How to Break a Habit of Buffering with ADHD  

Do you have a habit you want to break?

Maybe you’re online shopping more than you’d like or you frequently turn to your phone for distraction.

Maybe you pour an extra glass or two of wine when things feel overwhelming.

Or you find yourself lost in that video game for hours when you can’t bear to think about the tasks on your list.

woman scrolling on phone

If any of these things sound familiar, Hello! Welcome. You’re in good company.

Nothing’s gone wrong here, and there are zero reasons to feel bad about it.

It simply means you’re human.

AND if you want to make some changes, I’ve got you covered there, too.

In episode 151 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast we’re talking about how to identify the habit of buffering, recognize why this happens, and learn how to support yourself as you begin shifting out of that habit into one you want to keep.

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:   

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

In Episode 151: How to Break a Habit of Buffering with ADHD, You Will Discover… 

  • Identify your specific habits
  • Understand why your brain uses them as buffers
  • Support yourself as you shift out of that habit and into one you want to keep.

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Episode #151: How to Break The Habit of Buffering (Transcript) 

How to break a bad habit of buffering

Today we’re going in and taking a close look at a concept known as buffering, which is a term created by one of my teachers, Brooke Castillo. 

As we look at the concept of buffering today, I want to think about it through the lens of our executive functions, which I talked about on the podcast a few weeks back.

By the end of this episode you can expect to:

  • Have a better understanding of what buffering is
  • Find out why all of us as humans navigate it
  • How to recognize “buffering” more easily in yourself
  • Have tools you need to shift out of it and into the work you want to do

What is the Meaning of Buffering?

Let’s start by talking about what buffering is in the first place.

Essentially, buffering is when we use external things – things outside in the world – to try and change how we feel emotionally.

This often looks like turning to quick, concentrated dopamine hits like scrolling social media, online shopping, overeating, overdrinking, drugs, etc. in order to feel better whenever we’re not feeling great emotionally.

Our brain loves to turn to these quick bursts of pleasure because – not surprisingly – it feels so much better than facing the unpleasant things we might otherwise be facing in our daily lives.

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When you really look at it, what’s happening when we turn to buffering is that these go-to behaviors or activities keep us from fully experiencing our lives. They keep us hiding from the reality around us. They keep us procrastinating and avoiding what’s true in our lives. 

Why Does Buffering Happen to People?

People use buffering all the time to avoid uncomfortable emotions.

Maybe you had an argument with a friend or a partner, and rather than feeling the discomfort, you zone out in front of Netflix.

Perhaps you’re super stressed out after another day at the office and you pour yourself a glass or two more wine than you’d normally have.

Maybe you’re feeling really sad or lonely, and rather than feeling the sadness, you grab your phone and distract yourself by scrolling on Facebook.

If you find yourself in this situation, hello! Welcome to being human. It’s totally not a problem. In fact, we’ve been raised and conditioned to do this!

Just think about the way society functions and spreads messaging…

If we felt sad when we were growing up, we were told to smile and given some candy or ice cream.

Think about all of the constant advertisements out there promising that this beverage will make you happy and fun to be around.

Or this piece of technology or clothing item is the thing that will solve all your problems.

It’s not a coincidence that it’s called retail therapy; we’ve been taught that doing these things are solutions to feeling uncomfortable emotions.

Underlying all of this is the assumption that feeling uncomfortable emotions is a problem

As I say over and over on the podcast, uncomfortable emotions aren’t a problem to be solved.

Just because we’re feeling boredom or sadness or anger or discouraged doesn’t mean something has gone wrong.

It means we’re a human living a full human experience complete with uncomfortable emotions. If we weren’t meant to experience these emotions, they would have evolved out of us by now. There’s a reason they’ve stuck with us for thousands and thousands of years. 

Of course, feeling these emotions isn’t fun. It doesn’t feel good and that’s exactly why we naturally want to escape them by buffering.

When we use a buffer, it’s creating this space between us and that uncomfortable emotion. The emotion is still there, but we’re pushing it away by scrolling social or eating a pint of ice cream or drinking too much wine, or buying stuff we don’t need on Amazon.

And that’s not the only type of buffering. They’re the most common examples, but there are so many sneaky ways that the brain loves to buffer. Because the truth is, you can buffer with anything. Because again, it’s simply a way that we prevent ourselves from fully feeling our emotions. 

Examples of Buffering

woman scrolling on phone

For example, one of my go-to buffers is overworking.

If I’m feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, sad or lonely, I will turn to work as a distraction.

When I engulf myself in work, then I don’t have time to think about other things. 

For others, their buffer might overexercise or it could be over-researching rather than getting started.

