How To Increase Self Control And Impulse Control With ADHD

Have you ever caught yourself scrolling social media but didn’t remember picking up your phone?

Do you ever feel the impulse to “quickly check email” when you have a much more important project sitting in front of you?

Do you ever have the urge to buy the clearance item simply because it’s on sale, or put the Butterfinger in your cart because the impulse was just too strong to avoid it?

Yep, me too.

And today, we’re talking about how to navigate those urges by increasing our self-control.

So if you ever wish you were better at sticking to your calendar, avoiding impulse buys, or maintaining your yoga routine, episode 89 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast has your name on it.

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

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

Listen To The Podcast Here!

In This Episode, You Will Discover… 

  • Why we struggle with impulse control
  • Why the traditional approach to willpower only works for so long
  • 3 simple strategies to help you stick with your original plans without giving in to the urge.

Links From The Podcast

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Episode #89: How To Increase Self Control And Impulse Control With ADHD (Transcript)

Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode 89 of the I’m busy being awesome podcast. Thanks for joining me today. I appreciate all of you so much for taking the time to tune in each week. And if you’re new around here, welcome. I’m so excited you’re here.

This week we are digging into a topic that I’ve talked around, but I don’t think I’ve talked about directly. And this is the concept of self-discipline – it might also be described as willpower or self-control.  And more specifically, we’re exploring the role impulsivity plays in self-discipline or self-control.

Self Control, Willpower, and Self Discipline

Now, when we think about these terms, people may have slightly different understandings for each one. Maybe for some people, willpower means one thing and self-control means another. But when you look up the definitions, they are all essentially variations on the same idea. It’s the ability to have control over yourself – especially in terms of your emotions and behaviors – in situations where temptation is high. It is the ability to stick with the plan or the goal or the routine that you created for yourself ahead of time, and not giving in to what your toddler brain wants in the moment.

Perhaps the most classic examples would be around diet. For example, let’s say you have a diet plan in mind that cuts out sugar, and the goal is to practice self-discipline or self-control in order to follow through on that plan. And even when you have the impulse to eat the candy in the pantry or go for the ice cream in the freezer because your toddler brain would rather have whatever is sugary and sweet, your executive brain – your prefrontal cortex pulls rank. And it remembers, wait a minute. This is not the plan. Those foods usually cause brain fog and sugar crashes an hour after eating it, and we decided not to eat them.

Self Discipline Examples

So when you exercise self-control or self-discipline or willpower, you ultimately do not give in to the impulse to eat the sweets in that moment, and you instead follow through on the plan you created ahead of time.

But diet is certainly not the only way that this shows up. For many of my clients, it often shows up in terms of scheduling. You create a schedule, or a routine for your day, and when it comes time to do the thing that’s on your schedule, your brain wants to do anything else. Rather than sitting down and writing your report, you would rather go on social media, clean the house, fold laundry, walk the dog, literally anything other than what is on your schedule.

Or maybe you are currently focused on some spreadsheets for work, and your original plan is to stay focused on that project until it’s complete, but then your brain has a brilliant thought that sounds something like this: “hey! I wonder what’s happening on Facebook. Or I wonder if so and so responded to my email yet.”  And rather than sticking to that plan of focusing on the project in front of you, you have the impulse to grab your phone and scroll your Facebook feed, or open up another tab and get lost in your inbox.

Impulse Buying

I also see this come up often in terms of money. Maybe you are saving for a big purchase or a vacation or you’re simply saving to save, and while your plan is to save x amount of dollars from every paycheck, your toddler brain says to you, “Hey! I think we need some new pillows for the couch. Let’s see what’s on Amazon. Or let’s run over to Target quickly and see what’s on sale.

So rather than sticking with your plan to save that extra money, you instead jump over to Amazon, or you hop in the car and drive to Target and you spend that money on the impulse to buy pillows for the couch because that impulse is strong. Or maybe it’s a double whammy and you went online, scrolling social media when you were working, and you saw an ad on Instagram for whatever it is the Instagram algorithm decided you need. And so you had the impulse to buy whatever it is online while also avoiding your work.  I’ve been there before. Impulsivity two – self-control zero.

So in other words, impulsivity and self-discipline manifest themselves in so many different ways. And once again, the end goal is generally the same. The end goal is to stick with the original plan that you set for yourself, rather than giving into the instant gratification impulse or urge of checking social media, eating the sweet, getting lost in your inbox, buying unnecessary stuff, etcetera.

