Reward system for habits and managing impulsive spending - ADHD edition
February 3, 2020 10:58 AM   Subscribe

I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 20 and have been very successfully medicated for the last few years. I still really struggle with keeping a to-do list, managing self-care habits like showering, brushing teeth, flossing, etc., and also with impulsive spending. I'm thinking it would be good to create a reward system for my habits that involves spending $X after a month of successful habit practice, to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Does that make sense, and, if so, how best to implement it?

Due to my cocktail of mental health issues, probably best captured by a smorgasbord of labels (depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD), I struggle with basic human stuff, as mentioned above. I've used digital to-do lists and habit tracking, pretty much everything you can imagine, without much success. I find that an analog to-do list and planner, a la bullet journal, etc., are what really work best for me, but as with most people who struggle with ADHD/executive function stuff, I can keep on top of things for like a week and then I abandon any pretense of trying to organize my life that way.

As also stated above, I struggle with impulsive spending. I'm not racking up credit card debt, but I'm basically spending all of my discretionary income on random shit. I'd like to manage both of these problems by setting some kind of framework for rewarding myself for successfully following my paper planner and to-do list. Have you done something like this, and has it worked for you? I'd like to, for example, say, if I brush and floss my teeth two times a day for a month, I can spend $50 dollars on whatever I want, basically making my discretionary spending delimited and contingent on successful habit formation. Any tips on how best to do this?
posted by baptismal to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think this is an excellent idea. I'd go with a star chart - Use a paper calendar. For any day you shower, brush teeth 2x, floss 2x, you draw a star on the chart. When you have 4 stars, you get a sticker. When you have 4 stickers, you can buy something on your wantlist (Amazon wishlist would be a useful tool, although amzn is pretty horrible). Tangible reinforcement - seeing stars and stickers - is very helpful. Fairly frequent small rewards work well, generally better than a monthly reward. To start, count every star. When it's time to up your game, it has to be 4 stars in a row.

If you can set up a budget, that would be really helpful, and you could have 'sticking to the budget' as a way to earn stars. You can always add goals to a star chart, and as habits get ingrained, old goals can (ideally) be retired. With a budget, think of financial goals, like having an emergency fund, getting a bike, a vacation. Saving because you should isn't all that motivating. Put 10 towards the emergency fund and match it with 10 towards a desired purchase, and you're more likely to make progress.
posted by theora55 at 12:41 PM on February 3


1. Start with a low threshold for rewards. Like give yourself a star every time you floss and everything else you want to encourage.
2. Ideally, tackle one behavior at a time. Doesn't matter what order, pick one thing, do the best you can for 3 weeks, then add the next behavior.
3. Do not make rewards dependent on 100% performance.
4. Never deduct stars.

Remember to have fun. Also, I add fun to my schedule, totally free fun, not fun I have to earn. Because humans deserve fun and for years I thought I never deserved to have fun because I was never 100% on top of (insert any important task here). Eventually I realized that ADHD was punishment enough, I did not need to punish myself additionally. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:33 PM on February 3 [4 favorites]


Put cash in a sealed envelope (or several) that you won’t open until you fulfill the requirements listed on the outside of the envelope.

Remove the temptation to cheat by giving yourself a set allowance (cash or on a prepaid card) every week for your usual expenses and not carrying a bank card, just a credit card for actual emergencies.
posted by itesser at 7:23 PM on February 3


The most important thing to remember about staying organized is also the most important thing to remember about forming any habit: "simply begin again." Don't beat yourself up over the days you didn't bullet journal. Just start doing it again.

I use a lot of self reinforcement and try to minimize negative self talk. If I tell myself "you're hopeless, you're never going to stay organized" then why should I even bother? Motivation goes over a cliff. If, instead, at the end of the month I tally how many days I did keep track of things and summarize for myself how the month went, then I'm making the positive results of it really visible to myself. It motivates me to want to do it more. The organization becomes self reinforcing and I don't have to give myself treats to keep doing it.

In essence, whatever you decide to do to reward yourself, make sure you focus on the times you're performing the behavior that you want to see, and not focusing on your failings.

and hell yeah, bullet journal. It's the only thing that has ever worked for me! I keep stickers galore in the back so that I get to choose a pretty sticker to put in for anything I'm proud of myself for doing! In fact: re, not focusing on your failings and giving yourself reinforcement-- I often have tasks that I find myself "carrying forward" for several days in a row. When that happens, it's because I'm avoiding it for some unknown anxiety reason, there's just something about it that seems unapproachable. That means it's hard for me, whether or not it seems like it should be hard. That means I need to make it the only necessary goal for the next day. That means that when I do it, I celebrate like I just won an award. The meta-game there is that I'm teaching myself that tackling things that seem really daunting is a way to get to have a lot of fun.

I think a lot of what I'm trying to say is that the sticker charts, which I heartily endorse, are a way of making the habit forming itself the reward. You're acknowledging yourself and validating yourself and that works wonders.

Best of luck from a fellow traveler.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 6:28 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


Read Atomic Habits! I put a similar system in place for work tasks and spending, and it's working well. Start really small, use the first few weeks to see what rewards you really respond to.
posted by freshwater at 6:52 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


It's been working for me (also ADHD). The key seems to be to have a reward commensurate with the amount of effort--the more difficult the thing is to do and do consistently, the bigger the reward needs to be. Small amounts of money that I can spend on in-app purchases for a mobile game I play work quite well for small goals, of a week in length.

