously have found overwhelming or difficult. Conditioning in the safety of home helps the child feel more confident in real life situations.
Cut down on clutter.
First and foremost, a sensory bedroom should be organized and free of clutter. Clutter is proven to increase stress and anxiety within the home. It can be particularly overwhelming and distracting for people with ADHD. A great way to reduce clutter in a child’s bedroom is with multi-use furniture and accessories that stimulate the imagination. For instance, a box chair that can also be turned on its side to transform into a table for coloring or completing homework. Or look for seating that opens up to provide extra storage for toys or books.The goal is to reduce sensory overload by keeping as few pieces as possible in the room so there is plenty of open space.
Include an area for calming down.
When children with sensory processing issues begin to feel overwhelmed and anxious, sometimes it helps to have a designated area where they can be cut off from excess stimuli and regain their bearings. The area you design should be based on your child’s needs, but many parents find that setting up a tent, tunnel, or teepee in the room can help when a child struggles with excess visual stimuli. Other parents invest in sensory pods, pads, or swings that swaddle children and provide anxiety-relieving pressure. Weighted blankets can provide relief as well. Consider your child’s particular sensory needs and your budget when coming up with your creative solution.
Add Elements of Fun.
You shouldn’t make the bedroom a place for 24/7 action and adventure. That can keep children with ADHD up at night. However, the bedroom shouldn’t be completely devoid of fun. It’s perfectly acceptable to have some fun-but-not-over-stimulating activities you can do together in there. For instance, doing puzzles helps improve hand/eye coordination while supporting cognitive development. Doing puzzles at night before bed can help children wind down away from blue-light-emitting screens so it’s easier for them to fall asleep. Invest in different types of puzzles that teach children in various ways.
Your child’s bedroom should reflect their unique needs.
The ideal sensory bedroom for your child will reflect who they are and where they need the most relief. Sensory processing disorders can vary greatly from one child to another. However the everyday world negatively affects your child, there are ways sensory integration therapy can help. While most of these strategies may be best left to your child’s occupational therapist, a sensory bedroom is a great way to give your child a personalized oasis in your home.
My ADHD has taught me not to trust my own heart. Something might seem like an enduring passion now, but who knows if I’ll even care about it in six months. I used to get excited every time I started down a new path. That joy is much more tempered now. With each year I’ve grown older, I’ve learned these sparkly new projects aren’t guaranteed to go anywhere.
I recently started a fun new side project. A year from now, I may transform this side project into a new branch of my business. Or I may keep it as a hobby, nothing more. I hope to be no worse off either way.
Ideally, we ADHDers would approach all new passions this way: with joy and without expectations. We shouldn’t ignore our fear and anxiety. These feelings come from a valid place. Neither should we let those feelings keep us down. But I’ll be the first to admit: it’s really tough to find that balance.
Why do I fear new interests?
Surely not every adult with ADHD hesitates before leaping into something new. After all, we’re the people who blurt out something offensive before considering how others will feel. We act on impulse and rarely remember to pause and think beforehand. But some of us have learned the hard way that these grand leaps — the ones taken before looking — often have hard landings. And as we get older, we worry more about getting hurt.
What can I learn from these fears?
Not all fears and anxieties are bad. After all, my hesitancy around new projects — and my preference nowadays to stick with the devil I know — comes from real-life experience.
Consistent habits and hard work over time, not raw enthusiasm, are what will eventually bring us success. Thus our need to find a balance between enthusiasm and restraint. Yes, this new idea feels amazing now, but do I have the capacity to do the work it requires? The answer usually comes after a period of experimentation, not through a single stroke of brilliance.
How I work with fear and anxiety without letting it hold me back (too much).
I’ve been working on a very new and different project lately: learning to code apps for the iPhone. This springs from a long-time interest in coding combined with a few specific events earlier this year.
However, I didn’t use “I’ve always wanted to do this” as a justification for rolling out a new part of my business. I didn’t let myself invest significant resources in the project without proof I was willing to put continuous effort into it. Instead, I followed an initiation process I’ve honed over time.
