ADHD, Energy, and Spoons

Hey there! Are you constantly feeling tired and drained? Last blog we talked about ADHD Sleep Patterns. This week, it’s time to discover the Spoon Theory in relation to ADHD. I first heard about Spoon Theory in relation to the physical fatigue of my autoimmune disease, but we can extend the idea to include mental fatigue as well.

Spoon Theory suggests that each day we start off with a limited amount of energy, represented by spoons. (Yep, you read that right – plain, old-fashioned silverware.) But for those living with chronic conditions like autoimmune disease or ADHD, their spoon supply is already limited compared to others. On top of that, neurodiverse brains require more spoons for daily tasks, causing a constant shortage and leaving you feeling fatigued.

But don’t worry, there’s hope! (My favorite word!) By building habits and routines that make tasks automatic, you can use fewer spoons throughout the day and avoid ending up empty-handed and exhausted each night. Let’s dive into some effective strategies to preserve your mental energy and conquer fatigue!

8 Steps to Build Habits That Preserve Mental Energy

If you’ve visited the Yellow Parachute blog before, you already know that we believe in the super-power of habits! In fact, if you want to do a deep-dive into habits, we highly recommend the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear. It’s one of my favorites to reread each year.
Here at YP, we compare habits to little energy-saving shortcuts that make your life easier and happier. By making certain decisions and behaviors automatic, you can close up ADHD-related gaps and prevent symptoms like forgetfulness, time blindness, and disorganization from draining your precious spoon supply. So, let’s get started on building habits that will leave you with more energy for focus, productivity, and a sense of accomplishment.

First: the Spoons

Let’s say the average person has 20 spoons per day. If you experience chronic mental or physical fatigue (or both) you are probably closer to 12-15 spoons each day. Start with 15 spoons the first time you try this exercise.

1. Evaluate Your Current Habits

Take a moment to reflect on your current habits. What routines do you follow without even thinking about them? Are they helpful? Consider your morning routine and evening routines, meal times, homework, work or school preparations, and any challenging moments you can recall during your day. Ask yourself:
  • Do you always start your day with a cup of coffee or tea?
  • Do you lay out your clothes the night before?
  • Are you constantly searching for your keys in the morning?
  • Do you often feel drained when you get home from work?
Perhaps a typical day might start with these general activities. Make sure you fill in the habits that make up each routine.

1. Wake Up
2. Morning routine
3. Breakfast
4. Gather things together
5. Leave for work/school
6. Work/School Activities numbers 6-10
11. After School/Work Activities
12. Dinner
13. Bedtime routine

Now, evaluate each habit. Be realistic; think about your energy level and ask how many spoons each habit requires. Is it worth the expense? Assign values to each habit based on how much energy they take. For this part of the exercise, you don’t get any spoons back! Are some habits causing stress taking more spoons than they should? Identify two habits that are already working well for you, and then think about two that could be improved or replaced.
Also, think proactively! What techniques do you use that make tasks go smoothly and require fewer spoons? Can you apply those techniques to other parts of your day? Are there any repetitive tasks that you can automate? This is where the creativity and super power of problem solving comes in for ADHDers! Be strategic in how you set up your day to make your habits work for you. It’s like getting the snowball rolling down the hill; after a while it will roll on its own, right?

2. Start Small with New Habits

Now you are ready to introduce some new habits into your life! Start with something small and easy, so success feels within reach. This initial achievement will motivate you to develop more complex habits later on. Read this again: start with something small and easy.

Ok, now you’re ready to read on.

Timing is key! Your life doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Find and schedule time when you can fully focus on developing your new habit. If you don’t have much time, make sure you choose a simple way to start. If you have a habit that takes more concentrated time, set yourself up for success by scheduling time when you know you can give it your best. It could be during a vacation or when you’re in a different environment, where your usual cues and routines are already disrupted. This fresh start will make it easier to build new habits.

One habit that I started last year was drinking 8 ounces of water before I drink my morning coffee. I learned this habit from my training mentors and partners Rob and Steve Shallenberger, with Becoming Your Best Global. It’s the smallest little change but gets me drinking more water throughout the day! …and it leads into the next tip, Habit Stacking.

3. Use Habit Stacking

Habit stacking is the powerful technique that gets your snowball rolling downhill on its own! Here’s how to start: attach a new habit to an existing one that you already do without thinking. For example, if you always make coffee in the morning, use that time while it’s brewing to work on a new habit.

Here’s a great example: I used my coffee-brew-time to water the plants outside every morning in the summer. It was sooooo rewarding to have happy plants greet me on the porch and use minimal brain-power to make it happen. And the added bonuses were: I got my body moving first thing in the morning, I stepped outside to enjoy the gorgeous MN summer morning, and I felt excited to start my day!

Your habit could be assembling your items to head out the door, reviewing your daily planner, prepping your dinner, practicing mindfulness, doing some light exercise, or anything else you want to incorporate.

