Typical ADHD Behaviors

The Mystery of ADHD Motivation, Solved

Why do adults and children with ADHD or ADD have strong motivation and executive function for some tasks and never find the cognitive spark to do others?

ADHD is not fake 2

Despite the many differences among children and adults with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), there is one similarity shared by virtually all of them. Although they have considerable chronic difficulty in getting organized and getting started on many tasks, focusing their attention, sustaining their efforts, and utilizing their short-term working memory, all of those diagnosed with ADHD tend to have at least a few specific activities or tasks for which they have no difficulty in exercising these very same functions in a normal or an extraordinary way.

The inconsistency in motivation and performance is the most puzzling aspect of ADHD. It seems like the child or adult with the disorder who can show strong motivation and focus very well for some tasks should be able to do the same for most other tasks that they recognize as important. It appears as if this is a simple problem of lacking “willpower.” If you can do it for this, why can’t you do the same for that and that, which are even more important? However, ADHD is not a matter of willpower. It is a problem with the dynamics of the chemistry of the brain.

One of my patients once told me: “I’ve got a sexual metaphor you can use to explain what it’s like to have ADHD. It’s like having erectile dysfunction of the mind. If the task you are faced with is something that turns you on, something that is really interesting for you, you’re ‘up for it’ and you can perform. But if the task is not something that’s intrinsically interesting to you, if it doesn’t turn you on, you can’t get up for it and you can’t perform. It doesn’t matter how much you tell yourself, ‘I need to, I ought to.’ It’s just not a willpower kind of thing.”

Recent research offers considerable evidence that ADHD is not a “willpower thing,” even though, in many ways, it appears to be a lack of willpower. When individuals with ADHD are faced with a task that is really interesting to them, not because someone told them that it ought to be interesting — but because it is interesting to them at that moment — that perception, conscious or unconscious, changes the chemistry of the brain instantly. This process is not under voluntary control.

The willpower assumption is based on two fundamental misunderstandings of how the human brain works. This assumption ignores the complex and powerful role of unconscious emotions in the brain’s processes of motivation, and it does not recognize the critical importance of working memory for prioritizing tasks moment by moment.

[Self-Test: Signs of Emotional Hyperarousal]

The primary difference between Google searches and any given individual’s motivations, beyond the obvious differences in the size of the information database, is the process by which relevance and prioritizing of information is determined. Google prioritizes based on the relevance of manifest content, and on the frequency of demand in similar searches by others. The primary basis on which humans prioritize information is the emotion associated with conscious and unconscious memories activated by the individual’s thoughts and perceptions at any given moment.

Your Emotional Brain

In 1996, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., published The Emotional Brain (#CommissionsEarned), a book highlighting the central importance of emotion in the brain’s cognitive functioning. He emphasized that emotions — mostly unconscious emotions — are powerful and critically important motivators of human thought and actions. This understanding of the essential role of emotion in all aspects of human motivation and behavior has not been adequately integrated into current thinking about ADHD.

Emotions, positive and negative, play a critical role in executive functions: initiating and prioritizing tasks, sustaining or shifting interest or effort, holding thoughts in active memory, and choosing to avoid a task or situation. Whereas Google responds to queries typed into the search engine, the human brain responds to the quality and intensity of emotions attached to associated memories.

Many people think of emotions as involving only conscious feelings, limited to sensations of sadness, anger, pleasure, worry, and so on, that a person is fully aware of and generally able to identify. Neuroscience has shown that conscious feelings are only a tiny part of the variegated range of emotions that operates within each person to motivate executive functions. Neuroscientist Joaquin Fuster, M.D., emphasized, “Whereas we may be fully conscious of a retrieved memory, the vast majority of memories that we retrieve remain unconscious.”

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Often, these unconscious emotions conflict and cause us to act in ways that are inconsistent with our recognized conscious intentions. An undercurrent of conflicting emotions is often involved in our failure to do tasks that we believe we want to do, or in directly or indirectly engaging in actions that we consciously believe we do not want to do.

Sometimes a person thinks of a particular task as important, honestly believing that he wants to give it immediate attention and sustained effort, yet he does not act accordingly. He may continue to procrastinate, busying himself with work on other tasks that are not as urgent, or he may actively seek out distractions by getting in touch with friends, surfing the Internet, getting high, or going to sleep. Such contradictions make sense only when we realize that the emotions that guide our motivations often are not fully conscious or conflicting. We may be influenced by emotions that we do not know we have (see “Running Away from Stressful Situations,” below).

Motivation Factors

The most basic factor contributing to the ability of persons with ADHD to focus very well and efficiently utilize their executive functions on some tasks, while being chronically unable to focus adequately on most other tasks, is a problem of neural transmission. For many years, it has been recognized that individuals with ADHD tend to chronically have insufficient release and reloading of the neurotransmitter dopamine at synaptic junctions of neurons in the networks that manage executive functions.

