Self-regulation problems are a defining feature of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People with ADHD typically find it hard to control themselves and their behaviors, preventing them from achieving their goals. One of the underlying reasons for this is that people with ADHD often struggle to self-monitor.
What is self-monitoring?
Self-monitoring is the observation of oneself. It allows a person to reflect on their behaviors and assess how well they align with their goals. This, in turn, provides an opportunity to increase or decrease certain behaviors as needed.
Individuals with ADHD sometimes speak and act without being fully conscious of what they’re doing. As a result, they never have the opportunity to assess their behaviors or make modifications. Overcoming self-control issues isn’t easy, but there are some self-monitoring strategies that researchers believe can help people with ADHD increase self-awareness.[i]
Step-by-step self-monitoring strategies for ADHD
If you have ADHD, you can claim more control over your behaviors by following these steps:
1. Set granular, concrete goals
What are your values and goals? What do you want to accomplish, and where have you been falling short? For example, you might realize that you haven’t made much progress toward your goal of getting in shape, cleaning up your home, or improving your performance in school.
Thinking about your goals can motivate you to complete them, but motivation alone isn’t enough. If you want to actually achieve your goals, they must be concrete. Otherwise, how will you gauge your progress? For example, imagine your goal is to do better in school. This goal is pretty abstract, but you can make it more concrete by asking yourself, “How will I know when I have achieved this?” Your answer might be that you’ll be happy with your performance once you’ve achieved a 3.0 GPA.
Once you have a concrete goal in mind, we recommend you break it down into bite-size pieces. For example, perhaps you’re failing all of your classes right now. So, perhaps your goal for now is to bring your grade up to a C in all classes (with the goal of earning Bs next semester). What will it take to accomplish that? Break down your plans further and further until you know exactly what you’re working on next. For example, the next thing you need to do might be to finish up that report that’s due tomorrow.
2. Check in with yourself frequently
As an adult with ADHD, you probably aren’t in the habit of self-monitoring. When you’re absorbed in your favorite game, TV show, or another hobby, it likely doesn’t occur to you to ask, “How long have I been doing this? Am I neglecting some other important task?”
You may be able to mitigate this ADHD trait through various mindfulness practices such as meditation, breathing exercises, etc. Over time, mindfulness can help you build a habit of checking in with yourself, making it easier to notice when you are off-task. Mindfulness can also help you manage anxiety and other strong emotions that may be exacerbating your ADHD.
We also recommend you use external stimuli as a cue to self-monitor. For example, you might set a recurring alarm on your phone to go off at regular intervals or use a timing device like the MotivAider. When the timer sounds, you’ll remember to check in with yourself to see whether you’re on track. While more research in this area is needed, preliminary studies suggest audible cues are an effective self-monitoring strategy for individuals with ADHD, helping them to notice maladaptive behaviors and get back on track.1
3. Track your progress over time
As you monitor yourself more and more, certain patterns may emerge. Documenting your progress will make it easier for you to notice these patterns.
One way to track is to do so digitally, through a program like Habitica or Todoist. These programs can help you visualize your goals and the progress you’ve made. Alternately, many of our ADHD clients write down their observations in a physical notebook or journal. They regularly write down things like whether or not they were on task during the day, and if not, what distracted them.
Once you’ve compiled at least a week’s worth of documentation, you can look through it to see whether you notice any patterns. For example, you might notice that you often find yourself shopping online in the afternoons when you’re supposed to be working.
4. Eliminate distractions and saboteurs
If self-control isn’t one of your strengths, we recommend you set yourself up for success by eliminating known distractions and productivity saboteurs ahead of time. For example, let’s return to the scenario of shopping online during work. As you look through your journal from the past week, you realize what’s been happening. Every day around 2 p.m., you start feeling tired and decide to take a quick break by looking through social media. Because the ads on social media websites are highly tailored to your interests, you often see things you want to buy. As you shop, you lose track of time.
You can use this information to avoid future setbacks by setting up an ad-blocker on your computer, so you don’t see the ads that are likely to distract you. Or you might try to avoid social media altogether until after work (website blocking apps like Freedom and Serene can help with this). Another option would be to set a 10-minute timer to alert you when break time is over.
5. Get professional support
We hope these self-monitoring strategies will help you manage your ADHD and accomplish your goals more effectively. That said, we realize ADHD is complicated, and every situation is different. Processes that look good on paper don’t always translate readily to real life. If you need support, an outside perspective, or just someone to hold you accountable, consider working with an experienced adult ADHD therapist.
Improve Your Self-Regulation with the Support of ADHD Specialist
As ADHD specialists, we understand the common pitfalls when it comes to improving self-monitoring. We work with you to problem-solve and implement targeted strategies uniquely tailored to you. Send us a message to see how we can help or book a free 20 minute consultation call with one of our psychologists: Dr. Lee, Dr. Abbene, Dr. Barajas, or Dr. Goldman.