I just can’t find a system that works. I try something and it works for a few weeks, and then I just stop using it.
People tell me this all the time. Often, it’s the reason they call me. So what I’m about to say might just put me out of a job, but I’ll take the risk.
There is nothing wrong with your system. There is nothing wrong with you. Quite often, the problem is simply that the novelty has worn off.
Your bright, shiny, exciting new system starts to lose its luster, and is no longer bright, shiny, exciting or new. If you have an ADHD brain that needs an extra jolt of novelty, fun, drama, or whatever your stimulation-of-choice is, then your brain will stop attending to your system. This can happen to people without ADHD, too.
So what to do? Instead of putting your energy into self-flagellation and hours of time researching new systems, let’s put that time and energy into sustaining your current systems.
First, rest assured, the problem probably won’t last forever. At least not for each individual system. Eventually, there will come a time when you have created such deep wagon ruts in your brain that you will use your system on auto-pilot. I mean, you probably remember to brush your teeth and put on your pants before you leave the house, right? Yeah, I know there are those days… but let’s claim success if you do it 90% of the time.
The trick to creating sustainable systems is to keep sustaining your attention to the system, until it is a fully integrated ritual. Automating the habit can take a long time! Forget the advice about 21 days. Sometimes it takes 21 weeks, or even longer.
Okay, so I know that sustaining attention is part of the problem, and here I am, asking you to do just that. We’ll need to build in supports.
Support #1: Reminders to use the system. Do whatever works. Here’s a list of possible reminders:
- Pop-ups on your phone
- Calendar or task list entries
- Sticky notes
- Emails sent to yourself
- Voicemails sent to your home or office phone
- Engaging another person as an accountability partner
- “Piggy-backing” the new behavior onto already established habits
- Leave something out of place that will cue you to remember to do the new thing
Get creative and try anything. You may have to use a combination of things, but don’t expect yourself to remember without any other prompts.
Support #2: Regular time to reflect on your system. Try not to go more than one week without taking 5 minutes to reflect on what’s happening with your system. Here are some possible scenarios:
- All okay. Great! Jot down a few notes about how well the system is working for you. Take those 5 minutes to fully appreciate all the good things that are becoming possible because of this new system. Keep up the good work and make a date to check in next week.
- You’re still working the system and it seems to have potential, but there are a few problems. Evaluate what might make it better, and tweak things as necessary. Check back in a week.
- Not working AT ALL. You’ve tried, and you hate it. You can’t fathom keeping this up one more day. Okay, maybe you do need a system that is a better fit. It happens. This is a trial and error process. Reflect on what makes this particular system a deal-breaker, and see if you can devise something more appropriate. But don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water. If there was anything good, try to retain those positive features.
- Things were working well, and then all of a sudden, you stopped using the system. It might be possible that something unexpected happened, and you got off track. Did you get sick? Crazy week at work? House guests? Take note of what derailed you, and resume using the system. More likely, the novelty started to wear off.
The novelty has worn off, and it’s time to change things up, just a bit. I briefly mentioned this phenomenon here, but the wonderful ADHD Coach, Casey Dixon, addressed it more thoroughly in her blog post on “micro-changes.” She recommends you change one tiny aspect–the color of the paper, the location, the lighting in the room. Change one tiny thing to keep your system fresh.
So instead of abandoning systems and blaming yourself, try shifting your resources toward making the time to work the system. “Working the system” includes evaluating what’s working well, resuming it when you get derailed, tweaking parts that could work better, and most importantly, using micro-changes to keep it fresh.