Here are my four steps for bringing a new project or interest into my life:
Impose a mandatory waiting period. Because ADHD is what it is, I’ve learned to force myself to wait — for just about anything. I waited for this blog, working in secret until I had two months’ posts ready to go. And I forced myself not to touch anything to do with coding or apps all summer. I wanted the sparkle to fade. I wanted to lose interest. If it was going to happen, I wanted it to happen before I invested time, money, or reputation.
Begin it as a side project (avoid big investments or announcements). When I finally let myself cut loose on the project, I didn’t use any of my business money and I didn’t take away from my writing time. I didn’t tease it as an upcoming product or service. I didn’t do it instead of anything. That way, I could save face if it didn’t work out.
Set a goal for how long a project stays in the sandbox. Sometimes we take up a new hobby for its own sake, and sometimes we want it to become more significant. For me at this moment, that means a new business venture. In the future it may mean attending a five-day surfing retreat in Costa Rica. Either way, it’s important to check in after a set period of time to assess how it’s going. At the end of the year, I’ll decide whether I want to keep coding as a hobby, move on to something new, or think seriously about my app-related plans/ideas.
Don’t include anyone else until I’m sure. I’ve been tempted so many times to start a focus group, tease an app as a “coming soon!” feature in my email newsletter, or enlist help from others. This is where people with ADHD start to look flaky: we make a big deal out of something and create a lot of hype, only to have the entire project fade into obscurity. Unfortunately, I’ve watched several promising ADHD blogs and Instagram feeds meet this end. No matter how much I want to make this new project bigger, it’s going to remain a low-key side project for now.
Let’s be realistic: we do lose interest, even when we think we won’t.
I don’t get down on myself for having ADHD, but I do acknowledge my obligation to work with it. Sometimes I feel sad that I can’t trust my feelings about a new project — and that in a lot of ways, I can’t trust myself in general. I wish I could have blind faith in a new interest that feels really fulfilling and holds a lot of promise. The reality is, I can’t.
At the same time, I don’t let this reality scare me away from trying new things. For all I know, the new projects I’m starting now could lead to my biggest success yet. Having ADHD is no reason not to give my big ideas a fair shake.
The most important skill I’ve learned is the ability to slow myself down. I no longer dive headfirst into a new project the first week I think of it. I work it into my life gradually. During that introductory period, I give myself every possible opportunity to fail, lose interest, or otherwise decide it’s not for me. Better to let that happen before I spend a lot of money, quit any current projects, or put my reputation on the line.
Yes, this often means working in secret and not blabbing about my new project to anyone who will listen. And no, people with ADHD aren’t good at that. Like a lot of my best coping strategies, it’s been a skill I’ve had to learn through trial and error. I don’t always pull it off perfectly (some might even call this blog post a prime example of that), but my life and projects feel much more manageable now than they used to.
I’ve written about a lot of big concepts lately. It’s time for a break. This month, I want to give you a few posts about the nitty-gritty of living with ADHD.
First up: habits. Adults with ADHD slip into unhealthy ones too easily and struggle to maintain good ones. Healthy habits require the sort of tedious daily effort ADHD makes particularly difficult. This means no matter what, any good results are usually temporary.
I combat this not by getting down on myself or forcing myself to try harder, but by lowering my daily expectations. If I’m going to make progress in the long term, I need to create a system that makes it easy to recover from failure. I need my goals to feel achievable even on the worst day.
Enter my habit hearts. For the past year or so, I’ve used crayons and heart doodles to keep myself on track. This may sound silly, but it works. In fact, it may work precisely because it’s silly. Today I’ll share with you a system for turning big, intimidating goals and aspirations — like writing a novel or learning to code — into silly-easy daily habits.
Long-term planning and goal-setting is hard with ADHD
I’ve always struggled with long-term goals. Don’t get me wrong, I’m great at setting up a flashy roadmap and impressing friends and family with my ambition. It’s just that a week later, I’ve forgotten the roadmap exists.
Sustained work toward a long-term goal asks a lot of the parts of our brains most affected by ADHD. People with ADHD often change interests before finishing a project or achieving any real progress in a new pursuit. We also struggle to grasp the true amount of time and effort it will take to reach our goals. If a project needs to be broken into multiple steps, we have trouble thinking of all the steps together and prioritizing them effectively. Not only that, we often don’t know what a reasonable goal looks like. It’s easy to overshoot because we want our goals to feel big and exciting.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing big or exciting about most major achievements. Those achievements usually happen as a result of mundane daily habits — a notorious weak point for people with ADHD. I’ve achieved more by tossing out big goals in favor of unimpressive daily actions than I ever did by aiming high.
