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While both neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals can have motivation fluctuations, this can be especially true for individuals with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In general, the ADHD brain understands and processes information slightly differently from neurotypical brains.
Specifically, dopamine and reward pathways react more strongly to new and exciting stimuli compared with more boring and repetitive tasks. This can affect the sense of reward someone feels and their levels of motivation.
How Does ADHD Affect Motivation?
Let us now discuss, in more detail, some of the most common ways ADHD can affect motivation.
Difficulty initiating and maintaining tasks
People with ADHD can find it more difficult to initiate or maintain tasks. This can be due to trouble sustaining attention, inability to manage impulsivity, or trouble maintaining focus for long periods of time.
For tasks perceived as more mundane, uninteresting, or even challenging, reaching completion can be even more difficult, thus reducing motivation.
Consequently, tasks may be initiated but abandoned soon after, increasing the chances of someone with ADHD balancing several ongoing projects at the same time.
One of the main ADHD symptoms is difficulty sustaining focus, making someone more prone to distractions.
Therefore, someone with ADHD may be more likely to lose focus and attention and have difficulty sitting still or working on a project for several hours.
Certain environmental stimuli, such as loud noises, can hinder sustained attention as well.
Altogether, these can severely demotivate someone when constant distractions come in the way.
Many people can be plagued with procrastination that directly impacts how motivated they feel; this is especially true for people with ADHD (Bolden & Fillauer, 2020).
Several projects or tasks may be purposefully delayed, and this can often create a cycle of postponing something further and further until the very last minute.
Several reasons may propel procrastination, such as a fear of failure, criticism, imposter syndrome, or simply not finding the task stimulating enough.
Boredom can be another key factor affecting motivation. If the task, project, or assignment is not found to be interesting and mentally stimulating enough, then motivation can plummet out of pure boredom.
People with ADHD can experience more challenges sustaining attention, so if boredom is added to the mix, they may experience further decreased motivation (Fugate & Gentry, 2016).
Subsequently, they may have the need to seek out more interesting activities or even switch between a few activities very quickly.
Sticking to hobbies
Linking to the previous point, and due to all the factors outlined above, sticking to a specific hobby can be particularly challenging for someone with ADHD.
Starting a new hobby may be something new and exciting, but as soon as the novelty wears out, so can the motivation and sense of reward that keeps someone pursuing it. This can lead to several ongoing hobbies at the same time, with many of them at various progression stages.
Sina Eißfeller in her blog post, discusses her ADHD experience with hobbies and explains it as “my “jack of all trades, master of none” personality.”(Eißfeller, 2022)
Are People With ADHD Just Lazy?
People with ADHD are, by no means, lazy individuals. They can be highly motivated, very creative, have a strong desire to learn, and be quite engaged in interesting or passionate activities.
However, due to their ADHD symptoms, they are more prone to certain behaviors, often mislabeled as “lazy,” leading to this myth and assumption.
Many people with ADHD may be used to hearing from others: ‘Why can you [enter favorite enjoyable here] but you can’t do [enter boring or repetitive task here]”?’
ADHD behaviors deemed as ‘lazy’ may include task switching and sustaining enough attention to start or finish a project. People with ADHD may also have difficulties with impulse control and hyperactivity which may hinder them from completing tasks.
While there can be struggles with tasks requiring sustained attention, people with ADHD can still excel in several areas that capture their interest more.
Misinterpretation of behaviors from others due to a lack of understanding also perpetuates this myth, with wrongful labels being added.
There is an expectation in society to be productive; this can make people who struggle with productivity and motivation be viewed as lazy.
However, laziness implies that there is a conscious choice, but those with ADHD do not choose to be unfocused or leave tasks incomplete.
It is thus highly important to exercise understanding and openness either to yourself or anyone else with ADHD. If motivation is a concern, getting help from a professional specializing in neurodiversity can be an excellent first step.
How To Get Motivated With ADHD
There are a few ways to help manage any interfering ADHD symptoms and increase motivation. While some of the following may work for some, they may not work for others.
It may take some trial and error to find what motivational method/s works best for you.
Set achievable goals
Setting achievable goals can greatly help you increase motivation. When faced with a big task, people with ADHD are more prone to task paralysis and worry over initiating the project.
As there can already be struggles in starting tasks, feeling like you have a big mountain ahead of you can exacerbate anxieties over it.
Setting more realistic goals and breaking down a task into more attainable steps can help develop a sense of progress and increase the times you feel that you have accomplished something.
For example, by breaking down a work or school presentation into smaller areas, e.g., first doing background research, then preparing slides, followed by adding animations, etc., you will experience a sense of achievement each time you complete one of these.
