How to Create A Routine With ADHD + 7 Ways To Stick To It

“No matter what I do, I can’t make it stick…”

Does your brain offer this thought when you think about establishing a new routine? 

You’re not alone.

While routines are intended to make life easier…

(And when we lock them in, they often do!)

…for those of us with ADHD, simply thinking about establishing a new routine can bring up resistance.

Our brain slips into all-or-nothing, believing we have to follow our routines perfectly or not at all. 

Meanwhile, we completely overlook the fact that most routines are built for a neurotypical brain…not a brain with ADHD.

Here’s what I’ve found to be true.

We don’t need to feel resistant or discouraged. 

In fact, by using just seven steps, we can begin establishing and maintaining our routines as we powerfully support our brains.

Want to know what those steps are?

Awesome. Because that’s exactly what we’re talking about on episode 170 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast.

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 #170, How To Create a Routine with ADHD, You’ll Discover:

  • Why we have a love-hate relationship with routines
  • The benefits of establishing regular routines in our life
  • Powerful strategies to get your routines to stick

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Episode #170: How to Create a Routine with ADHD & Stick To It (Transcript)

how to create a routine when you have ADHD

Today we’re talking about routines and more specifically, we’re talking about daily routines and how to build one for YOUR ADHD brain so you can make it stick.

If you’re tempted to skip this episode because you either have a complete aversion to routines because they sound entirely too restrictive OR you believe you can’t possibly stick to them and you’ve already tried everything before, stick with me. This episode has your name on it.

We’ve all been there, right?

We decided to create a new routine, and we built it from our perfectionist fantasy selves in a productive flurry of inspiration.

We follow it for a day or two, but then one thing slips and the brain begins spinning.

It gets overwhelming with all-or-nothing thinking and we tell ourselves, I have to do this perfectly or not at all. And since the routine is built for a robot… the response is “not at all.” 

Having A Good Routine Helps Us

Studies have shown there are benefits in having SOME kind of routine.

As we talk about today, having some level of structure on a regular basis can help reduce:

  • Stress levels
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of overwhelm
  • Distraction – because the brain is not making so many unnecessary decisions every minute of the day

When we find routines that work for our brain, they provide the structure and organization that many of our brains crave. 

When we establish these routines, no matter how simple, they provide anchors for good mental health.

But how do we actually stick with them?

I know you listeners. So many of you have a brain like mine and you love the IDEA of making a routine and creating the perfect schedule… but when it comes to sticking with it, that’s another story altogether. And while we may power through for a few weeks, unless we’ve put the supports in place, the “sticking with it” part gets a bit more challenging. 

That’s what we’re talking about today. What it means to have a routine, the many compelling reasons why so many brains can benefit from them, and what we can do to create a routine that lasts.

Let’s get started by talking about what having a routine really means.

What Does Routine Actually Mean?

It’s no secret that books and social media posts and podcasts love to tell us what our routine should look like. (And as a side note, it is not lost on me that I am one of those podcasts doing a version of this very thing in this episode.

So as I say over and over – take what serves you and supports your brain and leave the rest.) 

There are so many people out there sharing what they think your morning routine should look like.

Now unlike what I’m sharing today, many of these suggestions can be quite strict and rather intense…

  • Wake up at 5 AM after a solid 8 hours of sleep
  • Drink lemon-infused water
  • Go to the gym and run 5 miles
  • Drink a green smoothie made from items grown in your own garden
  • Meditate blissfully for 45 minutes
  • Journal
  • Read a chapter from a personal development book
  • and somehow be dressed and ready for the day by the time work begins! 

On top of this type of messaging, people pair these routines with success.

We’re told that the only way to be successful is to have a routine that looks exactly like these other successful people.

Our ADHD brains, which love all-or-nothing thinking, decide that we must follow this perfect routine, too.

Once we can follow this “perfect routine”, that will be the solution to all of our problems.

We go all-in for a few days, only to find ourselves completely stretched thin, struggling to keep up with everything, and more than ready to throw in the towel.

I know I’m not alone here. I’m guessing we can all relate to some version of this experience – even if it’s not that extreme.

