How to Stop the Tug of War with Routines and ADHD

When you live with ADHD, you know all too well that settling down into a pattern of regular routines can get monotonous and boring. You're well-aware that structured practices create calm out of chaos and can increase the odds of getting things done. But whether it’s you or a loved one, you face the ongoing tug-of-war between your need for structure and order,, and your craving to appeal to the creative, spontaneous side of who you are.

Routines and the ADHD Brain Overwhelmed Business Woman

The ADHD brain is neurologically wired to be motivated by novelty. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that communicates information with the brain, impacts movement, mood, motivation and attention. In individuals with ADHD, there's an overly efficient removal efficient dopamine removal process, where dopamine is removed too quickly when transported in the brain. When you have irregular dopamine levels, you may have less satisfaction completing ordinary tasks. You come up against boredom, which saps your motivation to carry on.

Challenges with follow-through and focus may also be caused by the reduction of two other neurotransmitters, called norepinephrine and serotonin. Norepinephrine, when combined with dopamine, acts like a neurotransmitter communicating with the brain, causing it to behave like a stress hormone affecting attention. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter than affects mood, social behavior, sleep and memory. Thoughtful Businessman

You may have heard from our Sanity School® Chicagoland workshop, "Is it Naughty or  Neurological?" Even if you’re not a parent, you want to ask yourself this question, because ninety-nine percent of the time, it's neurological, not "poor" behavior.  When you’re not accomplishing what you want to achieve, it’s not because you can’t or won’t. The ADHD brain makes it tough to stay interested, stick to structure, and move forward. At the same time, you and/or your your loved one are working hard to keep it together (even though you may not yet see results). 

You know you need routines and structure but it’s grueling to stick with them. Here are three strategies for you or your loved one to get started. 

Consider Alternative Options

People with ADHD can have a tendency to think in either-or thinking. Situations can be perceived as entirely good or utterly bad as a result of challenges with emotional control and impulsivity. 

Quick Tips:

• Avoid automatic-negative thought patterns that distort your way of thinking. Rather than zeroing in to thinking “this is challenging or easy,” or “one way or the other way” of doing things, experiment with considering other options. 

• According to Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree, when you or your loved one is doing something uncomfortable, they are prone to think in extremes. 

• This is the ADHD brain acting protective, making up rules that are way too general because it feels safer than doing something uncomfortable. 

• Step back, pause, and consider some alternative options that may be flexible within a structure that could work for you.

Accept Good Enough Mom hugging teenage boy

To compensate for well-intended, but harshly internalized feedback, individuals with ADHD may try to compensate by striving for perfection. This can make it stressful to get started, make decisions, and stay on top of what's important.

Quick Tips:

• Manage your expectations. Start with one small task at a time and build from there. Rather than trying to motivate yourself by what went wrong, try focusing on what went right. 

• For resistant students, consider whether school expectations are reasonable and supportive. Discuss with your student what kind of support they'd prefer, such as a homework check-in or none at all. Respect their decision to see the job through by themselves and allow for them to learn from their mistakes. 

• Focus on the process, rather than the results. Reward yourself and your loved ones for efforts.  

Create a Visual Structure

Most people with ADHD tend to work well with a visual foundation. This is because of challenges with “time-sight,” the perception of the time it takes to get something done. Time has a tendency to be estimated as shorter or longer than actual or not at all. Time, being intangible, is experienced as “now or not now.” 

Quick Tips: Routines Mom High Fiving Boy

• Time is abstract and to make it concrete, having a visual plan in the form of a calendar is essential for seeing your desired tasks and responsibilities over time.  

• A great deal of stress can be alleviated by doing a visual brain dump of commitments in a task manager, either a paper calendar or digital App, depending on your preferences and learning style. 

• Schedule time to work with your routine or system. 


To sum up, when living with ADHD, you face the ongoing struggle between your desire for structure and your need to appeal to your creativity.  

• Consider Alternative Options

• Accept Good Enough

• Create a Visual Structure


Experiment with some of these and let me know how it goes for you!




 PS. Need more assistance sticking to routines and following through with what matters to you? 

Contact me for an ADHD Strategy Assessment and we can talk about some solutions you can put into place now!


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