Why does habit stacking work? It’s based on the science of classical conditioning, which shows that linking a new activity to an automated task increases the chances of success. You can chain up to three new behaviors to an existing habit before it becomes overwhelming.

4. Track and Reward Your Success

Keep track of your progress and reward yourself along the way! Make a checkmark on a calendar each time you complete a new habit or use habit-tracking apps available on the market. And don’t forget to celebrate your achievements! You can put money in a dedicated jar or use fun stickers – whatever brings you joy and keeps you motivated.

This is a great time to slow down in your reading for just a minute and make a list of rewards that would truly motivate you. Maybe it’s the excitement you feel thinking ahead to how great it will be to have this habit “locked down,” or maybe your reward is an outfit or activity.

You might focus instead on watching one of your favorite TV shows, even setting aside planned video game or “scrolling time” can be a motivating reward! The important part is this, and it shouldn’t be all too hard: you MUST reward yourself. The reward is the part of the habit loop that helps change your brain.

5. Use Reminders to Solidify Habits

To make your habits stick, find ways to remind yourself of both the habit itself and the reason behind it. This is setting up your environment to help you succeed. If you are trying to replace a cookie habit, set your new food of choice on the counter, so it is easy to grab instead.

Place a photo or memento in a visible spot, like taping your dentist’s bill beside the bathroom mirror to remind you to floss. You can also set alarms and reminders on your phone or use habit-tracking apps to keep yourself on track. The more positive emotion you build, in addition to creating this supportive environment, the more likely you are to succeed.

And hey, keeping an actual spoon nearby as a visual cue might just do the trick!

6. Assess Setbacks

If you encounter setbacks while building new habits, don’t get discouraged! Instead of throwing in the towel, take a step back and ask yourself some questions to gather the data.

You can think of this process in three stages: Keep, Start, Stop. What do I want to keep doing to achieve my goal, what do I need to start doing in order to be more successful, what do I need to stop or replace doing to achieve success. Some other questions to help you:

  • What’s currently holding you back from success?
  • How can you modify your environment to support your goals?
  • What can you do to make the desired tasks easier to achieve?
  • What helped me overcome this obstacle in the past?
For instance, if your goal is to eat more nutritious foods but you’re struggling, consider whether those foods are easily accessible. Try placing them in a prominent location in your fridge or at work. And if your initial plan feels unrealistic, start by incorporating the new food as a snack or a small side dish rather than planning an entire meal around it. How do you know if your plan is realistic or unrealistic? Pay attention to your energy level when you think about accomplishing it. If you experience an increase of energy, then you are on the right track. If you feel anxious or decreased energy, rethink the habit to make it easier to achieve.

7. Ask for Help

Remember, you don’t have to do this alone! Reach out to us to ask for resources to help you. This may be an ebook, activity, simple poster, free download, or setting up some sessions with a coach. We understand the challenges of ADHD and can help you uncover any hidden obstacles that may be blocking your path to healthy habits. Sometimes, a little professional assistance can go a long way in getting you back on track. Even Coaches have Coaches!

An Accountability Buddy or Accountability Group is another great resource to use when you are in the process of developing new habits or even want to sustain the powerful habits you’ve put in place. Set up rules that will help you both support and challenge each other to achieve your habit-goals; maybe you even plan the reward together!

8. Be Patient

Patience is key when building habits. This is suuuuuuuuper important to remember, whether you are building your own habits or helping someone else achieve theirs. Setbacks are natural, and it’s unrealistic to expect 100% perfection; in fact, more than unrealistic, it sets you up for failure! This is coming from one who knows. (Wink).

Instead of striving for perfection, prepare yourself for these bumps in the road and have a plan to motivate yourself when things don’t go as planned. Whether it’s calling a friend, reading an inspirational quote, or listening to a calming song – find what works for you and keeps your spirits high. This is another GREAT LIST – hint, hint – to make while you are taking time to read and take in these 8 tips! Then you already have it handy when you need it. How many spoons does that save you?!

Finally, you are worth it, no matter what! And the journey itself is too important to quit. Take it from me! After years of self-reliance and shaming, perfectionistic tendencies and disappointing myself, I can humbly and happily announce that building habits is TRULY just a numbers game.

We have developed some pretty powerful resources based on our work with students, families, educators, and entrepreneurs. There’s something waiting just for you on our Quantum Jump learning platform!

Sign in to create a free account now, to see the wide variety of courses, ebooks, and downloadable resources that will help you take the next step on your path to success.

Remember (I’m reminding myself too), more you practice with intention, reflect, and retool your habits to build personal success, the easier it becomes until those desired habits are automatic.

Why are automatic habits so important? Recall the silverware. When you do the little things to help yourself without thinking, you have plenty of spoons remaining for what truly matters in life.

So get ready to conserve your energy and embrace curiosity. You’ve got this!

Yours in the Journey,