Routine: a love-hate relationship

Want a clean home? Devise a housekeeping routine and stick to it. Struggle to fall asleep or wake up tired and unrefreshed? Sort out your bedtime routine. Finally decided to complete Couch to 5K? No, me neither, but I bet if you did then the key to progressing from beginner to runner would be that R word again.

Ah, routine. Can’t live with it, struggle to function without it.

Why is it such a big deal? Start reading about the defining characteristics of autism and you’ll soon come across statements such as ‘repetitive or restrictive behaviours and interests’ or ‘struggles to cope with change’. In real terms, this might refer to the child who will only eat sandwiches cut into squares or watch one particular TV programme over and over, or the adult who will panic if they have to take a different route to work or the bus is late.

In a tumultuous, confusing world full of contradictions and surprises, where cause and effect are often illogical from an autistic perspective, the comfort found in the security of a routine makes perfect sense, of course. It may be impossible to control the environment but here is a corner that is dependable, that is safe, because it stays the same. However …

Add ADHD into the mix and you’ve likely got a brain that seesaws continuously between the need for the stability and security of routine and the excitement and unpredictability of the novel and the unknown. Meal planning feels like two angry rams locking horns over a fence. Knowing that routine and schedules could make life easier and yet resisting them at every turn is particularly difficult to deal with.

Why does this happen? Many reasons, probably. Executive function difficulties, like planning and prioritising, make it hard to identify what to work on, and the continual flip-flopping between hyperfocus and no-focus-at-all means that even if I start to create a routine I am likely to either become overwhelmed by the scope of the task and give up, or find that I spend all of my time obsessing over the details and forget the big picture. Or I’m equally likely to become distracted by something else altogether.*

Biologically, an ADHD brain is always seeking stimulation – new experiences, excitement, change – to compensate for inherent deficiencies in specific neurotransmitters, and a predictable, inflexible routine is not going to provide the stimulation my brain needs to avoid feeling bad.

The psychological demands of routines – even, or perhaps especially, those that are self-imposed – should not be underestimated. Knowing that I ‘have’ to do a daily HIIT workout** activates all sorts of demand avoidance schemes and subplots, and before you know it I’ve come up with multiple reasons why I can’t/mustn’t do that exercise today, even thought I am aware of the benefits.

There is also the heavy weight of personal history to carry when a new routine is set up optimistically, only to be abandoned after a couple of days. How many times have friends or family members commented sarcastically when you’ve declared that you’re going to start doing x, y or z, with ‘Oh is that your latest brilliant idea?’ ‘Wonder if it will last longer than the previous ones?’ ‘I don’t know why you’re bothering, you’ll only give up.’

Finally, time seems to operate on a different plane with ADHD. There is not really any objective, imaginable future to plan for but instead time seems to be only the binary now or not now. If I feel the urge to do something now, in this moment, then I can do it, but I cannot say with any certainty whether I will have any desire to do the thing in any future moment, and if the will is lacking then it would be an uphill struggle to convince my brain that there is any merit in completing the activity, especially if the reward is not immediate or sufficient.

Even though I am well aware that having a meal plan would free up a significant amount of mental processing time that is otherwise spent deliberating over what to shop for and what to cook, I have accepted that my brain is not wired to thrive on fish pie every Tuesday.

*I left this part-written for three days whilst learning to crochet because I’d come across a pattern for a beaded necklace whilst researching something else (I forget what).

**Clearly fictional.

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