Many studies have demonstrated that treatment with stimulant medications improves the efficiency of neural communication. However, this increased release and slowed reloading is not under voluntary control. It occurs only for those tasks in which the individual with ADHD has a strong interest. The heightened interest may be because that activity has brought pleasure or other rewards to the person in the past. Or interest may be intensified because the person fears that something he or she anticipates as being unpleasant is likely to occur very quickly if he or she does not attend to the task immediately. Whether because of anticipated pleasure or fear, the heightened interest generates increased release of dopamine instantly, and sustains it for as long as the intensified interest persists.

The second factor that influences the ability to pay attention to some tasks but not to others is the relative weakness in working memory that is characteristic of many persons with ADHD. Working memory is essential for keeping in mind relative priorities of our various interests at any given time.

Social psychological research has shown that individuals with larger working memory capacity are generally better able to deal with emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, without getting excessively caught up in them. Those with ADHD tend to have less “bandwidth” in their working memory functions, and are likely to have more difficulty than others in quickly linking together various memories relevant to doing or not doing a task. They are less likely to take into account the bigger picture of which the present moment is a part (see “Stuck in Emotion,” below). They operate more like someone watching a basketball game through a telescope, unable to take into account the rest of the action on the court, the threats and/or opportunities that are not included in the small circle of focus provided by their telescope.

Excerpted from Outside the Box: Rethinking ADD/ADHD in Children and Adults, by THOMAS E. BROWN, Ph.D. Copyright 2017. American Psychiatric Association Publishing.

Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.

Running Away from Stressful Situations

It was a difficult exam, and Jim was having a lot of trouble answering most of the questions, possibly because he had not yet read even half of the chapters assigned for the test. Jim had put off doing any work on the exam for several days. He had been preoccupied with an email from his girlfriend back home. She wrote that she wanted to break up because he was now too far away, and she had gotten involved with someone else.

At 2 a.m., after struggling with the exam for several hours, Jim decided to take a nap for a couple of hours and try to finish the exam when he woke up. He set his alarm for 4 a.m. When the alarm buzzed, Jim woke up for a few moments, turned the alarm off, and went back to sleep. He did not wake up until five hours later.

When he realized he had slept through the deadline, Jim panicked. The professor had announced that he would not accept any late exams. Recognizing that he would certainly get an F on the midterm, Jim impulsively decided he was not ready to be in college. Without discussing his decision with anyone, he packed his suitcase and left to go home, planning to stay there until the following fall, when he would try again to go to college.

In talking with me back home about this, a week later, Jim said that dropping out of college was the best thing for him at that point. He said he had been excited to go off to college, but the work seemed too hard for him, he had not yet made any real friends, and he had really been missing his girlfriend and his parents. He also claimed that getting an F on the midterm would have meant failing that course, so it made no sense for him to continue any of his courses that semester. He could see no other way to deal with that situation. He also mentioned that, in coming home, he had hoped he could win back his girlfriend’s affections. As it turned out, she was not interested in getting re-involved with him.

It was a pattern that Jim hadn’t recognized. Jim had quit many activities before. He was quick to feel unsure of himself and quick to get himself out of any situation where he was afraid he might not do well. He was biased toward early escape from stress.

Only after several months of psychotherapy was Jim able to see that his “accidental” going back to sleep that morning, his failure to even discuss his situation with his college advisor, and his assumption that he faced inevitable failure were not actually the best choices for him.

Stuck in Emotion

A woman told me that she dreaded Wednesday evenings. For her family, that was the night after their Wednesday morning trash pickup. She had two teenage sons, and her husband asked their boys to take on the job of dragging the trash cans down to the foot of their driveway every Tuesday evening, and then to bring the emptied cans back up the driveway each Wednesday afternoon. Many times they forgot to bring the trash cans back in.

The mother explained that any time her husband got home from work on Wednesday evening and saw the trash cans still at the base of the driveway, he would become enraged and scream at them, saying they were losers, irresponsible, ungrateful for what they had been given, unwilling to help the family by doing the simple chore of bringing the trash cans back up to the house once a week.

The mother explained that, each time her husband scolded their sons so harshly, he would later calm down and mumble an apology to the boys. She said, “I know he loves them both and would give his life for either one of them, but when he gets wound up in one of those Wednesday-night episodes, he gets so enraged that he seems to forget that those are his sons whom he loves and wants to protect. All he knows in that moment is that he is furious with both of them for not having done that chore.”

Any parent can lose his or her temper with a child occasionally, but most parents, most of the time, can express their frustration to the child without such an intense verbal attack. Their working memory allows them to hold in mind their love, even while their anger is taking up a lot of space in their head.

