Time & Productivity

5 Perfectly Awful Ways to Motivate an ADHD Brain

Many adults with ADHD have to hijack the emotional part of the brain to get started, especially on a task they find tedious, uninteresting, or routine.

How to Motivate Yourself with ADHD: Do You Use These Tric
Procrastinating ADHD adult makes an "okay" sign to demonstrate that is not worried about an impending deadline.

Many of us with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) have less reliable access to our prefrontal cortex (PFC) than do neurotypical people. Life’s details are managed in the PFC. It is a calm, rational butler, directing behavior in a Siri-toned voice: “Sir, your keys are on the table.” Or, “Madam, you must leave now if you want to arrive on time.”

Those of us with ADHD can’t rely on our PFC butler for planning, short-term memory, working memory, decision-making, and impulse management. So we go to our emotional centers, in the limbic system, to remember things, make decisions, and to motivate ourselves. We use our emotions to help us to think, remember, plan, and act.

Anxiety: “I Need to Stay on High Alert”

We use anxiety to increase performance. It produces the impetus to make us move, to take action. When we forget things that aren’t in our focus, anxious thoughts hold them in our memory. The anxiety-alerting system works something like this: Someone gets out of her car and says to herself, “I need to remember to lock my car.” Her thoughts race on: “I need to listen for the beep. What if I double-clicked my key fob, and it actually unlocked the car? Someone could steal my stuff. What is in my car? Oh, my son’s iPad. I don’t want that stolen. He would be furious — and I can’t buy a new one right now. Lock car.” Anxiety makes her lock her car.

Individuals with ADHD compensate for lack of focus with racing thoughts, nervousness, and worry. This is especially true for those with undiagnosed/untreated ADHD. If our logical motivation is a faint flame reminding us that we “should” get to a task, we pour gasoline — anxiety — on that flame and we are motivated. The drawback, as it is with each of our emotional tricks, is that motivating ourselves with anxiety is exhausting.

Avoidance: “I’ll Do a Different Task, Not the One I Should Be Doing”

When our anxiety gets too high, a circuit breaker trips because too much power is being drawn from the emotional part of the brain. Then we turn to another tool, avoidance. Avoidance directs us to do a different task, usually one that is less important. This misdirection soothes our twitchy limbic system, calming our anxiety. We don’t want to think about the task that is making us anxious, so we temporarily forget what we don’t want to do.

“I used avoidance like it’s my job this week,” a client told me. Although she had work projects that were due, she decided to repaint her bathroom instead, and also dived into redecorating websites at her office. Avoidance lets us feel productive by accomplishing a different task. “At least my bathroom will look nice. I have been wanting to do that for a while.”

[Take This Test: Inattentive ADHD Symptoms in Adults]

Procrastination: “It’s Like I’m Dodging a Bullet. It’s a High”

Procrastination is a similar way of diverting interest, with anxiety added, to initiate a task. Here is how it works: I need to do a particular task, but there is no reason to it immediately, so I wait. And wait. And wait — until it becomes impossible to accomplish on time. And then, like a superhero, KaPOW!, anxiety rushes in and the task finally gets done.

Procrastination as a motivator doesn’t produce our best work. But it does increase the pressure to do something. My college-aged clients often brag, “This 25-page paper was assigned at the beginning of the semester. I did it in 10 hours! I barely ate or used the bathroom, and I pulled an all-nighter!” Some celebrate their heroic feat, others feel ashamed, but they all had motivated themselves by procrastination. The feeling is like dodging a bullet—and it is a high.

Anger: “When I Get Mad, I Am Moved to Act”

Anger can help us do that stupid little task that has been haunting us for days or months. The flare of anger makes us feel strong, and pushes us to do what we want to get done.

“Stupid winter, stupid weather, stupid Michigan,” a client muttered as he prepared his garage for the winter. The weather had already turned cold, and snow was on its way. He needed an hour to put away warm-weather things, like garden hoses and deck furniture, and prepare his snowblower. “I didn’t consider my flare-up of anger as trying to motivate myself,” he said later, “but I had to get mad to clean the garage.”

[Take This Test: How Seriously Do You Procrastinate?]

