[ Question ]

What to do if you can't form any habits whatsoever?

by masasin1 min read10th Jan 202123 comments

13

HabitsRitualPractical
Personal Blog

A lot of LW posts are about making habits and routines, whether it's TAPs, making to-do lists or checklists automatic, overcoming actrasia, becoming more productive, or more.

As for me, I have ADHD and ASD. I don't think I've ever been able to form automatic habits or routines, including ones I did daily, such as brushing my teeth or taking a shower. I don't eat or sleep at a set time, and was never able to consistently go to uni or work.

Is anyone here similar? What do you guys do, and do you have any tips to help with that?

New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

6 Answers

I no longer have much difficulty making and breaking habits. I also have ADHD, and have not always been so able. Here is much of what I've learned from asking questions like yours for the last 20 years:

  1. It helps to be as meta-cognitive as possible. I am still learning to examine the thoughts and impulses as they appear. This is an ongoing process that, to the best of my understanding, has no discrete endpoint. I use a formal-ish (but consistent) daily meditation practice to keep the meta-cognitive pathways strong, and I practice as often as I remember to. My go-to "in the wild" practice is a quick mind-body scan: how is everything right in this Now? I find it beneficial in those moments to invite areas of (mental and physical) tension to relax a bit. It makes me feel better, so I want to do it more.

The primary benefit in this context is that you will begin to see the excuses and outright lies that the mind invents to get out of doing things it anticipates might be like work. Brains are lazy creatures! You have the choice to believe, disbelieve, and act on thoughts or not; but only if you are aware of what they are (and what they are not) in the first place. This is nowhere near as trivial as it sounds! And it can only be accomplished by routine examination of the mind.

  1. Build systems and procedures that cause things to get completely done every time. I'm a big fan of checklists! Many of these live in my head, but there must be some kind of somatic component to the act of going through the list*. Paper and pen(cil) work well here. Checklists may not be for you! Try stuff until something feels good, then try to go with it. If some part of a system feels like a chore, throw that part out. If that breaks the system, throw out the whole thing and try something else.
  • Example: On my way out of work I put my bag in the car and say "Bag", my lunchbox "Box", and my hard hat "Bucket" (alliteration, yo!). Then I check my pockets for things it would be easy to take home but I shouldn't. Each of these things has a dedicated location on my person where I will find it if I still have it. I name each thing: "Keys, computers" and touch where each belongs. Too many times I've saved an hour of driving this way!
  1. Export the leading ends of procedures to the environment. Related to TAPs, this practice gives me a concrete, visible, tangible place to start every single time. I build daily routines around interactions with my partner and family**. My work routine is contained in a checklist on my phone (that I made more amusing by writing it in a phonetic alphabet, coloring it brightly, and structuring it in three acts, all so I would want to look at it a little bit more. YMMV).

** Example: My evening routine is maintained between me and my partner. We brush teeth and the cat, dress for bed, sit a short meditation, and maintain hair together in that order every day. It's actually kind of disturbing when circumstances cause us to sleep in different locations for a night! But that occasional discomfort is well worth it so I remember to floss nearly all the time!!

  1. Don't be afraid to fail. Popular methods like "Don't Break the Chain" suggest that habits are an all-or-nothing proposition. But the truth is that with that kind of attitude, a single "miss" can generate a sense of failure that breaks the habit entirely! Nearly all of our "daily" habits can be accomplished "daily-ish" without losing much utility. The important thing is to go back to doing the thing on the next opportunity. When you notice you've drifted, that's a win! It's a chance to get back on track doing something you've decided is good for you.

Too, starting a new habit is an extremely personal thing! Anybody who says they have all the answers and can transform your life if only you try their system is trying to sell you something. Use new systems on a trial basis, the duration of which you should consider ahead of time. During that probationary period, get to know the system and all its parts. What doesn't work for you should be thrown out to reduce the friction of using the system. Sometimes it's by discarding something that we learn its value, and in this case you can just undelete with impunity.

