ADHD: When Routines Collapse

Episode 208

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In this episode of Translating ADHD, hosts Ash and Cam delve into the topic of routines and their tendency to catastrophically collapse, especially for individuals with ADHD. They discuss insights from a coaching session about why routines fail and the difficulty of re-establishing them. The conversation covers the erosion of remembering the benefits of routines, the making of meaning from failure, and the introduction of the concept of ‘should accretion’ where additional expectations complicate routines.

They provide examples from coaching experiences, discussing the importance of connecting to the benefits of a routine, seeing adaptation as progress rather than failure, and identifying non-negotiable needs. The episode also highlights the benefits of watching coaching sessions to gain insights into one’s own ADHD.

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    Episode Transcript:

    [00:00:00] Ash: Hi, I’m Ash.

    [00:00:08] Cam: And I’m Cam.

    [00:00:09] Ash: And this is Translating ADHD. Cam, do you want to tell our listeners what it is that you’re bringing for us this week?

    [00:00:16] Cam: Sure, Ash. What I’m bringing this week is something that came out of one of our coaching in-the-round sessions. And so we do a monthly coaching in-the-round for our Patreon members. And it’s just a fun thing where Ash and I will take turns and do some coaching and talk about the coaching. So it’s one of the benefits that our Patreon members get for five bucks a month.

    [00:00:45] Cam: And it was the topic that the person brought, and I asked if I could bring it to the podcast, and they were like have at it. And it’s around routines. And so the working title for today is when routines collapse. Cause I think that listeners will appreciate this.

    [00:01:04] Cam: Routines don’t just, you know, stumble along. They tend to have a catastrophic collapse. To them, all of us, have had this experience, and this is one of these things. It’s a universal experience. We start something and then it goes away. We’re mystified about why the routine went away. And why it won’t come back.

    [00:01:30] Cam: So we’re going to talk about that today, Ash, and bring our perspective to it.

    [00:01:35] Ash: Cam, I love this topic because it’s in every coaching relationship I have. This is a recurring topic. I tell new clients as part of the conversation that we’re having that at any time, for any reason, if something’s not working with them if they’re fresh or not working with them if something’s not working for them if they’re frustrated with the coaching process, even if they’re not sure what it is or they don’t have a lot of languages for it to bring that to me, because that’s part of co-creating the coaching relationship.

    [00:02:09] Ash: And there’s this normal, almost predictable point in coaching where we’re seeing some success. My client is seeing change, but then they show up for a session and maybe it’s been a bad week, a bad month. ADHD just seems like it’s winning. Routines have collapsed. And my client feels like, whoa, I’m back at square one. Here we are again, I have embarked on this process of change. I’ve trusted you that this will be different than other experiences that I’ve had. And this feels like the same thing happening that was happening before. I was in a groove for a while, and now everything has collapsed, and I’m right back where I started.

    [00:02:53] Cam: And it makes for a really interesting coaching opportunity.

    [00:02:56] Ash: Absolutely.

    [00:02:58] Cam: Yeah. It reminds me also, I believe it was a year ago about this time late spring, we did a whole series on Disruption. And you recall, I don’t remember if we did from small to large or large to small, but we kind of went from this big disruptions or and then kind of little tiny disruptions, and how this concept of when we are going along and there’s some kind of a disruption that it seems to impact us differently.

    So today we’re going to use the data and the experience of this client to inform the conversation. There are all kinds of different ways that a routine can collapse. But what was fascinating was through the coaching discovery, the client came to this realization of, Oh, okay, here are a couple of things that are going on that I, now I can start to connect the dots. And this is back to that cause and effect thing that we have always talked about here, is we live at effect and it’s hard for us to get to causation, whether that causation is cognitive, if it’s emotional, if it’s behavioral, if it’s environmental and experiential.

    [00:04:11] Cam: It’s so difficult to kind of get back and look at what were the pieces that came into play that first of all had the routine collapse in the first place and then why it’s so hard to get back to that routine. Why it’s so difficult? So is it okay? I’m going to just jump right in with the learning that the client had.

