Putting Good Routines on Autopilot

The Benefit of Habits for the ADHD Brain

Much of our life revolves – whether we realize it or not – around the simple routines we perform each day without thinking. Our brains are very efficient at turning actions we perform repeatedly into routines we can perform on “autopilot.” This frees up our “mental budget” to focus on things that demand more of our attention and interest. This neat evolutionary trick can be especially useful for individuals with executive function challenges.

The good news is that you can take control of habit formation and make it work for you.

There are 3 concepts that are worth understanding if you are setting out to create or change a habit:

  • Cues
  • Patterns
  • Rewards

Mind the Cues

Habits form when cues in our environment create a desire in us to perform some action for which delivers a sense of satisfaction or fulfillment. With repetition, this process becomes a habit. When a habit is fully established, the cues will automatically trigger a spike in our reward neurotransmitters – e.g., dopamine – in anticipation of performing the routine and getting that feeling of satisfaction. This process is powerful, but it can be dangerous. It doesn’t discriminate between habits that are useful to us – e.g., eating healthy food, and habits that are destructive – e.g., a gambling addiction.

It’s important to create cues in your daily environment that you simply can’t ignore. This will help kick off the entire sequence of behaviors that form your new routine.

Create Patterns that are Durable

In order for a new habit to become fully encoded in your brain, it should be irresistible. One way to accomplish this is to “bundle” a new behavior you need to do with one you really want to do.

To become firmly established as a habit, a new behavior should also be easy. One way to do this is to break the new behavior into a smaller number of steps which are less daunting. Over time you can build on this easy behavior to create more complex routines.When you start out, keep a step small enough to fit into the time frame for which you can remain focused.

Another approach is to use apps, where feasible and appropriate, to help automate your habits. These can be simple reminder or planner apps that help keep you on track.

Make It Rewarding

In the final analysis, a new habit has to be satisfying to be durable. Two aspects of this are giving yourself an immediate reward for completing an action you want to become a habit, and also keeping score of your habit execution over time and rewarding yourself on your progress. The rewards don’t have to be big, just meaningful to you.

One of the most important things about the (good) habits we form in this way is that they provide evidence that we are becoming who we want to become and are in control of the process. Over time, these habits reflect not just what you do, but who you are.


  1. https://chadd.org/adhd-weekly/first-steps-to-building-habits-for-success/
  2. https://www.additudemag.com/healthy-habits-adult-adhd-focus/
  3. https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/adhd-helpful-habitshttps://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/adhd-helpful-habits
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-way-adhd/202211/5-strategies-make-and-keep-routines-adult-adhd
  5. https://edgefoundation.org/the-power-of-habits-to-improve-executive-function/

Learn About Edge Executive Function Coaching


Share on Social Media