Intrinsic Motivation and Magical Unicorns

The art and science of time management.

Procrastination and Dopamine Receptor Density

To support a student or family member with goal-managment challenges, do this.

One remarkable difference between ADHD and non-ADHD brains appears to be lower density of dopamine receptors in the first group. And because dopamine is thought to be the brain’s chemical messenger of reward and motivation, it makes sense that many adults and children with ADHD are observed to a) engage in high-risk or sensation-seeking behavior, and b) demonstrate a greater-than-typical struggle with boring tasks.

Any activity or relationship we pursue is related to some desired goal—some reward. When the reward is immediate and obvious (ice cream, for example, or well-designed video games), it takes very little mental effort to “connect the dots” between the activity and the reward. But with tasks that are boring or hard, it can be challenging to visualize and anticipate the long term payoff. That type of cognitive activity (relating current activity to some future reward) is almost unique to humans, and improves with neurological maturity. The human brain is fully mature by the time we are in our early- to mid-20s and at that time we might say that our ability to “connect the dots” between activity and reward has ripened. Younger children—or individuals of any age with ADD/ADHD—need more support.

Some examples of huge-payoff longer term goals include:

• weight loss

• academic achievement

• athletic pursuits

• longer-term relationships

• financial goals

And these longer term goals can be broken down into daily step by step action items. Some of those to-do items are not fun, and are not easy. And as we approach boring or hard tasks our brains begin to scan the environment for something—anything—more immediately and intrinsically rewarding.

At my ADHD workshops for clinicians and teachers I suggest that there’s no such thing as procrastination. There’s just choosing. And choosing again. That moment by moment choosing is the “stuff” of longer-term goal attainment. If you know anyone with an academic degree, a savings account, a healthy body, or a relationship that’s lasted longer than three weeks, give them (or yourself) a pat on the back! That goal required day-by-day, decision-by-decision commitment to a mental picture in which you believed, and towards which you strived—even when it wasn’t fun or easy.

Our brains are wired for just this type of visualization and sequencing and “stick-to-it-iveness.” But it’s not easy, and we’re surrounded by seductive distractions. And people with ADD/ADHD are at particular risk of being seduced off-task.

So if you really want to support a student or family member, do this: When you see me struggle with dull or difficult tasks, help me “connect the dots.” Remind me of why I’m doing this and what the payoff will be for me. Describe for me in vivid sensory detail (the smells, the visuals, the feelings) what it will be like for me once I’ve attained that goal.

We can actually increase our own dopamine—that chemical messenger of reward and motivation and forward momentum—by “connecting the dots” and anticipating a rewarding experience!

David D. Nowell, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist interested in motivation, focus, and fully-engaged living.

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