Having a smaller goal, such as ‘Find five pieces of research for my presentation’, can be more attainable and less overwhelming than having a goal of “Complete presentation.” These shorter rewards have been found to boost motivation (Modesto-Lowe, Chaplin, Soovajian & Meyer, 2013).
Create a list
Creating a list is another great way to increase motivation for ADHD, as it is much easier to lose focus. Thus, taking ideas and writing them down can help you visualize what needs to be done, leaving more room to focus.
The list can take on any format or design you desire, e.g., on paper or electronic. The main takeaway is to have the list somewhere accessible and visible. Things can be added to it as soon as the ideas come to you so you don’t forget.
By checking off completed tasks, someone with ADHD can experience a sense of satisfaction and reward, making them feel more motivated.
Experiment with some of the motivational methods discussed in this article and find one or more that suit you.
Identify productive times
Not everyone’s brain operates under the same schedule, with some being more morning people and some finding a boost of energy later in the day. Self-reflect on your own habits and behaviors in an attempt to identify the most productive times for you.
If the answer is not very clear, you can try asking yourself some of the following questions:
- What time of day do I feel more energetic?
- If I have something important I need to finish, when do I usually feel more alert and focused to do so?
- Am I more productive usually at the beginning, middle, or end of the week?
By figuring out your most productive times and days, you can try scheduling more challenging tasks during those pockets of time to capitalize on your motivational energy.
Decide when and how
Linking to the previous point, once you know your most productive and motivated times of day, you can begin to game plan on the “when” and “how” you will proceed with the task.
Break down what you have to do into manageable chunks, categorize them by difficulty level, and time block those more challenging ones into time pockets where you feel the most productive and motivated.
Certain techniques, such as the Pomodoro method, where you work for 25min and then have a 5 min break, may also be beneficial and worth a try.
You can find timers for these online and for free. By finding the method that works best for you, you can maximize your motivation levels and experience a higher sense of achievement and progress.
Start incorporating rewards and incentives to help boost your motivation. The types of rewards can vary depending on your likes/dislikes and how much motivation you need.
You can promise to reward yourself after completing necessary tasks (whether big or small), so you have something to look forward to.
Here are some examples of rewards you can use:
- Taking a break
- Having a treat, e.g., your favorite snack
- Social media time, e.g., checking your phone
- Going outside for a walk
- Chatting with a friend or colleague
- Watch an episode of your favorite show
By starting to incorporate a reward system into your productivity routine, you may discover you are able to sustain attention and a drive to work for much longer than without it.
Limit task barriers
Another important factor to consider is any task-specific barriers that may be hindering your sense of motivation, as people with ADHD typically find it more difficult to disengage from distractions (Ross & Randolph, 2016).
These could range from the work environment not being conducive to work (too noisy, dark/bright, crowded, distracting, etc.), technology interfering (phone notifications, the temptation to go online and do other things instead of work, etc.), or even task-specific barriers such as the work not being interesting or stimulating enough.
A few ideas to mitigate these would be:
- Find a work environment that suits your needs
- Limit phone distractions by putting your phone away or having it on “do not disturb”
- Use website blockers to stop yourself from accessing sites not related to work for a set amount of time
- Think of alternative ways you can make the task more engaging
- Ensure you have everything you need before you begin
Use External Motivation
If you are finding that just by yourself, you are unable to produce enough motivation to get you through a task or project, then consider asking some of your friends, family, and even colleagues to help you out.
Having this external motivation of knowing that you will check in with someone and reflect on your progress may help you in task performance (Ventouri, 2020).
It is important though, that you feel safe entrusting any of your motivational struggles to people you know have your best interest at heart.
Be careful for this to not also lead to any performance anxiety from the added stress of knowing that there are more people holding you accountable.
Remember why you are doing the task
Sometimes taking a step back and remembering why you are doing the task in the first place can help put things into perspective and generate more motivation.
It is easy to get lost in the nitty-gritty of work and forget the reason behind all your efforts. By re-aligning with the “why” it can help bring to the forefront of your mind all the important reasons you have started in the first place.
You might even be able to link it to any of your own personal values, goals, and ambitions and re-generate a sense of purpose or more positive outcomes for the future.
In turn, this can help you get in touch with your life goals and objectives once more and see how certain tasks can fit into them.
Many often find that music helps create a more positive, relaxed, and engaged environment for them to work in. Especially for ADHD, music therapy is even often suggested for its therapeutic benefits (Dursun, Fidan, & Karayagiz, 2021).
You could try all sorts of music ranging from your favorite artist and genre to something more relaxed and instrumental. Experiment with different types until you find something that works for you.
