By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
Adults and children with ADHD have fascinating strengths, including creativity curiosity and empathy.
But people with ADHD also have a slew of challenges that can make daily life seem nearly impossible to manage. These challenges primarily involve the executive functions, which include planning, initiating, reflecting, managing time, self-regulating and organizing. Another major challenge that impacts people with ADHD is motivation.
ADHD and motivation are a funky bunch. While we can sometimes attribute motivation to willpower and mindset, it’s not so simple in people with ADHD.
Studies show that people with ADHD have atypical levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter primarily responsible for the pleasure response. Why does this matter? Because think about why we do anything: either to seek pleasure or avoid pain. In people with ADHD, motivation can come and go inconsistently and inconveniently, making it difficult to initiate and/or follow through on basic tasks and responsibilities.
What motivates someone with ADHD?
A task must have at least one of two essential characteristics in order to motivate someone with ADHD to engage. Those two secret ingredients are urgency and novelty.
- Urgency involves the sense of running out of time.
- Novelty involves something new.
In other words, if someone with ADHD is confronted with a task that is urgent or novel, it’s likely that person will be motivated to initiate and complete the work. But if that task lacks urgency or novelty, the person will feel no motivation to do it.
If you or your child has ADHD, think about all the times a project was completed at the very last minute. Procrastination is a hallmark of ADHD because people don’t feel that sense of urgency until the final hour. Makes sense, right?
(If you’re a chronic procrastinator, use these strategies, these ones, and these ones.)
How to increase motivation with ADHD
Below are some suggestions for increasing the urgency and novelty of a task, which in turn has the chance to increase the task-doer’s motivation to get it done. In addition to the list below, here are 5 more practical ways to increase motivation specifically for homework.
Strategies to increase motivation with urgency
- Use the Pomodoro Technique
- Set a timer for a task and try to beat the clock – try a Power Hour
- Offer a reward if the task is completed before a certain time
- Use an accountability partner (there’s urgency in not wanting to let someone else down)
- Break the task down and set smaller micro deadlines for each step
Strategies to increase motivation with novelty
- Complete the task with new materials (use a new app, get new pens, etc)
- Complete a task in a new environment
- Complete the task with a partner
- Complete a task while listening to music
- Do the task at an unusual time, such as early in the morning or late at night
Again, ADHD and motivation are a complicated duo. Even a neurotypical person struggles with motivation dips on a daily basis, which only means that someone with lower levels of dopamine (ADHD) is up against an even greater challenge. Additionally, people with ADHD are prone to ADHD paralysis, which can sometimes make task initiation near impossible.
If you or your child has ADHD, using motivation as an indicator of when to do a task will not work. Waiting for motivation to strike before beginning or completing something will not work. Giving too much credit to “I’m not feeling it” won’t work.
What does work? Acknowledging the fickleness of this thing called motivation, not relying on it, and learning how to apply novelty and urgency to your tasks in order to hack into your ADHD superpowers.
More resources on motivation
Note about ADHD and medications: While I do specialize in ADHD and executive functions, I am not a medical doctor or psychiatrist, and so I do not use my platform to entertain conversations about pharmaceuticals. I will maintain, however, that hundreds of my clients have benefited from prescribed stimulants which directly and positively impact the chemicals that regulate motivation.