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Tiny Habits for Reducing ADHD Overwhelm  

Tiny Habits for Reducing ADHD Overwhelm  

Stephanie Marcusky, CALC

If you are familiar with the Spoon Theory for chronic illness, or the idea of how to best allocate resources in a system, you may understand the idea that some people with ADHD feel that they only have the emotional energy for some activities and that there may be a lot of things that they can’t get to in a given day. 

You might also think of this as “bandwidth” – the emotional energy you have available to handle activities and stress is analogous to the amount of data traffic that can be handled by the network. 

Neurotypical people who subscribe to a GTD (Get Things Done)/Eat The Frog way of life may not understand this.

How Many Health Points? 

So let’s put it another way – When you start a new game that uses Health Points (HP), you generally have a small number of health points, but the activities you’re supposed to do only need a few. You level up pretty quickly, and you get more capacity for health points. There comes a point, though, when doing only small activities makes it take longer to level up, so you might have to slog through slow gameplay before you can level up.

Bigger activities take more HP but you get the rewards of accelerating through the game.

If we’re talking real life, going to college is going to get us farther in life than staying home and doing small chores. But it’s going to take a lot of HP. And if we have anything else that needs HP – physical or mental health problems, family to care for, unsafe living arrangements, unsafe communities, lack of transportation, cost of books and courses, all the way up to systemic economic and social structure problems – it might take longer.

The Six ‘S’s

On an individual level, if you need help getting your life under some semblance of control, some ADHD Life Coaches use the acronym of Three Ss: Structure, Support, and Systems. I like to add Strategies, Strengths, and Skills. To explain:

Structure is along the lines of how you organize your environment to help you.  For example:

  • Do you have a place for your keys by the front door? 
  • Where do you keep medication so you can take it consistently? 
  • How do you track and respond to tasks and appointments (written versus electronic planners)?

Support is alarms, automatic bill pay, Alexa/Siri/Google for creating shopping lists and setting timers, hiring people to help, or finding a friend to body double while you do boring things.

Strategies are how you approach problems. We may unconsciously start getting angry when things aren’t going the way we planned, but if we take the time to step back and re-examine, we may find a way to reframe the issue that helps us let go of some of the anger. Or we take a time-out to work off some steam with exercise or music.

Strengths mean using what we are good at. It may be different than what we’ve been taught is important, but it is our strength, and it’s important to start there and build on that. A fish isn’t going to be good at climbing a tree, but maybe swimming is exactly what helps you succeed.

Skills can be learned to support you where you might be lacking.

Systems are routines to order your life and environment. 

When we want to make a change to our routine behaviors, whether it’s adding exercise, flossing our teeth, or meditating – things that can fall into any of these Six Ss – we need a system to change our behaviors. 

The Fogg Behavior Model

BJ Fogg, a behavior researcher at Stanford, realized that behaviors need 3 elements to occur (https://behaviormodel.org/): Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt. 

If you aren’t motivated to make a change, you probably won’t. If you’re very motivated, but don’t have the ability to make the change, you won’t – throwing a library of motivation books at you isn’t going to help. And if you don’t notice an internal sensation (like needing to use the restroom) or an external “flag” (your medicine is next to the coffee maker so you can take it before you leave for work), you might not realize/remember you should do that behavior.

This leads to figuring out how to help people make those behaviors easier.

Creating a Tiny Habit

Tiny Habits® helps you create new behaviors, and it’s as easy as ABC: Anchor habit, tiny new Behavior, and Celebration.

Your Anchor is your prompt, a tiny new Behavior is small enough that you can do it quickly, and the Celebration sets the habit by flooding your brain with feel-good chemicals. Looking at it another way, (maybe more scientifically) you are strengthening your neural pathway to do that behavior. Three simple ingredients, and the encouragement to play and stay curious.

So why did I start with the long-winded Health Points game-play story, you ask? Because Tiny Habits is the key to getting more done with less HP. When you set a new habit in place after an anchor habit, you can grow it to become automatic, and you can move it from something that takes emotional labor/”HP” to something you don’t have to think through. So either it becomes a lower HP item, or almost a 0 HP item, and you can use that HP for something else.

