Because of how science works, researchers usually name disorders before they understand them. So we’re stuck with terms like “ADHD” even though the heart of what ADHD is goes far beyond inattention and hyperactivity.
One aspect of ADHD that doesn’t always get as much credit as it deserves is motivation. Researchers are increasingly recognizing problems with motivation as a fundamental part of what ADHD is, and they’ve linked these issues to concrete brain differences having to do with dopamine.
For people with ADHD, the motivation side of ADHD can affect our lives in a lot of different ways – not following through on things, procrastinating, not prioritizing well, simply not doing things we should be doing and so on.
Part of the reason we have these problems is that we’re not great at delaying gratification. We often choose smaller short-term rewards over larger long-term rewards.
The motivation problems that come with ADHD can be frustrating to deal with, and they have real effects on our lives. However, there are strategies that can help with managing ADHD-related motivation deficits. Some of my favorites are:
1. Be clear about what your goals are
People with ADHD are highly reward-oriented, so knowing what your goals are and staying focused on these goals is important to staying motivated when you have ADHD.
The best way to motivate yourself to do something is to know what you’re hoping to get out of that thing. Visualize your desired outcome. Think about what you’re working towards.
Because the ADHD brain is so reward-focused, reminding yourself what the rewarding aspect of whatever task you have to do is will help you think of that task as something worth doing.
2. Add rewards after tasks
Setting aside time to do something enjoyable after you cross some items off your to-do list will create a light at the end of the tunnel to keep your motivation up.
I often make little pacts with myself like: I won’t watch that movie until I do X and Y. These deals have a twofold purpose: they stop me from procrastinating by watching the movie before I do X and Y, and they boost my motivation by giving me a reward to look forward to once I finish X and Y.
Like being clear about what your goals are, this strategy is a way of using the fact that the ADHD brain is hungry for reward to your advantage.
3. Add rewards during tasks
Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t enough. Give me some light in the damn tunnel, please!
Having a rewarding, non-distracting background activity to complement whatever task you’re trying to do is a great way to keep focus and motivation up. For example:
- Background music is my favorite way of making tasks more interesting — it’s a total boredom killer.
- Snacking or having a nice cup for coffee was something I found especially helpful when I had to do reading assignments in college.
- It might be overkill to call chewing gum a “reward,” but it’s something satisfying that can help. Ditto fidgeting more generally – I haven’t tried it, but stress balls might be worth a shot.
4. When possible, cut activities that aren’t intrinsically motivating out of your life
Obviously there are just some boring things you have to do. Taxes aren’t something I would recommend cutting out of your life, for example.
However, take note of what activities you find intrinsically motivating and what you consistently have a hard time getting excited about. For each activity that falls into the latter category, ask yourself whether it’s really something that needs to be part of your life.
This is an aspect of ADHD where finding the right environment is crucial. Try to find a career that energizes you, and be willing to switch courses if what you’re doing isn’t working. If you’re in an environment that’s killing your motivation, it’ll probably be painfully obvious to you.
In the end, figuring out how to manage ADHD-related motivation problems is part science, part art.
There are some things we do know in a scientific sense, like that activities with more frequent built-in rewards help people with ADHD maintain motivation and perform at their best. And of course that meds can help balance out some of the brain chemistry behind ADHD motivation deficits.
But there’s also the art of staying motivated when you have ADHD, which is experimenting to get a sense of what techniques work for you, finding an environment that keeps you motivated rather than crushing your spirit and being ready to make changes when things aren’t working.
Image credit: FreeImages.com/Tomasz Szkopinski