Now, I want to be really clear that I’m not saying these things are bad in and of themselves. We can absolutely go on social media, we can absolutely shop and spend money, we can absolutely eat sweets and delicious things. Heck yes. However, where the concept of self-control comes into play is planning for it ahead of time so that we are being intentional about how we want to show up, how we want to spend our time, or our money, or our energy, and not getting into those knee-jerk reactions that our toddler brain offers in the moment. 

ADHD Impulse Control

As you’re listening to these different examples, you may find that you can relate to many of them. Or you may only relate to one or two variations. If you’re an ADHDer like me, or you identify with ADHD tendencies, it’s possible that your list has several more examples on it, like finishing people’s sentences, jumping from task to task, starting new projects on a whim when you have something else you planned to work on instead, since impulsivity is one of the main ADHD symptoms.

Wherever you are on the scale of impulsivity, it’s totally normal. We all have different areas in our life where we have an easier time exercising self-control. And we also have areas in our life where we struggle with self-control. Nothing has gone wrong here. It’s just one more part of being human.

So whether you’re navigating the impulse of procrastiworking when your executive brain wants you to focus on a big project. Or you’re working through the impulse to buy that extra pair of yoga pants you hadn’t intended to buy. Or you really want to go to bed earlier or get up earlier, but that impulse for just five more minutes poses a challenge every time. We all have these places where we’re working to stick with our original goal or plan rather than giving into the impulse.

And because of this, I want to spend some time today sharing different approaches and strategies to help us create some space between that impulse – that feeling to grab the phone and check social media, to click the buy button, to procrastiwork instead of doing the task – and the action of doing the thing. We are going to learn how to create some space between the knee-jerk reaction – that strong feeling – and the action – so we can decide more intentionally how we want to show up. In short, we will learn how to allow that impulse, allow that urge to be there in our body without giving into it. 

Strategies to Reduce Impulsivity and Urges

And I want to approach this concept in a slightly different way than what is most commonly taught and understood when it comes to self discipline and willpower. Because most of us tend to think of willpower and self-discipline as something that’s incredibly hard. We tell ourselves we have to simply power through and white-knuckle it and push away the negative feelings and just do the thing anyway. We just have to resist the chocolate in the pantry or resist the pull to check our email and white-knuckle it all the way through.

While this does work on some level, the challenge is that this type of willpower dissipates throughout the day. This is why, traditionally, people tend to start the day strong by sticking to their routines and their goals, and by the end of the day they have nothing left in the tank so they  give in to those impulses more easily. Can anyone else relate? 

My guess is you can. Because we’ve all been there. I often hear my clients say things like, I’ve been so good at sticking to my calendar this week, and then by Thursday it all went out the window. I wasn’t following anything. Or how often have you heard people following a meal plan or exercise plan and say, I was so good until x y z – enter whatever pushed them past their willpower limit. Until Friday night. Or until the weekend. This is what I used to do when I was navigating bedtime. I tell myself, I was so good at sticking to my bedtime routine until I just stopped. And I started giving into that impulsive for just five more minutes.

Resisting Vs. Allowing An Urge

And the reason why this kind of resisting and white-knuckling approach doesn’t work, is because we only have so much willpower stored up before it needs to recharge. And that’s totally fine. Nothing’s gone wrong here. But today I want to talk about a different way to help us navigate these impulses. It’s a way that doesn’t use so much of our willpower, which makes it easier to follow through on our original plans even into the evening after most of our willpower reserves have been used up for the day. 

But before we dig in, I want to share an analogy that my teacher – Brooke Castillos – often gives when it comes to allowing versus resisting urges or impulses. And the analogy is one of holding a beach ball underwater. 

So when you resist that impulse. When you resist that urge to check your email or go on social media or buy the thing, it’s kind of like holding a beach ball under the water. You can hold it down. And you can probably hold it down for a while depending on the size of that beachball. But you still have to exert effort to do so. It’s not going to stay under the water forever. Eventually, when you release your grip on the beach ball, it is going to pop-up and surface. This is very similar to when we resist and tell ourselves no and white knuckle the urges, we eventually stop holding them at arms length and give in as the urge surfaces.

Beach Ball Example

So what we want to learn to do instead is let that impulse or that urge – in this case, the beach ball – float next to us in the water. We’re not going to push it away. We’re not going to hold it under the water. Instead, we’re just going to let that feeling of the urge be there, floating next to us. And eventually, it will drift away with the tide and that impulse will dissipate. But we need to be willing to sit with it rather than pushing it away and rather than giving into it.