If you know your kids are going to be bickering and asking questions and forgetting clothing items as you’re trying to get them out of the door, adding a new habit isn’t going to work right then. But if you add the Tiny Habit of hanging your car keys by the door when you come home, you save yourself a lot of HP later. If you help the kids learn the habit of putting their shoes in the bin by the door instead of letting them take the shoes into the living room where they can be lost under the couch, you’re saving time, frustration and brain power.

Why Habit Stacking Doesn’t Work

You may have heard of “habit stacking” – a 13-step process for creating a repeatable set of habits – a routine – that you can adopt to make things easier. The problem is, the more you stack together, the more likely your proverbial Jenga tower of blocks can fall if you forget something. 

A Better Strategy for Success

Let’s go back to the idea of marshaling the kids out the door to get to school. If you get distracted by a kid looking for a shoe, you might forget that you are supposed to grab your keys, then grab your lunch bag, then grab your purse/laptop bag.

I would suggest that you set 2 or 3 separate habits: when you put your coffee cup/dirty dish by the sink, move the lunch bag by the door. When you grab your shoes, move the work bag to the door. Then when you grab your keys, you will grab your bags. This is an extra check to be sure you have both bags together.

If you’re looking to reduce your stress by adding mindfulness to your day, trying to find specific time to set aside can be hard, especially with kids. But you can build a Tiny Habit to add 30 seconds of mindful breathing every time you go to the bathroom and wash your hands. 

Our modern world is complex, fast-paced, and not wired to help you focus on long-term goals. So, perfect to distract our already-distractible brains even more. The less our overburdened brains need to remember, the lighter their load and the lower our stress and overwhelm. Tiny Habits turns more high-frequency behaviors into automatic habits and increases our ability to tackle more high-energy/HP/bandwidth activities without getting overwhelmed as quickly.

Are Your Habits Hurting Your Brain? Part 3

Yesterday we examined how mindless routines can be transformed into mini-workouts for your brain. If you haven’t read that post, check it out! Today we’re going to look at how healthy habits can lose their potency, and how to reinvigorate them.

The Puzzling Truth About Crossword Puzzles

It makes sense that adding cognitive challenge to routine tasks like brushing your teeth can benefit your brain, but if you do a crossword puzzle every day, isn’t that a workout on its own? Maybe. Crossword puzzles are the quintessential example of a cognitive challenge, but if you regularly breeze through yours it might have become like that route you take to work, to well-worn to excite your mind. If brain boosting is your goal, you never want to get too comfortable.

In his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi explains how the perfect combination of skill and challenge leads to satisfaction and growth. This same principle applies to many of the activities that are routinely touted as brain-building. Whether you play a musical instrument, study a foreign language, play chess or memorize poetry, you can eventually become so proficient that the activity is no longer stimulating or rewarding. As your skill grows, you must continually seek out new challenges to stay in the zone of growth and engagement.

Add Some Weight

There are two ways to shake up a good habit gone soft. The first is to amp up the challenge. Think about lifting weights. As your muscles grow stronger, you need to lift more if you want your muscles to continue to grow.

  • Find a book or newspaper with more challenging puzzles.
  • Try new scales or songs on your musical instrument.
  • Learn new vocabulary words in a language you already know.
  • Read a book or watch a show that is slightly higher than your fluency level in a language you already know.

Try Cross-Training

Increasing the difficulty works to build muscles you already have, but for overall brain health and robust cognitive reserve, think cross-training. It’s ok to continue playing the piano or doing crossword puzzles if you enjoy these activities, but alternate your favorite brain-builder with something completely new that challenges you in a very different way.

  • Swap a crossword puzzle for sudoku, which relies on logic and numbers instead of words and ideas.
  • If you already play the guitar, learn the flute instead of the cello.
  • If you’re fluent in Spanish, try Russian or Chinese instead of another Romance language.

The brain’s need for novelty is a double-edge sword. On the one hand, it means that the task of keeping your brain healthy is never-ending. You can’t just implement a handful of good habits and be done. Instead, you need an ever-changing approach to brain health that continually introduces new activities and new challenges.