Also, if there's a big reward and a long-term goal, it helps to clarify cases when I can "cheat." I want to cut down my soda drinking, so my husband and I instituted a two-sodas-per-week rule, with a reward that at the end of six months, the next flight we book will be business class. We could go to three if the week contained a holiday or a birthday, and if the soda you got at a restaurant was so badly mixed as to be undrinkably nasty, it didn't count. It worked! Aaaand...now we're finding it hard to keep doing that because we haven't found a big enough reward for the next six months/year, which is the only drawback.
posted by telophase at 11:45 AM on February 4


I do this in my bullet journal. I pick a few habits each week that I want to work on (they currently include stuff like flossing, stretching, tidying up something, working on a creative project, etc.) and then I make up a tracker in my weekly spread.

I judge my success based on a percentage of completions for the week. I start out by setting a 66% completion goal to gain momentum/confidence and then build up to 85-90%.

I also add an extra line for shining star moments (stuff that isn't one of my tracked habit but that was difficult or challenging, like going to the dentist or filing my taxes, etc.) that can be added as a completed item, but without adding to the total number possible. (Does that make sense? I guess another way to look at it is that each star can be used to replace an uncompleted regular habit.)

One of my difficulties is actually choosing something to reward myself with, so I like itesser's idea of cash in a sealed envelope. You can even save up envelopes to get yourself something really nice off your wish list.

Anyway, I hope this helps. Good luck!
posted by not.so.hip at 3:21 PM on February 4


I am pretty much continually working on ways to handle all the boring but necessary parts of daily life with my ADHD. Here is a rapid rundown at a high level of the things that are working best:

1) Make sure your meds are optimal. I spent like two years on a beginning dose before I mentioned to my doctor that the meds really helped but I still struggled with some symptoms. We went through a period of trying different stuff and now I'm on a routine that works so much better! For me, that involved both a higher dose (they'd started me really low) and taking both a long-acting med in the morning and a short-acting one in the late afternoon, so that I was effectively medicated for most of my day, both at work and at home in the evening when I needed to do personal chores and such.

2) Do the work of planning out systems and the like when you're medicated and focused, and set them up so that the "default" option - the easiest thing to do - is the thing that Medicated, Focused You wants to happen.

3) Don't try to change everything at once. I try to keep a maximum of three "self improvements" at a time, and only add a new one when one of them has really become enough of a habit that I don't need to invest much energy in keeping it up.

4) Bullet Journal is my core tool. I keep stickers in the back pocket and buy myself pretty colored pens, but don't spend a lot of time drawing elaborate layouts like you see on Insta. I use apps as supplements to the BuJo.

So, some things that helped me with money:
-YNAB (You Need A Budget) app is the only budgeting system I've ever in my life been able to keep up with more than a few months. I can't recommend it enough.
-In conjunction with YNAB, one of the very few habits in my BuJo tracker is "recorded all spending." Note that I'm not even noting whether the spending was planned or impulsive, just that I recorded everything in my app. That's the first step for me in building awareness.
-Figure out where you spend impulsively and GIVE YOURSELF A BUDGET CATEGORY FOR THAT. I have a specific budget line item for "lunch out and coffee" and another for "hobbies" and another for "books and music." You could even have a "spend on whatever you want" category. Knowing that you have space for fun spending really helps.
-Budget for FUN in both your time and your money. The more you try to be your own overbearing parent, the more In The Moment You will tend to rebel against yourself and fritter away time and money on things that Medicated, Forward Thinking You doesn't want.
-Automate bill paying as much as possible to avoid the ADHD tax of late fees and penalties. I also keep the bill paying money in a completely different account than the "running around money" so that I can't accidentally spend the phone bill money on, like, craft supplies or restaurants or whatever. I automate my direct deposit so the right amount goes into the right account each time.
-I actually spent a whole afternoon working out exactly how much money of every check should go to what budget category and made a list. Now when I get paid I just put the appropriate amount into each category in YNAB. I don't have to think about it or make decisions, just do exactly what it says on the list. I call this "pre-thinking."

Some ideas for the other stuff:
-Identify the things with the greatest impact and work on those first. So for me, the first things I worked on were money (see above) and sleep. Sleep is still an issue that I'm continually struggling with but I have the money going pretty well, so now I'm working on getting more physical activity. But I didn't try to do it all at the same time.
-Make sure that you schedule time for fun/renewing/enjoyable stuff and keep to it just as much as the time for "chores"
-Instead of focusing on being DONE, focus on DOING. So like - I don't put "put away all laundry" as a to-do, I put "do one laundry sprint." (Sprint = UFYH 15/10 = Pomodoro, any technique where you work on a thing on a timer for X minutes then take a Y minute break.) Sometimes I get into whatever it is and finish the task, sometimes I stop after my sprint, but either way at least part of it got done. Progress!
-I am using a money reward system using an app called Brili that gives you stars for routines. One of my struggles is getting up and going to bed - my meds have worn off and I'm a night owl anyway and I have a sleep disorder, so I have to remember to take my night meds AND do bedtime stuff AND stop reading or sewing or playing a game and go to bed. And in the morning I tend to space out in the middle of getting ready and spend, like, ten minutes with one sock on, checking my email. This might help for your routine stuff like flossing. I have a "get up" routine that includes steps for taking meds, brushing teeth, shower, toilet, moisturizer, get dressed, get lunch, get laptop bag, etc., and I get stars for completing them. Every month I put a certain amount of money in the "rewards to earn" budget category, and when I earn a certain number of stars I can move some money from there to the "earned rewards" category, that I'm allowed to spend on whatever I want. I worked out the math so that if I earned every single possible star every day, I would earn the whole budgeted amount - basically so I can't ever earn stars I don't have the money to "pay out".

Hope some of this helps and feel free to memail me if you want more details. :)
posted by oblique red at 10:27 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


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