What I’d also wager is that after stopping the routine, many of us tend to blame ourselves; we start seeing ourselves as the problem, and we start believing thoughts like…

“I’m just not someone who sticks to routines. I don’t do routines. I can’t stick to anything.”

Now here’s what’s also true.

By and large, what social media doesn’t remind us is that routines are not a one size fits all.

As I say over and over on the podcast, no two brains are the same.

We each approach things in our own unique way. So, our routines need to be equally unique.

What works for you won’t necessarily work for me.

So, what want to offer to you today is this…

Yes, routines are powerful, however there is not one right way to do them.

We want to personalize your routine to you and your goals and your brain for it to work. 

We Have Different Kinds Of Routines 

woman writing in notebook

Routines come in all different shapes and sizes.

We have monthly, weekly, daily, and time-of-day routines.

So how do we know what we need?

How can we develop an effective routine for ourselves?

Well, first, I want to back up and talk about what the word routine means. (You all know my brain loves a good definition)

Oxford Languages defines routine as a “sequence of actions followed regularly.”

In other words, routine is a fixed program.

It is the usual way we do things, often at a certain time of day, and done in a certain order.

Routine is not defined as the set of actions everyone must do, like the ONLY morning routine is waking up at 5:00 AM, working out, meditating, and cooking breakfast, all before 8:00. That’s fantasy thinking.

YOU are the one who gets to choose the activities in your routine, when you do them, and how often you do them. 

Now, it is tempting to make a complex and highly detailed routine. But overcomplicating it to reach “perfection” is – again – bringing in the all-or-nothing thinking.

We’ll tell ourselves, I have to do it perfectly or not at all. And when our “human” inevitably shows, we’ll likely start telling ourselves something like, “ugh – there I go again. I can never stick with it.” and feel frustrated or discouraged. 

What I want to offer instead, is that developing your ideal routine can be simple.

Habits & Routines: What’s The Difference?

woman morning routine

To start, I want to highlight an important distinction between routine and habit.

Many of us – myself included – occasionally see the worlds as interchangeable. But similar to how we talked about the difference between effectiveness and efficiency several weeks back, there’s also an important difference between a habit and a routine.

This difference is found in the level of awareness and intention. 

A habit is a behavior that we perform with little or no thought. It genuinely seems like it’s on autopilot.

On the other hand, a routine is a series of actions that we do regularly with repeated intention.

Routines require conscious repetition. In other words, both habits and routines are regular actions that we take, but routines need a higher degree of effort and intention compared to the almost automatic nature of the habit. 

For example, with habits, we have a particular cue that triggers the behavior.

We see something – the cue – and the cue triggers the brain to enter automatic mode and perform the habit, which we then do.

For example, for many people, getting in the car and closing the door – the cue – is followed by automatically putting on your seat belt. Many of us do it without even realizing it; it’s become habit. 

Routine, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily depend entirely on cues.

For example, just because it’s 7:30 on Tuesday doesn’t mean your brain will automatically trigger your legs to walk to your Pilates class.

There is more thought involved when starting out.

Now, this next bit is important…

For most behaviors to actually become habits, we need to regularly practice them in a routine first.

We need to practice those behaviors paired with the cues repeatedly to help deepen that neural pathway making it much easier and less taxing on the brain.

The reason why I’m spending some time here is that a lot of us try to bypass the “routine” phase and instead just form a habit.

We view habits as this fast pass to doing boring tasks on autopilot.

We think to ourselves, “if I just had a habit of meditating each morning, I’d have so much more clarity when I start my day.” We believe that we wouldn’t have to experience so much resistance if we could just turn this behavior into a habit. And that last part is true!

Habits can help alleviate the resistance. In fact, I have some habits so ingrained that it feels really uncomfortable NOT to do them. With that said, these habits didn’t form immediately. They had to go through the routine phase first. 

the early stages of establishing a routine are uncomfortable

They hold a big demand on our brain, which makes skipping them even easier since they’re not yet automatic.

That doesn’t mean we can’t get there. However, I do want to highlight this for all of you who have a brain like mine that thinks, “I’ve been doing this two days in a row, why isn’t this easy and a habit yet?!”