If you find lyrics distracting, you can try songs in other languages. Since you will not understand what is being said, your brain can focus on the task at hand with fewer interferences.
If any of the above are overall too distracting, it might be worth considering certain types of ambient noises, e.g., rain or waves, or even just certain types of “noise” such as white or brown noise.
Lastly, figure out if you prefer music to be coming out from speakers or headphones or even if having just “noise canceling” on can be beneficial.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is task paralysis in ADHD?
Task paralysis in ADHD refers to the phenomenon of having the desire to complete or perform a task but feeling incapable or “paralyzed” to do so (Enright, 2021).
This can range from starting a project to continuing or finishing it or even having multiple ongoing tasks needing completion but struggling to finalize them.
Tasks are more likely to be initiated and completed if they are novel and exciting/stimulating. However, if the task is deemed either boring or repetitive, then ADHD individuals may struggle with starting and finishing this.
Procrastination can also manifest in task paralysis, with the person feeling unmotivated to work, leading to postponement until right before the deadline.
Do people with ADHD have intrinsic motivation?
Intrinsic motivation refers to the internal drive and satisfaction derived from engaging in an activity purely for the enjoyment and personal fulfillment it provides rather than for external rewards or pressures.
People with ADHD most certainly have intrinsic motivation, and no inherent part of ADHD completely stops people from experiencing this. That being said, there are certain additional challenges that could be faced.
For example, if an activity aligns with their personal interest or sparks any excitement, intrinsic motivation can flow much more freely.
Constranstigly, tasks deemed difficult, mundane, or simply repetitive can generate much less intrinsic motivation (Smith & Langberg, 2018).
Thus, as the ability to maintain mental and physical focus diminishes, intrinsic motivation also declines.
How do I know if I have a lack of motivation from ADHD or from depression?
Lack of motivation can directly result from either ADHD or depression; however, there are certain differences in how it is expressed that can help someone know from where it is originating.
For ADHD, a lack of motivation can often be task-specific. Mentally, someone may feel unmotivated due to difficulties focusing. Physically, they may have trouble sitting still and overall display hyperactivity (Weiss & Weiss, 2004).
For depression, a lack of motivation is typically more consistent across various aspects of life.
Mentally someone may experience a loss of pleasure/motivation in daily activities, and physically they may have a lack of motivation to eat and overall display difficulties in engaging with a plethora of situations (Smith, 2013).
There are rates of comorbidity for ADHD and depression, and it is possible for a lack of motivation to be a combination of the two (Fischer et al., 2007).
Symptoms of ADHD may also be a contributing factor for someone developing clinical depression due to the challenges they face in managing daily functioning.
Consulting a mental health professional specializing in ADHD can help support, identify root causes, and help develop a positive plan moving forwards.
What is the main cause of motivational difficulties in ADHD?
The main cause of motivation problems lies within the primary symptoms of ADHD.
Specifically, certain cognitive differences, including a diminished ability to focus, struggle with organization, and difficulties in regulating behavior, can directly impact motivational processes and pathways.
For example, if someone has an innate struggle to sustain focus and impulse control, it can make it much easier to lose concentration, partake in things like procrastination and overall lose motivation.
Lastly, any past experiences of negative judgment or feedback due to these symptoms can also have a primary role in causing motivational problems in ADHD.
Fear of being judged or any past failed situations can easily resurface and lead to the inability to find intrinsic motivation.
Do time pressures motivate the ADHD brain?
Time pressures can indeed sometimes help the ADHD brain in finding motivation.
By time pressures, we mean applying certain deadlines and “need to get it done by” goals to create a sense of urgency and imminency in finishing a task. This could be a grand overall deadline, but smaller milestones can be beneficial as well.
As for why this motivates the ADHD brain, there are a few reasons. Firstly, the sense of urgency can create a state of hyperfocus, increasing someone’s productivity. Secondly, it can help with task organization and especially time management.
Finally, this additional stress being added can sometimes act as a motivating factor in getting things done more swiftly.
However, this does not mean that everyone with ADHD will benefit from this technique.
Some may find this adds additional pressure on top of everything else, which can lead to more avoidance, anxiety, and motivational decrease (Roskes, Elliot, Nijstad, & De Dreu, 2013).
No two people are the same, so find what works for your mind and body the best.
How can I help motivate someone with ADHD?
To help motivate someone with ADHD, it is important to provide structure, clear goals, and regular reminders. Breaking tasks into smaller, manageable chunks can make them feel less overwhelming.
Using visual aids, checklists, and timers can help them stay focused. Providing positive reinforcement, such as rewards or praise, for their efforts can also be motivating.
Additionally, helping them create a structured routine and maintaining a supportive, non-judgmental environment can encourage their progress.
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