However, the brain’s need for novelty has an upside: studies show that people who seek out novel experiences tend to be happier, healthier and more satisfied with their relationships and their lives. The combination of mindful habits and novel experiences can make your mind both rich and resilient.

If you’re ready to learn more about the habits that support your brain health, click here to join our groundbreaking new course, Habits for Brain Health. This live, interactive course combines the Tiny Habits method with powerful, practical recipes for keeping your brain sharp now and throughout your life.

Are Your Habits Hurting Your Brain? Part 2

If you missed yesterday’s post explaining the neuroscience behind habit formation and the novelty response, click here to get up to speed. If you’re wondering how you can cultivate cognitive reserve in your most routine moments, you’re in the right place.

Mindful Habits or Mindless Routines?

When you first learned to drive, your brain was probably very engaged. This challenging task requires coordination between your eyes, hands, and feet in particular. You have to be aware of everything around you while also monitoring your speed and position on the road. However, over time driving becomes less of a challenge and you are eventually able to navigate all but the trickiest of roadways with only minimal engagement. This is great for your commute, but not so great for your brain.

The brain possesses an infinite capacity for mastering new skills and making them feel effortless. This is great, as it’s exactly what we need to establish healthy habits and effective routines. However, like an energetic child, it needs to be continually challenged or it can become bored and disengaged. The key is to strike the right balance between novelty and structure.

Turning Off Auto-Pilot

If you frequently can’t remember whether you took your morning supplements or arrive at work with little recollection of the drive there, your brain may be so bored by the day’s predictability that it has essentially shut off. When your routines have become mindless, you’re missing out on great opportunities to boost your brain throughout the day.

Try spicing things up by adding a small cognitive challenge to each routine task.

  • Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. It’s harder than you’d think. It also forges novel connections in several parts of the brain.
  • Shower with your eyes closed. You’ll use senses that are usually neglected and be more focused on the task.
  • Spritz on a new scent. Our olfactory center is closely linked with memory formation.
  • Try a different morning beverage – swap coffee for tea or sample a different blend. Take a minute to really savor the new flavor.
  • Switch seats – at the dinner table, in the lunchroom or in a meeting. You’ll hear different conversations and see things from a different perspective, literally and figuratively.
  • For one day, turn your photos upside down. Again, the change in perspective can spark your brain to work in new ways.
  • Shop in a different grocery store. It might take a few minutes more, but your brain will be more engaged and open to new foods and discoveries.
  • Read a section of the paper you usually skip. You’ll learn something new and spark your creative brain as those new ideas bump up against the old.

Now you know how you can change your everyday routines to better support your brain health, but what about that morning crossword puzzle? Is it possible it’s not as productive as you think? Check back tomorrow to find out more.

If you’re ready to learn more about the habits that support your brain health, click here to join our groundbreaking new course, Habits for Brain Health. This live, interactive course combines the Tiny Habits method with powerful, practical recipes for keeping your brain sharp now and throughout your life.

Are Your Habits Hurting Your Brain? Part 1

If you’re hoping to foster new habits this year that will increase your health and happiness, we’re here to help. Daily exercise, meditation, and even flossing can boost your brain health, but not all habits work in your favor. You probably already know that smoking, sugar and a sedentary lifestyle can wreak havoc on your cardiovascular and cognitive functioning, but what about your drive to work or your morning crossword?

Making Healthy Actions Automatic

Habits and routines give our lives structure and direction. Turning healthy behaviors into habits is important because you want to follow through on those actions even when your motivation is low. That’s one reason the Tiny Habits method is so successful. Often those habits become part of our daily routines, and are so engrained we don’t even have to think about them. In general, that’s a good thing. However, you certainly don’t want to go through life on auto-pilot. Your brain craves novelty and challenge to stay sharp and agile.

Pathways in the Forest

Every new thought or experience sends a tiny spasm of electricity that stimulates dendritic growth and expands your brain volume. Dendrites are like tiny pathways through your brain, and the more of them you have, the greater your cognitive reserve. If a thought or action is repeated, the pathway becomes stronger and it takes less effort to send a signal through. “Neurons that fire together wire together,” as neuroscientists say, and this is exactly how habits are formed: by repeatedly following a trigger with an action, that pathway is solidified in the brain and the action becomes more automatic each time.