I’ve always pushed myself hard and set ambitious goals. This sounds like an asset, and sometimes it is. However, lofty goals can also put up a wall of resistance in our brains. If we don’t think we have time or energy to succeed, we don’t want to try. This resistance can feel even more crippling for people with ADHD.
Mini Habits gave me permission to set embarrassingly low goals. Rather than asking myself to spend 20 minutes cleaning my house every day, I decided to pick up one thing and put it away. The magic of Mini Habits is inertia: I often kept going after the one thing because, why not? I was already here. Since reading Mini Habits, I’ve accomplished several things that previously seemed impossible.
How I track my daily habits
Because I’m a tactile person, I need to rely on something more than my phone’s calendar app to keep me organized. That’s why I copy my calendar into my Bullet Journal at the start of every week. The act of hand-writing my schedule helps me think it through and encode it into my memory.
I also use this time to define my habit goals for the week. I ask myself:
What’s possible this week? Will I be traveling? Super busy?
What’s my focus right now? Is there any area where I’m struggling, or feeling ashamed of my slow progress?
Do I feel overwhelmed by any big projects? Is anything making me feel too intimidated to get started?
Previous daily habits have included touching a piece of sandpaper to the dining room wall (when a painting project had stalled), putting away one piece of clutter in my office, or doing a single yoga pose. I usually pick three or four habits per week.
I call these activities my habit hearts. I assign each one a color and draw a key in my Bullet Journal’s Daily Log. Then I draw a set of empty hearts on each day. As I complete each habit, I color a heart in the corresponding color.
Yes, that’s right. I’m a grown adult, and my most important habits are represented by heart-shaped doodles I color in with crayons. That’s very intentional, and I’ll talk about my reasons later.
What are my habits right now?
In case you’re wondering about the power of my crayon-colored hearts, I’m going to share my current habits — and the results of each so far.
Strum the guitar (yes, just once).
I’ve seen more skill growth in the past few months than in all the 20 years since my first guitar lesson.
I’ve borrowed guitars while traveling and inspired others to spend a few minutes making music, too.
My constant background feelings of regret over not making enough music haved eased slightly.
Write 100 words of new fiction.
I’m about 20,000 words into a novel I started writing just under 3 months ago.
The other day, I sat down and effortlessly wrote over 800 words.
Write 50 words for each of my three blogs.
When I traveled for 8 days last month and hardly got any writing done, I had a big enough backlog to keep up my publication schedules.
I usually post every other week here, but I’ve had enough content to post weekly this fall.
Do one programming task (previously one online programming lesson, but I’ve loosened the requirements over time. I wanted time to practice my skills, not just keep learning new ones every day).
I’ve started learning to code many times, starting in college. This is the first time I’ve gotten past the basics and learned about design patterns and object-oriented programming.
I’m enjoying a lot of success and having a lot of fun doing something I’ve always told myself I couldn’t do.
Learning a new and different skill, I can almost feel my brain rewiring itself. It’s great.
I’ve started working on an app that I’ll actually be able to use in the future.
Habit hearts help me achieve the impossible
The list of results above looks impressive, like something born of more than crayons and a promise to pick up my guitar and strum it a single time each day. That’s the beauty of my habit hearts. Of course I miss days, but I come back to my habits much more easily knowing the cost of entry is so low. If I find myself floundering, I don’t try harder. I lower my goals.
My habit hearts exemplify the danger of telling ourselves we need to try harder. Trying harder doesn’t help us do better. What helps me do better is giving myself credit for coming to the table. For showing up every day, even if I don’t feel I have much to offer. Showing up — not working my hardest or making huge strides every day — has helped me achieve more than I ever thought possible.
I used to feel embarrassed about my habit hearts and my absurdly low goals. Not anymore. If coloring in hearts with color-coded crayons helps me maintain the habits I care about the most, so be it. I’m all about doing what works.