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  • Writer's picturePetra

ADHD and the Art of Forgetting: Why Habits Don't Stick

Introduction

Have you ever tried to develop a new habit, felt motivated and committed, only to wake up one morning and realise you've completely forgotten about it, perhaps for days, or even weeks? This post aims to shed light on the often frustrating journey of habit formation for individuals with ADHD and offers perspectives on why these habits tend to "slip through the cracks."


The Anatomy of a Habit

Let's briefly consider what a habit is. Simply put, it's a behaviour we perform automatically, often without conscious thought. Many of us rely on habits to structure our day, from brushing our teeth in the morning to turning off the lights before bed. The key to a habit is repetition; do something often enough, and it becomes second nature.


The ADHD Factor

For those with ADHD, the process of repetition needed to cement a habit can be disrupted. ADHD impacts various functions like attention, memory, organisation, prioritisation, time estimation, and many others, making it challenging to keep up with a sequence of behaviours consistently. As a result, individuals may find themselves in a cycle of 'starting fresh', where they set a goal, pursue it with energy for a few days or weeks, and then seemingly forget its existence.


The Cycle of Forgetting

Why does this happen? ADHD affects the brain's reward pathways and its ability to prioritise tasks based on long-term gains. This means the immediate satisfaction of creating a new habit doesn't sustain long enough to support long-term commitment. Hence, one might stick to a habit as long as it is 'new' and 'exciting,' but this novelty can wear off quickly, leading to the habit being forgotten.



The Emotional Toll

The cycle of forgetting and re-establishing behaviours can be emotionally draining. Each cycle can make a person feel as though they're starting from square one, fueling feelings of frustration and inadequacy. However, it's important to remember that these challenges are not reflective of a person's character, competence, or worth; they are simply another facet of managing ADHD.


The Need for Acceptance and Resilience

It's natural to feel disappointed or frustrated when a well-intentioned habit falls by the wayside. However, a helpful step in navigating this cycle effectively is accepting the likelihood or even inevitability that habits will be forgotten. This acceptance isn't a form of resignation but rather a realistic acknowledgment of the challenges that come with ADHD.


With my clients, I often talk about aiming to do something 50% or 70% of the time, and not aiming for 100%. It's easy to fail at doing anything 100% of the time. It's a bad expectation to have and greatly increases the likelihood of feeling like a failure when a behaviour is skipped or forgotten. I encourage people to aim for "good enough."


Choose Compassion Over Criticism

When we forget a habit, the instinct might be to engage in self-criticism. But berating oneself is unlikely to be productive and can make the emotional toll even heavier. Since when were guilt and shame good motivators? Instead, opt for a self compassionate approach. Recognise that forgetfulness is a common part of the human experience, even more so for those with ADHD. Understanding this can alleviate some of the self-imposed pressure to "get it right" every time.


The Cycle of Habits

Given the nature of ADHD, it might be helpful to expect a certain ebb and flow in your behaviours. Habits are likely to stick for a while, then disappear, only to be picked up again later. This repetitive cycle isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just a different way of interacting with your goals and activities. Each time you re-engage with a forgotten habit, it's an opportunity to refine it, adjust your strategies, and learn more about what helps you sustain behaviours over time.


If you find that you've left a habit behind, it's not too late to pick it up again. There's no statute of limitations on self-improvement. Acknowledge the lapse, adjust your strategy if needed, and try to begin again. In doing so, you not only make progress on your habit but also cultivate resilience, a quality that can serve you well in all areas of life. It may even help to write down these habits, so once they are fallen by the wayside you can check on the things you used to do and see if any take your fancy to start up again.


Many of my clients talk about a desire to be able to start doing all the things they want to do at once. The idea of trying to start with a single behaviour and build on this over time can sound too slow or too boring. However, the desired alternative of starting everything all at once rarely turns out be to be possible. So the options are engaging in wishful thinking, or in slow and concerted action over time, even if it is not exciting.


Strategies for Remembering

  • Set Reminders: Use technology or visual cues to remind you of your habit.

  • Create Natural Cues: Link the new habit to an existing one. For example, if you want to be more regular with medication, leave the pills next to an item you already use daily.

  • Keep it Simple: The more straightforward the habit, the easier it is to remember. If you have to perform multiple steps first to engage in an activity you will be much less likely to do it.

  • Accountability: Share your goal with someone you trust; another person's memory can serve as a backup for yours, or perhaps you will feel the weight of some external expectations.

Conclusion

If you find yourself in the cycle of habit formation and forgetfulness due to ADHD, know that you are not alone. Understanding the underlying mechanisms can help you navigate the challenges with greater empathy for yourself. Practical strategies can make a difference, but above all, be patient with yourself. Habits may not stick the first, second, or even third time. For some habits go around in cycles. The main part is to pick them up again when you can and try to develop some self-compassion around the situation.




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