The Double Agent of ADHD

Aug. 22nd, 2016

The very first thing a lot of people learn about ADHD, even if they remain fixed on fiction of “just boys with ants in their pants”, is the short attention span. This is of course more complex than even the name Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder suggests, but the simple fact that there are very few and specific things someone with ADHD can easily focus their long-term attention on is very real and very impactful. It can be our saving grace or, much more often, our downfall.

The word “routine”, noun, means ‘a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program’. In other words a bunch of things, sometimes that you have to do, repeated over and over again. When applied to ADHD, this can trigger multiple symptoms, such as difficulty with transition, resistance to repetition, simple boredom, memory problems, time blindness, difficulty with decision making, difficulty creating and maintaining structure for oneself, and the idea that creative people must live in chaos or betray their artistic soul. The idea of embracing something so downright painful is incredibly hard for the ADHD brain to comprehend.

To me, as a person with lifelong ADHD, routine seemed to be something that happened to other people. I didn’t even have school to give my life structure until I started training as an ADHD coach. After my diagnosis, I began slowly scooping my life into a more comfortable and workable shape. Many things began to emerge that stood the test of time as being very helpful to me. But when I tried to get every one of them done in a day, I would get distracted between each item, and a list I assumed would take others less than an hour took me half or three quarters of the day.

Over years I tried to tweak, alter, and change things until I now have what I proudly call a morning and evening “routine”. It is a list of things that all, in one way or another, form the foundation of my life. They allow me to accomplish everything from maintaining friendships, to housework, to the two businesses I run, to assisting family in times of crisis and celebrating with them in times of joy. I cannot overstate how essential they are to me.

An excellent example is something that happened just this week. Even though I’ve been working on myself and my life since my diagnosis almost 8 years ago, a real, solid, regularly followed routine is a relatively new thing, at least in its current, and historically most useful, iteration. I woke up feeling very low and because, for ADHD, emotion is reality, it was very hard for me to imagine that anything could help lift me. I knew, however, that my morning routine was very beneficial to me, so I started it.

Throughout the process, which takes me between an hour and 90 minutes, I realized my mood turned completely around. I felt content, happy, even energetic. I attribute this to the comforting nature of the familiar flow of tasks, the knowledge that I was accomplishing something important, and the soothing transition ritual and dopamine creation strategy I have in place.

In order to circumvent the list of symptoms of ADHD I’ve listed above that interfere with my ability to accomplish daily routines, I have four major ‘fierce systems’ in place:

The first is headphones playing something I really like (Netflix, YouTube, music, or podcast) to keep my interest focused, allow for easier transition between tasks, and production of low-level dopamine. The second is an agreement I’ve come to with my family that if they see me with both headphones in my ears, they are to refrain from talking to me so I don’t become distracted from my routine. The third is a stopwatch I use for recording how long the routine takes me every morning. This is like a game, or a race against myself, seeing how efficient I can be, and helps produce more dopamine. The final system is, of course, that each routine (every day of the week has slightly different tasks) is recorded as a list in a phone reminder.

This is what I have to do in order to keep my life running smoothly, with the double agent that is routine, in an ADHD brain. When I imagine how other people, who have brains untroubled by these things, glide smoothly through their lives, without a second or even first thought to structure, routine, or dopamine, I have to admit to feeling jealous. That being said, I have proven to myself that I can overcome challenges of neurobiology and work with the very nature of who I am. All, I might add, without the benefit of medication or coffee. That is something of which I am very proud.

What role does routine play in your life?