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Motivation and Attention Go Together

There’s more than one way to do a given task. As anyone with ADHD can tell you, there’s also more than one way to not do a task.

You might simply forget to do it. You might keep putting it off but never quite getting to it. Or you might keep thinking of other tasks that are more urgent, or more interesting.

Two other ways to not do a task: if you can’t focus on it, and if you aren’t motivated to do it. Except these two ways are actually intertwined, because attention and motivation have a lot to do with each other in ADHD.

If you’re Concentratingheard about ADHD, you’ve probably heard something about the attention part of ADHD. People with ADHD struggle to sustain attention in certain situations.

What’s not featured in the acronym “ADHD” but what’s as much a part of the condition is the motivation deficit that comes with it. ADHDers tend to respond to rewards differently and to have trouble delaying gratification. Research on this topic suggests that motivation works differently for ADHDers.

In practice, this often results in people with ADHD being unable to self-motivate. They lack the control over their own brains to generate the motivation to complete tasks they know are necessary, tasks that on some level they want to do but don’t necessarily find immediately rewarding.

As it turns out, these are also the tasks where ADHDers are most likely to struggle with attention. Those tasks where your brain wants to do something other than the task as hand are also those tasks where your brain will focus on anything but the task at hand!

Conversely, the tasks you find naturally rewarding, where the motivation to do them seems to come naturally, are also likely to be the ones where you’re most able to focus – maybe even hyperfocus, if you’re lucky.

ADHD meds seem to work partly by targeting the motivation deficits that come with ADHD. A recent study found that methylphenidate makes people with ADHD more willing to engage in tasks that require expending high amounts of effort to obtain rewards. It has a similar effect on people without ADHD, but not to the same extent, suggesting that to some degree methylphenidate seems to be correcting for deficits in motivation that are specific to ADHD.

Looking at symptoms like inattention and hyperactivity is important, but unlike what the name might suggest, these aren’t the only symptoms relevant to ADHD. Looking at motivation-related symptoms can shed light on questions like why people with ADHD tend to perform inconsistently across different situations, why they irrationally delay and avoid certain tasks, and why their symptoms vary with their environment.

At the same time, the motivation deficit isn’t entirely separable from the attention deficit to begin with. The tasks where ADHDers can’t force themselves to concentrate also tend to be the tasks where they can’t self-motivate!

Image: Flickr/v4mpir0

Motivation and Attention Go Together

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). Motivation and Attention Go Together. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Jun 2019
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