    [00:04:32] Cam: There’s sort of two big learnings here that came through in this 30-minute coaching session with them. Just talking about, he came, it’s like, yeah, I have this I came up with this care routine of early in the morning before I get into my desk and get to work, I have this prayer meditation quiet time for 30 minutes.

    [00:04:53] Cam: And I’m taking the Bible. I’m reading the Bible, and this is what I’m doing. And he started it was successful. He would do it in a conference room on the way to his desk. It’s like from the car to his desk, there’s this convenient conference room. No one’s using it at eight o’clock in the morning.

    [00:05:11] Cam: It’s not going to happen at home ’cause he’s got two small children. It’s like, this is the perfect thing. He gets into the conference room. He opens the Bible for 30 minutes. And he was, he just saw amazing benefits from that quiet time before he got in to be in this highly demanding, highly stressful work situation as a software engineer.

    [00:05:34] Cam: He was successful a couple of times, and then he wasn’t. And that’s what he wanted to explore with coaching. It’s like, what happened there? Here’s this routine that I started. And then for some reason, I can’t get back to it. So we’re not going to talk about necessarily, you know, the coaching, we’re going to talk about routines and what is this phenomenon around collapse?

    [00:05:58] Cam: So he had something come up. I think it was like a spring break. Maybe a kid was sick. There was something that disrupted that routine after two or three times he was successful. There’s not, I’ve got to go through this process of what happened. It got disrupted. And then somehow it shifted in his brain, and this was really what we focused on, is what was the shift in his brain around the whole thing, the routine.

    [00:06:23] Cam: There were two things in particular, the biggest learning for him that was revealed in the coaching we did together was 1.) this erosion of remembering the benefit. Now I use that word erosion ’cause it, it’s sort of like this, that’s my word, not his word. It’s sort of our tethered to the benefit. The value of it fades away, it erodes.

    [00:06:49] Cam: Like wind blowing sand. It’s a weird thing that I think our listeners can connect with. And this is why routines and habits, are like they can just go away. So that’s the one piece is, you know what? As we’re talking about this, I remember now the benefit before this coaching session was like, I had, I just lost that connection to the value, the benefit of actually doing the practice.

    [00:07:19] Cam: So that was one big thing. The other thing was around this making meaning his belief. That came out of the quote-unquote, I’m putting air quotes here, the failure, this somehow became an abject failure. And in his mind, it was like, there’s no going back. I failed here and I can’t somehow return.

    [00:07:42] Cam: That strong belief is reinforced by emotional dysregulation and some rules. Asher, a rule that is reinforced around like, okay I can start routines, but I can’t restart them. And as we talked about that, it was just like, I can’t believe I made that rule up. It’s like, what is that rule? I can start routines, but I can’t restart. That’s destination thinking. Right. That sort of, again, absolute here’s the rule and it is very far from a journey-thinking mindset.

    [00:08:13] Ash: Sorry. I got it. I’m just trying to decide where which way to go. I got this. So, Cam, let’s break that down a little bit. The first thing you said was forgetting the benefit. When we forget the benefit, what’s left is just a should. I should be able to get back to this routine and the truth is, it may not be quite that simple.

    [00:08:54] Ash: I have a client for whom we discovered that novelty was a huge source of support and motivation. So for a while, we worked on routines. With the idea that these routines would become habits and structures and would stay the same over time. We recognize that novelty is a part of that picture for this client, and this is relative to this client’s task and time management.

    [00:09:26] Ash: So that realization gave my client some permission to pivot as part of her process. It’s not this all-or-nothing thing. And when we know the benefit, if the old routine isn’t working anymore, we can get curious about how else might we get that benefit. What else might we try? There’s also the phenomenon of something working for a while, and maybe you tack some things onto it.