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45 Comments & Reviews

  1. I see a lot of explanations, but not a lot of solutions or suggestions to help those of us with ADHD fix our issues with those tasks that we don’t self-motivate on.

    1. The article was veey interesting as it explained a lot of things, but I, too, was hoping for some solutions.

      As for the sexual reference, while it was accurate and descriptive, I wish it had been worded in a more polite way, so that I would feel comfortable sharing it with others. While some of the parents and children in my youth group at church really could benefit from reading this, I am loathe to share it with them because of the crass wording.

      What kind of professional would choose that descriptor in a professional article????

    2. The article was veey interesting as it explained a lot of things , but I, too, was hoping for some solutions.

      As for the sexual reference, while it was accurate and descriptive, I wish it had been worded in a more polite way, so that I would feel comfortable sharing it with others. While some of the parents and children in my youth group at church really could benefit from reading this, I am loathe to share it with them because of the crass wording.

      What kind of professional would choose that descriptor in a professional article???? The author is clearly missing some filters.

  2. I refer family and friends to this publication frequently. I am an adult with dignosed ADHD combined type. I take Stratera and it makes a delightful difference in my world.
    I am offended by your choice to publish a Motivation article featuring a sexual example of what was being discussed. My impression is that someone with impulse control problems just hurried through the selection process to publish this unnecessarily crass description.
    My first disappointment in this otherwise respectable magazine. Please feel free to publish this.
    I am surprised and disappointed. It suggests this magazine and the topic covered is just a joke!

    1. I have no problem with the use of a sexual metaphor, but this one, being that it is about erections, effaces women’s experience. I am an adult woman with ADHD. Is this article about me or not? The author could easily have used sexual arousal without mentioning penile erection to make his point inclusively. That he is quoting a patient is no excuse since he applies the comparison to everyone. This is a good example of sexism so pervasive we barely notice it.

      1. I think we’re all overreacting. I thought it was a very descriptive and accurate metaphor. Of course, being a man, I probably would, but I don’t think it was inappropriate is all I mean.

        As for sexism, the amount of articles in this magazine that are directed to, or are titled, or refer to “Women With ADHD” far outweighs the ones specifically directed to men. Further, as a single father, rarely if ever do I see an article about Fathers with ADHD. But I see a whole heck of a lot of them about Mothers!

        But I accept it because those articles are helping someone. How dare I lash out at this publication for offering help in understanding?!?

        Not everything will be about me all the time. I think that’s a good lesson to be learned here.

      2. I’m a woman and think this metaphor was really helpful in understanding my ADHD family members. Gosh, you know, it’s not like we’re not all bombarded with Viagra commercials all the time. This isn’t the 1950s. It’s a great metaphor and will help me expand my compassion for my male and female ADHD family members when they’re struggling to work on something that doesn’t interest them.

        I also liked the part in the article about how neuroscience shows only a minority of our thoughts are conscious ones. I’ve read research like this before and about the experiments showing this, but it’s a welcome reminder.

      3. Oh seriously, the erection comparison was simply about desire. I’m a woman and I kinda-sorta can imagine what desire is:-) This reaction reminds me of the meme I saw recently about twitter 2015 vs twitter 2018.

        Twitter 2015:”I like roses” “Oh that’s nice.I prefer carnations but roses are lovely too” “Yes, they are both nice aren’t they?!”

        Twitter 2018: “I like roses” “Roses???WTF??!! WHAT ABOUT CARNATIONS? YOU MUST HATE CARNATIONS, PREJUDICE!” “No, I just said I like roses” “you oppressive CARNATION-HATER YOU, apologize immediately!”

      4. GREAT analogy! You nailed it! I’m a woman too and thought the comparison to ED was a GREAT way to explain what ADHD is like! I’m just aggravated because I wasted a good 5-10 mins reading this article thinking there’d be some actual suggestions/advice given! Then another 5 mins reading useless comments/complaints from people who are “offended” by the reference to sexual disfunction. Seriously??!! UGH a big fat double whammy EPIC FAIL all around!

      5. Really, the pearl clutching is ridiculous. ED an apt description of the problem we face every day. And I particularly appreciate the comparison because I’ve shared this article with my husband who for several years believed my ADHD was a moral failure or a lack of will power. He will “get it” and for this I am grateful.
        I’m new to this publication and this is my first comment. My /our understanding of ADD/ADHD seems to evolve all the time, and when it’s laid out and broken down in ways that are easier to comprehend for the non-ADHD partner, that’s a win in my book.

    2. Perhaps two metaphors would have been better than one. The one used is very insightful and meaningful for older male adults with ADHD. I liked the entire article.

