Inconsistency is one of the hallmarks of ADHD. And one of the places where this is glaringly true is motivation. Unfortunately, you may be using strategies to motivate yourself that don’t serve you well in the long run. To turn this around, check out the four strategies you can use that can help give you the motivation you need more often.
- Your ADHD brain wiring contributes to your challenges with motivation
- Force does not work as a means to motivate you.
- You can’t depend on waiting for motivation, either.
- Over relying on urgency for motivation comes at a cost.
- Knowing your reason why can help you choose to do a task.
- Having the clarity of what you are going to do can also help motivate you.
- Knowing how you are going to do the task also helps with motivation.
- Article: How to Create ADHD Friendly Accountability Partnerships
- Book: Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister
- Tool: Focusemate – Virtual coworking
As an adult with ADHD, I know there are times when you just can’t motivate yourself to do something you need to and even really want to do because it’s important to you. Especially, of course, when it’s not intrinsically interesting to you. And then you may immediately jump to all sorts of conclusions as to why this is happening. Believe me, it’s not because you’re lazy or that you don’t really want to do it, as others might suggest, and you might even believe at times
You’ve tuned into Scattered Focus, Done – Reimagining Productivity with ADHD, a podcast for ADHD adults like you who want to learn how to adopt the best strategies, tools, and skills to get your essential work done in a way that works with the way your brain is wired. I’m Marla Cummins and I’m glad you’re joining me today on this journey to reimagining productivity with ADHD. so you can get what is important to you done without trying to do it like everyone else.
To start, I want to make sure we have a shared definition. So, according to Roy Baumeister who wrote the book, Willpower, the simplest definition of motivation boils down to wanting. That is, motivation is when we want to act or make a change. And I’m sure there’s a lot you want to do right now, right? But when you think of motivation, you’re probably thinking of the definition provided by another motivation researcher, Robert Franken, who defines motivation as the arousal, direction and persistence of behavior. And this is what you want to figure out how to do. How to get yourself to do what you say and is truly important to you.
The first step is to acknowledge and understand how your ADHD brain wiring makes it difficult to create the motivation you need. As with this understanding, you’ll be in a much better position to create the right workarounds.
Let’s start by looking at the reward system in the brain. Simply put, we act, are motivated, when a stimulus is sent and processed in the brain indicating a reward is on the way. For this to happen, there needs to be enough of a neurotransmitter dopamine. You’ve heard plenty about that. And it needs to be relayed efficiently, but as I’m sure you know, not only is there an abnormally low level of dopamine in the ADHD brain, but what is available is just not transmitted efficiently.
And this is why motivation is hard for you. As a result, your ADHD brain is an interest-based nervous system, meaning you are motivated by interest and competition and novelty and urgency, not necessarily importance. That is your brain is constantly scanning your environment, seeking out high stimulation and more immediate rewards as this will trigger the release of dopamine that creates the motivation you need to act.
It’s not something that you do intentionally. So for example, writing that long overdue email may be important to you. But because it just doesn’t stimulate your brain, it is harder to act. And right now because you don’t have enough tools in your toolbox, yet, you may conclude the answer must be that you just need to force yourself to do what you say is important.
And, though I’m guessing you already know this from experience, force just as not the answer. After all, when you feel like someone is forcing you to do a task, what happens? You might feel resentment and resist doing whatever it is they want you to do. Similarly, when you try to force yourself with self-talk such as I just have to do this, you probably also resist doing the task because you feel backed into a corner. Alternatively, when you don’t feel like doing a task, you may tell yourself, I’ll do it later.
Though probably not consciously, the underlying belief you may have in the moment is that there will come a time in the future when you’ll feel like doing it. But that ideal time rarely comes, does it? And waiting for motivation becomes even more of a slippery slope when you feel shame for not delivering. Because then you’ll feel even less motivated to do the task. And then you might continue to avoid it or perhaps wait until you feel, yes, a sense of urgency from some external pressure.
