“I know what I need to do. I just don’t do it.” I bet you’ve said this a time or two, right? By now you may even be bewildered as to why you either wait until your back is up against the wall before starting a task or shut down and avoid it altogether. After all, it seems like everyone else around you can get their stuff done easily.
You might even tell yourself, “I’m such an idiot. I should just do it!” But, if you’ve talked to yourself like this before, you know trying to force yourself to work or berating yourself doesn’t help you get started or follow through.
While you can’t make yourself work, there are steps you can take to create enough motivation to start and follow through on your important work.
Managing Your ADHD is a Lifelong Journey
At some point in our work, even after making significant progress, every client will inevitably express surprise when they get stuck. And then the following conversation might ensue:
Client: “I don’t know why I can’t just do this!”
Me: “I’m not sure. But I could speculate. Do you want to hear what I think?”
Client: “Sure. Yes, of course.”
Me: “I could be wrong. But I think you might have ADHD. What you think?”
Although we both chuckle when I say this, I’m not just trying to be funny. I’m trying to make a more serious point, which is best conveyed by this recent comment from a client: “It just hit me that getting organised isn’t something you ‘do’ (especially with ADHD). It’s a lifetime of trial and error, revisions and refinements. I need to stop expecting this to be ‘finished’. It needs to become the way I live my life.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself! But, while managing your ADHD is definitely a life-long journey, it doesn’t need to be hard.
How Your ADHD Can Impact Your Motivation
One way to make working with your ADHD easier is to understand how it impacts you. When it comes to motivation you already know it is much easier to execute when you are interested in a task. And, if you’re not interested, trying to tackle a task can feel like wading through cement, right?
The reason for this is your challenges with executive functions — skills needed to accomplish your goals — due to your ADHD are situationally variable. And, contrary to a popular myth, just because you are able to easily do work that interest you doesn’t mean you can easily do work that does not interest you!
As Dr. Thomas Brown, ADHD expert, notes, executive functions are unconscious in the sense that they are more automatic; it is not a matter of “willing” them to work. He makes the analogy that, “most operations of these executive functions are not under conscious control any more than is erectile dysfunction.”
I think you get the point. You can’t just force yourself to do a task when it is not intrinsically interesting. So, you will have to be a bit more creative in finding workarounds to get your work done.
Lack of Interest in the Moment ≠ Not Important to You
To create the appropriate workarounds, it is helpful to understand why, when it is time to act on something that is important to you, you may not feel up to it.
Think of a time when you’ve felt motivated, maybe even excited, but when you needed to get into gear, your mojo just wasn’t there. Maybe you were surprised and wondered, “How can I totally be motivated one second, and then the feeling just disappears?”
It’s important to remember that ADHD is a brain based biological disorder or “neurobehavioral disorder.” Primarily because of a neurotransmitter imbalance you have difficulty focusing, paying attention and persisting.
In terms of motivation, this means that, while a task may be important to you in the long run, in the moment you may not feel like doing it. That doesn’t necessarily mean the task is not an important to you. It could just mean your mojo isn’t there in that moment. That’s it.
While medication can help, if you choose to take it, there are other steps you can take to avoid giving into this feeling. Read on to see how you can do this.
Step #1 – Activate the Brain’s Reward System
The first step is to make a connection to your payoff. So, when it is time to act, you trigger the Brain’s Reward System. When we “tell” our brain a reward is on the way we will more likely make choices and prioritize goals that are in sync with what is important to us.
In chemical terms, when the reward is anticipated dopamine is released to various parts of the brain, activating our motor functions, attention and memory pathway. And, when the memory of this stimulus and associated reward is in place, we will be more likely to tackle the task the next time.
One way you can activate this system, especially if the payoff is not readily apparent, is to figure out why a task is important to you — its reward. Because, when you can find the value for you in doing a task, it will pull you forward.
Here is an example of a typical low-interest task where the reward to not obvious.
While Bob promised his spouse he would take out the recycling, he would usually pass by it, even when it was overflowing. Often Bob didn’t notice the recycling. And, when he did, it just didn’t seem that important to do in the moment.
Over time this mundane task became a source of contention between them. Around and around they went until Bob decided he wanted to figure out how to get off the merry-go-round of arguments.
When Bob identified the two values related to this task — honoring his spouse’s needs and maintaining a peaceful house — he became more invested in figuring out how to consistently follow through with taking out the recycling.
Figuring out his payoff was the key to turning this situation around.
Choose a task you are neglecting and is not intrinsically rewarding, and figure out the reward for you in doing it.
Step #2 – Remember the Reward
Remembering the reward may be a challenge for you. So, to counter this you will want to make sure you have a visceral connection to the payoff, not just an intellectual one. That is, you want to really feel and see the reward in all colors of the rainbow.
To do this you will need to go one step further by creating a visual cue (pictures, quotes totems, etc.) to help you remember what it will feel like when you are successful. And make sure the item is easily accessible so you can see it in those moments when you think, “I don’t wanna…!”
Step #3 – When Defining a Task Make it Specific, Doable and Small
Even when you remember why a task is important you may still have trouble acting. So, the next step is to make sure the task is concrete, doable and small enough. The example below illustrates how you can do this.
While being on top of his finances was important to Todd, he struggled to get his taxes in on time. This year Todd decided that was going to change!
But he was overwhelmed and avoided it whenever he saw, “Get tax paperwork to Sue,” on his task list. After thinking for the umpteenth time, “I’ll do that later…,” he realized he was procrastinating because it was too daunting.
When he made his first task, “find checklist Sue sent me,” he immediately felt a sense of relief. Because he knew he could easily do that. Then he decided he would set the timer for 25 minutes, and start working his way down the checklist.
While he decided to work for a minimum of 25 minutes each day, if he felt like it, he could work longer. But he could also just pick up where he left off the next day.
What tasks can you make more concrete small and doable so you feel more like acting?
Step #4 – Identify Negative Thinking that May be Getting in Your Way
The next step is to learn how to manage faulty thinking that may be getting in your way.
- The danger in black-and-white thinking is it can lead you to think in terms of “must” and “should,” and then you might take actions that may not serve you.
- When you personalize a situation you may mistakenly take responsibility when you are not at fault, and then not have the motivation to move forward.
- Similarly, when you disqualify the positive, you may not be motivated because you see what is going wrong and not what is going right.
- It is also hard to stay motivated when you overgeneralize and think you will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.
- When you rely on emotional reasoning you think your feelings are a fact. So, for example, if you feel “apathetic,” you might decide you don’t care about a task. Not true, right?
- If you tend to catastrophize, you might think situations are much worse than they are, which can make it hard to persist.
- And, when you jump to conclusions, you may act on inaccurate information. And then not feel like following through.
- Last, if you use should statements to guide your actions, you will resist acting, as these rules are impossible to follow.
Negative or faulty thinking will get in the way of your motivation to follow through. So, if you are engaging in the above cognitive distortions, now is the time to learn how to manage them.
Step #5 – Be Willing to Withstand Some Discomfort When Starting
Using the above strategies will help you get to the starting line. But what about when you just feel, well, uncomfortable because of your fear of:
- success and uncertainty whether you can replicate that success
- feeling like an imposter
- of not executing perfectly
The key is to first identify the source of your discomfort. And then figure out how to manage it well enough it so you will feel enough motivation to persist.
Next Step For You
Choose a task you don’t feel like doing. Do you have one in mind? Okay, now, use the above 5 steps so you can manufacture enough motivation to execute.