    [00:09:53] Ash: I have another client just like your client who has a morning quiet time routine and has a studio space in her home specifically for that. However, because of the way she set it up and because of the things she envisioned doing in this room, she started tacking on a lot of shoulds. Well, if I’m already going to go to my studio space in the morning, then I should do this, and these things that are all theoretically good for her in the realm of self-care or taking care of herself, but also sort of detracting from the main goal, which is that quiet time in the morning. That ability, at least, for this client to sort of think about and orient to her day before she goes to the office and jumps in. So that she knows what her priorities are, and she’s got a clear sense of the day so she’s not jumping into that reactive mode.

    And for her, getting back to that routine was accomplished by letting go of all the shoulds, even the should of journaling. It was just so she would go to the space. And she had her journal set out, and she had a couple of other items set out for other activities that she might do, but getting into the space was the win. If I’ve made it down to my studio space in the morning, I’ve won. And here are some options of things that I can do with my time, or I can do none of these things. If I’ve made it to the space, that’s a win.

    [00:11:19] Cam: And I love that example right there. And I have a new term for us that is brand new.

    [00:11:24] Ash: So that’s what that look on your face was. I was wondering,

    [00:11:30] Cam: Yeah. So there’s this term in geology and astronomy called accretion, and it’s like how the planets were formed. And planets were formed by bits of rock and dust all coming together in a disc. And then it accretes is like, sorry, people. I mean, that’s what it was. It was just over a long period, pieces of matter coming together and kind of. So accretion. Yeah. Okay, you know what? So the term is this, and I think we’re on to something. Are you ready for this, Asher? This is huge.

    [00:11:59] Ash: I’m ready. Let’s go.

    [00:12:00] Cam: All right, let’s go. Should accretion. No?

    [00:12:06] Ash: Not no, say more.

    [00:12:08] Cam: Let me explain. It’s this, you start with this quiet time. And it’s like the benefit what matters about this moment, this quiet time and it’s as you go in, it’s like, oh, well, I could do this and maybe I should do that. And we start to kind of, this accretion of, or layering on all of these shoulds, to then it becomes top heavy and falls over.

    [00:12:33] Cam: This is very much of an ADHD Phenomenon of it’s like you start something, and we lose sight even when we’re doing it. We lose sight of the value because I’m here, maybe I can add this, maybe I can add this. Another way to look at it is maybe, you know, accessorizing. We will just kind of continue to accessorize the reason.

    [00:13:03] Cam: Why the space shuttle did not work was because they made it more and more complicated until it became the most complicated system ever. And then it didn’t work, and look what they do now. We’re back to basically the technology of 1970 in the sense of a capsule. So, you know, listeners, as you think about it with your routines, are you attaching, trying to kind of tether more things to these moments, and it’s becoming more complicated?

    [00:13:27] Cam: So I go back to your old thing of letting it be easy because we have let it be easy, and then it becomes something more. So there’s one way where a routine can get top-heavy, falls over, and it’s become too complicated.

    [00:13:40] Ash: I got this. Cam, I know what I want to say. I just got to let the words come out. Cam, at this point in the episode, I also want to interject and say that it’s not always this process of reinventing and going back. I want to tell you about a client who, over time, we were able to connect to the benefit of something so strongly that it’s now just this nonnegotiable keystone thing.

    [00:14:20] Ash: This client, I’ve been working with her on and off for four years as she completed and just recently turned in her dissertation for her PhD. She also has three small children, two of which she had during this process while we were working together and coaching together. In the very early days of our work, she was grappling with the identity of wife and mother versus the identity of self. She said something like, that those identities are very important to her.

    [00:14:44] Ash: She always wanted three children. She was at choice. Knowing that it was going to make her life complicated for a time as she was also finishing her Ph.D. She said something like, I feel like I’ve lost myself. And when we dug in there, one of the things we found is that this client has a really strong mind-body connection.