In fact, like many ADHD adults, you may over rely on urgency for motivation. Makes sense. After all, urgency is one of the factors that can provide stimulation for your interest-based nervous system, so it will release the dopamine you need to act. It’s a coping strategy you’ve learned over time because well, it has worked. And over time it has become a habit. Yet, you also know overusing this strategy can come at a cost as you may feel immense stress, which can affect your mental and physical health, and you may not do your best work.
And so while it’s fine to rely on, sometimes I’m guessing you’d like it not to be your only go-to strategy. So since force isn’t the answer, waiting for motivation is an iffy proposition and you’d like to rely less on urgency, let’s look at what you can do to muster the necessary energy motivation to take action towards what’s important to you.
Because interest is one of the factors that can stimulate your brain. Making a visceral connection to the reward of doing a task is one of the first steps you can take to help you engage in a task – feel motivated. An example is that of a former client who promised his spouse, he would take out the recycling. I know recycling may not seem like an important task. But it was to his spouse and it was important to him to keep his promises because he valued their relationship. But because taking out the recycling wasn’t interesting to him, no surprise, he was having a hard time following through.
Eventually, he landed on the reason or reward that would help motivate him to choose to do the task when the time came. And that reward, the reason was honoring his promise to his spouse. And then to maximize the chances of following through. He decided to take out the recycling every single day on his way to work whatever the amount that there was. Then he wouldn’t have to worry about remembering which day to do it or trying to decide whether there is enough to make it worth it. Remember, well it’s certainly easier to do a task that’s intrinsically interesting, figuring out the reward related to doing the task can also help you at least get started. So is there a task you’re avoiding right now that’s important to you? See if you can come up with the reward related to doing that task.
The next step to feeling motivated to act is being clear on what you need to do, including the order of the steps you need to take to accomplish the task.
For example, let’s say you’re putting off emailing a colleague and every time you think about doing it, you say to yourself, maybe I should call, or, well, maybe we should have a meeting instead of emailing. Or you have on your list to take the car in for an oil change but haven’t decided where to take it yet. In both examples, you have the wrong task.
In the example of emailing your colleague, of course, you need to first decide whether to email, call or meet to convey the information. And in the case of the oil change, yes, you need to decide where to have the oil changed. Maybe it seems obvious, but not having all the right steps in the right order trips up a lot of people.
The other element that can make it harder to feel motivated is not considering preparing to do the task as part of doing the task. So for example, if you’ve decided you’re going to email your colleague, rather than trying to figure out what you want to say while you’re writing the email, sketch out what you want to include, including the objective before you start writing the email. Once you’ve done all this, it will be easier to start and yes, you’ll feel more motivated to finish. So take a look at your list. Can you do the step you have listed? If not, consider whether is a step before the one you listed or if perhaps you have to do a little prep work to get ready to do the task you listed.
Once you know the reason you would choose to do a task and are clear on what you need to do, the next step is deciding how you’re going to do the task. Right now, you may be taking your cues from your neurotypical peers and think you should be able to operate like them, and so you try. But you might feel demoralized and unmotivated when you inevitably hit roadblocks because you’re just not honoring your needs and preferences.
The first step to turn this around is to drop these shoulds and figure out your own operating manual, which takes into consideration and honors your needs and preferences. Then you’ll be in a much better place to tackle a task. And, yes, feel motivated, persist when you’re working in a way that fits with how you operate best given your current capacity, and that includes time and energy, also your preferences, strengths, challenges, including your ADHD.
Here are some elements to take into consideration as you’re trying to figure this out. First, how are you going to break up the task? You might use your ADHD hyperfocus superpowers and tackle the task all at once. Alternatively, if this feels too overwhelming and even daunting, you might decide to break the task into as many discrete parts as makes sense and then chip away at it. Doing it this way might help you feel a sense of accomplishment and motivation to persist even though the task may feel a little bit too big sometimes.
