The 4-Step Process That Helps People With ADHD (And Everyone Else!) Break Free Of Bad Habits

Yes, it's hard — but it's very worth it.

Smiling woman holds apple Roman Samborskyi / 

Do you have a habit of saving old boxes in case you might need them at some point in the future? Or maybe you buy things on sale but don’t really need them and can’t let them go?

Perhaps, you let your mail accumulate in a pile because you dread the sorting process. Maybe you slam doors when you are angry.

While some habits like engaging in daily exercise, wiping down the kitchen counters before going to bed, or laying out your clothes for the next day can be useful and even good for you, others can hold you back and fuel unwanted clutter, chaos, or unhealthy lifestyles.


Habits like these can be even more of a challenge for people with ADHD.

But, as the saying goes, "Old habits die hard" and, as much as you may want to change what you know doesn’t serve you, it can seem impossible to make a much-needed shift. 

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How to make new habits and build healthy routines when you have ADHD

Habits are defined as acquired patterns of behavior that are regularly repeated until they become almost involuntary.

Habits usually develop to help lower stress or meet an emotional need such as reducing fear, sadness, or hurt. They may serve you when you start them and then cease to be useful but you still can’t seem to stop doing them.


This is particularly tough for many adults living with ADHD who struggle with executive functioning challenges such as organization, impulse control, and focus.

With your Now/Not now brain, the satisfaction of doing a habit, in the moment, can overtake rational thoughts of making a different choice or simply tolerating the discomfort of change.

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Habits consist of loops of three elements: the trigger, the behavior, and the benefit.

Initially, there's a trigger. For example, perhaps you are feeling anxious about a work issue. Then you see an email from your boss after dinner that intensifies your worry and you are now feeling uncomfortable.

What happens next is the routine: behavior or a set of actions that are geared towards distracting you or making you feel better. You plop down on your sofa and proceed to watch four hours of television.

The benefit (resulting reward) is that you are sufficiently engrossed in your entertainment to think about your boss (the trigger) so the habit is now complete.

But, there’s a downside to this habit: You stay up too late, struggle to wake up the next morning, and get to work late again.


Changing a habit means targeting one of these three components: reacting differently to the trigger, choosing an alternative behavior to address the ensuing discomfort, or responding to the pull of the benefit/reward with a healthier option. 

In order to begin the process of changing a habit, you have to bring awareness to what it is and when you're engaging it.

This is where mindfulness meets metacognition: you notice the habit, you observe the effect that it has on you (and others) and you reflect on what other options exist that would feel rewarding.

You practice self-awareness in combination with self-evaluation: you reflect on whatever beliefs you have about yourself or your life that are tied to the old habit without judgment.


Self-compassion is what’s needed here. Old habits are tough to break because they are familiar, easy to do, and promote safety from insecurity, irrational fears, and self-criticism. 

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Here are 4 steps to take control of new habits and routines when with ADHD.

1. Notice what you're doing.

Noticing a habit without judgment is key to changing it. Look around your life and select one thing that you would like to change.

Instead of telling yourself negative things about the habit, remember that it once served a purpose and now it doesn’t. That’s all.

Look at how the habit is affecting you now. If you could wave a magic wand and change it, what would you do? What would you like to see replace it? This is your overarching goal. 


2. Be specific.

Precision is what’s needed to alter habits. It’s not enough to say, "I want to be on time for things" because it’s not specific enough.

What is one area of your life where being on time really matters and would make a difference? How would you like to be on time? What time do you want to arrive? When you clarify what you want, it’s easier to make it happen.

RELATED: Why People With ADHD Are Terrified Of Rejection — And How To Overcome It 

3. Break it down.

Reduce your overarching goals into smaller parts that are manageable and achievable. Changing the whole aspect of an unwanted habit might be overwhelming and too difficult. Think in increments instead.


What is one part that you could start with? Can you do this daily or weekly? What type of support would assist you from a friend, loved one or colleague?

Write down your larger goal, its smaller components and your strategy to refer to it.

4. Practice makes progress.

All too often, people who are trying to change a habit dismiss their efforts along the way and only value the completion of the goal. You will need to encourage yourself to keep going and kindly talk back to the part of you that is connected to the old habit.

It’s struggling to let go until it can be very sure that the new replacement habit will address any underlying fear, sadness, or deficiency beliefs.


Embrace the challenge of sustained practice instead of aiming for perfection and remember that mistakes foster growth. It’s natural and expected to stumble, regroup and try again. 

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Dr. Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is an international lecturer and workshop facilitator and has focused her work on ADHD, anxiety, learning differences and mental health challenges and their impact on school and family dynamics for over 30 years. For more information, visit her website.