Shame and Self-Loathing: “I Focus on My Flaws to Keep the Momentum”

We turn to shame and self-loathing to motivate ourselves when all else fails. These aren’t quick fixes, like anxiety, avoidance, procrastination, and anger. Instead, these dirty tricks are a slow-burning irritant to our emotional well-being.

People use shame to motivate themselves to accomplish their daily tasks. One client of mine talks about using shame to get things done at work and at home. She says, “To finally start a project I’ve been putting off, I imagine how disappointed my supervisor will be if I don’t finish it in time. And at home, I remember that I only have one chance to give my kids a good childhood. I have to get it right, or I’ll screw them up.”

Shame can lead to self-loathing, a strong dislike of yourself, your actions, or your ADHD. Self-loathing creates false beliefs about ourselves. Disguised as discipline, self-loathing makes us miserable to motivate ourselves. A middle-aged male client explained how he used self-loathing to improve his financial situation: “I hated the fact that I didn’t have more money. I hated feeling like a loser. It drove me each day.”

I often see self-loathing in my practice. With coaching, clients learn to see it in themselves. A mother of two children with ADHD noticed her children’s use of self-loathing. One day she heard her youngest express disgust with himself after failing to complete a task. She knelt and looked at him, saying, “We don’t do that in this house.” Her son replied, “OK, then, I’ll go outside.” His response shows that motivating ourselves with self-loathing can become a habit.

Develop zero-tolerance for shame and self-loathing because these dirty tricks will only harm you. Listen for those deeply negative thoughts. When you pay attention to the worst voices in your head, you’ll be fascinated—and disheartened—by what you hear. Acknowledge them, and then be kind to yourself. When one of my clients hears them, she says, “Oh, it’s you again. Why are you here?” Everyone has doubts and ugly thoughts—it’s how you handle them that matters.

Catch Yourself Using Dirty Emotional Tricks

Doing daily tasks, time management, and looking like a grown-up is hard for people with ADHD. A lawyer client of mine explained, “I love the complicated parts of my job, and I do them well. The partners at the firm love me for that. It’s the little, boring things that exhaust me.” She uses emotional tricks to help her do those tasks.

As you wake up, imagine that your battery is fully charged. As the day goes by, your charge will slowly decline, opening the door to using emotional tricks. They drain your battery rapidly, and leave you feeling physically and emotionally exhausted.

Retrain your thinking to become aware of these tricks. Try these techniques:

  • Set an alarm each hour. When the alarm goes off, write down an emotional trick you have used, or were tempted to use, at work or at home. Look for patterns.
  • Reframe and challenge your negative thoughts. An ADHD coach can help you.
  • Ask your spouse, significant other, or close friend to tell you when he or she sees you using these tricks.

[Read This Next: Life Is Too Short for Shame]

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9 Comments & Reviews

  1. I was hoping to see what others think of this article?? I have a Son and his son who were born with this type of brain. Son is 30, grandson 13. also I grew up with my oldest Brother who back then it was not called ADHD, our Doctors in the 60’s called my brother and all like him…PARTIAL BRAIN DAMAGE!! My poor brother suffered at School, by being severely paddled with wood paddle with holes drilled in it for maximum pain!!! Then teacher would call our Dad. So when my Brother got home that day, he would be greeted with Dad and his Belt. To suffer another beating! How traumatizing for us kids, and all cuz his brain works different. This Trauma he and I still suffer. He is 65 now, and we no longer speak, but not cuz I have not tried. Has been 4 yrs. But he is so Abusive to me….I wont try anymore. I have to save my self now. Enough!! I can’t deal with him, not when I have my Son and Grandson to deal with!! Never easy, not for a minute.

  2. This is a spot-on description of what I already knew. But what’s missing is how to replace these negative motivators with positive ones that actually work.

    I was so relieved when I got diagnosed, because it released me from years of blame and shame. I embrace and like myself much better!

    But I am not managing my time or my responsibilities much better. The medication helps me with anxiety and allows me to get work done that I like (instead of spacing out).

    But I still don’t get the bathroom cleaned until I’m embarrassed, or the checkbook balanced unless I’m in a panic.