  1. If the a system or habit stores any kind of data (e.g. note-taking, journaling, &c.), don't worry about porting everything from the old system. That will just create more start-up friction and make the new thing feel like a chore. Bring over old stuff only as you need to!
  1. The fact that you have a daily anything is the thing I'm having trouble with. Since moving away from home 13 years ago, the things I used to do daily because family forced me to no longer happened, including things like brushing teeth or showering.

  2. I use checklists for so much. They're on my phone, and I go through them before e.g. leaving the house, turning the car on or off, taking a shower, doing laundry, cleaning things, throwing out the garbage, etc. For the car, for example, I do point and speak (or touch and speak) for every item in the checklis

... (read more)
7kithpendragon15d1. I'll bet you sleep periodically, right? That would be a good place to start hanging routines! Even if you don't have a regular bedtime or (more importantly) wake up time, the mere fact of going to bed or getting up can trigger checklists of their own that include hygiene and such. It also helps to understand (and remind yourself periodically) why you think your habits are of value. Maybe you could title your checklist "Bedtime Routine that helps me to X" or something? 2. Sounds like you've got a good chunk of a system going that just wants some polish. (Hint: that's an ongoing process. No system is ever really "done" unless you magically stop learning and growing.) As for thing-placement issues, Adam Savage offers a rule for that: When you ask yourself "where should this be?", the answer is the same as pretending you need the thing now and figuring out the first place you would look for it. The hard part for me has been remembering that I actually want to put stuff back where it belongs on future occasions. Sounds cheesy, but I've found it helpful to thank each object -- out loud, by name -- as I'm putting it away. Kind of makes the act of tidying up feel like I'm taking care of the tools that take care of my needs. 3. COVID has been hard on people in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to routines. I'm sorry to hear that it's un-grounded part of your self-management system: that really sucks. While it's beneficial to export mind to the environment, it's important to remember that everything is temporary on some timescale. Most of the time we don't have to think about that much, but it's good to have at least sketches of backup plans for when things dissolve out from under us. The trick is not getting caught up in an anxious thought spiral at the same time! Takes practice, I'm afraid. 4. From what you've said, a couple of weeks at a t
1masasin15d1. I've tried introducing routines around that, but (at least with me) it works really badly. Most of the time, it's less going to bed and more like suddenly waking up a few minutes/hours after. If I was wearing regular clothes, that's what I'll wake up in. When I get up it's usually because of a message notification, so that tends to be the first thing I look at. I do have routines set up on my Google Home for going to sleep (turns off the lights and starts background noise) and waking up (turns on the light and reads the news), but they go unused more often than not. I also made it tell me to prepare to sleep (close curtains, brush teeth, drink water etc) at 23:30, and tell me to stretch and/or meditate at 23:40 before turning the lights off at 24:00, but that also fails much more often than not. (The 23:40 one can sometime spur me to close the curtains but the bathroom is like 15 m away with two rooms in between, so the teeth get forgotten), so I tried adding another one at 23:50 for the stretching, but it didn't work either.) Also! Sometimes I manage to do some low effort things right before sleeping (e.g., sending a good night message to my SO). Sometimes I have full conversations with her while sleeping and then I wake up and reread it and it's coherent. But even then it's a toss-up if I actually end up sleeping. Sometimes I've stayed up until the sun came up, or I've gone to sleep and then start looking up answers to things, or start doing things. I fail badly if I try and sleep on my own, even without lights or devices. (Also no coffee etc, because caffeine doesn't work on me.) 2. For the placing things part, I'd probably look for it around me on my bed or on the floor. That's where most of the things I actually use are. I'm pretty good at finding things in the last-used order. I'll try the otsukare trick for objects if I remember
2kithpendragon14dThis is something I've never experienced, nor has it ever occurred to me that it might be the case. To use the tooth brushing example: for me, that happens every night only because it's part of the "Getting ready for bed" mental checklist. I'd like to share that checklist along with some annotations. It takes between 30 and 45 minutes from start to finish. This checklist began life some 20 years ago and has been carefully sculpted over that time to accommodate my own changing needs, as well as those of my partner and our relationship. To be clear, I'm not suggesting you need to adopt this checklist or anything like it; rather I want to share a very mature and complex habit of mine that accomplishes many varied goals, and the performance of which now feels very continuous and normal to me. After this long, each item has been coordinated to flow neatly into the next, and each moves me closer to the goal of being asleep in bed by a certain time. Of course, I can't always control that time, but I try to keep it within an hour of standard for health reasons. This checklist is one part of a larger but somewhat looser script that actually starts at dinner time and ends when my alarm goes off in the morning. On occasion, I have skipped this entire process, falling asleep in whatever situation the evening leaves me in. I don't recall ever being disturbed by this happening, but I do notice that I tend to feel a bit gross and groggy the next morning. Specifically, I deliberately notice that so that I remember that feeling if I ever get the idea that "I can skip it, just this once". That way I have something to hold against the urge to make what I already know are poor choices for me. GETTING READY FOR BED This list begins as soon as I notice it is after 20:30, and ends when I am in bed with the lights out. * Verbally prod partner into action. This promotes a more regular bedtime. * Locate cat and take her upstairs to the bathroom. Hold cat patiently while partner brus

