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  • Writer's pictureMegan Buck

3 Things You Need to Know About Why Routines Don't Work

This month in the Empowered Student Circle, we're creating Systems that will help us manage our time and execute our plans. We're building these skills through thoughtful questioning and reflection. Students are not only engaging in reflection activities led by yours truly but are also coaching me through scenarios that are super common within their own experiences and with their peers. This month we're working on Systems, and reflecting on why routines haven't worked for us in the past. If you're trying this at home, please be sure to find a neutral time and space to have this conversation, as tensions can get high when talking bout struggle areas, especially if your kiddo has ADHD.

When it comes to routines and plans, I wish I could tell you that there was a magic tool to help you stay organized, get started with your day, or get ready for bed and actually feel ready for whatever it is. But sadly, mileage varies on all tips and tricks that you find out there. Agendas work for some people and get added to the "doom piles" for others. So, how do we navigate this struggle of needing a schedule, or working towards organization? We create a system, instead of a routine.

Problem 1: Routines tend to be time-based.

For example:

  • 7:30 - wake up

  • 7:45 - bathroom, wash face, brush teeth, shower

  • 8:00 - breakfast

  • 8:20 - head to work... Etc.

The problem with this type of routine, for people who struggle with Executive Functioning, is that time aphasia, or time blindness, can really hinder their ability to stick with it. A neurodivergent might see 7:30 wake up and 7:45 shower on their routine, but if 7:46 rolls around, they see the step as lost and can't move forward with the routine and the rest is lost.

Systems allow for a flexible timeframe of morning, afternoon, and evening. Or however, you like to break up your days. I have a system in place for things to do before breakfast, before lunch, and before dinner. On a high-energy day (see more in step 2 about this), I may even have things in my system to do right before bed.

Problem 2: Routines might also be based on rigidity with no flexibility or space for novelty.

There may be some days where I need coffee before I can shower or some days where I don't want to eat breakfast - Then what do I do with the rest of my morning? Another struggle of those with Executive Dysfunction, or ADHD, is that we don't know what our energy levels will be like when we wake up. There are some days when all pistons are firing at full speed and we can take on the world, but then there are days when even tying shoes can feel like moving a mountain. So we need space for our high-energy and low-energy days.

Systems allow for choice during the time frames that we've set. For example, there may be mornings when brushing our teen feels like the end of the world - so we allow for the choice of simply using mouthwash. Listen, I know it's not the same and I know it neglects parts of hygiene - but it's better than doing nothing. And sometimes, that's how a system catches us from slipping into the freeze zone that happens so often with Executive Dysfunction. Allowing for a low-energy choice that's a decent alternative within the system, helps it work for us - not against us.

Problem 3: Routines require independence.

Whether we like it or not, those who struggle with EF, especially those with ADHD, need a lifeline every once in a while. Without support in place, we set ourselves up for failure. Independence has to be a skill that is built when we look at Executive Dysfunction - it can't be forced or thrust upon anyone. In order to build independence, we have to teach how and when to ask for support. Routines expect that time and predictability will ensure independence and success, but when we struggle with EF, those two things are actually our biggest hindrance. So in order for a system to be followed we build in supports or have a list of lifelines for certain tasks.

Systems allow for the structure of support and rely on reaching out for support when needed. When we make a system for the morning, with high and low-energy choices for moving forward with our day, we can also ask for a body double - having someone else in the bathroom with us while we brush our teeth will help make our brains move forward in the right direction. Having someone else in the kitchen in the morning will help us eat breakfast. Systems work with our Executive Functioning, and Routines work against it.

So, how do we set up a system that works for you?

1. Break up your day into pieces that make sense for you. Does your workday dictate your productivity? Do meals? What makes sense for you? Break up your day into 3-4 time frames.

2. Make a list of what you need to get done, and break it into tasks that require LOTS of energy from you, and tasks that you could do in your sleep. For any tasks that could benefit from a low-energy alternative, brainstorm them and add them to the list. If you're feeling high energy while you're making it, feel free to add things you'd like to accomplish during the day.

3. Brainstorm a list of supports that would help you complete the bare minimum. Who can you call during the day to talk to while you load the dishwasher? Would a timer help you fold your laundry? Would music help you focus enough to get through your homework? Would working in a public space help you feel more productive? (Hint - lean into your senses to figure out which supports might help you the most!)

Want to know more about what signs to look for in your middle or high school child's executive functioning development? Grab our free executive functioning quiz!

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