It’s also important to consider what kind of environment you need to do a task. Perhaps you need a quiet environment. In these instances, you might close your door and turn off all your notifications from your computer and phone to minimize distractions. Other times, you may prefer the background noise of music or a coffee shop to keep your brain so you’re able to focus on your primary task.
Also, consider whether you can add some novelty or competition to how you do the task as remember, these are two elements, in addition to urgency and interest, that can help stimulate your brain. Maybe you use a new mind mapping software to brainstorm ideas rather than sketching it out on paper or perhaps you set a timer to see how many emails you can process in 15 minutes. You get the idea
As part of deciding how you’re going to do a task, you may also decide you need support to follow through. This might mean working with someone else on the task. Alternatively, you may decide to body double with someone, which is when you work side by side and each of you do your own work. While you may do this with a friend or a colleague in person, you could also use a virtual service like Focusmate to do this. Many of my clients have found success using Focusmate. So I encourage you to check it out to see if it might work for you. I’ve included a link to the site with this podcast on my website.
Alternatively, you may ask a trusted colleague or friend for accountability to help you follow through by checking in with them agreed upon intervals along the way. If you’re interested in knowing more about accountability partnerships, you can check out my blog post, How to Create ADHD Friendly Accountability Partnerships.
You’ll feel more energy motivation to follow through on your work when you have a plan that reflects your needs and preferences.
Once you’ve identified what you need to do and how you’re going to go about doing it, the next step is deciding when and for how long you’re going to work on the task. Without this step, as I’m sure you know all too well, the task can stay on your list for a long time. Part of the reason is it’s just too hard to make the decision on the fly. So when you look at your ever-growing lists, you likely default to doing whatever task feels the most urgent in the moment, whether it’s the most important or not. But having clarity about when you’re going to do a task can help create some of the motivation, energy you need to get started.
So that you don’t have to decide when to do a task one strategy you could try is to batch certain types of tasks to do at a certain time. For example, you may decide to take care of all your finances every other Friday. Or you may decide to take care of emails at three o’clock every day. Are there any type of tasks you can think of where batching might be helpful?
On the other hand, if you have a long-term project, you could try scheduling reoccurring times to work on it. For example, you might decide to work on an upcoming presentation every day for an hour in the morning. Then again, because task switching is a challenge for ADHD adults, you may decide to do a deep dive and spend longer on a project, a half a day, a day, whatever works for you. You could also try identifying at the beginning of the day what you want to get done and time box at least part of your day by putting those in your calendar just as you would any other meeting. Rather than leaving it up to chance.
But remember, it’s not enough just to schedule task. You know that. So you also need to think about what will help you follow through when the time comes.
And absolutely leverage your motivation when it comes. Ride the wave. That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a task when you feel like it, have the motivation. As long as you don’t feel it gets in the way of doing your other important work. There is no right answer when it comes to scheduling when you’re going to do a task.
But as you make these decisions, you’ll want to consider what time works best for you in terms of your energy vis-a-vis the specific task. So if you’re not a morning person, don’t try to do cognitively heavy lifting tasks in the morning just because others work early in the morning. Maybe the early bird doesn’t always catch the worm. Remember, the key is to honor how you work best. And it doesn’t have to look like everyone else.
There you have it. Motivation is the desire to make a change coupled with the necessary energy to take persistent action to make that change. And knowing your reason why – the reward – is the first step. Then you’ll want to make sure you have clarity about exactly what you need to do, how you’re going to do it, and when.
That’s it for now. I’m really glad you joined me and stayed until the very end. If you’re interested in learning more about my work with adults with adhd, check out my website marlacummins.com. Of course, if you’ve learned a thing or two from today’s podcast, which I hope you have, please pass along the link to anyone else in your circles you think might also benefit. And until next time, this has been Scattered, Focused Done. And I’m Marla Cummins, wishing you all the very best on your journey to reimagining productivity with ADHD.