    3. As a male I am offended that someone might take offense to mention of my anatomy. I, for one, have wood for this analogy. The use of humour does not make it a joke. We know it’s a serious problem and humour makes life easier. I found this analogy accurate, useful and appropriate. Thank you ADDitude, I will be using this one.

      The headline is misleading though. No solutions here, ,nothing ‘solved,’ although I’m not sure there is a solution anywhere.

    4. For someone without ADHD I often look for things to share with my childs teachers. This article was helpful and the example hits a home run…but how do I share it with my kids catholic school teachers?

      1. Sorry to go wayyy off topic but I just have to throw in my 2 cents here…I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic schools from 1st grade all the way through senior year High school, etc., etc…I don’t mean to sound like a jerk but Catholics are still human and are susceptible to ED and all sexual health functions/disfunctions just as much as anyone else. Are the teachers nuns? I would probably feel weird if they are nuns but assuming they’re not- there’s no reason why you can’t share this article. There’s nothing rude or offensive about it. We as a society – Catholics in particular- need to stop acting like anything to do with sex is a sin. Ok rant over.

  3. I agree with suesfortoday, in that I was a little shocked to reading the description and it struck as me as crass. However, I have to admit it was enlightening. As an adult woman with neither ADHD or ED, I do not take offense at the male metaphor, and I think Suzanne58 needs to examine the chip on her shoulder. The author’s point is that, whether you have it or not, no one considers ED a willpower problem, so the comparison can be used to explain ADHD to people who consider it a willpower problem.

  4. I’d feel a bit better about this article if I knew that it were the first in a series exploring motivation in the ADHD brain. When is left wondering whether there might be quick and strong ways to change the underlying emotions associated with attending to the tasks that are adaptive.

    In my work with students with ADHD, I remind parents that in fact, most students are HIGHLY motivated, but it’s that they are NOT motivated to do the things that result in traditional school-related success.

    If a follow-up article were to be published, it would be very useful if it discussed the research (assuming it exists) into changing the (conscious and unconscious) emotional associations with tasks that engender school success. I know from experience that it can be done, but as it stands right now, it is an incredibly time-consuming effort.

    1. Also, is there no edit feature when posting a comment? My sentence above should read:

      “One is left wondering whether there might be quick and strong ways to change the underlying emotions associated with attending to the tasks that are adaptive.”

      but I can’t see how to edit it.

    2. SVSocrateze,
      I applaud your efforts in teaching children with ADHD. As a child I was not diagnosed with ADHD, in fact, I was diagnosed at the age of 56. However, looking back at my life I now understand why I did what I did.

      In school, I was very interested in the topic being taught in the beginning, but I only needed to learn that topic once. Repeating the topic over and over creates the lack of interest. If I could have continued moving forward with new information I would have been better served. I dropped out of School, Joined the Army, got my GED, then my high school diploma, many correspondence courses, and later a degree in computer science. All of this was done at my own pace. We need to recognize these children and let them move forward, not hold them back with everyone else.

      This is my opinion, not an educated one, an experience-based one. I learn things very quickly and love to learn.

  5. I think it’s a very apropos analogy. For every man with ED there’s likely at least one woman who is intimately aware of the problem and the inability to just “will” the condition away. To take issue with the metaphorical use of ED as being sexist and considering it to be a personal affront, is allowing their sensitivities to cloud over the notion that the comparison is a very good descriptor that is novel, relevant, and works. I believe many more people will be helped with this accurate explanation than will be offended. In trying to explain the condition, I will happily accept all of the meaningful metaphors I can find to promote a better understanding of my inexplicable behavior. I look to this site for guidance, comprehension, and awareness because life can be a struggle in ADHD solitude. This article was of great benefit to me and I thank you.

    1. I totally agree! As an ADULT (which I feel was in fact the target audience) female, I can read the metaphor, as an adult who fully comprehends the definition of the word “metaphor”, plus apply empathy by using even a one time “intimate” moment from my life and grasp why the writer chose that particular comparison. If the writer had used a light switch analogy, would we be confused as to how a light switch applies to us??!! Can you picture it?? “We’re not electrical switches! I am so confused!!”

      Get a handle on yourself folks…

      As for other various comments, stating the lack of helpful “tips or tricks or solutions” re: how to MANAGE the symptoms of the ADHD motivation factor – you misread the headline. The MYSTERY of ADHD motivation was “solved”, on a scientific level, as researchers can now specify the issue, and see how “willpower” is simply not a valid answer to how and why the brain functions as it does.
      You seemingly came for “life coach” style answers to the symptom that you have. Instead you read about the mystery behind how the brain functions and that was explained in great detail. You are still symptomatic. They just legitimized the symptoms for you. Helping you navigate your ADHD-symptomatic life was not what this article was trying to do.