    [00:15:08] Ash: She used to dance. And there’s no time in her life or schedule for that now, but she also runs, but not very consistently and sometimes not at all. And so over time, we’re doing this work around running and what it is for her and what it’s not. Number one, it’s a solo activity. It’s not the same if she’s taking one of her children.

    [00:15:30] Ash: Number two, it’s that mind-body connection. That’s a clarifier and an opening for creativity. So it’s something that puts her in the right head space to then sit down and do her good work. Four years ago, getting back to running was something we often talked about. As her coach, it’s something I would check in on, particularly when she was overwhelmed, or struggling.

    [00:15:55] Ash: I’d ask, are you running? And oftentimes the answer was no, or not as often as I would like. There’s no time. I can’t make it, make it work with my schedule. Fast forward to last week, right after this client turned in her dissertation, this monumental moment. I don’t even remember the context of the conversation we were having, but it was one of those moments where I checked in on running, are you running? And her answer was, Oh yeah, of course, that’s nonnegotiable.

    [00:16:18] Ash: So the moral of the story is in our time working together, she is now so connected to that benefit and what it does for her, yeah, it just is. It’s just a thing that happens. I would say the same is true for me and my relationship with sleep. And my relationship with sleep was a disaster for most of my life.

    [00:16:43] Ash: But I now understand the benefits of sleep and how different I am when I’m well-slept versus when I’m not. It is easy to prioritize – it’s a nonnegotiable thing. The reason I wanted to share this, Cam, is because the process of getting there can be frustrating with ADHD. But listeners, there is a place in which you can have it.

    [00:17:09] Ash: And it’s not so hard that even when other things fall apart and collapse, not everything goes out the window. You can connect to and remember what’s supportive, what matters, and why, even in those moments. And that was just a cool thing to hear that client say that it was just so non-negotiable.

    And there’s an interesting flip side to this sometimes we lose sight of the benefit. Sometimes there are old stories. They are lying to us. I have another client for whom we did a ton of work around routine at work. And there was this pattern in our coaching where if there was a disruption – she worked in the type of field, she works in a school, right? So disruption is the norm. She’s also a student. She’s got a busy life. Just disruption is the norm in this person’s life. And she would come to a session telling me a story about how she didn’t do what she was supposed to do. And what she thought she was telling me was she failed.

    [00:18:15] Ash: And that’s certainly the story she was telling herself. But what I’m hearing and what is real is she paused, disrupted, pivoted. She adapted. She did the best she could under the circumstances. And everything didn’t fall apart. Those oldest routines that are set in stone in a way for her, now they’re still happening and they’re happening with ease. And yeah, maybe some of the newer ones didn’t go the way she’d like them to go, or maybe she’s struggling to make those as consistent as she would like, or maybe your practice didn’t go the way she wanted it to go.

    [00:18:52] Ash: But it’s never a complete failure anymore. It’s always adaptation. And so those conversations are rarely with this client are rarely about, Okay, let’s figure out what didn’t work and make it work. It’s helping my client see you’re telling yourself a story of failure here, but that’s not what’s real. That’s not what’s real. And I just, I think that’s so interesting that we can do that to ourselves. As ADHD people, we can be being successful.

    [00:19:17] Ash: And there’s this old story that says, once you – and she has that story on board – once you fall off a routine, it’s dead. And she’s still telling that story today, despite sometimes, not always a lot less than she used to, but she still tells herself that story sometimes. Even though we’ve had routines in place for quite a while that have been consistent enough and successful enough to drastically change her experience at work.

    [00:19:43] Cam: This is so interesting, the conversation we’re having here. So there are a couple of things that were, as we finish up today, listeners, you hear non-negotiable. And Ash and I want to be clear about this. Non-negotiable doesn’t mean perfect execution, right?

    [00:20:01] Cam: Non-negotiable is that it becomes this sort of very simple thing. The simple understanding of this is a need. So you’ve heard us talk a lot about needs and identifying needs and what, you know, distilling those for us. And so non-negotiable is that it’s like, okay, this is one of these base-level things that is necessary for me. And I would say that, you know, then that’s something we do in coaching is finding those needs, number one.

