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The Mystery of ADHD Motivation
Understanding Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
Before we explore the specificities of motivation for people with ADHD, let's get a better look at what we call motivation.
Motivation is typically divided into two categories: intrinsic motivation, and extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is an internal drive to perform a task for its own personal rewards rather than for the promise of something external. In an intrinsically motivated individual, a person is moved to act because of the excitement or challenge it presents rather than because of external pressures or rewards.
Infants and children show intrinsic motivation by grabbing, throwing, biting, squishing, and screaming when they encounter new objects. Despite becoming less relevant as they grow, humans often still exhibit intrinsic motivation while playing crosswords, creating paintings, gardening, or even just watching movies. It helps to clarify the definition of intrinsic motivation by contrasting it with extrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation describes a condition wherein an activity is performed with the intention of achieving some separate goal. The distinction between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation is that intrinsic motivation refers to doing something just for its own sake, rather than for its inherent purpose.
Root Causes of Lack of Motivation When You Have ADHD
Motivation deficit is not listed among the official symptoms of ADHD. New research is showing that it might be time to change that.
It makes sense considering we are starting to understand Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and other neuro-diverse conditions like the autism spectrum disorder better by comparing human brain scans and studying brain chemistry.
To sum up, there are two main root causes of the motivational issues that you can have when you have Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder.
The first one is that the ADHD brain is "wired" differently and has a different chemical setup than a neurotypical brain. One of the most glaring differences is its relationship to dopamine. People who have ADHD have lower levels of dopamine that greatly affects their motivation.
What is the Role of Dopamine in Motivation?
Dopamine is produced in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain and is transported to other areas of the brain, through different pathways to send messages to our brain. For example the activation of the mesolimbic dopamine pathway tells us to repeat what just happened in order to feel the rewarding sensation.
That's how dopamine stimulates passion through anticipations of rewards. An impulse that satisfies a desire subsides the dopamine rush. That's what experts call the "dopamine reward pathway".
There is more to dopamine though, and when combining all of its effects it can actually act as a braking system of the brain.
To sum up role of dopamine is to incentivize repeating some behaviors at an appropriate rate.
This is where it can be an issue for ADHD brains, chemical differences can lead to needing different rates of reward. Some ADHD brains are looking for that stimulation at a unhealthy rate.
Let’s compare an ADHD brain reaction (a) vs a neurotypical brain reaction (b) to a few situations to illustrate the role of dopamine in motivation:
- It’s Easter and you just got chocolate, you decide to try one of them
a) ADHD --> "This is so good, I shall eat as much as I can until I get sick".
b) Not ADHD --> "That was good, I shall ration these so I can have some until next year."
- You are in a Casino in Las Vegas, you are sitting at a roulette table and place your first bet:
a) ADHD --> Win or Loose, the thrill of the dopamine rush every time something happens is too good, I just want to keep playing over and over again.
b) Not ADHD --> I have a set expectation, either a budget I am willing to spend and won’t go over or a precise goal in mind like doubling my money. When either outcome is reached I make the level-headed decision to stop playing.
- You have an important project you need to finish:
a) ADHD --> I know I should get to work, but my car needs to be washed, my dog needs a walk, I have tens of unread notifications on my phone and a few YouTube videos to watch from my google searches. I shall do everything else first until I have absolutely no other choice.
b) Not ADHD --> I finished my paper/report multiple days in advance.
I am being overdramatic here on purpose to accentuate the differences, this is not accurate. First off, there is more at play than just ADHD in those scenarios and second, we know that ADHD affects everyone differently. Even more notably an individual with ADHD can act differently to similar things depending on the context. Similarly there is a plurality of potential neurotypical behaviors.
The point of forcing the trait in those examples was to show the tendencies to their limits. Our goal is to help you understand the factors can be driving some of your decisions & actions so that you can be better equipped to deal with them in the manner you want to.