      1. I too complained about the lack of any advice in this article but after reading your comment I went back and read the article again and you’re right 🙂 The “answers” they found are 1.)it’s not just a simple matter of “willpower” and 2.) our impaired working memory… I don’t know about anyone else but for me – trying to read this long article (meaning a TON of big words) ON MY PHONE + a fair amount of medical terminology was extremely difficult to read! I got bored after the 1st paragraph! Definitely geared towards NON-ADHD’ers 🙂

  6. A nice basic article that will help some people understand their situation. The negative comments surprised me. The metaphor is appropriate and understandable. If you have problems reading an ED reference in a medical-related article maybe that is your own situation. As for it being a male reference, I came here.from an emailvthat included 10 pics. Apart from 2 male children, all the other pics were women, a dog and a beach. I accept this magazine’s approach. Please do not belittle me by taking offence at a reference male adults can understand.

  7. I understand that somepeople are fast to judgment and thus, to post. However I want to thank the author of this article for helping me to understand the problems associated by ADD. I have been having thoughts recently, of what is my ADD really causing and what am I falsely accusing it of? This article really helped me out with exploring that. Thank you.

  8. I’m Female and thot the metaphore to be Excellent!!! Maybe Best Ever to get thru to the doubters how willpower can be Overwhelming, with Frustrating, Humiliating, self-shaming results…….not for lack of Wanting and Desperately willing a very different outcome. Lasting self-recrimination that will likely join the rest of the litany of unfortunate memories, all committed to hold firmly to the long-memory banks. Ready to randomly replay the embarrassing event, uninvited. Even while absolutely, completely forgetting why you just entered a room, and what happened to the reminder note you just had in your hand…….hr after hr, day after day. No vacations. The metaphore is brilliant in explaining what only makes ‘sense’ to ADDers cuz we live it. I could re-write this much much better….but the effort would be at a huge cost. You ADDers know what I mean. Thanks for the article from me and the millions of ADDers who would have loved to own the liberty of self regulation, with which to say Thank You!

  9. Loved the ED metaphor!

    Most concerning, personally, is the connection with running away from stress. I am in my 50’s and did the same thing the college student did at my last job. I LOVED that job! Change of administration included a critical and uninformed atmosphere where I felt I was no longer trusted and appreciated. I had been there 3 years prior and flourished in a difficult environment because I felt my immediate administrator appreciated my work and that I could go to her anytime with any concern. I stuck with it 3 months with the new administration, and then literally just snapped and quit right before a big meeting to discuss the issues. I FELT it was more to discuss MY issues and everything I do wrong. The fact is, that I hadn’t done anything wrong, and in fact, had risen above a very stressful situation for 3 months. In doing that, I also felt like I was having a heart attack most of the time. My responses were way over the top to criticism. It was not over the top in terms of broken trust, as the administrators did not talk to me directly, but had asked colleagues to document where I spent my time. Same administrator didn’t even know that my workload was calculated differently due to the demands of the position. It was a mess, but it pains me to say, I just couldn’t take it anymore. Did I seek help from higher administration? No. Why not? Fear. Terror. Of what? I honestly don’t know. Maybe I was so shut down, it didn’t even occur to me. I do know that I am no longer having a heart attack, but my heart is broken. I miss my patients every single day and worry about them, wondering how I could have left them over something so stupid. I wish this wasn’t just an article on what we do, but how we can fix it. I’d go back in a heartbeat – but I think my response was too abrupt and created too much turmoil for it to be even considered.

    People are just now talking about how trauma affects children and their ability to function and respond appropriately in various settings, but they don’t understand that people with ADHD have a disability, and it’s more than disorganization, inattention and poor time management. It is trauma, shame and hypersensitivity. Shame over nothing. Shame because of childhood trauma – not because we did anything wrong, but because we FEEL like we do everything wrong. If someone is kind, respectful and encouraging, I will move mountains for them. And I can. But criticism shuts me down. If I make a mistake, I literally feel terror – like flight or fight. WTF? No one is perfect, but I think some people with ADHD feel like they can’t just be human and make mistakes like everyone else. And you never know – are you just being human? Or is it the ADHD?

    I don’t know if anyone else feels this way or responds this way, but if there are any suggestions – besides get a grip – I’m all ears. I don’t ever want to do this again. Ever. (Just bawling right now.)

    And yes, I’ve started therapy. My therapist said that I can be human when I accept myself as human like everyone else. I fear this is going to be a very long journey.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share. If I can help anyone else in any way, let me know.

