ADHD 101 Series: Motivation
Individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often find it difficult to motivate themselves to get started on, and complete certain tasks, due to the lack of ability to focus on one thing long enough to get anything finished. In contrast, usually there are things that the same person can hyper-focus on for hours at a time and complete with ease. How is it possible that someone can hyper-focus so intently on some things but not others?
This is due to the way the ADHD brain’s reward system develops. The size and structure of certain parts of the brain develop differently, which results in some parts become more effective than others. Hypoactive and hyperactive parts of the brain and result in deficits in the systems responsible for rewards, motivation, attention focus, and other functions.
In general, the ADHD brain is motivated by things that provide immediate reward, that are fun or entertaining, that are interesting, that are challenging (but not TOO challenging), and that are rewarding. Things that de-motivate the ADHD brain can include things that are too hard, that have too many steps, that are boring, repetitive, not interesting, and sensory things like too much light or sound.
As motivating yourself when you have ADHD can be difficult, hopefully these tips will provide some guidance for getting yourself to be able to grab the hyperfocus-bull by the horns and take it for a ride whenever you want, (rather than waiting for it to stroll along when it feels like it).
The ADHD brain’s reward system is wired for immediate reward and satisfaction. This means that if the reward is unknown, ambiguous or too far in the future then individuals with ADHD will be less likely to do the task. The same goes for consequences: hence why some of us ADHD folks can suddenly find ourselves able to write a 500-page paper the night before it is due but the thought of how stressful that may be is not enough of a motivating factor to get us to actually work on the paper in advance. Immediate reward is essential, so when we are faced with a task that is not immediately rewarding, we have to make it more enticing.
To make things more enticing, we can use reward systems to get a bit of dopamine kick in our systems when we need it. Rewards should be simple, immediate and not take too much time/attention. Some examples include:
A small candy (e.g. 1 M&M (Just ONE, not a bag: you don’t give your dog a bag of treats when training do you?)
Checkmark/cross off something you completed on a list of tasks
Sticker charts e.g. for chores
Stamps/motivating messages in your agenda
$ in a jar
5 minutes of gaming time
Timing of your reward is essential. You must insert the reward at the problem area, which isn’t necessarily when you complete the task. For those with ADHD getting started on the task is the problem usually. If that is the case, then you have to reward yourself when you intend to do the task, not once it has been completed.
For example, I have issues motivating myself to workout. I will go through cycles where I will be really good for a while then fall off track and have to re-train myself to get back into it. So I start small and build on the reward system, starting with the problem area: getting myself started. At this stage if I put on my workout clothes and set up my workout station, that is when I reward myself with a small chocolate or candy. Over time I no longer will need the reward at that point and instead I will reward myself after 5 minutes of exercise. After a few days or weeks then I will bump that up to rewarding after 10 minutes, and so on until I am back on track. Immediate rewards can help motivate, as long as they are not too distracting or interfere with the task at hand.
Make it Interesting, Fun and Challenging
When things are boring, such as waiting in line for 6 months of your lifetime, during a lecture/meeting, commuting, or when doing unsatisfying tasks such as cleaning the toilet: you have to make it interesting or more challenging.
How you make something more interesting depends on where you put your focus. For example, I hate laundry. It is a chore that is very hard to motivate myself to do. But I do love color coding things. So, I focus on the fact that I get to color code things as I fold them and put them away, rather than the fact that I am doing laundry and that helps get me through it to completion. If I focus on how much I hate laundry and how I would rather be gaming, then I am going to be more of in a bad mood and hate the task more. So, I focus on the things that are interesting to me.
Here are some other ways that might help keep you more interested and engaged in boring times:
Listen to a podcast/watch a show at the same time
Practice memorization techniques such as mnemonics for names or numbers
Fiddle with things: fiddle toys, spinning your pen, knit/crochet
Doodle your notes, or just doodle in general
Practice some mindfulness/other coping skills
Play games on your commute such as making up acronyms for license plates or playing “I spy..”
Make the task more challenging/increase the intensity
Do the task in a different language/in addition e.g. practicing numbers in Spanish while doing math problems
Add friendly competition: time yourself on chores, challenge to fold more stuff than someone else, etc.
Break it Down: Step by Step
If something is too challenging or has too many steps, then the individual with ADHD may have difficulty getting started on the task because it feels overwhelming.
When things are too challenging, you must break the task down into more manageable steps.
For example, starting with a goal of just working on the task for 5 minutes and then thinking of everything else as bonus can help you motivate yourself to at least get started. Over time you can build up your tolerance of boring or unpleasant tasks and may find yourself being able to keep your attention for longer periods of time. If you are working on a paper or a report and there are too many tasks, use an assignment calculator or list to break it down into manageable steps and tackle them one by one. If you are cleaning and are too overwhelmed by the chaos, start with just one shelf/area at a time or one task at a time.
Get Some Help
Implementing these strategies can be challenging on your own. A psychologist can help you implement these concepts into practice in your every day life. Therapy can help you break down your steps, discover what motivates you personally and modify your daily tasks so you can get yourself to complete the things you want to do with less stress.