Doing tasks that seem time-consuming or uninteresting is annoying for many people, but it can feel overwhelming for people with ADHD. Self-motivation and organization are skills that are greatly affected by ADHD symptoms, since ADHD causes impaired executive function due to a lack of dopamine in the brain.
Executive function controls focus, self-motivation, emotional regulation, and the ability to organize thoughts and exert effort. With these functions impaired, it’s much harder for people with ADHD to work like neurotypical people. Motivating oneself to start and finish tasks is especially difficult for ADHDers, and many may not know what to do to help themselves do so.
That’s why we’ve assembled some ADHD and motivation tips and tricks to help people with ADHD function in a way that works with their unique brains, as well as a few examples of possible strategies that may be helpful to maintain long-term success.
Can ADHD Cause a Lack of Motivation? Does ADHD Make You Feel Lazy?
Though ADHD can look like simple laziness from the outside, one does not equal the other. However, ADHD can certainly cause a lack of motivation. The procrastination and lack of motivation that are caused by ADHD are not voluntary choices, though, nor are they controllable impulses.
It requires a lot of energy for someone with ADHD to start a task that is unappealing to them, since it can take a lot of time and many attempts to get the ball rolling. Although getting started is not impossible, the difficulty that comes with getting started can also cause a lot of guilt and shame.
This can easily morph into a toxic cycle. When someone with ADHD is unmotivated, they put off doing what they need to do, either because they feel overwhelmed or because of the uncomfortable feelings that the task brings up, which quickly saps their motivation.
However, when the task gets avoided, feelings of guilt and shame can plague them, since they often feel like they “should” be doing that task and taking so long to start it makes them “bad” or “irresponsible.” The guilt then compounds on the initial uncomfortable feelings around starting the task, making it even harder for them to feel motivated. This creates a vicious cycle of shame and avoidance, to which the only solution seems to be dodging those feelings.
ADHD Mental Paralysis
Getting overwhelmed or frustrated can be a huge barrier for adults with ADHD, and will often lead them into a state of ADHD paralysis. Trying to rationalize and convince them to “just do it” will only make things worse—ADHD brains simply don’t work that way in this context. The more pressure that’s put on them to do their task, the worse they’ll feel about doing it, until they reach a breaking point.
There can be a point where the stress becomes so intense that it ends up giving them a kick of adrenaline that finally puts their mind into focus-mode. This might look like waiting to complete an assignment until the last minute, then finishing it in a night. However, this is not an effective way to live one’s life.
An important part of functioning efficiently with ADHD is to stop comparing your working methods to other peoples’. ADHD brains don’t work like neurotypical brains, and neurotypical brains don’t work like ADHD brains. The best way to navigate these obstacles is to work with your ADHD rather than fighting against its tendencies.
Can People with ADHD Self-Motivate? Motivation for ADHD Adults
Yes—they very much can. However, many people with ADHD never get an ADHD diagnosis, or they get diagnosed in adulthood. That means that many individuals with ADHD are left with symptoms they don’t understand but have to deal with just the same.
People with ADHD often develop coping skills as they become adults and are expected to function more like neurotypical people. Some of these coping skills, like working in short bursts or establishing a reward system, are very useful. Others, despite their effectiveness, may not be as beneficial long-term. However, for those without the tools to figure out new ways of staying motivated, they may seem like the only way to get moving.
A key part of creating healthy and effective motivational systems is to approach tasks with a problem-solving mindset. Find a way to make the task enjoyable—no matter how small.
What Are ADHD Coping Skills?
There are many ways ADHDers have learned to cope with their symptoms on their own. Learning to cope is a process many individuals with ADHD go through, since many of their symptoms are not helping them function within the normal confines of day-to-day life. There are a large number of people with ADHD, especially women, that don’t even get diagnosed with ADHD until they’re adults, if they ever get diagnosed.
This forces them to find ways, either consciously or unconsciously, to counteract or cope with their inhibiting symptoms in order to function similarly to neurotypical people. However, many of them can be just as detrimental as they are motivating. Some examples include:
Anxiety is often used as a tool by people with ADHD to motivate them into action. It can seem to help with memory function and alertness. In order to remember to do something, you will focus on anxiety-inducing reasons to remember something, and that anxiety will help keep that thought at the front of your mind.
For example, if you have ADHD, you might need to remember to clean your room, so your mind thinks of the consequences of not doing it, such as, “My friends are coming over, I’ll be embarrassed if they see a big mess,” while thinking, “My roommate already seems annoyed by my messiness, if it gets any worse they might get mad at me,” and, “I’m going to run out of clean clothes to wear.”
In order to increase motivation and focus from a faint trickle to the flood that’s needed, anxiety causes something of a tropical storm. However, needing constant anxiety to get even small tasks done takes large amounts of energy, which can leave you tired and frazzled instead of inspired and motivated.
Avoidance is a simple way to distract people with ADHD from tasks that they don’t want to do by way of doing less important tasks. The thought of doing something that you don’t want to do triggers anxiety, which makes you feel bad. In order to get rid of or avoid the anxiety, you turn to another task that’s less daunting, but also not as important as the one at hand. This allows you to get lost in the new task and forget about the more stressful task, keeping you busy and temporarily calming your anxiety.
