It’s hard for adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to get motivated.
But this has zero to do with laziness or not trying hard enough, said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. (Sadly, these are common myths about ADHD.)
“The ADHD brain is wired toward low motivation for everyday tasks,” he said. It has lower levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in motivation, he said.
Individuals with ADHD also get overwhelmed easily, according to Terry Matlen, ACSW, a psychotherapist and author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD. “Those of us with ADHD see the problem and can’t figure out how to get from step A to step B, then from step B to step C,” she said.
Prioritizing is a challenge, which makes tasks that much less appealing, she said. Take the example of organizing a room. People with ADHD might wonder where to start – with the pile of papers or books or laundry. They might wonder if they have the necessary supplies — baskets or bins or boxes — or if they need to run to the store instead, she said.
Another big issue is interest. As Matlen said, “We thrive on novel, interesting experiences.” So if the task at hand is tedious, motivation naturally dwindles, she said.
But even interesting tasks get old. Deficits in executive functioning make starting any activity difficult, Matlen said. Then there’s the constant switching between tasks without completing them, she said. “That leads to a feeling of worthlessness and the sense of ‘why start if I can’t finish?’
Still, this in no way means you should give up. Rather, once you know motivation is an obstacle, you can focus on finding creative ways to kick-start and maintain it, Olivardia said
Below, he and Matlen share some of these creative and practical strategies.
1. Realize that motivation is needless.
This might seem surprising in a piece on getting motivated. But “If we believe that we have to ‘feel like doing something’ in order to do it, we might not get anything done,” Olivardia said. As he noted, who actually feels like taking out the trash? “If we simply just begin a task, we can become more motivated as the task is in action.”
2. Do it because you can.
A favorite trick Matlen uses to help her clients and herself is saying this mantra: “Don’t do it because you have to; do it because you can.” She applies this to physical tasks, such as cleaning or raking the leaves.
“I find that a reality check — that I’m physically able to do these things, unlike many with physical limitations — makes me grateful for my capabilities and thus moves me forward,” she said.
3. Create urgency.
Many tasks don’t have deadlines, and that’s when procrastination can slip in. That’s why faking urgency can help. If you have a mound of dirty dishes, wait until 15 minutes before your favorite show, and start washing, Olivardia said.
“ADHD individuals will find that they will feel more motivation and be better able to stay on task because they know that they ‘need’ to be done in 15 minutes,” he said.
4. Create a list of must-dos.
After making your list of necessary tasks, only do two or three tasks, or spend 10 to 15 minutes on a project, Matlen said. “Often, just starting is what helps people move forward.”
5. Work with a buddy.
“It always helps to have someone working with you, to encourage each other and to avoid letting the other person down,” Matlen said. Friends and families can email each other and decide to tackle a specific project such as filing a pile of papers, she said.
6. Reward yourself.
Adults with ADHD are highly motivated by rewards, according to both experts. Olivardia suggested creating a checklist, where a certain number of tasks warrant a reward. “For example, treat yourself to a massage for every 5 times you do yard work,” he said.
Or give yourself a certain amount of time to tackle a task — and then reward yourself. For instance, set an alarm for 20 minutes to work on a project. After you’re done, reward yourself with 20 minutes of TV, Matlen said.
7. Go for “just good enough.”
According to Matlen, “Adults with ADHD often will procrastinate and avoid, thus feeling a lack of motivation, because of a fear that the end result won’t be adequate.”
She referred to ADHD expert Dr. Ned Hallowell’s suggestion of doing things “just good enough.” As she said, “Do things just good enough and perhaps you can tackle these things with less anxiety and thus, more energy.”
8. Perform projects at your peak times.
Consider the time of day you have the most energy and think the best, Matlen said. Are you a morning or night person? Does your energy wane in the afternoon? Or does it peak then?
9. Picture the end result.
“In the end, remind yourself of how good you will feel when you’ve completed the project,” Matlen said. “Keep that feeling alive [and] picture the end product and the feeling of accomplishment.”
Again, your lack of motivation has nothing to do with laziness or some character flaw. It’s the nature of ADHD. Fortunately, by finding a few strategies that work for you, you can get things done.
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