    1. I feel like I was in a very similar situation. I went through a change in administration in the department I worked in and I had a great relationship with my previous supervisor. When she retired a person without good management experience or even thorough knowledge of all the legal areas that were involved in running our department was promoted. Everyone was shocked. He was an ineffective leader who could not be counted on to give consistent answers to similar policy situations. As a supervisor in a department with heavy turnover I was counted on to fill a lot of responsibilities that he could not handle. I loved that job because of the subject matter and some of the other people I worked with. After 3 years of daily hyper arousal with my emotions and perceiving rejection at every turn I finally quit a good job with a lot of benefits. I just couldn’t stick it out anymore and I also began to lose interest in the subject matter. I think losing interest was a response to all the emotional stress I was under. I just couldn’t continue being interested in what I thought of as an untenable situation. The impulsive thing I did was to write him a letter after I left expressing my frustrations at the way he managed the department. I was so emotional about leaving that job because of him that I could not think straight about how writing that letter could have implications for my career. I have now obtained a job in which I have a great deal of interest which I have sustained for many years of my career. I am hoping that through beginning to use this magazine as a resource that I will not fall victim to such intense emotions and the automatic perception of rejection that has led to my earlier career problems. I wish you the best in moving forward in your career as well. I understand the impulsive behavior When you have been a variable employee who then feels rejected by new management. The article on here about the 3 defining factors of ADHD really helped me a lot. I don’t know if you’ve read that one but it is a really good read in terms of managing your career. Best of luck to you.

  10. My comments are a bit late, having just discovered this article, but I think I may have some good insights to share that are helping me a lot as a late-50s ADD male.

    I was surprised by the large amount of comments that no solutions are really offered here. I can see that the article’s title could be somewhat misleading (although I don’t think it’s untrue); I’ll acknowledge that maybe it succumbs to the temptation of somewhat'”clickbait” titles that even “legitimate” online sites have fallen into the habit of. But hidden within the article’s information about how the brain (particularly the ADDer’s brain) functions is, I believe, very useful advice….I’ll explain.

    But first: I’ll say that okay, perhaps that sexual metaphor (one paragraph among a long article) wasn’t the best idea to include, but it wasn’t really worded salaciously. The outsized focus on it in so many above comments could even be, you might say, an example the book’s excerpt discusses of we ADDers having too little “bandwidth” and getting too wound up about a small aspect rather than taking in the big picture?

    Okay, on to my insights: as so many of us can relate to, motivation / procrastination are demons that are incredibly powerful forces we struggle with….and even when we get help with meds (as I started to, finally, with Ritalin just a year ago after a lifetime of thinking I could just “deal with it”), we realize they aren’t a silver bullet, but rather just a very helpful tool to allow us to work on ourselves….in the same way that having a cookbook, quality ingredients, and expensive pots don’t magically turn one into a brilliant chef, but they’re great fundamental aids.

    As you well know there’s no shortage of practical advice out there on how to “get your act together” for both ADD-specific folks and in the general media: “focus on one thing at a time”; “get plenty of sleep & exercise”; “break down tasks into specific steps”; yadda yadda yadda….but two non-med approaches to ADD, or “mental tricks” if you wish to think of them as that, have really been great help to me. And they are, in fact, seemingly contradictory approaches! But I believe both can be utilized to great effect, depending on which feels right as you go throughout your day with self-awareness. Both are built upon the notion that this article discusses: that more than ANYthing else, we act or don’t act based on our EMOTIONS, and in fact many emotions are so buried, or ephemeral (fleeting across our brain in a nanosecond), that more often than not we’re completely puzzled why we simply won’t do the things we truly believe we WANT to do, let alone need to do.

    The first is a trick that a motivational speaker, Mel Robbins, has recently made herself famous with: her discovery, at a very low point in her life, which she calls “The 5-Second Rule”: when psychologically paralyzed with starting any task, no matter how simple — getting out of bed in the morning; making an unpleasant phone call; even stuff you WANT to do but are illogically putting off — make a mental image of a rocketship blasting off, call out 5-4-3-2-1 in your head, and then you may be amazed at how effectively you will JUST DO IT as soon as you reach “zero”. (I prefer to picture the old movie trailer’s 4-3-2-1-beep in my head; whatever variation works for you.) The neuroscience behind this is that you get distracted from your fears & hesitation in those brief seconds, just long enough to ACT. Other oft-heard advice, such as taking small steps, may be a lot harder because the speed of our brains can’t be tricked for more than these few seconds. It will make you aware of how many countless decisions we make throughout our day to avoid acting, on even the smallest “easy” things; try it now, on something simple. You may be surprised how empowering it is.