You’re in good company, and we can get there., but it takes persistence of returning to the routine often and coaching your brain along the way when the resistance comes up.


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The Benefits of Routine – Especially for Those With ADHD

Why do we even want a routine in the first place? Let’s look at some of the actual data behind this so we’re not just thinking, “I know I should do a routine – everyone says so.”

Instead, you can have the actual data and make the decisions for yourself based on what you find the most compelling.

It’s no secret that many people have found success in their different routines.

  • Oprah Winfrey has her meditation routine
  • Mark Wahlberg has his 2:30 AM morning routine
  • Charles Dickens had his daily walk routine

They don’t have to be super elaborate or extreme – I’m not telling you to get up at 2:30, but there are data to support the impact of having some routines established. 

Lower stress levels

As many of us with ADHD or ADHD tendencies know, it’s easy for the brain to slip into overwhelm and get stuck in the spin cycle thinking about unfinished tasks – especially when we don’t have a place to capture them.

With that in mind, introducing routines can help us regulate our emotions more effectively by establishing a sense of control and certainty in what otherwise feels like an unpredictable day. In other words, routines can help provide a certain level of predictability by taking the guesswork out of the day. 

Better sleep

This is a triggering one for many of us who really struggle with bedtime, so please don’t use this data against yourself.

Having a routine that involves getting up and going to sleep at relatively the same time each day helps set the body’s natural clock which, in turn, helps us get better sleep.

Better sleep quality enhances our executive functions so much, which of course impacts our overall well-being, energy levels, and performance.

Again, please make sure you’re hearing the data and not the should. I did not say you have to go to bed at 9 and wake up at 5.

If you’re naturally a night person, we can find ways to honor that.

What I did say is having a relatively regular sleep schedule of wake and sleep times to ensure you’re getting enough sleep is the thing that matters most.

Improves Time Management

Having a regular routine and can also help us with managing our time.

For those of us who are time blind and struggle to know how long things take, it can be very easy to simply guess how long things will take.

If you’re anything like me, you likely grossly underestimate the time we actually need for the task at hand.

But when we can lock in a routine and use it with some regularity, it allows us to have more predictability around how much time we actually need to get out the door on time, to get ready for bed, to prepare for your Monday meeting each week, etc. 

For example: To get ready to go in the morning, I need about 2 hours with all the different steps in my routine. Walking Bruno, getting ready, having breakfast, etc. I can do it in an hour and 45 minutes, but I greatly prefer 2 hours.

The extra 15 minutes gives me some wiggle room. So on any given day, if I have something planned in the morning, I know to work my way backward at least 2 hours to ensure I have the time to follow my morning routine and get ready for the day.

Improved decision-making

When you establish a routine, that means you’ve already made several decisions ahead of time.

This is a game changer, as when you make your decisions ahead of time, you save so much brain power, which you can then focus on other things.

You’re able to focus your energy and your attention on the bigger projects and tasks because you’ve already established your workflow to get you through the more mundane or day to day minutiae. 

More space for fun and play

You can use routines to create more space for fun and play and rest.

Just as you might establish a morning routine to help set you up for the day, or you follow up shut-down routine that allows you to wrap up the day’s tasks and plan for the following day ahead, you can also build in routine for doing the things you love. I was talking with one of my clients the other day, and he wants to incorporate at least one fun adventure a week.

When I was a nanny throughout grad school, every Friday we went to get ice cream after school from this awesome frozen yogurt shop that gave you ice cream cones the size of your head. (I don’t know if the shop is still there, but for anybody living in the Boston area, it was a little shop called Truly Yogurt in Wellesley.) 

It could look like date night with your partner every week or maybe you have a regular call with your best friend every Saturday. It might also be a daily routine, like reading 20 minutes from the book you picked up at the library every night after the kids go to bed. 

These routines are not only for enhancing your efficiency and saving time, but also to ensure that you’re filling your cup doing the things that you love as well.

Because for many go-getters and high achievers listening to this podcast, fun and rest are usually the first thing to go.

