3 ideas for making a routine with ADHD

You don't need to get up at 5 AM to be successful.

woman laying on a bed, drinking coffee, and on her laptop. She is surrounded by her phone and notebooks.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

You’ve crafted your ideal morning routine, complete with a 15-minute meditation and a little cardio to get your heart pumping. It’s the routine of your dreams—now all you have to do is stick with it.

Ha! As if.

Once you start smashing the snooze button the next morning, you’re doomed before you’ve even started. You quickly get discouraged, wondering if you’re just not the kind of person that can manage structure. As a fellow ADHDer and ADHD coach, this was my story—and the story of many of the clients I’ve worked with. We craved the consistency that a structured routine offers… but we also hated following through.

So how can we reap the benefits of a solid routine, without having to force ourselves through it? These are a few of my favorite tried and true strategies for keeping it up.

3 tips for sticking with your routine

1. Leave a 'candy trail'

Anecdotally, most ADHDers that I know say the biggest block for following a routine is getting out of bed. They’ve snoozed their alarm several times, and before they know it, they’re doing a mad dash to get themselves ready as quickly as possible. Conventional wisdom says, “stop snoozing your alarm.” Thanks, pal! Never thought of that! (sarcasm)

There’s a strategy for this that I call “candy trailing.” ADHD brains thrive when rewards are involved, so we need to consider how we can create a series of rewards that simultaneously walk you through your routine. For example, I had a client who started buying specialty coffee as motivation to get up early enough to brew it. Another client of mine bought a Nintendo Switch and promised themselves twenty minutes of gaming in the morning—and purposely left their Switch downstairs so they’d have to get up to play.

Imagine that you’re trying to tempt yourself through a routine. Each step of the way, add some novelty to the task at hand. Here are some other ideas:

  • Have a favorite podcast? Listen to it only while you brush your teeth and wash your face.
  • If you take ADHD medication, try leaving your Adderall in your coffee mug so you remember to take it before making coffee
  •  I even had a client who bought three different flavors of toothpaste, just to make brushing more interesting!

The goal is to create checkpoints throughout your morning to make your routine feel more rewarding, while also reminding you of the next step. Yes, this requires some strategizing! But it can be fun to ask yourself: If I were trying to build a trap to catch myself, what would I put in place?

One of the great challenges of ADHD is finding a way to make the mundane more interesting. That applies to routines, so try to get creative when you’re building one!

2. Make a basic and ‘extra credit’ routine

If you’re someone that struggles to get started, and is too intimidated by overly-complex routines, this is the strategy for you. You’re not going to create one routine—you’ll be creating two.

“But Sam!” you might be thinking. “That sounds more complicated, not less!” Stay with me, friends!

One routine is your non-negotiables—these are the tasks you absolutely must do, made as simple as humanly possible. Your second routine is your “extra credit” routine—bonus tasks to complete only if you feel up to it! Your basic, quick routine might be something like: splash face with water, brush teeth, eat oatmeal, review calendar. These are the activities you can’t do without, made as easy as possible.

Your “extra credit” routine will be activities you can add to your basics if you’re feeling it! Instead of splashing your face with water, you might do a cleanser and moisturizer. Instead of just brushing your teeth, you might floss your teeth, too. Instead of oatmeal, you might cook yourself a favorite breakfast.

Feel free to download this template if you aren’t sure where to start (notice the left-hand side is for non-negotiables, while the right is the more luxurious routine):

daily routines template. top left is labeled "simple", top right "joyful", bottom left "quick", bottom right "easeful"

Why does this work? By keeping a commitment to the basics, we have a much more manageable list in front of us to start with. This allows us to easily build the streak we need to stay motivated. But it also makes it easier to get started!

You don’t have to be intimidated by that ideal list that has always felt unattainable. Saving the “extra credit” for an optional, separate routine allows you to determine if your energy levels are where they need to be to do something more elaborate. That way, you aren’t beating yourself up if you decide to skip the skincare routine. Once you brainstorm your two routines, it helps to post it where you can see it, like your bathroom mirror or refrigerator. “Out of sight, out of mind” tends to be true for most ADHDers, so anticipate this by keeping your routine visible!

3. Update your routine regularly

I know, I know, this is annoying advice. After all that work—creating your candy trail and two routines—you probably think I’m nuts for suggesting you change it up frequently.

But here’s the thing - ADHD brains thrive on novelty. Novelty is all about excitement and newness! So when your routine starts to slip, change it. Create new rewards, new bonus tasks, and new ways of tracking your successes. For example, you might check in with a friend for a week instead of using a habit tracker in your planner. You might switch up the reward that gets you out of bed, like saving a favorite TV show for mornings instead of evenings (or vice versa, depending on what routine you’re creating!).

I recommend scheduling an event in your calendar to review your routine every two weeks or so. This allows you to experiment with what works for you, take note of what wasn’t effective, and make adjustments as you go. Yes, it takes a little work! But you’re almost sure to find that, by doing the work upfront, you’ll be much more successful in the long run.

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