I'm similar and haven't found anything that works well. Reading how most EAs talk about their self-improvement "life hacks" always makes me think "fuck you, lol." I constantly alternate between periods where I'm trying lots of good routines at once and I'm somewhat productive and periods where things fell apart and I'm unproductive. In my experience, most of the leverage to be gained is by trying  to reduce the difference between these two states by not punishing myself for falling off the wave, i.e. getting right back into the attempts after a bad day or five. And if I'm on the wave I try to be extra cautious about avoiding things that could derail me.

I took time off from work late last year for personal reasons and used the opportunity to start some deeper-reaching attempts at mindset improvement based on CBT, visualizing my ideal day, and so on. I'm about to start schema therapy. Ideally I'd do the exercises daily but that's already challenging for obvious reasons. I haven't noticed any productivity improvements so far but I'm at least feeling better about myself.

Are you relying on willpower? I’ve found it useful to see myself as a dumb robot that responds instinctively to its environment, and focus on data driven behavioral interventions instead of personal decisions. For example, instead of “committing to spend less time on Facebook”, I got a chrome extension that makes me wait 30 seconds before o can access Facebook. Instead of trying to will myself to brush my teeth every night (which wasn’t very effective), I kept a bottle of gummy vitamins in my bathroom and I got to eat one if I brushed my teeth after. To get myself to do work, I put up my daily pomodoroS on a board my housemates could see. These feel stupid, but worked much better than any personal goals I ever set.

I also realized that working on my depression made the small stuff come more easily. That may not be your situation though.

I'm using a complete blocker for those things, but then I get distracted by others. I don't think the gummy vitamins would work for me because I'd just end up eating them all with or without brushing my teeth. (I forget to eat until my hands start shaking, and I have emergency peanut butter set aside for that, but if there's something else that's easy to eat it might become the new target.)

I try to offload as much as I can to checklists, but I can't get started with the task (and there's no guarantee I'd finish it even when using the checklist; even going ... (read more)

Hey Masasin,

I have ADHD, had been medicated the better part of 15+ years (no longer now) and although it's taken a tremendous amount of work and bouncing off the train and getting back on I have been able to build a 'productivity' system where I use routines to enable habits (like brushing my teeth 2x a day). It was not easy but it was necessary. I didn't want to be a complete f'n mess all day everyday and I knew that my ADHD energy could be corralled into something of a positive force and that's where I am today. I know you think you can't do it today but I assure you, you can. It f'n hard but you can. I go to bed on time, I wake up 5:30am everyday, I get shit done, I am excelling at work, and best of all the habits are sticking and producing everything I hoped they would. All the best! 

How did you get the original routines (which enabled the habits) started in the first place?

I felt like this for a long time, turns out it was mostly a depression issue. So therapy and meds helped a lot. Also, there are executive functioning coaches who work with exactly these types of problems.

another thing that helped was setting my environment up in a way that will trigger me to act like I want. blocking distracting websites, putting red lights in my bathroom so I can't pick my skin, putting a book I want to read on my desk, putting my sneakers and elliptical where I will walk past them often.

also, meta habits. there are small mental tweaks that will help you function better as a whole, one of them is "microsteps". if there's a task you want to do and you're not doing it, it's probably because you're overwhelmed. to fix this, figure out the absolute smallest step needed to begin the thing. So if my task is to make dinner and I'm stuck on the sofa, I think "okay- put your feet on the floor. now stand up" etc. after 1 or two steps I go into autopilot and can do the thing.