People with ADHD can prefer avoidance because it still feels productive, even though the initial problem remains, and will continue to add stress until it’s done. However, if you don’t know you have ADHD, it can be hard to realize what’s actually happening, since often all you see is that you feel better than before and something else got done.
Motivation by procrastination relies on adrenaline and anxiety. First, you feel anxiety about doing a project or task. Then the anxiety either becomes about the consequences of not finishing the assignment on time—similarly to avoidance—or about the idea of finishing the task in an impossible amount of time. Either way, it gives you a big enough rush of anxiety and adrenaline that you can finally start.
Though it can certainly be effective in jumpstarting activity and motivating ADHDers to get things done, procrastination can sometimes make you exhausted and riddled with guilt. Procrastination is looked down upon in work and academic settings because it seems irresponsible. However, it’s not a choice for ADHDers, though it can seem like it.
It can be a difficult cycle to break if it’s unclear what other tools could be used to get that jumpstart, especially if you don’t know why exactly you procrastinate or why it’s what works and forces you to take action.
Shame is a tactic that is often used to increase both motivation and the quality of work. When procrastination occurs, not as a way of coping but as a production ADHD, shame might kick in and make you think, “I can’t disappoint my parents with bad grades—I need to turn this assignment in on time,” or perhaps, “I’ve been avoiding this task for hours, and my coworker is almost done with their share of the work. If I can’t get this done, they’ll think I’m lazy and can’t do my job.”
Tricks like these can definitely get you started if your ADHD is keeping you from your responsibilities, but it can take a toll on your emotional well-being long-term. It can end up instilling you with a mindset of self-loathing, leading you to believe that since your natural state causes you to feel overwhelmed and put off tasks, you yourself are bad, lazy, or unproductive. You are not lazy or bad—you simply work differently than neurotypical people, and there are better tactics than shame that can help you get started.
Anger is another common motivator for people with ADHD. Anger can help you push through the discomfort or feelings of being overwhelmed that caused you to abandon a certain task, making you feel strong and giving you an extra push.
For instance, in order to get themselves started on a task, someone with ADHD might try and drum up anger about their situation or surroundings, using thoughts like, “Ugh, I can’t believe my car is already out of gas again. This gas tank is tiny, I hate the amount of mileage I get from a fill-up.” Annoyance is an everyday occurrence, but if thoughts like these are what get you moving and started on tasks, then you might be using anger as a motivator.
It can certainly be effective, and it can quickly be used consistently if you don’t know how else to motivate yourself. You may not even notice that it’s anger that’s getting you going, so it’s smart to assess what’s truly motivating you whenever you feel moved to action after feeling stuck for a while.
Most of these coping skills develop because we don’t know how else to motivate ourselves. Nothing that most people use seems to work for us, so we keep trying methods until one finally works, and we rely on it to help us fit into a working world that wasn’t made with us in mind.
For those who didn’t (or don’t) know they have ADHD, they’re left confused and only have the tools they’ve unearthed themselves to help them function. Your coping skills might be subconscious—they may not even be fully-formed thoughts that get you moving, but rather a feeling that you may not realize is rooted in one of these motivational approaches.
Each of these coping skills take an approach of fighting against ADHD tendencies, viewing them as bad and deficient. However, there are other ways to get yourself motivated that may not only prove to be more reliable but might also help take some of the guilt and stress off of your shoulders.
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How Can I Balance My Life With ADHD?
With ADHD, it can often feel like your life is skewed away from what you “should” do and toward what you want to do. With ADHD constantly drawing on your attention, focus, and motivation, it can feel necessary to fight its pull. However, fighting against ADHD can take a lot of energy, and it’s actually often an attempt to fit into the expectations of how people are supposed to function day-to-day. It may feel counterintuitive, but it’s possible—and even more helpful—to try and work with your ADHD.
It can feel like the balance other people have with their work is better or more productive than yours, but it simply looks different. There is no need to compare how you work to the work ethic of others because, as someone with ADHD, you do not work the same way. You may focus even more intensely at times than other people, just as they may be able to focus for longer periods of time.
At the end of the day, working with your ADHD will not only help you save time you would have spent feeling frustrated with yourself, but also help you find a more effective mode of working and focusing. It’s important to find ways of motivating yourself that align with and cater to the way your brain works.
How to Make Yourself Do Things When You Have ADHD: ADHD Motivation Tips
When trying to motivate yourself with ADHD, it’s important to assess your strengths and weaknesses—which times or situations make you feel most motivated versus times and situations that make it much harder to stay motivated.
It’s also good to figure out what you enjoy about any tasks that you do. Finding ways to infuse enjoyment and pleasure into everyday tasks can be instrumental in helping increase motivation for people with ADHD because it can increase dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that the brain associates with rewards, pleasure, and motivation. There is research that suggests that people with ADHD are lacking dopamine, which causes issues with executive function—self-motivation and directing focus.