Of course, we don’t really do that (at least most of the time 😅), we find ways to cope with urges and have self-control although they can also diminish with age. But sometimes when the right set of circumstances appears, it could happen because ultimately, this is how we are wired and that dopamine craving can make us want to get instant gratification over and over again. Why do you think I started to post on Instagram in the first place? Consciously or not, there is a part of me that is fueled by the notifications of likes & comments. So you know what you have to do, keep them coming, please! 😁
That’s why, unfortunately, there are high rates of comorbidity with substance abuse, eating disorders, gambling problems, and addictions in general for adults with ADHD.
The second one is that the lack of motivation for people with ADHD is rooted in some of the ADHD core symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.
Check out the article about all of the Official & Unofficial symptoms if you are not familiar with them, but if you've experienced some of them you'll understand how it can at times contribute to motivation issues.
All of this, especially the dopamine reward pathway, is a complex subject and I'm not qualified to explain all its intricacies but the bottom line is the are a few main factors that contribute to the fact why some people with ADHD have trouble being motivated:
-Inability to filter out irrelevant information when presented with lots of stimuli at once can cause you to lose focus.
-Difficulty initiating projects or getting started in general. Inability to complete the current tasks.
-Working memory problems where you can't keep the information in your head long enough to make a decision and identify what the next step is.
Those factors aside, the most common reasons why people with ADHD lack motivation are:
a) not seeing how their work fits into a bigger picture and feeling unmotivated
b) lack of ability to comprehend connections between a particular task with long-term goals
For example, it can be very hard for someone with ADHD to stick with a diet or an exercise routine because our brains are not programmed to comprehend that a simple daily task, like fasting or doing push-ups can have tremendous impacts in the long term.
Because you'll have to do it for so many days before you start seeing the reward, your ADHD brain loses patience and demands satisfaction. Hence, why dealing with the reward being too distant is so important. But don't worry, you can overcome your lack of motivation.
Take our fun online quiz to visualize your ADHD traits and learn more about your brain!TAKE THE FREE TEST
How to Stay Motivated When You Have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)?
Luckily with the right ADHD coping strategies, you can beat your lack of motivation problems and challenge your creativity.
For educational purposes, here are some helpful tips on how to stay motivated when your brain is craving dopamine and does not want to do anything unless it has an immediate reward attached.
8 Ways for Adults with ADHD to Get Motivated
1) Don't make things harder than they need to be; complete tasks by breaking them into small steps.
2) Give yourself small rewards as you achieve your intermediate goals, don't wait until the end.
3) Don't give up right away when you don't feel motivated. Be patient and try different things to spark the motivation flame. ADHD is a condition that affects every person differently so what works for other ADHD adults may not work for you, keep trying different things until something clicks!
4) Remember that getting started is the toughest part. We focus a lot on the shortcomings of ADHD but it has its perks as well, one of them is our ability to "hyper-focus" and have extremely creative & productive outbursts.
5) Come up with a routine of things you do before you get started and as you ramp up, it becomes your second nature. If you include things you genuinely like to do in your routine, you'll be more likely to do it in the first place. Then the more you execute that routine, the more it'll become your second nature and you'll be able to trick yourself into doing the tasks you were not motivated to do in the first place.
6) Having ADHD can feel overwhelming at times but remember that ADHD does not define you. You are in control and you can push yourself and do whatever you want. Know yourself and master the skills necessary to achieve your goals despite your ADHD tendencies.
7) Allow for breaks when working on a task so that it doesn't become too draining or boring. Also because it'll seem less intimidating so you'll be more likely to get started and stick to it. This will also help prevent burnout since you are not suffering from your chemical imbalance as much and mixing things up.
8) Understand what truly motivates you and use it as fuel. Ration it for when you need it the most.
If you don't succumb to instant gratification, the rewards will become more meaningful and powerful.
I remember as a kid when we would leave for a couple of weeks on vacation, I would get the biggest cravings for simple things I used to do at home. Because I could not do them anymore they became much more appealing to me, making it so rewarding and exciting when I would come back home. Unfortunately, when it becomes readily available again I lost interest...
Use that to your advantage, create these "scarcity" situations to motivate you.
Bear in mind all my content is not meant to provide medical advice, it is for entertainment purposes only. I am just looking to raise awareness around adult ADHD and help in any way I can. If you do need additional help please reach out to a licensed professional that can provide medical advice.
