When making life changes, is this something you resonate with? Having such high expectations for yourself that you quit part of the way through? Or feeling bad even when you do deliver results, because they’re not as good as you were hoping they would be? If you do, you’re not alone.
Now Presenting, ADHD, and making unrealistic life changes.
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Hi. This is Now Presenting ADHD, where we look at common ways Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can present in individuals, explain what the root causes can be, and connect the experience to real humans. I’m your host, Jaye Lin. I’m an ADHD coach, instructor, and generally nice person.
By the time this episode is released, it will be the second week of January. That means that about a quarter of all humans who have made new years resolutions are estimated to have abandoned them already. But while abandoning new years resolutions is something that’s fairly universal, the resulting magnitude and number of consequences of doing so can be much higher for a person with ADHD.
In the past, when making my new years resolutions, I would be pumped, and knew, KNEW that I could do it. But the “its” were all major lifestyle changes, and while I would succeed in the first week in running a mile everyday, or eating vegan, or only having 2 hours of screen time a day, I found myself struggling hard to keep it up after the initial dopamine boost of early success wore off. As January hit and school or work were back in full swing, it never seemed sustainable or worth it for me to keep going, and yet quitting made me completely question my capabilities and intentions. It created a negative streak that made me more ashamed and frustrated with myself. I started the year on a fail, and sometimes struggled to find my footing afterward. And, to be honest, this wasn’t limited to new years resolutions. I’ve had a lifetime of only creating the loftiest of goals. But every time I didn’t reach them, I would feel worse, which affected my focus and motivation.
Is this something you resonate with? Having such high expectations for yourself that you quit part of the way through? Or feeling bad even when you do deliver results, because they’re not as good as you were hoping they would be? If you do, you’re not alone.
Now Presenting, ADHD, and making unrealistic life changes.
Think about the times in your life when you were excited to make a big lifestyle change. It doesn’t have to be a new years resolution. Maybe you decided to meal prep all of your food, because you order takeout or eat convenience foods most of the time. Or you said you would go to the gym five days a week, and your current gym status is no days a week. Or you decided to quit your job and go back to school taking the maximum credits.
Notice how all of the examples I used are fairly extreme examples. It’s very rare that I come across someone who lists a lifestyle change in a small way. This applies to everyone, even neurotypicals, but it is even more pronounced in those of us with ADHD.
We ADHD individuals tend to have an all-or-nothing attitude with many things. We are happy with excellence, but anything below that can feel unsatisfactory. Saying we want to start going to the gym at least once a week doesn’t feel substantial enough as a change. We have to go all out, and in this case, say the goal is to go to the gym five times a week, a goal that is already ambitious, even for those who already go to the gym regularly. What is it that makes us go for lofty goals over small and easily achievable ones?
Part of it is dysfunction in cognitive flexibility, one of the executive functions. Cognitive flexibility is what makes humans pivot from topic to topic, change course in plans, and otherwise adapt to changing environments. With our reduced executive function and resulting cognitive inflexibility, we ADHD folk can have a harder time making changes to our lives. The whole thing can feel like a lot of work, and it can feel like it’s only worth it if we make a big swing.
But those big swings are also really, really hard to pull off with cognitive inflexibility. The bigger the shift in lifestyle, the harder it is with cognitive inflexibility for us to stay with it. This can lead to big hopes and proportionally big disappointment, mostly in ourselves.
But I was able to pull it off the first week, you might say. You’re absolutely correct. It can feel effortless to succeed in that lofty goal when we first start out. This is where dopamine comes into play.
As you probably know, those of us with ADHD tend to have lower baseline levels of the neurotransmitter and neurohormone dopamine, especially if we are unmedicated. Operating with a deficiency of dopamine means that when we do give ourselves a hit of dopamine, the effects can be more extreme, as evidenced with hyperfocus. So when do we get the most hyperfocus in the process? The brainstorming and researching part? The logistical planning part? The execution? The completion? If you said brainstorming and researching, ding ding ding, that’s right, because of what dopamine is. Dopamine is widely described as what our brains get when we do something we are supposed to do, or when we get a pleasurable experience. This description is inaccurate. What dopamine actually does is give us energy in anticipation of a reward. It’s the neurotransmitter of anticipation, and provides motivating energy and focus when we are in the “will it or won’t it” stage.
So if the goal is to go to the gym five days a week, the period where we are anticipating whether it’s possible for us to pull it off will be when we have the most dopamine. So when can it be confirmed if we can pull off going to the gym 5 times a week? Yup, after the first week. Once we confirm that it is indeed possible for us to pull off going to the gym 5 times a week, our dopamine and subsequent motivating energy drops.
