Chad Grayson

The Truth About Habits?

Person holding yellow sticky note

A while back, when I was going through the process of restructuring my life in a way that would allow me to be productive, I did a deep dive into habit formation. I read a bunch of blog posts, as well as James Clear’s Atomic Habits and Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.  All of this was instructive, and I did look at my habits and completed a bunch of work in that area, which made me much more capable of getting things done.

Everything I read suggested that the habits I built would, over time, become automatic things I just did. People say things like, ‘You know how you don’t have to remind yourself to brush your teeth or eat dinner?’ And my reaction is ‘No, I don’t know what that’s like at all.’ I have built up habits over the past couple of years, but at no point have they become automatic things I do without thinking about them. I must remind myself to do them. I have to put them on my habitica to-do list and give myself a bunch of xp to complete them (shut up, it works). And it makes me wonder, am I doing it wrong?

I’ve concluded, after reading many, many posts and comments by my fellow neurodivergent people, that habit formation just basically does not work for us the way it does for neurotypical people. These things, even if they become easier to remember, never become automatic. We always need to have some sort of external reminder to do even basic things that most people don’t have to think about. Like brushing your teeth. And even eating. The number of times a week I get to like 4pm and realize I haven’t eaten anything yet is appalling. There is something broken in the mental apparatus that is supposed to make simple things just happen.

Maybe it has something to do with the way our sense of time is non-existent. If we have no internal awareness of what time it is, how can our brains realize its time to go for a walk? I do follow the advice people give about removing barriers to making yourselves do things, like connecting new habits to other things you enjoy doing, and laying out your workout clothes the night before so you are reminded to work out in the morning, but man, I still have to expend a great deal of extra effort to make them actually happen.  Even things I would really hope would have become easy, like remembering to take my medication.

Maybe it’s the difficulty of withdrawing our attention from whatever obsession has grabbed hold of it? The mental and physical alarms other people rely on to get things done just don’t break through the interference.

Or maybe it’s like this for everyone, and habits never become automatic, and all the experts are high or something. I consider a habit to be anything I do regularly. But whatever it is, there is a long daily period of negotiation I go through to actually make it happen, even if it’s something I enjoy. There is never a morning I wake up and think ‘Time to Brush My teeth!’ without having a reminder of some sort. And giving myself habitica xp for doing it.

So, are habits bullshit? Or is this truly a neurodivergent thing. I don’t actually know. I would like to believe that it’s possible for constructive behaviors to become automatic if you do them often enough, but I have seen little evidence for that in my own life.

This is where I need some neurotypicals to chime in. Do habits work for you? Or are they broken for everyone?  

1 thought on “The Truth About Habits?”

  1. I’ll have to check out Habitica. I set many, many alarms on my phone to remind me to do basic things at a reasonable time–like start my morning routine before noon, cook/eat meals, start my bedtime routine at a reasonable hour, actually turn the lights out, and go to bed at a Reasonable Hour. Yeah. Not exactly neurotypical, but haven’t been diagnosed either…

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