They’re the first thing we put on the back burner andI love the idea of making a routine out of these areas that we often overlook.

Yes, we push against them and yes it takes extra intention to get these routines established. However once we do, many of us find that routines can help manage our ADHD symptoms, improve our productivity, and generally benefit our overall well-being. 

It’s no secret that many of us tend to navigate overwhelm, thinking we have way too much to do. And we often pair that with a lot of time scarcity, convinced that time is running out. So when we can establish daily routines, it’s a powerful way to help us create a sense of certainty and predictability in a way that feels supportive for our brain. 

Again, we need to make sure we’re creating the routine that’s best for you. You don’t need to fit your brain into a neurotypical box. We don’t need to follow a specific routine just because someone else said it’s the secret to success.

Find the routine that YOU love that works for your brain. We want to find the things that support you the most. 

Optimize the ideal level of choice, the amount of stimulating activities, and the freedom and flexibility your brain craves. Because some people want very clear black-and-white rules with very few choices while others of us find that kind of structure restricting and our inner rebel pushes back. So we want to find the balance that’s supportive for you. 

Why We Resist Routines

Let’s think about that inner rebel.

I was talking with a client yesterday, and she said to me “I love the idea of routines so much, and my brain thrives on them when I find the ones that work for me, yet I rebel against nearly every one.”

I know this is relatable for so many of us. But why is that? 

A lot of us have stories that we are terrible with routines and can’t stick to them.

We’ve tried to fit ourselves into routines not built for our brains or the goals that we want to achieve, so we haven’t had the deeper reason why we want to stick with them. And so we don’t, which we’ve made to mean that we’re bad at routines, we never stick to them, and therefore resist setting one up.

We’ve decided ahead of time that they’re not supportive and we don’t like them from a more “All or Nothing” “love it or hate it” perspective, rather than a sense of curiosity to find what could be supportive for you.

Additionally, since many of our brains are more impulsive and filled with ideas, we often find ourselves thinking,

“if something comes up, I want to freedom to do it. I want to follow those nudges and not have the constraint of a routine”; or

“It feels like I don’t have any control because I have to stick to this routine. It’s the routine that has control over me.”

And I hear this. But again, what I’ve found to be true is when we can find the routine with the ideal level of support for you, with the flexibility you like, and we release the “shoulds” of what you think you “should” do or “have to” do, but build a routine around what feels awesome for you, that’s where you take control over your day. And you are in the driver’s seat.

We don’t have to follow the routines that the productivity gurus say are guaranteed for success, and this is especially true because these systems we’ve been taught are generally optimized for neurotypical people.

While it can seem challenging to really tap into what YOU want and make sure it’s not some conditioned programming you think you “should” want, it’s really powerful work to do.

When we can release these beliefs, that’s when we can open up to finding the systems and supports that work best for us.

And – as always – if you’re feeling stuck about how to do that, I’d love to have you join us in We’re Busy Being Awesome where we’re guided by this framework of learning to work with YOUR brain to do the things you want. Head to imbusybeingawesome.com/group to learn more and enroll for the next cohort.


Want To Join Our Group Coaching Program?!

I will be opening the doors for the next cohort of We’re Busy Being Awesome in a couple of weeks!

Add your name to the waitlist so you’ll be the first to know about program dates and times, plus how you can sign up if it’s a great fit for you.


What Good ADHD Routines Can Look Like

Without a routine, what do our days look like?

For many of us, we can feel pretty rushed and stressed. It might look like…

  • Hopping out of bed 45 minutes before you have to be at work
  • You throw on some clothes
  • Brush your teeth
  • Scoop some food in your cat’s dish
  • Rush out the door without any food for yourself because it’s a 30-minute commute on good-traffic days. 

However, when we can incorporate a routine with enough time for each step – even when we keep it simple and manageable, it can make a huge shift in our day-to-day experience.

