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:
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.