The first key in managing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is making sure you’re getting effective treatment. As Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, NCC, a psychotherapist and ADHD specialist, said, “appropriate treatment can make a world of difference.”
The second key in managing ADHD is building healthy habits that help you sharpen your focus, navigate symptoms and accomplish what you need to accomplish.
Below is a list of 10 habits that may help you better manage ADHD.
1. Get enough sleep.
“ADHD is a neurobiological disorder…So anything we can do to improve our overall brain health is going to help us focus, get more done, and feel better about ourselves,” said Beth Main, a certified ADHD coach and founder of ADHD Solutions.
This includes getting enough sleep. Most people require around eight hours of sleep, she said.
Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, said Sarah D. Wright, a life coach who specializes in working with people who have attention disorders.
Creating a bedtime routine can help. Turn off all electronics an hour before lying down, she said. Some evidence suggests that the light from the computer screen mimics natural light, confusing our bodies and making it harder to sleep, she said.
Another tip is to imagine yourself on a walk (when you’re in bed). This helps to “keep your mind from spinning on the cares of the day, and it’s mildly interesting. Some people jiggle their feet back and forth.” It also might be helpful to turn on “soft, instrumental music.”
Wright also suggested creating a morning routine, so you don’t fall back asleep. As soon as your alarm rings, put your feet on the floor. Take a shower, if that wakes you up, and have your cup of coffee, or exercise first thing in the morning, she said.
2. Get enough nutrients.
“What you eat will directly impact your ability to focus and your executive functioning — your ability to plan, organize and follow through with things,” Main said. She suggested a diet rich in protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Wright suggested eating starches — such as pasta, rice and potatoes — at night because they’re sedating. “They help you relax and fall asleep.” If you prefer eating carbohydrates in the morning, try to add protein, such as having cereal with milk and toast with eggs, she said. Protein increases dopamine, which adults with ADHD need.
Wright also encourages her clients to take a fish oil supplement, which is rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids. It may help with memory and focus.
3. Eat every few hours.
“People with ADHD often forget to eat,” Wright said. This doesn’t just disrupt focus; it also amplifies anxiety, which is a common problem for adults with ADHD.
(Generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder occur more frequently in adults with ADHD “than the rest of the population by a large margin.”)
Low blood sugar can feel like anxiety, which can make you even more nervous, boosting your unease, she said.
4. Participate in physical activities.
“Half an hour of vigorous, heart-pumping exercise every day can make a big difference in your ability to focus,” Main said.
That’s because exercise ups the neurotransmitter activity in your brain, giving you an instant boost. She finds it helpful to exercise at the same time every day (as early as possible).
5. Use a system to manage tasks.
Many people with ADHD get overwhelmed with everything they need to do, because everything seems important. That’s where having a simple system comes in.
Wright recommended the “Getting Things Done” system, which you can modify according to your life and preferences.
Here’s a snippet of how it works: Create one list that captures everything you’d like to remember, such as appointments and assignments. Then create a to-do list that includes the specific actions you will take.
Anything that includes multiple steps goes on a “project list.” For instance, planning a vacation can include as many as 12 steps, Wright said. Whatever the project, write down all the specific steps that need to be done.
Planning a vacation may include: find out when my spouse can take time off; talk about where we’d like to go; research three potential destinations; narrow it down to one place; search for accommodations.
Then you’d write these actionable steps on your to-do list, one or two at a time.
Wright also has clients keep it really simple by having one note card in their pocket, which includes around five things they need to accomplish that day.
6. Reflect on your victories.
“Don’t spend all your time thinking about what you didn’t do, or what you couldn’t do before,” Main said. Instead, before falling asleep, think about what went well, and what you accomplished, she said.
“It can be as simple as ‘took the first step on a project I have been procrastinating on,’ or ‘planned my day,’ or ‘exercised.’”
7. Practice positive self-talk.
Pay attention to the things you’re saying to yourself. Challenge negative statements, and replace them with positive phrases.
“What we tell ourselves becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Sarkis, author of several books on ADHD, including 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD: How to Overcome Chronic Distraction & Accomplish Your Goals.
For instance, let’s say you’re given a new project at work. You automatically say to yourself: “I’ll never get this done,” “I’m a failure,” she said. Instead, say: “I’m capable, and I can complete this project on time.”
8. Use money management software.
“One of the biggest concerns I see with ADHD adults is difficulty with managing money,” Sarkis said. For instance, they may lose track of financial documents, not save their money and make impulsive purchases, she said.
Using money management software can help with organizing your expenses and documents. Sarkis suggested programs like Quicken and Mint, which “update themselves with your financial information, and can store your information in the ‘cloud’ so it is never lost.”
(She also suggested meeting with a financial professional. Find a professional who specializes in your concerns, such as maintaining a budget, filing taxes, impulse buying or planning for retirement.)
9. Have an accountability partner.
Another issue adults with ADHD can run into is lack of structure and accountability. For instance, college students go from having highly structured days in high school to virtually no structure, said Wright, also co-author of Fidget to Focus.
For accountability and structure, you can hire an ADHD coach, partner with others to create an accountability group or ask a friend to help, she said.
For instance, one woman had a hard time accomplishing certain household chores. She made a deal with her friend that she’d do housework on Saturday morning, and then they’d go to lunch. “She wasn’t ready the first time, so her friend left. [After that] she never missed another Saturday.”
10. Remember every day is a new day.
Starting a new habit for anyone is challenging, and includes ups and downs. “Nobody, with or without ADHD, can form a habit in one day and do it perfectly forever,” Main said.
There will be days when you forget, get distracted or just don’t care, she said. Remember that “every day is a new day.” You can hit the reset button, and start anew.
“Think about what you can learn from it, and what you’ll do differently tomorrow. Then move on.”
Over time, with practice, these habits will become second nature, Sarkis said. “Be easy on yourself. You’ve had ADHD your entire life, and things may take a little time to get better.”