A big one for many of the I’m Busy Being Awesome community (and myself!) is procrastiworking on busy work – laundry, tidying, organizing, etc. – rather than starting the thing on your schedule.

Here’s what else is true…

When you turn to buffering, it perpetuates even more buffering.

When you slow down to think about it, this makes sense. These activities feel good to the brain, right? And the thing is, they’re concentrated pleasures.

They feel even more pleasurable than what we call natural pleasures. And because it feels even better, the brain demands more. 

Buffering & Pleasure: Example

There is sugar in an apple, and there’s concentrated sugar in apple juice, and even more concentration in an apple Jolly Rancher or gummy candy. The brain prefers the more intense dopamine hit and therefore craves more sugar.

Similarly, there is pleasure in escaping into the world of a good paperback book.

There is concentrated pleasure in escaping into a Netflix binge of one show after the next.

And there’s even more pleasure in the non-stop stream of 15-second reels and TikTok videos.

The brain continually seeks more and more – the more we buy, the more we want to KEEP buying. The more sugar we eat, the more sugar we want to KEEP eating. The more we scroll, the more we KEEP scrolling.

It perpetuates this cycle.

Now here’s the deal. I’m not here to be full of gloom and doom and tell you that you can’t have any fun and you can never do these things. That’s definitely not my message today.

I’m also not saying that anytime you go on Instagram or anytime you eat apple gummies you’re buffering. Because that’s also not true.

In fact, there are a few different ways to check in with yourself and know whether you’re buffering or not.

How do I know if I’m buffering?

The most clear-cut and easy-to-spot examples are if you’re deliberately distracting yourself because you don’t want to deal with some form of emotional discomfort.

Buffering might look like…

  • Cleaning out your email inbox rather than grading all the finals and papers at the end of the school year because you can’t imagine sitting with that boredom for so long.
  • Zoning out in front of YouTube videos at work rather than having a challenging conversation because you’re dreading the discomfort that will likely accompany it.
  • Feeling so overwhelmed thinking about sorting through all the paperwork on your desk that you grab your phone and go down the rabbit hole of scrolling.
  • Maybe your edges are frayed by the end of the day and rather than checking in and allowing the feelings of exhaustion or tension or whatever emotion is coming up for you, you put up one of those buoys to separate yourself from the emotion with a glass or two of wine.

Now, there are other times when we may not be sure that we’re trying to avoid an emotion.

In situations like this, we can check in on the consequences that accompany these false pleasures.

The other way we know we’re buffering is if there’s a net negative on the other side of the behavior.

Maybe you’re feeling bored, so you go on Amazon and buy stuff you don’t need. You get the rush of excitement and dopamine in the anticipation of the things arriving, but again, that excitement is short-lived and you’re then left with a bunch of stuff and a bill to pay. 

You might be bored at night, and you get the rush of dopamine from eating a pint of ice cream or bag of chips, but then the net negative is your body feeling terrible on the other side.

You may be overwhelmed thinking about work, so you start creating a bunch of tiny wins around the house by picking up the toy room and cleaning the kitchen, and organizing your desk.

But you’re still avoiding your work, so that’s piling up on the other side and you have more to contend with.

When my buffering with overwork was at its highest, I eventually burned out, and my emotional and physical exhaustion was the negative result.

So again, just because you have a glass of wine or you tidy up around the house or you buy some stuff on Amazon doesn’t mean you’re buffering.

The signal that you’re using these activities as a buffer is if you’re using it to avoid an emotion or as a means to distract yourself from the thing you wanted to do.

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What Are Your Go-To Buffers?

Now that you know what buffering is, and how to tell if you’re buffering or if you’re simply enjoying scrolling or playing video games or a glass of wine, I invite you to take a moment and think about what your go-to buffers might be.

What are the things your brain turns to when it doesn’t want to feel stressed, overwhelmed, bored, restless, lonely, sad, etc?

Again, there is NO shame here.

This is literally what every human brain does.

The brain is wired to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy. It makes perfect sense that your brain has no interest in feeling uncomfortable emotions; this is not pleasurable.

In fact, it feels painful to the brain.

It is looking for what comfortable and familiar and safe, which are these high concentration dopamine activities. 

I know for myself, my go-to buffers in addition to overworking are scrolling instagram, procrastiworking, and researching and reading reviews on Amazon trying to find the very best version of something I do not need.

So again, you’re in good company. We all do this.

The important first step is raising our awareness of what those go-to buffers are so we can start setting ourselves up for success by planning ahead for them.

Now as I reflected on my own buffering tendencies, I also started thinking about the situations in which I feel most compelled to buffer.