Same basic structure with a few minor adjustments

  • You wake up
  • Brush your teeth (3 minutes)
  • Get ready (20 minutes)
  • Feed your cat while you brew a cup of coffee (5 minutes)
  • Make some oatmeal in the microwave (3 minutes)
  • Eat (10 minutes)
  • Get in the car and head to work (30 – 45 minutes)
woman walking to work

By breaking down how much time you need for each step, and allowing additional space for breathing room and traffic, you’re already setting yourself up for a more effortless start to the day. And again, notice how the routine doesn’t have to be complex to be beneficial. 

A routine can be simple and supportive at the same time. And I  keep repeating this because our brains love to overcomplicate and perfect.

We don’t have to wake up 5 hours before work to go to the gym, tidy up the whole house, meditate, read a book, and then bike to work. That’s just not realistic for most humans – certainly not me.

What’s important about the routine are the repetitive actions that help point you in the direction of your long game goals and objectives.

Whether you want to be more grounded and intentional in your decision-making, or start your day at work on time, or make more space to connect with friends, or have new adventures that provide that exciting rush of dopamine, the secret lies in the actions you include in your routine.

This is why we want your routine to be personalized and simple. We want it personalized to YOU so your brain sees a reason to stick with it, and simple so we can stick with it more easily when the novelty wears off.

How To Create a Routine You Can Stick To – When You Have ADHD

alarm clock

So you’ve figured out the routine that YOU want. Now what are some ways we can remind ourselves to follow the steps and make it stick? Because let’s be real – obstacles will absolutely come up. So let’s have some tools in our back pockets to help us move forward. 

1. Make Simple Changes

First of all, start small. If you’re starting from scratch, challenge yourself to avoid changing everything at once. We want to build our way there one step at a time.

2. Set Alarms

Many of us need something to help jog our memory of what we had planned to do, to keep us moving along throughout the day, and staying on track with our plans.

Timers, reminders, and alarms can be our best friends when it comes to routine. 

One of my clients last year was a huge fan of the Routinist app. This helps you time out your routines and keep you moving along with them.

You can use your phone alarm as a reminder to move to the next step, and I’m sure many of you already use one to start your day.

I avoid relying on the phone as much as possible to reduce the amount of times I’ll get sucked in.

So I use my physical time timer to time my tasks and know when to stitch to the next thing.

Similarly, I use an actual alarm clock that’s a light alarm clock – meaning it glows like the sunrise. This wakes me up rather than my phone alarm. Therefore, I’m not tempted to scroll first thing in the morning. I’m also way less crabby waking up from the light than I am from a loud alarm.

So again, finding the tools that work well for you is key. 

3. Make It Visual

Write down your routine on a piece of paper or calendar and tape it somewhere you’ll always see it.

In addition to the paper, you could use something like the routinist app or put it in your calendar or the reminder app on your phone. 

4. Do Things At The Same Time Every Day

As you establish your routine, aim to stick with regular times as much as possible.

For example… If your goal is to wake up at 7:00 each morning, aim for a 15-30 minute window of that time. Same goes for eating lunch at a certain time, ending your work day, calling your friend, going to bed, etc. 

I know this is easier said than done, but when we start small, we’ve built the routine in a way that’s supportive of your brain. This means you’re coaching yourself or getting coached on the obstacles that come up along the way, it is possible to lean into a more regular time frame.

5. Be Flexible

On the flip side – because often opposite truths can both be true – allow room for flexibility, too.

We can aim for sticking to a certain time or meditating 4 days per week. But also, sometimes life happens and we don’t follow through.

That’s okay. It’s not all-or-nothing.

Just because we miss one day doesn’t mean we need to throw in the towel.

Allow yourself the flexibility to come back to it. It’s not a problem. 

6. Make it Personal

Again, your routine is for you and only for you. Optimize it to support your brain and your objectives. 

7. Celebrate Your Progress 

There’s no doubt; establishing and sticking with a routine takes work. And that’s why it’s so important to recognize your progress along the way.

  • Notice when you’re trying.
  • Notice when you’re following through.
  • Notice when you’re showing up – even if your brain says you’re doing it imperfectly.

Let that be more than enough and focus on the gain rather than the gap.

Want a reminder of how to do this? Check back to episode 136, which is a deep dive into productivity and recognizing your growth and progress each day.

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