Do Not be Afraid of Asking for Help
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and lack of motivation will always be connected due to that chemical imbalance, but as we all know as ADHDers, we can also be extremely motivated when the circumstances are right.
That's the key to focus on, you can overcome a lack of motivation with some work.
It can be hard to do it by yourself all the time though. Especially in moments when you feel vulnerable. Remember that your friends and family are interested in seeing you succeed so don't hesitate to ask someone to help you keep on track with what you are trying to accomplish. Tell them your true feelings and when you feel low or unmotivated. They know you well and they can assist you when you need it.
These social signals can be a powerful fuel for your brain, that's why many things are easier to do when you are not alone like following a diet or an exercising routine, trying to quit smoking, etc.
If for whatever reason you cannot get the support you need from your friends and family, there are other ways to get help.
There is a stigma with seeing a psychiatrist...😌
There shouldn't be. 😣
We've seen such a strong movement promoting health & well-being these past few years, it's been great, but I feel like we are still not where we should be when it comes to mental health.
From diets to gyms and countless apps, a lot is dedicated to making us healthier. But apart from mindfulness & meditation, the mental health department is severely lacking.
That's why you should not compromise on what your mental need is; whether it's taking breaks, time to meditate, working out, or talking to someone, do not push these needs aside.
So no matter how big or small your struggles are and if you have the smallest inkling that talking to a specialist could help, do not hesitate to go for it. Trust me, you have nothing to lose instead there is something to gain! Your well-being is so important.
Keep in mind that mental health professionals are not perfect, and you may not find the right one right away, but do not give up on what your mental health needs.
You Can Succeed With or Without Conventional Motivation
ADHD people can feel their motivation is in vain, that their inability to create motivation or improve motivation is insurmountable.
Even when it seems as though the plan should be simple, executing isn't as easy as it seems when you're ADHD gets in the way. Feeling unmotivated will surely lead to a decreased function in an individual's overall performance.
Motivation deficit is a real challenge in general. Feeling bored, avoiding complex tasks, forgetting or ignoring to do important things can all be rooted in ADHD and have significant repercussions on your life.
At some point, it can lead to chronic anxiety, depression, and problems with executive function.
All of this is the dark side of ADHD.
The truth is though that everyone, with or without ADHD struggles sometimes. We all have good and bad days. We all make mistakes. It does not have to be a life sentence.
Everything is relative and you do not have to conform to what your environment or society tells you.
Your emotions of being unmotivated after seeing other people's successes don't define you as a failure. At the end of the day, it is all up to you, and you can have your own definition of success.
With or without attention deficit disorder, you can do anything if you put your mind to it, the only thing that can stop you is yourself.
So if you are struggling with motivation and you can't get past it even with some of the tips and tricks I talked about above, maybe there is something else you are missing.
What can be a curse can also be a blessing.
Our ADHD brains are built to focus on what drives us and thrive when we do what we enjoy.
Find your calling. There has to be something you like doing, something that motivates you to exert an effort. This is where you can harness it and imply it to other areas of your life.
Frequently Asked Questions about ADHD and Motivation
What if I am just unmotivated?
Motivation is relative so you are not just unmotivated, you just feel less motivated. Now you should look into the reason why, and find the root cause of that lack of motivation. Sometimes motivation comes from external sources, such as the rewards of a job well done or praise from your peers but not always. Sometimes people just need to find that internal drive within themselves that gets them going.
What else can I do if I struggle with ADHD and motivation?
ADHD coaching can be a great way to find the right tools for your specific needs as an adult with ADHD. It will also give you access to resources that may be hard to come by otherwise, such as information about medication options or therapy sessions through insurance. ADHD coaching can help you get past ADHD-related issues that may be holding you back from reaching your potential.
How can ADHD Motivational Coaching help?
ADHD motivational coaching works to find the motivation within yourself and bring it out in a positive, constructive way. It provides tools for dealing with things like low self-confidence, ADHD-related impulsivity, and more. It's about finding the motivation you already have but may not be able to see for yourself even with ADHD coaching.