Building Cognitive Reserve

Establishing strong pathways that reinforce healthy habits is a good thing. However, you don’t want your brain to become so accustomed to its most well-worn pathways that stagnation sets in. As we age, the plaques and tangles that cause Alzheimer’s disease can choke off even the most established of routes. If one pathway becomes bogged down, it’s good to have plenty of other options. As you continue to learn new things and challenge yourself throughout your life, you increase your cognitive reserve, creating a brain that is both resilient and adaptable.

This Is Your Brain On Novelty

Psychologists call it the “novelty response”, and in some ways it’s the opposite of a habit. Where a habit is so engrained you don’t even have to think about it, a novel experience requires your attention and engagement, but this is precisely why it’s so effective. When you challenge yourself to learn a new word every day, cook a new recipe or take a new class, you activate new neural networks that keep your brain alert and engaged. For the best results, be sure there’s a method to the madness. Build novelty into your day by periodically establishing new habits that challenge your brain in new ways.

Building cognitive reserve doesn’t have to be costly or time-intensive. Come back tomorrow to learn how you can increase your cognitive reserve on your drive to work or even in the shower. Click here to join our groundbreaking new course, Habits for Brain Health. This live, interactive course combines the Tiny Habits method with powerful, practical recipes for keeping your brain sharp now and throughout your life.

5 More Ways to Improve Your Brain Health in Under 30 Seconds

If 5 Ways to Improve Your Brain Health in Under 30 Seconds inspired you to care more for your brain in the coming year, click here to receive information about our upcoming course, Habits for Brain Health. If you’re ready to plant some new seeds today, try one or more of the habits below.

  1. Sip a cup of green tea. The antioxidants in a cup of green tea may contribute to lower blood pressure, better working memory, stronger bones and a healthier immune system. Drink it hot as you read the morning news or iced at the end of your workout for the moderate boost in energy and long-term neuroprotection the caffeine will provide. Brew your own and go easy on the sweetener for a brain- and budget-friendly beverage.
  2. Stub out your cigarette. If the threat of lung, throat and oral cancer isn’t enough to dissuade you from smoking, maybe its effects on your brain health will. Smoking thins the lining of the cortex, a part of the brain that is essential for memory and language function. The sooner you quit, the less damage you’ll do and the longer your brain will have to recover.
  3. Text a friend. “Remember that time when…?” Research shows that the more connected you are, the more likely you are to maintain high cognitive functioning throughout your life. Reminiscing with friends activates the memory center and relieves stress, providing a one-two punch against cognitive decline.
  4. Grab a brain game. It’s no surprise that exercising your brain is good for your brain, but if you’re not a fan of crossword puzzles, don’t worry! Research shows that any mental challenge will do. Keep a book of sudoku in your pocket or a brain training app on your phone and sneak in a mini-workout next time you’re sitting on the train, standing in line or waiting for a friend.
  5. Put your phone on airplane mode. Too little sleep puts your brain in a fog and contributes to the buildup of beta-amyloid in the brain, increasing the risk of developing dementia. Set yourself up for a restful night’s sleep by putting your phone on airplane mode. Your alarm will still work, but you won’t be disrupted by the buzz of an incoming late-night email or text. Try this trick when you’re with your friends and family, too. Being present with the ones you’re with strengthens your social connections, keeping your relationships and your brain strong, healthy and happy.

These habits may seem simple, but don’t be deceived. Every one of these actions can have lasting long-term effects when they become a part of your everyday life. But you don’t have to wait until your senior years to reap the benefits. The habits that support long-term brain health will also help you to feel healthier and happier while you’re still young. For information on our upcoming brain health course, click here.

Top 5 Ways to Improve Your Brain Health in Under 30 Seconds

Like a thriving coral reef, a healthy brain is the product of millions of tiny units and connections. Every minute of the day you’re making choices that either strengthen that network or tear it down. Exercise, sleep and a nutritious diet have a big impact on brain health, but many brain-boosting behaviors take less than a minute a day.