    [00:20:30] Cam: Number two is this whole idea of like, say, forgetting the benefit, it goes beyond forgetting benefit. It goes to this place when something’s disrupted, like a routine or a practice of some sort, it’s not that we lose the routine in that moment. We, there’s a loss or collapse of what all we know you’re talking about is identity, okay.

    [00:20:52] Cam: And our identity is sort of, we have something that we are tethered to that is predictable and understandable. And when we lose that, if it goes away, it can be very disorienting and we start to question everything. And then it opens the door for the story. It opens the door for, you know, emotional dysregulation.

    [00:21:14] Cam: And we’re sort of in this place of questioning, doubting. And I like where we are going with this, Asher, in the sense of starting to think about what are those practices that tether you back to what you know. I know that this guy that I was coaching that when he sits in that conference room and reads the Bible, it is a tethering activity to reconnect to what matters.

    [00:21:39] Cam: . And it’s not just about the, again, here I am with the air quotes, routine. But it’s these identifying these things that where it’s you’ve got a grounding, a reconnection in some way. It could be with people. It can be a quiet moment. As you said, your client appreciates and recognizes that body-mind connection and the way she gets it is through running. So the running reinforces.

    [00:22:13] Cam: And back to our sense of self, whether it’s identity and who we are, why we are, what we’re up to. And we’ve talked about those sort of four circuits before. The other one is when, of course, the temporal piece. This is so interesting.

    [00:22:37] Cam: I think that it might be a theme, you know, looking at where else does collapse occur? Where else are we vulnerable to something falling apart and that it’s okay to reassemble your word adaptation, right? I’ve been adapting for 25 years. I say that’s my middle name, adaptation. And this whole journey mindset.

    [00:22:57] Ash: And adaptation gets easier the more you do this work. So much of our job as coaches is to help our clients discover what they already know about themselves or help them form new learning about themselves, but also to remind them what they know.

    [00:23:24] Ash: With my runner client, which is just part of my practice with that client, if she’s overwhelmed, are you running because oftentimes she wasn’t. But now she knows that in a way she didn’t four years ago. The combination of practice and that different experience, it’s something she doesn’t need me to connect her back to now. She can connect herself back to that knowledge and the importance of that practice.

    [00:23:52] Ash: And I think this is a good place for us to wrap for today. But I agree with you. There’s so, so much rich content here to come, and I’m excited about it. So before we wrap, listeners, just a reminder, as Cam was talking about earlier, and as the client example from today was from, we have a Discord server.

    [00:24:12] Ash: It’s available to our show Patrons. To become a Patron, visit the website,, click on the Patreon link, and for five a month, you gain access to the Discord server itself, where our listeners are working together to do their understanding and translate work. And where Cam and I each month host a live coaching demonstration.

    [00:24:38] Ash: And if you’re a Patron, you can volunteer to be the client that’s coached, or you can attend and watch the coaching and learn something from it. And by the way, I just want to say, Cam and I talk about coaching a lot, but it’s a different thing to watch it happening. It can be an informative, insightful, and powerful experience to listen to somebody else articulate their ADHD.

    [00:25:11] Ash: So often in our group coaching, we’ll conclude a coaching session where we’ve been coaching one person for half an hour. And the feedback from the rest of the room is some language or some awareness or something that happened in that session that increased the collective awareness in the room, that helped other people in the room understand themselves in a new way or put a different language to something or think about something in a different way.

    So just to highlight, there’s value in attending these whether you are the person being coached or not. And we appreciate that. I highly encourage you to take advantage of that.

    [00:25:50] Ash: The next one will be the last week of April – date will be announced in the Discord a little closer to that, and it’ll be with me. So hope to see you all there. And until next week, I’m Ash.

    [00:26:02] Cam: And I’m Cam.

    [00:26:02] Ash: And this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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