That’s where we have to be willing to sit in the discomfort of that urge until it dissipates.  Until the beach ball floats away with the tide. We have to be willing to notice the urge before we act on it, and rather than giving into it, we instead notice how the urge feels in our body – remember an urge or an impulse is just like any other emotion in our body. And we simply notice it without acting on it. It’s a bit like noticing an itch without scratching it. Eventually, it will go away. It’s not going to keep itching forever, right? 

Increase Awareness

So what does this look like? How can we learn to allow our impulses? How can we strengthen our self-discipline without needing to deplete our energy reserves so that we can rely on this consistently? Well, the first thing we need to do is raise our awareness of them. Because often, we don’t even notice we’ve given into the urge until after we’ve done it. Think about how many times you’ve picked up your phone and opened your email or social media without even intentionally deciding to do so. We need to raise our awareness of what we’re doing, first. And then we’ll lean how to sit with that impulse without acting on it.

Today I want to share with you some of the different strategies that I use with my clients. I also use them myself whenever these impulses come up. Each one is intended to help us raise our awareness of what’s going on, rather than just giving in to the knee-jerk urge. It helps us pause before we take those actions. This allows us to think more intentionally about how we want to show up. 

And one reminder that I want to make here as well is that this takes practice. It takes practice to raise our awareness and even notice it’s happening in the first place. So give yourself time to practice these strategies and explore which ones work well for you. And if you give into the impulse anyway, all that means is you’re human, and you’re still strengthening that muscle. You can learn from it and try again. NO sweat.

So with that, let’s dive in. 

Label Your Thought

The first strategy I want to explore focuses on identifying and labeling the thoughts that create the feeling or impulse in your body. Because remember, when we think about the Model – self coaching tool that I talk about on this podcast – our thoughts create our feelings. We have a circumstance in our life, which we then have a thought about. And that thought creates a feeling in our body, which then drives our actions.

So with this strategy, we are raising our awareness and identifying the thoughts that create that feeling of the urge in our bodies. And this can be such a game-changer for impulse control because it helps remove the urgency. It’s another way to create separation between your thought, the feeling of the urge, and the action you take.

So you want to stick to your schedule, but you have the urge to check your email and your toddler brain offers the thought, “it will only take a second. I just want to see if so and so replied to my email,” then we can pause and label that thought for what it is. We might think, “I notice I’m thinking the thought ‘it will only take a second.’” Or I notice I’m thinking, “I just want to see if so and so replied to my email.”

Create a Pause

In other words, we are creating a little hurdle – a little pause point – to help put our executive brain in charge again. It’s helping us pull in our prefrontal cortex, the decision making part of our brain that can make rational decisions about what we really want. And we’re doing this by simply identifying our thoughts as THOUGHTS rather than just truths that we have to follow. These thoughts are optional, and we don’t have to do them. We don’t have to check.

Or let’s say you want to save money for a vacation this fall, but you’re out at Target and you see something on the clearance endcap. And you see it and think to yourself, it’s on sale! It’s only $5. “it’s not that big of a deal.” or “I want that.” And you feel the urge or the impulse to throw it in your cart and buy it. Again, you can label it as a thought. I notice I’m thinking the thought, “it’s only $5.” I’m noticing I’m thinking the thought, “it’s not that big of a deal to spend XYZ.”

If you’re deciding whether or not you write your paper for class, you can think to yourself, I notice I am thinking, “I don’t want to. It’s too hard. Or it’s too boring or I’d rather go outside for a walk.” I notice I’m thinking the thought, “it’s too hard.” This thought is optional. It is not the objective truth.

Evaluate The Thought

And then the powerful followup question – since we just pushed pause on the impulse – is to ask ourselves: “Is this thought helpful or unhelpful for my long term goals?” Again, “Is this thought helpful or unhelpful for my long term goals of passing my class or saving for vacation?” Most often the answer is no, and this further helps us create a long enough pause to reconsider.

And you can use this strategy with any kind of urge or impulse. (I’m using these words interchangeably.) So if you’re trying to cut gluten from your diet because it makes you feel terrible. Maybe you see some fresh bread on the counter and your toddler brain thinks, “just one slicel won’t be the end of the world.” You can again label it as a thought with something like, “I notice I’m thinking the thought it won’t be the end of the world.” Is this thought helpful or unhelpful in my goal of not feeling sick all the time?