    And the second “trick” I use is, as I said, contradictory to the first. If you wonder, as I did, Will the 5-Second Rule just make me kind of an emotionless zombie, if the whole idea is to ignore my feelings?, this is worth trying too….and your gut instinct will tell you which approach is the better one to use at any given moment. This conundrum of why so many things we avoid are actually things we truly WANT to do, is perhaps because we’re allowing the BAD thoughts, such as discomfort about difficulty with even the most trivial aspects, hold more sway than the GOOD ones, such as the pleasures we get from the senses as we perform the task. An example is that I actually enjoy washing dishes (and more to the point: I don’t procrastinate about it!), I think because of the pleasures of feeling the warm sudsy water, the opportunity to let my mind wander or listen to music, and the resolution of a finished task when they’re all dried & put away, with a clean uncluttered sink and counter.
    For others, of course, washing dishes may be the most onerous job they can think of. So I’ve begun applying this to my professional work: as an architect, I’ve allowed procrastination to really hurt my career and relationships with clients. The creative process, in any field, can be intimidating; it’s easy to forget that you just have to “put one foot in front of the other” to come up with good work, even when you don’t FEEL inspired. But the process itself — the mechanical process, you might say — can actually be pleasurable: the drag of graphite across the paper as I sketch, allowing my brain, both consciously and subconsciously, to make connections and find pleasing relationships among forms; even imagining what the wood or the brick or the plants would FEEL like tactilely in my hands as I mentally mold the materials into designs. It can be a very rich way of enjoying life & the tasks you do, similar to the sensuous enjoyment certain cultures find in their food traditions; they don’t just eat for nourishment, they savor the palpable experience — the textures, the flavors, the sights. You might say: Feel more, think less (completely contrary to the 5-4-3-2-1 approach!). I’m also trying this as I’ve begun teaching myself to play piano recently, a lifelong deferred dream; instead of focusing on mastering any full song or dexterity with my fingers, instead I focus on the sheer tactile pleasure of pressing my fingers against the keys to make sounds, and the little jolts of dopamine that come from hearing a few familiar notes come together right of a song I’ve always loved. Mental imaging is certainly nothing you haven’t heard of before, but give it a try; instead of thinking about, perhaps, the hassles of finding time in your schedule to work out at the gym, focus on the sensuous pleasures: the ‘burn’ in your thighs on the treadmill; the satisfying tiredness in your muscles as you relax later; the warm water against your skin with the shower you may take afterward.

    Good luck and be kind to yourself; we’re all in this struggle together.

    1. Hi alwaysgrowing, I just stumbled across this article and your reply today. I thought you input was phenomenal; no doubt more clear and helpful than the article itself. I heard about the 5 second rule a while ago but it’s faded out of my mind. Thanks for the reminder of this very useful concept. Your second suggestion was something that I had never heard or thought of. What a fantastic idea! I have been imagining of some of the mundane things that I just can’t bring myself to do in this new light and they actually seem interesting. In many ways, it is simply reframing the “why” behind the thing to be done. One cause can have many effects, so why not focus on the effect that is biologically stimulating versus the one that is not? All that matters from an executive function perspective is that the necessary action is taken. By the way, I do think the two “tricks” you proposed can work quite harmoniously together. I propose that Trick 1 is all about starting (the “when”), Trick 2 is about the reason for starting (the “why”). These are vertically aligned. I would imagine that sorting out the “why” would precede the “when”. An example would look something like this: “I want to sit down at the piano and feel my fingers pressing the keys and making the sounds that I like”, followed by “5-4-3-2-1”. I’m just considering how this all works, so I’d be interested in your thoughts. Mainly, I just wanted to say thanks for the practical help and also for the encouragement that comes from hearing from others who are actively working toward solutions.

    2. alwaysgrowing, I appreciate your sharing this. I cried a little as much of what you said I as I’m sure many of us feel like you and have the same struggles. I like your suggestions and I think they can help me with some of my motivational issues. I finally after turning 60 decided to pursue ‘official’ testing and decided to try medication. I have know for many yrs. after a couple of my sons were dg with ADHD that I had it also. I felt some of the therapists/Drs. acted like why bother now, but I persevered and am glad I did.
      Thanks again and good luck to you too.

    3. Awesome thoughts @alwaysgrowing. I have been trying both methods since I read your comment, and I dare say they might actually just change my life lol!

      However, the other big half of the issue with me, is to KEEP GOING after I have started, when the task would take a long time, and I am just NOT in the mood for it, even though I know I absolutely have to do this right now to reach my goals. I keep self sabotaging on important tasks by dropping the ball daily. I work on my own so it’s a fight.

      Any thoughts on this???

      Thanks in advance….

  11. This article TOTALLY hit home for me. As a 17 yr. old with combined type ADHD, the thing with people getting frustrated at my “inconsistency” and “lack of motivation” to do certain things really hit the nail on the head. I’m grateful this site exists,so I can look more into my brain and what’s wrong with me when it comes to things like this.