Furthermore, while we’re in the “will it or won’t it” stage, we often do an incredible amount to show that, indeed, it will. So while we’re shooting for going to the gym 5 days a week, maybe we let other important things drop, sometimes unintentionally, because reaching that goal is our main focus. Or maybe we work ourselves hard in an unsustainable manner, because our dopamine has given us so much energy that we find ourselves doing more than we normally can on any given day.
Another factor that affects us is our time blindness. It’s common for us to feel like we have more time in the day to do things than we actually have. Or to feel like the things we need to do take a shorter amount of time to complete than they actually do.
In this example, going to the gym and getting on the treadmill for 45 minutes five days a week is not just 45 minutes out of our day. There’s also driving to the gym, changing, showering, getting dressed, and driving back. If your goals are loftier, or if you have more factors than the basic requirements, this can also mean styling hair and reapplying makeup, eating lunch earlier in the day, having a protein shake, charging your fitness tracker, etc. It’s nowhere near 45 minutes of time required to go to the gym that day. It’s more like 2-4 hours of additional time blocked out of your day.
For people with ADHD, we tend not to operate with a huge surplus of time. When people tell me they’re too busy to approach coaching at this time, and they’ll do it in the future when they have more time, I ask them when in the recent past have they had the free time for coaching. The answer is usually a flabbergasted “I don’t think I ever have”. And that’s because we don’t do well with sitting still, or boredom. When there’s a pattern of downtime in our days, we tend to fill it up with something, sometimes 10 things. So now that we’re doing this big 5-day a week gym goal, we’re taking up an additional 10-20 hours of our week. Can you imagine adding an additional 10-20 hours of work to your week? But how about just adding one or two?
When we make a lofty goal, it can be hard to keep, but what about one approachable goal? Going for walking breaks instead of zoning out or doomscrolling. That adds some movement and activity into our day without creating a lot of strain on our bandwidth. Having our friend gatherings be active, like going hiking together instead of meeting for happy hour.
Notice that I didn’t just make the examples smaller and more approachable, I also used them to replace something we’re already doing. That’s how it works when we have low bandwidth and impacted schedules. We have a finite amount of time and energy in the day, so doing something sustainably means not doing something else. To make it sustainable, you’ll have to decide what thing you’ll be replacing with this other thing.
Another great example for this would be the goals I hear where people are restricting. They have decided not to drink alcohol anymore, or they’ve decided not to watch TV. But if having a glass of wine or watching TV after work is how they wind down, what happens when that thing is removed? They get wound up and stressed out, and eventually go back to their wind-down routines. Replacing things with other things is a great way to transition out of this. So instead of watching TV after work to wind down, replacing it with a foam rolling or stretching session can also signal our bodies that we are in relaxation mode. Or even starting the wind down by getting a really long hug from a loved one. Replace something you’re restricting with something that would give you a similar effect.
Once we’re able to make smaller changes, we can broaden them gradually until they’re major life changes. Going for a ten minute walk a day can turn into going for a 20 minute walk a day. A 30 minute walk a day. A 40 minute walk a day. Then a 5 minute run and shower once a week in place of one of the walks. A 10 minute run and shower twice a week. And so on. This creates gradual changes in bandwidth, and creates a system of continual growth, which can do two things. One, our bodies get used to the change in schedule, without making big swings to how we do things which works with our cognitive inflexibility. Also, each time we step up the game, we create more dopamine to reach our new goal, with momentum that carries us forward.
Instead of feeling like we have failed to make intentional changes in our lives, we can succeed and look forward to progress on an ongoing basis. And as I always say, we often do our best when we’re feeling victorious, successful, and empowered.
You’ve reached the end of our episode on making unrealistic life changes. To recap, cognitive inflexibility makes it harder for to make changes, and we often choose big swings in life changes as a way to make the changes feel worth it for the effort, but cognitive inflexibility also makes those big changes incredibly hard for us to stick with. Dopamine boosts cause us to feel extremely energized in the anticipatory phases of making these changes, but drops off at the first sign that we are capable of making those changes, especially if the change is significant and disruptive to our current time and energy bandwidth. To work with our ADHD brains, we can start with small changes that replace things we are already doing with things that make us feel better about our lifestyle, so that our bandwidth stays about the same. Then we can gradually increase the intensity or frequency of the things we are doing, allowing our bodies and brains to adjust to the changes, as well as make new ways to anticipate and celebrate the changes we are making, which can create positive momentum that makes us feel empowered to keep kicking ass.
If you found this episode enjoyable or informative, please tell your friends and family members with ADHD, and/or give us a review wherever you get your podcasts. If you want to read transcripts or show notes, find out more about me, Jaye Lin, or give suggestions on future episodes, please go to our website, npadhd.com. That’s the acronym for Now Presenting: ADHD, npadhd.com. Or you can follow us on Instagram, at NPADHD. Thanks for listening, and we hope to see you again soon!