Your fridge is bursting with pie and wine, and already you foresee the salads and treadmills of January. It’s not unusual — or inherently bad — to dive headlong into lifestyle changes, including a regimen of healthy eating and exercise after toasting the season… just don’t call these new habits your New Year resolutions.
Why? It’s simple: If you slip up on January 9, you are more likely to call yourself a failure and give up for the rest of the year if you feel you’ve broken a “resolution,” says Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and member of the ADDitude Specialist Panel. Instead, view your healthy ADHD lifestyle changes and goals as a year-round commitment, keeping in mind that there will be imperfect days. That’s okay, and that’s to be expected, says Olivardia.
Here are seven rules that will keep your goals on track every month of the year — developed specifically for adults with attention deficit disorder ADHD (ADHD or ADD).
1. A Small Goal Met Is Better Than a Big Goal Abandoned
Failure is inevitable when you set unattainable goals. This is true for anyone, but especially for those who struggle with executive skills, Olivardia says.
Let’s say you decide to cut back on refined sugar, which has been shown to exacerbate symptoms of ADHD in children, increasing hyperactivity and inattention 1, 2. Instead of going cold turkey, which can lead to obsessing over and craving sugar, make small changes.
For example, instead of eating an instant pack of flavored oatmeal, which has a whopping 13 grams of sugar, make a serving of plain quick oats — it only take a couple of minutes — and add a drizzle of honey, a more natural sweetener with vitamins, minerals, and just five grams of sugar per teaspoon.
Likewise, instead of paying to join a gym and pledging to work out five days a week, start with a 30-minute walk two to three times a week, Olivardia says.
“Many people I work with sign up for a gym membership, buy gym clothes, get the right headphones, and then work out once or twice, and that’s it,” he says.
2. Disappointing Others Hurts More Than Disappointing Yourself
First of all, accountability doesn’t mean punishment.
“Accountability can be a scary word for someone with ADHD,” Olivardia says. “We want to reframe the word.”
Recruit a friend or relative to serve as a coach who helps you reach your goals. For example, if you text a friend that you’re going to make a big salad with high-protein quinoa or that you’re going for a jog, you’ll be more inclined to follow through and actually do it. Better yet: Invite your coach to join you or find a local exercise group.
If possible, go grocery shopping with your coach. He or she can remind you what foods to put in your cart — fresh produce, lean meats, whole grains — and dissuade you from adding processed snacks and soda.
3. Poor Planning Is Not a Moral Deficiency; It’s an Opportunity to Improve
The executive dysfunctions of ADHD make it hard, if not impossible, to meticulously plan and schedule.
“That means if you want to eat healthy and cook for yourself, as opposed to ordering fast food, you’ll have to think about your dinner plan before 8 a.m. Why? Maybe it needs to be seasoned or prepared. Maybe you have to take your kids to scouts or soccer practice in the evening,” says Olivardia. “That requires future orientation, which is hard for people with ADHD.”
So if you’re looking at a packed evening, wake up early to prep a Crock Pot meal or know in advance that you will order takeout, and make sure it’s the healthiest option possible.
Similarly, if you have a big project at work that makes it impossible to get to the gym for your workout, accept that it’s not feasible to do both and sometimes work takes priority, says Olivardia. And that’s okay.
“If you fall off one day, it’s not because you don’t want this or you’re too lazy or not motivated,” he says. “That’s not true. It’s because you have these executive function issues that make it difficult, and now that you know that, you will work to figure out a way around it.”
4. A Diary Is a Powerful Motivational Tool
Writing down your plan and your actions — you went for a walk or you added a mixed green salad to your lunch — can help you stay motivated to stay on track, says Olivardia.
“When you see the fruits of your labor, it can be powerfully motivating to continue what you are doing,” he says.
On the flip side, if you notice weight gain or other hurdles, you can look back through your diary or calendar to see what may have caused it. Did you skip a workout more than a few times? Did you opt for a third slice of pizza instead of filling up on roasted veggies?
“You’ll see that (challenges) are not hopeless or surprising, but simply the results of decisions and behaviors that can be changed,” Olivardia says.
5. You Need Not Suffer to Achieve Results
Whatever your goals, you’re more likely to achieve them if the process is not torture.
So if you hate kale, don’t force yourself to eat kale.
Aiming to eat healthier shouldn’t mean totally depriving yourself of foods you enjoy. If you like red meat, take a smaller portion and load up your plate with vegetables and healthy carbohydrates like brown rice, quinoa, or a baked potato. You’ll meet your protein requirements, enjoy your meal, and not feel awful about all that wilting kale in your fridge.
Olivardia encourages his patients to get creative. For example, one man said he loves buffalo sauce and hates vegetables, so they started brainstorming.
“He puts cooked broccoli or cauliflower in a zip-top bag with buffalo sauce, shakes it up, adds a dash of salt, and now he eats broccoli and cauliflower,” Olivardia says. “Buffalo sauce is not particularly unhealthy. If he wanted to drown his vegetables in ranch dressing, we’d have to think about that more.”
The same goes for following a regular exercise plan. If you hate running on a treadmill, don’t run on a treadmill. Try swimming, going for a bike ride, or taking regular walks with your dog.
“You want to do something that you look forward to when you wake up,” Olivardia says.
6. The ADHD Brain Lights Up for Rewards
“People with ADHD do very well with tangible, concrete rewards,” says Olivardia, who uses positive reinforcement to keep his patients on track.
He recommends attaching reasonable, healthy rewards to goals. For example, for every 10 trips to the gym, treat yourself to a night out at the movies.
Try to stay away from food rewards, which can offset your progress. But that doesn’t mean depriving yourself. If you love Hershey Kisses, one or two on a Friday night might be just the motivation you need to hit the gym all week.
7. One Bad Day (or Week) Need Not Lead to Another
Big change doesn’t come all at once. It sneaks up on you through little tweaks made every single day. There will be slip-ups; that is a sure thing. But that doesn’t mean you’ve failed, Olivardia says.
“When people with ADHD don’t hit their goals, it falls into that pocket of, ‘another thing I haven’t been able to do,’” he says. “They feel intense shame.”
Olivardia helps his patients learn how to make mindful, non-judgmental observations. These re-calibrations are the process through which healthy ADHD lifestyle changes will occur.
“If your friend or spouse set a goal and then didn’t make it to the gym, what would you say?” Olivardia asks. “You’d never call them a loser, or tell them they don’t really want to get better. So you shouldn’t talk to yourself that way.”
1 Prinz, Robert, et al. “Dietary Correlates of Hyperactive Behavior in Children.”Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 48, no. 6, 1980, pp. 760–769.2 Jones, T W, et al. “Enhanced Adrenomedullary Response and Increased Susceptibility to Neuroglycopenia: Mechanisms Underlying the Adverse Effects of Sugar Ingestion in Healthy Children.” The Journal of Pediatrics, vol. 126, no. 2, 1995, pp. 171–177.