    1. There is nothing wrong with you! In fact I think ADHD folks are really great because we can make so many connections rather than think only linearly like most people. My husband is a very linear thinker and he appreciates my ability to see what he thinks is a bigger picture. He does get frustrated with my stopping in the middle of a project and leaving it in the floor or where ever it is I was working on it. But he always likes how the project turns out once I finish it. We finally decided to get a housekeeper because it just wasn’t getting done. We both like to have a clean house and he works a lot of hours so he is tired when he gets home and he thought that because I got home an hour earlier I should start doing household things then. I’m tired from my job too and from managing ADHD all day. After we hired the housekeeper things much improved in our marriage.So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do everything that you think you should be doing. Sometimes you need help so just ask. You might get yes for an answer.
      I have also found that making the task a little broader focused has helped. Instead of thinking oh, I am don’t want to work on that math assignment because it is not interesting, I think that oh, I AM interested in making a good grade in this class and feeling that sense of accomplishment. And oh, the assignment is just one step toward making that happen.
      You’re young, you have a good chance at an early age to learn coping skills that will help you throughout your life in instead of like some of us old folks being diagnosed much later in life having to look back at what we think are mistakes that have impacted our lives and careers. Best wishes to you!

  12. Addressing the posts complaining that the article doesn’t offer any solutions to the issue: The goal of ADDitude Magazine isn’t ONLY to offer help and advice for treating ADHD symptoms. They also strive to educate and inform the reader about ADHD. There is so much misinformation out there and so much new information coming out every day that I believe this mission is just as vital as offering advice and help. Plus, at least in my iPad version, there are links throughout the article to other related articles providing the advice these complainers say this article lacks.

    Anyway, I say well done ADDitude and Dr. Brown. You’re fighting the good fight and are appreciated.

  13. I often find that I have problems motivating myself sometimes even to do the things I really enjoy. I think that over the years that I’ve had so much perceived failure, and feeling miserable over my ability to do certain things due to having undiagnosed ADD, that it’s left me with feelings of inadequacy even for the things that I’m good at.

    I might get excited about starting a new project, but then before I’ve even started I think, we’ll why am I even bothering, it’s not going to go anywhere and I probably won’t even finish it. What’s the point?

    I have a degree in printed textiles and graduated in 2012 but have done nothing with my degree, although I have attempted things that have failed. It’s very disheartening and hard to be motivated, it’s even harder when you see so many talented people online all doing amazing things and seeming to do it really easily

      1. I’m sorry you feel that way also. At least I now know the reason why I am like this and I’m not just a ‘failure.’ We can be so hard on ourselves 🤗

  14. I am so shocked at the negative reactions to this article.

    I am a very conservative, deeply religious woman, and yet I found the ED analogy to be very helpful and on-target. In the middle of reading the article (I have ADHD! Duh!) I saved it to my pocket account, and would have sent the link to my husband so he can understand me better, except he probably won’t have the patience to read the entire article! When I finished, I scrolled down to the comments to write my thanks, and I see a raging debate going on!

    Thanks for this article, and of course, I’d love to see strategies but I do find them all over this site, for which I am grateful.

  15. This article has been of SO MUCH help to me since I read it. I had to come back to read it again.

    You don’t need solutions to be proffered before you get helped. Just understanding what is going on in your mind alone can be really huge.

    Since I read this article, anytime I don’t feel motivated to do something, I know what exactly is going on, and I am better able to fight it automatically.

    Lots of thanks to the author. The article is great the way it is – with or without solutions spelt out.

  16. I get mixed feelings reading this article. On one hand, I really appreciate being validated on my own thoughts on this topic. I’ve never seen anything from ADDitude before, and I feel this was a good introduction. I always felt like practically all of my problems, from my lack of motivation to always giving up when I’m imperfect, are all caused by ADD in one way or another, but I just felt like I could be making excuses. This confirms to me that I’m not just being lazy, which helps with my own self-esteem. On the other hand, I feel like the fact that there’s no solution in the article is very telling. If there were a legitimate solution here, it would’ve been presented in the article.
    I know that the problem exists now. I googled this because I couldn’t for the life of me get started on writing a paper that’s past due, and even though I promised my professor I’d get the paper in today and he’s willing to give me another shot because I’ve done good on previous assignments and have stood out in his class by answering questions and being attentive (coughcoughamphetaminecoughcough), but I just have absolutely no interest in the paper I was planning on writing anymore. Now I know this is happening because of my ADD, cool, but now what. Now I know it’s always been in my nature to give in when I feel like this. Do I just accept it and give in when my mind wills me to? Is there really any other way? I’m afraid that when I don’t want to do something, I’ll just think about this now and accept it to be.

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