What are the emotions and the tasks that I most often want to avoid?

As I reflected on this, I realized that I most commonly turn to buffering activities when I’m trying to do tasks related to my executive functions, which we did a deep dive into a few weeks ago.

I think this is probably true for most people with ADHD brains and people with ADHD tendencies.

Tasks associated with executive functions – things that demand focus, organization, planning, task initiation, transitions, emotional regulation, and impulse control – are naturally more challenging for the neurodivergent brain, it makes sense that we’d want to buffer with them.

Plus, ADHD brains are lacking appropriate levels of dopamine. So this makes these buffering activities even more appealing to our brain because the quick wins provide that extra boost of dopamine that the ADHD brain is missing naturally. 

So again, I offer this to normalize that pull to buffer. It’s common for EVERY BRAIN, and I think ADHD brains have an even bigger obstacle to navigate.

Cut yourself some slack if you notice your brain wanting to judge you right now for buffering.

Instead, let’s step into the world of curiosity, compassion, and non-judgment as we get a little more specific about when we might buffer and what we can do to support ourselves through these areas.

Because on the other side of the urge to buffer is our willingness to create a plan and break it down into small steps.

It’s initiating tasks with less procrastination. And it’s following through on the things that our executive brain really wants to do – even if the toddler brain is throwing a tantrum along the way.

4 Step Process To Reduce Buffering

The whole reason we’re doing this exercise is to help raise awareness of when buffering happens because once you have that awareness, that’s when you can start to make changes.

This is when you can set yourself up for success and soothe yourself when those emotions arise. 

In order to do this, I want to offer you a simple, four-step process. I’ll share them first and then talk us through the steps.

  1. Identify your go-to buffers and when you often turn to them
  2. When you notice yourself buffering, ask yourself: “What is my brain looking for in this buffer?”
  3. What is that I really need?
  4. How can I provide this in a supportive way?

Step 1: Identify Your Go-To Buffers

Step one is identifying your buffers and noticing when you turn to them most often. This is what we’ve been talking about so far in this episode. 

Step 2: Understand Why Your Brain Is Wants to Buffer

Then we get to step two, which is asking yourself, what is my brain looking for in this buffer?

For example, if we think about my challenge with transitions. This is one of the most challenging areas for me personally, because transitions are not an easy thing for my brain.

Anytime I need to move from one type of activity to the next (say it’s coaching a client into working on my podcast) my brain has a really hard time making that shift if I don’t build in enough transition time. 

Personally, this is where all of the classic dopamine-seeking behaviors come into full force.

  • I find myself constantly wanting to check my phone or my inbox.
  • I’m convinced I need another snack or another cup of tea.
  • I can feel my brain reeling, searching for some extra comfort as it goes through the discomfort of these transitions. 

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So, when I notice myself wanting to keep picking up my phone or getting yet another snack, I can ask myself:

  • What am I looking for in this buffer?
  • What do I think it’s going to provide me?

In the case of my phone, it might be “it’s distraction and entertainment.”

Step 3: What is it I Really Need?

After I understand what my toddler brain thinks it wants, then I can ask myself:

  • But what is it that I really need?

If I keep with the same example, what I really need is comfort and support because I’m feeling really uncomfortable with this transition.

Step 4: How Can I Support My Needs?

Then knowing that I’m looking for comfort and support, I can ask myself the fourth question:

  • How can I provide this in a supportive way? 

When I sit with that question, I realize that I could start carving out additional time for transitions so I’m not forcing myself to go immediately from one thing to the next.

I can also break down the steps to getting started so the barrier to entry seems much less intimidating to my brain.

I can rearrange my schedule – which has been a game-changer – to help ensure I have less transition between different types of work.

This is why I love batch working because I have clear coaching days vs admin days vs. content creation days.

I also turn on do not disturb so I don’t have unintentional interruptions, which would make it more challenging for me to transition out of – and back into – my work. 

I hope taking you through an exercise like this helps you see how you can apply it to your own buffers.

as a quick recap,

  • We want to start by identifying your go-to buffers and when you often turn to them
  • Next, when you notice yourself buffering, ask yourself: “What is my brain looking for in this buffer?”
  • Then check in with yourself and ask: what is that I really need?
  • And then finally, stay open as you explore the question how can I provide this in a supportive way?

I’m not going to lie, buffering work can be challenging work. However, it is also some of the most powerful work you can do.

When you’re willing to be with your emotions rather than buffering away from them; when you’re willing to allow that urge to buffer to be there without acting on it, you get to the other side.

This is where you can make the plan, take action on it, and make your big dreams and goals reality

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