By finding ways to infuse more joy and excitement into your day and improve your levels of dopamine, these strategies can help you increase and sustain motivation. Here are some examples of ways to get yourself motivated that will continue to give you energy, rather than chip away at it:
1. Incorporate small success into your day.
Starting the day with small tasks that you can start and finish easily is a great way to kickstart motivation. Accomplishing a task can increase dopamine levels, since achieving goals is directly connected to the release of dopamine in the brain.
It’s also good to make everything good you do throughout the day feel like an accomplishment by rewarding yourself. Incorporating consistent rewards throughout your day will give you energy and recharge your battery. These rewards can be anything that’s pleasurable to you, whether it’s a piece of chocolate or doing something creative for a few minutes.
2. Set small goals.
Projects that require a significant amount of time or energy are often daunting to people with ADHD and can cause them to feel overwhelmed. By setting smaller, bite-sized goals for the day, getting work done will feel more achievable, which will make it easier for you to get started. Having small goals to complete also means more chances for you to complete doable tasks, which means more opportunities for dopamine boosts.
3. Create a reward system.
Rewards can be highly motivating for people with ADHD. In line with setting small goals and celebrating successes, making sure to reward yourself with something that makes you happy can help keep you motivated as well as incorporate more pleasurable activities into your day.
4. Invite others to be involved
There are many ways in which having other people around can help ADHDers stay focused and motivated. For some, body-doubling—the practice of doing work with another person to help hold each other accountable—can be a huge help in staying focused. If you’re a social person, having another person around can also improve your mood and make working more enjoyable.
5. Restructure your thinking—remove the pressure on yourself to do what you “should.”
“Shoulds” are often things that others consider important, and are accompanied by feelings of pressure and often guilt. Pressure to do what’s expected, and guilt that you’re resisting it.
Instead of these “shoulds,” find reasons why a task could be enjoyable for you. If you need to clean your house, maybe you can look forward to how satisfying it is to get grime off of your counters. Or maybe you like seeing the house when there’s no crumbs or clutter. Perhaps you just like the smell of your cleaner. Whatever the reason, think of something about the task that makes you happy, and do it for that reason, rather than because it’s what you’re supposed to do.
You can also try to incorporate your interests into your to-do list. If you have to run an errand, consider trying to bring a friend along. If you’d rather be on an adventure than getting gas, try going to an area nearby that you’ve never been to before.
6. Create a to-do list.
ADHD affects focus and motivation, but it can also make it difficult to stay organized, which can make it hard to know how to structure your time and know where to start on projects. A list of your goals, whether they be small or more overarching, might be able to help you find a jumping-off point and lay out a path for you as you continue your work. Having a physical list of your to-dos can also give you a visual account of your progress, perhaps helping it feel more tangible.
7. Vary your routine.
Repetitive tasks can start to feel dull quickly, which can sap motivation. Incorporating newness and novelty into your day in any way you can can make tasks feel more exciting. For example, try switching the room that you normally do your chores in, or go to a new grocery store that you haven’t been to when you need to go shopping.
By changing these small details, you should be able to provide some stimulation for your brain and give yourself a strong incentive to feel motivated again.
How Do I Fight Procrastination As a Depressed Person With ADHD?
Finding motivation with ADHD is difficult, but if you suffer from depression alongside your ADHD, it can be even harder to find the will to complete even the smallest of tasks.
It might be best to try treating just one of these disorders at a time. Since depression is likely what’s sapping most of your energy, try treating that first, in whatever way you can. Consulting a mental health professional about both your depression and ADHD is likely the best thing you can do to help yourself. Therapists can give you guidance on how to deal with your disorders as well as provide practices that you can employ yourself. They can also prescribe medication that would be helpful long-term.
However, if you need a quicker boost of energy or want tools to try at home as well, try an activity like yoga or going out into nature, or simply doing something that usually makes you happy. These activities can help give you the energy you need to motivate yourself, even if only for a few minutes.
If you want to start on your to-do list but it feels like it’s looming in front of you, begin with small, completable tasks. Gaining quick momentum by completing something is the best way to start, and often it feels like starting is the hardest part, especially if things have started to pile up. The to-do list might feel massive, and all that overwhelm can keep you in a state of paralysis.
By using a motivation tactic to do one small thing, you now have one less thing on that to-do list, and you have the hardest part—the starting—behind you. It can also help to lessen the guilt that may be pressing you down, giving you some room to breathe.
If starting with a task still feels like too much, try “warming up” your brain with a mind game or puzzle. This can help make your brain more active, helping you out of the stasis that you may have been stuck in due to lack of energy.
Keep in mind that depression can be exhausting, so any progress you make in motivating yourself is certainly cause for celebration. Give yourself a mental high-five for whatever you accomplish, whether it’s washing and putting away your laundry or making yourself breakfast.
ADHD makes it hard to fit into what society’s mold of a responsible, productive person is supposed to look like, but that does not mean that anyone with ADHD is irresponsible or unproductive. ADHD simply requires a different work style than neurotypical brains do.
Once you’ve found work strategies that work for your brain and personality, you’ll be able to find motivation and focus much more easily. Try different styles and tactics to see which ones suit you best, and learn to be patient with yourself. And remember: A mental health professional can work with you to implement effective professional ADHD treatment options like medication and therapy.