And if the separation is a challenge, and you just blow past it. If your toddler brain is still in control and you still want to do the things anyway, you can also pretend you’re asking someone else. Would my coach label this as helpful or unhelpful? Would Paula label this as a helpful or unhelpful thought?  If you have a role model in the area that you’re working, this can also work. For example, if you’re paying off debt using the Dave Ramsey method, you could ask yourself, “would Dave Ramsey label this as a helpful thought?”

So I encourage you to think about where you notice the impulses in your life. Notice where you would love to exercise a little more self control. And think about how you could use this strategy of labeling the thought to help create a pause point in between the feeling of the urge and acting on it. 

Advice From Your Future Self

Now the last way that I’ll share today to help us create that space and be more intentional about the urge is thinking to your future self and thinking through whether they would want you to give into the impulse in the future. 

Now with this strategy, I love to ask myself a handful of questions. And if possible, it’s even more effective when you can journal about it. So I am going to read these questions and then talk through it. 

  1. Thinking from my future self 1 year from now or 3 years from now, what does she say I should do in this moment? 
  2. What is the impact of taking this action? If I gave into the impulse, what are the consequences?
  3. Are there any benefits to following this impulse?
  4. How will I feel about this an hour from now? A week from now? A month from now? A year from now?
  5. Does doing this thing help me achieve my bigger goals?
  6. Does doing this thing hold me back from reaching any other goals I have in my life?

Examples

If you’re in school and you have a paper due, but you also REALLY want to finish the latest season of whatever is on Netflix, you could pause and check in with yourself. What does future-you, after the semester is over, say that you should do? Do they recommend binging the series?  Are there benefits to watching this series? How will you feel about this an hour after the series is done? What about tomorrow? What about a week or month from now?

Does this contradict the goal I have about doing well in this class?

Some of my clients are working on health and wellness goals right now, and this is a powerful one for that type of situation, too. Let’s say you really want to sleep in and skip your yoga session or you really want to eat the pasta dish despite it being a nightmare for someone sensitive to gluten.

Again, you can ask yourself: what does my future self 1 year from now or 3 years from now say? What does she recommend I do in this moment? What is the impact of eating the gluten dish? Are there benefits to giving into this impulse? Are there benefits to eating the pasta? It would probably taste good in the moment, but does that outweigh the long term impact?

Similarly, how will I feel about eating the gluten pasta an hour from now? A week from now? A month from now? A year from now? What is the goal of eating this? What am I trying to fulfill here? Does eating this pasta help me achieve my goal of not feeling sick all the time? 

So looking to your future self is one more incredibly powerful way to create that pause point and chose with greater intention how you want to show up and move forward.

Recap

So as a quick recap, the first strategy to help us be more intentional about our impulses is to label the thought for what it is. I notice I’m thinking the thought, it will only take 5 minutes. And then following up with: is this thought helpful or unhelpful? These questions help create the first pause point for you to reconsider your decisions. 

The second strategy is to figure out what you really want. When you sit with the discomfort and don’t give into the urge, what feelings come up? What thoughts come up? What is the feeling you’re really seeking by hopping on social media or getting a snack or procrastiworking? And how can you generate that feeling for yourself as you stick with your current plan?

And the third strategy is thinking to your future self and checking in with what they think you should do. Is giving into impulse shopping helping you reach your larger goals? Will you still want that $5 clearance item 1 month from now? 1 year from now? What would future you advise in that moment?

It takes practice

Now as I mentioned, this is absolutely a practice. Learning to navigate impulses and allow those urges rather than resisting them does not happen overnight. This is something I worked on with my coach for weeks and weeks, and it’s a major focus when I work with my clients on follow through and sticking with their plans as well. So if you notice yourself feeling frustrated or you only notice that you gave into the urge AFTER the fact, it’s not a problem. It is a process of learning how to increase your awareness, allowing space to pause and reconsider your actions, and perhaps the most challenging part of all is learning how to sit with the uncomfortable emotions, and intentionally decide from your future self – your executive brain – how you want to show up. 

So give yourself grace. Be patient with yourself. And keep practicing! And if you notice yourself struggling with urges and impulses and you want to strengthen your self-control with extra support and tools, be sure to sign up for a consultation at imbusybeingawesome.com/coaching and we’ll talk about how we can make that happen for you.