ADHD Willpower Drain

There’s a theory that every choice we make in a day uses up a portion of our supply of willpower. It gets replenished while we sleep, and drained over the course of the day the more decisions we have to make. That’s part of why habits and routines are so helpful, if you can form them, because ideally they each take one or more choices out of the day by making those actions automatic.

I think that that kind of incremental willpower drain is extra hard on people with ADHD, because every time my brain goes “I wonder how hard it would be to build a miniature beach in an aquarium complete with real tiny fish and crustaceans” I have to use a little bit of energy to stop myself from immediately googling the best sources for Thai micro crabs and corkscrew vallisneria. I have to use some willpower every time I think of a cool thing to draw, which happens multiple times a day. I have to use it to decide that I’ll go out in the garden later because I’m currently writing my blog post. And then I have to decide that again fifteen minutes later when the dogs get excited and bark at a squirrel outside the window. And again when I hear the birds outside on our bird feeder. And again when I remember that I meant to move our tomato seedlings back inside so they won’t get sunburned.

Eventually, I usually get derailed. Maybe it’s because I just run out of willpower juice after ignoring every random suggestion my brain makes while I’m trying to just do one damn thing at a time.

I have no proposed solution at the moment. I’ve just been observing how many times a day I have to decide not to do a random thing and how tired that eventually makes me feel. It also, unfortunately, makes me sort of averse to doing creative stuff on a whim even when I do have the free time for it. I get into the habit of telling myself I’ll do that stuff later, even when I totally could just do it now.

One of the trees in my yard that unexpectedly makes flowers. They are white and pretty and I have no idea what kind they are.
Little white tree flowers on the deck. They’ve been falling like snow, in part because the local birds seem to find them delicious. It’s pretty, but they stick to your shoes if you walk around on them.

Tips for ADHD Creatives: Part 2 – Ritual vs. Habit

Maybe this series should be titled Ideas for ADHD Creatives, not tips. Tips implies that I know what I’m talking about with a little more certainty than I actually feel, but here are my thoughts on habit and ADHD.

It sometimes seems to me that people with ADHD have a double curse. We tend to thrive when our environments are consistent, because it cuts down on distraction and reduces decision fatigue, but we are also easily bored and frustrated by sameness. We aren’t always able to build habits the same way neurotypical people do, and may even unconsciously rebel and mess up the habits that we do build when they become too constricting.

If you’re one of the ADHD folks who struggles to build habits at all, no matter how many times you do the same thing, you may find even the simplest repetitive tasks frustrating. I hate brushing my teeth, personally. It bores me. My impression is that for neurotypical people, toothbrushing is mostly an autopilot experience, but that’s not how it is for me. Every day, I have to make the choice and spend that willpower to get my teeth brushed, every time. The habit that is supposed to make it an automatic action doesn’t ever seem to kick in. This has left me feeling kind of like a failure, because I’ve heard all my life that good habits are all I lack to be a more productive person. (Gotta love that old “you’re too smart to be failing” speech.)

I’ve read The Power of Habit, and it was definitely a very interesting book that I’d recommend to anyone who finds the human brain fascinating, but my brain’s not really on board with the whole habit thing. ADHD folks have probably all been told at one point or another that they’re just being lazy because they won’t develop a consistent work ethic, and it sucks, because ADHD is not a mindset problem. It’s a fundamental difference in brain function, and many neurotypical people fail to grasp that concept. If your brain has never let you down in this way, it’s hard to understand that there’s a gap between your choices and your ability to execute them consistently. Brains are complicated machines, and they can break down in confusing ways, and thinking harder at the problem is not always, or even frequently, a solution.

So, why might routine or ritual potentially be more helpful than habit? They are pretty similar.

Well, for one thing, it takes a little bit of the emotional pressure off. If you can’t form the habits you want, or if your habits are unreliable and require more energy to maintain than you feel they should, it’s easy to get discouraged. A ritual or routine is something you do regularly, but they don’t carry the same expectation of some kind of internal change or impetus. I kinda like ritual right now, because it even carries a little bit of the connotation that it’s supposed to take some energy to complete. The ritual has value in itself, and you can feel good that you completed it without being frustrated that it didn’t happen automatically. The energy put into the task is part of the act.

A routine can be more mindless, though still lacking that expectation of increasing ease over time, but a ritual is supposed to be a bit of an event. Both can be really helpful.

People with ADHD are always going to have to work a little harder for their consistency, but it doesn’t have to be a massive drag. It’s okay to find ways to make consistency fun, or at least bearable. So, when you sit down to work, maybe light a candle. Do some breathing exercises that make you feel good. Make some tea, coffee, or fizzy juice. Put in headphones and turn on loud bouncy music, if that does it for you. Take a few minutes for mindfulness meditation or yoga. Have a shower and scrub off all your self-doubt before you go to the blank page, or take a bath with nice scents and focus on your muse. An act of self care, like toothbrushing, can at least become a little more tolerable when seen in that light, and not just as an annoying requirement. Treat yourself and your time like you’re special and important. (Or mystical, if that’s your thing. It’s not mine, but hey! You do you.)

Speaking of mysticism, I’d also like to point out that ritual can shift mindset very effectively, which is why it’s so integral to religion. The right ritual can take you from stressed to calm, or put you in a more focused headspace. Whether a reliable habit forms around it or not, it can still encourage your brain to respond to triggers that help you get ready for work, or for creative thinking, or whatever it is that you want to do next.

It’s possible that when you take the pressure off your ADHD brain to build habits, and instead lean into the intentionality of your regular actions, you might be able to build habits after all. If not, then you’re still taking care of yourself, and you’re still getting what you need to do done, it’s just maybe happening in a way that acknowledges your natural inclinations a little better.

The other nice thing about rituals and routines is that it’s okay to change them. It’s okay to add new things, and remove parts that don’t work for you anymore, and to choose new routes with prettier scenery. Habits are usually meant to be static and reliable, but neither of those is a major characteristic of ADHD functioning, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. All those life-hacks for preserving mental energy by having a wardrobe of nothing but grey hoodies and jeans, so you never have to choose an outfit in the morning, aren’t gonna work for everyone. It’s okay to keep things fresh. What matters is what you get out of those repetitive actions, so if you don’t get what you need out of a routine, feel free to change the way you go about it.


Writing days this past week: 5