- Adults with ADHD may struggle to motivate themselves to do important but non-urgent tasks, often until forced to do so by a looming deadline.
- Dopamine insufficiency in the ADHD brain privileges short-term payoff over long-term goals—even if the long-term goals will ultimately provide a bigger reward.
- Breaking tasks into small parts, rewarding baby steps, externalizing motivation, and other cognitive-behavioral strategies can help create motivation where none exists.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter most linked to ADHD. Dopamine insufficiency in regions of the brain associated with self-control (via a suite of skills known as the executive functions) is documented in research on adult ADHD.
How Dopamine Drives Motivation
On the one hand, dopamine fuels passions in the form of anticipations of possible rewards and novel experiences, which energize the pursuits of those incentives. However, once the desire is fulfilled, this dopamine rush subsides. On the other hand, dopamine fuels the control center, the brain’s braking system, that is used to plan, organize, and implement the steps to achieve one’s interests, as well as switch between different endeavors and maintain overall self-regulation and well-being. The control system is the reverse thruster that balances the accelerator that chases novelty.1
Inefficiencies in these complementary functions result in the commonly-heard observation, “If I’m interested in something, I pay attention without difficulty,” which is followed by frustrations from precipitously waning interest and follow-through on endeavors, such as a pile of partially-read books (digital or old fashioned), drifting away from an exercise class, or dropped college courses.
At the other end of the continuum, when faced with a looming deadline and the prospect of penalties, attention and efforts are laser-focused to meet the cutoff. Adults with ADHD whose experiences land at either end of this continuum typically desire a more consistent and less taxing middle ground of motivation and discipline for hobbies, routines, classes, and jobs.
Why Dopamine Deficiencies Can Hurt Productivity
As mentioned above, dopamine is as much, if not more, about the anticipation of a reward compared with getting it. It is the chocolate chip cookie at the end of a relatively short stick that often drives behavior more than the healthier carrot at the end of the longer stick for adults with ADHD—the excitement of getting favored over the longer range prospect of sustaining.
Hence, it is a familiar pattern for adults with ADHD to set up reasonable plans to accomplish high-yield, personally salient “have-to” tasks, such as homework, a report for work, exercise, or any endeavor associated with a larger-later payoff, but then succumb to the charm of a pleasant distraction offering a smaller-sooner payoff, such as online shopping or a fun activity. In fact, the near-term reward that distracts from the larger-later goal might be some sort of chore, errand, or other sort of work that is viewed as the comparatively better (or less bad) option in the moment, a pattern deemed “procrastivity,” which was the focus of a previous two-part blog. (Procrastivity Part 1; Part 2)
More relevant to the experience of adults with ADHD is that these cycles of punctuated and abandoned pursuits and ambitions culminate in emotional exasperation, typically pangs of guilt and shame, and highly critical self-talk—messages of the sort that would be deemed verbal assault if uttered at another person. These repeated outcomes foster creeping disengagement that looks like self-sabotaging behavior, but really reflects the procrastination and avoidance all too commonly seen in adult ADHD. This disengagement can be thought of as learned helplessness: “It is no use trying because I never accomplish what I want.”
Continuing the biological theme, different neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and endorphins, as well as different mindsets and behaviors, govern the upholding of longer-term, goal-directed habits.1 These less intense feelings of “liking” and “happiness” still operate through the executive functions but require different strategies than those that are driven by visceral passions and the allure of novelty. It is akin to the different approach to sustaining a long-term, committed, loving relationship after the dopamine rush of the “honeymoon” period has passed. (Maybe this is why I lost that job at a greeting card company.)
How Can Adults with ADHD Motivate Themselves?
Medications for adult ADHD often effectively reduce the core symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. The workaround behavioral coping strategies for executive dysfunction seen in adult ADHD—procrastination, poor time management, disorganization, emotional dyscontrol—draw on mindsets and beliefs about roles and tasks, long-range planning, and execution of plans. These approaches are the purview of the dopamine control circuit in concert with the “liking” systems to promote follow through on goals and maintenance of habits, or at least a “willingness” to stick with plans when one does not necessarily “want to” or “feel like” doing so.
Said differently, the day-to-day priorities, habits, and routines related to keeping up with school and work, household and administrative matters, and endeavors that we know we will enjoy but are a hassle to do—such as exercise, creative work, or keeping in touch with friends—require different approaches to “manufacture” motivation. Some tips for getting kick-started include the following:2,3
- Valuation: Consider why a particular task is important to you. Think how your “future self” will feel when it is done.
- Specificity: Define a task in specific terms coupled with a specific day, time, and place it will be done.
- Externalize motivation: Use pictures, quotes, or other inspirations to reinforce your plan.
- Coping thoughts: Anticipate how you might rationalize task avoidance and develop task-oriented responses. Develop strength-based mindsets to promote follow-through, such as building endurance and recognizing which of your personal characteristics can be used.
- Normalize discomfort: Acknowledge that you won’t always “be in the mood” for a task but can still engage with it.
- Emotions as sensations and information: Just because the task (or its anticipation) feels uncomfortable does not mean that it is bad. Most, if not all, goals require facing some discomfort to achieve. You are investing your discomfort to achieve a goal.
- Initiation step: Define the smallest step that, when you do it, by definition will mean that you have started and did not procrastinate.
- Follow through with the implementation plan: Get started, see how it goes, and review the results.
- Learn from slip-ups and practice self-compassion: Modify your plan if it did not work. Be kind to yourself if you simply did not use your plan—the relapse rate for procrastination is 100 percent for everyone, so each time is a chance to learn and grow.
Reviewing or developing a plan or list of tips does not guarantee follow-through. However, such steps help transform a goal that is an abstraction, a cloud following us around, into something more tangible and real. This allows us to find ways to “touch” a task and bring it into reality and then manufacture just enough motivation to get started—and sometimes, action precedes motivation. Regardless of how we build up motivation, once started we can discover what we can cause to happen.
1 Lieberman, D. Z., & Long, M. E. (2018). The molecule of more: How a single chemical in your brain drives love, sex, and creativity – and will determine the fate of the human race. BenBella Books.
2 Ramsay, J. R. (2020). Rethinking adult ADHD: Helping clients turn intentions into actions. American Psychological Association.
3 Ramsay, J. R., & Rostain, A. L. (2015). The adult ADHD tool kit: Using CBT to facilitate coping inside and out. Routledge.