At least in my case, I don't think I have depression. I'm pretty much always happy (according to my counselor, who can read my facial expressions). The happy isn't that high, but it's not sad either. It's more like a stable emotion on the positive side, pretty much no matter what happened. Which isn't that nice when things that are supposed to give you an adrenaline rush (e.g., roller coasters and jumping off planes) or feel nice (e.g., exercise or delicious food etc) still have me at the exact same regular happy. (I'm bad at emotion words because alexithy... (read more)

2ChristianKl9dThat alone isn't good evidence. Filling out Burn’s Depression Checklist [https://www.uwgb.edu/UWGBCMS/media/Continueing-Professional-Education/files/Assess-Pkt-1-Burns-Depression-Checklist.pdf] would give more information.
1masasin7dLooking at the list: * Blaming others: Maybe 2? When I see how badly COVID was handled. I started preparing in January last year, the governments didn't do much for months, and then didn't learn and didn't learn and kept reopening. When I see people who still haven't learned how to wear a mask properly, who can't keep their distance or who do things because they're the exception for some reason? I have seen a total of three people in person since March, and none of them were unmasked or inside or at a close distance. I know I'm not contributing to the spread. This thing should have been over last summer. * Difficulty making decisions at 3 or 4, mainly because I plan a lot and have plans for when my plans fail, going multiple levels deep. e.g., my visa application got rejected last week and I knew what to do. I'm also making plans for how to meet my SO whom I haven't seen in March if I end up in one of several countries that I might end up in by the time it's safe for her to come. For some reason, Murphy's law happens a lot with me, so even when I lose my job etc, it's just an "okay, we use this plan now" thing. No shock or surprise or sadness, just a fact of life. * Spending less time with family or friends: Physically, sure (COVID), but everyone being online made them easier to access, so I spend more time overall with them. * For the Activities and Personal relationships one, it's more lack then loss for the most part. Work is to make money, money is to be comfortable, and being comfortable allows me to do things that I like to do. Sure, work was interesting (I wouldn't have applied otherwise), but I make it a rule not to do overtime (for the most part; sometimes I get carried away and realize the next morning that it's the next morning). For me, wanting to learn new things is a huge motivation, and trying to figure out how to be reunited with my SO. But I don't really have much interest in

Are you medicated? That might help.

The only meds that (slightly) worked (Aderall) are illegal where I live now. Adderall was also not anything amazing, just slightly less resistance to changing contexts.

7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:12 AM

I am roughly the same, except I find it quite easy to develop useless habits like using twitter too much or playing video games. Thankfully, I am shaking the video game habit significantly lately.

A part of forming a habit is becoming familiar with the procedure. Consistently executing the procedure is a separate aspect. In this framing, it should be possible, and being familiar with useful procedures is useful, it makes them more available and cheaper to execute.

So what would the procedure be for e.g., brushing teeth? I've done it thousands of times already. It's still a conscious decision whenever I realize that I haven't brushed my teeth in a while. Repeat a few times because e.g., I see something on the way to the bathroom so I go do something else, so brushing my teeth is delayed by another few hours/days.

I was addressing the title. There are things that can be done, I named one of them (by the general strategy of making progress on helplessly difficult problems through finding similar but easier problems that it's possible to work on). It doesn't encompass everything, and likely doesn't straightforwardly help with any issue you might still be having. I suspect that if "procedures" include cognitive habits and specific training of aspects of activities that usually get no deliberative attention, it might still be useful. Probably not for brushing teeth.

I was trying to find something that helps me form something that doesn't need any deliberative attention, though. Can you give an example of where it might be useful?

Are you referring to habit formation with treated ADHD or untreated? There are lots of studies that find dramatic differences in quality of life depending on your answer to that question.

(I won't even get into optimizing the treatment a la MTA.)

I'm on long-term release Ritalin with instant-release, which is the most effective of the ones that are legal in Belgium (I moved 3 years ago). It makes almost zero difference other than my mouth is slightly drier.