  1. Breathe. Chronic stress puts your brain at risk. While we can’t get rid of every source of stress in our lives, we can learn to manage it. Meditative breathing increases blood flow to the brain and increases cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the center of learning and memory. Try taking three deep, mindful breaths every time you hit a stoplight or every time you hang up your phone.
  2. Pop your pills. Resveratrol, turmeric, and vitamin D may all play a role in preserving memory function, but the king of brain supplements is DHA. Fish oil supplements contain a rich supply of this omega-3 fatty acid that is essential for normal brain function. Try pairing this habit with your brushing/flossing routine or your morning cup of coffee.
  3. Strike a pose. Yoga incorporates the health benefits of mindful breathing with body-altering stretches and balance challenges. Both flexibility and balance decline with age, putting the body at risk for injury that can prohibit other kinds of brain-boosting exercise. Balance exercises also work the cerebellum, which is central for overall brain health.
  4. Pet your pooch. A rich social network slows memory decline and increases quality of life, and even your pet can contribute. Just a minute or two of snuggling with your pet lowers cortisol and boost seratonin, protecting your brain’s connectivity. Pets can alleviate symptoms of depression and calm patients who are already suffering from the effects of dementia. Take your pet outside for a walk and you’ll also elevate your heart rate and interact with others, both important keys to boosting brain health.
  5. Put on your helmet. Brain trauma, whether a single traumatic event that causes loss of consciousness or repeated, less severe incidents are increasingly linked to neurodegenerative disease later in life. Will Smith’s new movie Conscious brings awareness to this issue, and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health currently has two studies underway to examine the long-term effects of brain trauma on professional football players and professional fighters. Whether you’re snowboarding, riding your bike to the store, or meeting friends for a pick-up game of football, take an extra ten seconds to strap on a helmet and protect your vulnerable gray matter.

Over time, these small acts can make a big impact on your brain health. If you’re interested in learning more, sign up here and you’ll receive a special invitation to our upcoming course, Habits for Brain Health.

If Only Your Brain Could Get A Sunburn

If only your brain could get a sunburn.

Most of us have neglected the sage 90s advice to “Wear Sunscreen” at least once in our lives. However, a single searing, skin-peeling sunburn is often all it takes to inspire a lifelong commitment to protecting our vulnerable flesh. The lesson may be painful, but it is immediate and effective.

When it comes to our health, most of the negative consequences of the choices we make are not so immediate. If you choose to eat a cheeseburger, you’ll probably feel full and happy afterward. You will not feel the excess fat clogging your arteries and clinging to your midsection or the sodium boosting your blood pressure. A single cheeseburger won’t destroy your health, but if the majority of your meals come wrapped in paper, you’ll feel the effects eventually. Unfortunately, by that time the damage is done and can be difficult to reverse. If the results of an unhealthy habit were as swift and painful as a sunburn, making healthy choices would be much easier.

We now know that our brains change throughout our lives. While the most drastic development occurs in childhood, our brains retain the capacity for growth and change for as long as we live. Our habits can support our brain health or stymie it, but, unlike a sunburn, the consequences may take years and even decades to manifest.

At Tiny Habits Academy, one of our biggest priorities is helping people to build healthy habits for a lifetime of physical and mental wellbeing. If you have a brain and are getting older (and we’re pretty sure that covers all of our readers here) then you are making choices every day that may determine whether you become one of the 5.3 million people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease each year.

Doctors and scientists are still working to understand Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicts one in nine people over the age of 65, and over half of seniors over 85. However, they have been able to pinpoint a number of contributing factors, including:

  • Genetics and Family History
  • Head Trauma
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcoholism
  • Physical Inactivity
  • Cognitive Inactivity
  • Depression

Some of these risk factors are beyond our control, but many are not. A healthy brain at 65 (or 85) is the product of a lifetime of heathy choices. Over the next few weeks and months we’ll feature blog posts and special webinars to help you build the kinds of habits that act as heavy-duty SPF for your brain, protecting it from damage now and in the years to come.

We are launching a new Habits for Brain Health course.  What to be the first to know when that happens?  Click here —> http://bit.ly/Brain-Health-Habits