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Neurodiversity and Habit Formation

May 29, 2023

 This post is by Cindy Chen.

Habits are necessary for daily life—we do many things without even thinking about them. We turn the key in the ignition; we put our phones in our pockets. It's habit. 

But what if our brains are wired a little differently?

I'm processing through a potential diagnosis of ADHD as an adult. It doesn’t give an excuse, but it may explain why I can’t always keep up with daily routines, am constantly distracted, and struggle to do what isn’t blatantly enjoyable. 

We've heard the statistic that it takes 21 days to build a habit. That's been the traditionally accepted number for decades, but some experts suggest that it can take more than 3 months for people to establish a significant habit.

A few years ago, I was stuck under a sleeping, nursing baby more hours than not. I read the Bible in the YouVersion app. When you open it, the app tracks that you’ve read the Bible that day. I had a reading streak of over 180 days. I was so proud of my consistency. Then, one Sunday, I went to church, spent the day with friends, and barely held my phone in my hands. The next day I opened that app and the home page showed a 1 day reading streak.

I was so disgusted with the broken habit that I was no longer motivated to keep it up. I admit that's ridiculous. I threw it all away because I saw it crumble in a single day.

Let’s face it. Sometimes it doesn’t feel exciting or fun to read the Bible. Especially when you’re in some of those prophets and genealogies. That is difficult for someone whose brain is wired to seek out what is interesting, novel, or exciting. 

What has helped me? 

Understanding WHY I’m doing the thing. Why am I reading the Bible? Why am I deciding my dinner plan before I eat breakfast? Why am I trying to get out and walk the neighborhood?

God Time: I am reading the Bible as an obedience, because I know that even if I might not feel something significant every time, the Holy Spirit has met me in a thousand ways over the open Word. I am reading the Bible because there is almost always a way to connect the living words I read with a way to respond in worship, a way to love my family or coworkers, or a way to course correct in my thoughts and attitude. Imagining the day to be an “Easter egg” to find where the Holy Spirit will remind me of what He showed me earlier, creates an adventure of walking with God through the day. 

Plan Time: Knowing that in 5 minutes I’ll be done. For example, opening the freezer and deciding what we will eat, when I’ll start preparing it, and maybe setting a reminder on my phone, will take just a minute and will relieve me of the stress of wondering how I’ll feed my family when it’s upon us. Doing is less stressful than worrying about not doing the thing. 

Move Time: I’m going out to move my body because I want to be stronger, have the energy to live my life, and get some perspective. I especially enjoy when my husband or one of the kids can join me–it’s a bit of quality time together. Move time doesn’t have to be a whole workout, but can be a brief walk or stretching. A little bit is better than none, and the sense of accomplishment offers a little dopamine punch.

Community: Telling someone my process to get to a goal–not the goal itself. I need them to check on me and ask about my progress. An article (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuroscience-in-everyday-life/201801/why-sharing-your-goals-makes-them-less-achievable)  in Psychology Today said that telling others about your goal is almost as gratifying as accomplishing it. I’ve fooled myself into feeling so good about goals, a beautiful planner, a great 8 week plan… that I have not actually accomplished the goal! It just felt great to get it on paper. But if the goal is to make progress and take steps, it keeps the motivation up to keep pursuing the larger goal. For example, I’m training to run a 5k. My goal obviously is to make it to the end without hurting myself, and not being the absolute slowest out there. But what I share with others is the goal to run or at least walk briskly through my neighborhood three times a week. 

To Manage Daily Life: Setting timers, reminders, and alarms. I am almost embarrassed at the list of alarms I have to keep me rolling through every day. Having a full life, household, work, and school tasks to manage, it’s a lot to keep track of, but there’s no shame in building support into the day. Also, I deliberately ask God to help me order the day and prioritize what will serve His kingdom and purpose, rather than simply handling the urgent. 

Finding ways to work with my divergent brain, rather than against it, has helped me use my imagination to make habits interesting and enjoyable, and thus actually get done. Regardless of your history, your brain composition, or your habit forming abilities, there is no one-size-fits-all for habits, but we all have opportunity to grow and take steps to incorporate a life-giving morning routine. 


Cindy Chen lives outside of Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and 4 kids, and way too many animals in her dusty house. She is a preschool teacher during the school year and swim team and band camp mom during the summer. Cindy is active in her church and small group, and writes in that ever-elusive “spare time.” 

Photo by Ralph Hutter on Unsplash


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