    My health can’t take the stress of the panic-shame-anger cycle anymore. And these things must be done to have any quality of life. I can’t just blithely ignore them – that’s just a setup for more panic & shame.

    But what’s the alternative, when the logical PFC and the abstract vision of a distant future goal are useless?

  3. Agreed, @RagingADHD! Possible solutions in the article would be much appreciated!
    It sounds like all-in-all, you’re making good changes.

  4. I second Raging and Kharmin’s questions. Even in the set up of the article, the self loathing “unhealthy” strategies are fairly rational responses to our brains and the world we have to use them in. When the author writes
    “She knelt and looked at him, saying, “We don’t do that in this house.” Her son replied, “OK, then, I’ll go outside.” His response shows that motivating ourselves with self-loathing can become a habit.”, she misinterprets the boy. To me, he wouldn’t dismiss his mom because self-loathing is a habit, but because he doesn’t see an alternative. Look, there’s value to being more emotionally healthy, and having less self-loathing, but there are other priorities.

  5. I agree with RagingADHD, for some reason I was under the impression that with each “emotional trick”, there would be a healthier alternative to use in its place. I was glad to see a piece that did address all of these methods together because it’s never just one. Recognizing them is good, but then what?

  6. Dear all commenters,
    I’m sorry that this website leaves many of use hopeless.
    What if I tried to answer all of this with empathy and without my usual sarcasm?
    Yes I’ve been diagnosed.

    This article sounds hopeless and your life is not hopeless! Your PFC might not be useless. But old narratives about ADHD like this one might keep you stuck thinking that.

    My PFC is not the worst, and is not always inaccurate, and does a lot more than I (or this website apparently) gives it credit for.
    It doesn’t fail, it thinks even more forethought for me than I expected. It tells me where my keys usually are, it tells me I must leave now, AND it tells me that the weather report is different now than it was last night, so I better have my extra sweater today, and the toe warmers. Great, the toe warmers are in my purse. The sweater is where it should be too – in the dryer. (It just takes forever to run through the house, keeping up with life, keeping up with coworkers unphased by the morning forecast. Even after laying out my clothes and lunchbox the night before.) Then after I have everything, my PFC says “you are now 2 minutes late. Update boss of New ETA.” In fact, everything I need to know not to upset my boss and be fully functional is there and PFC is doing a damn interesting job at being flexible. Life requires this understanding. You’re doing better than you give yourself credit for.
    (Should I wake up half an hour earlier? I do. I try. Life STILL happens.)

    There are alternatives, dear reader. Brace yourself for the part you hate: mindfulness.
    WAIT before you roll your eyes, let me finish.
    If you are using these motivational tactics, you have built up YEARS of a certain type of narrative that may not lift with just actions. I’d love for that to work but… when you realize you do these things, you need to be aware when you do this self-talk. It’s how you catch those negative thoughts and replace them with logical ones. I’m sorry! Mindfulness is difficult and boring for us! You HAVE to learn to catch yourself.

    Now with mindfulness you can ask yourself what the emotion is and what it’s motivating you to do. Then focus on what the next steps of get-r-done are for the situation.

    Anxiety: “I’m anxious. What am I forgetting?” Can’t think of it, didn’t write it down? Finish a different pressing task and allow it to resurface. Going to the room in which you remembered it can help resurface. In memory science, walking into a different room is crossing an “event boundary”. Go back to the scene.

    Avoidance: “This feels so insurmountable that I wanna run away. I have to face this OH DEAR.” Emotions have made it to distress. We need distress tolerance skills. Stop. Take a minute. Breathe. There is something called paired muscle contractions. Flex your fingers, hands, arms, elbow, shoulders, while inhaling and thinking “I’ve done hards things before,” hold the breath and contraction for 2-3 seconds, and slowly release your shoulders, elbows, arms, hands, fingers while slowly exhaling thinking “so I can get through this.” This is how to pair a positive affirmation with the relaxing feeling of release.
    Repeat this (with any pep-talk sentence you need) to calm down. Keep the sentence simple so your subconscious can internalize it.
    Now utilize a pomodoro session (25 minutes) to set up your workspace if you’re still inclined to go paint the bathroom instead. Get everything you need, mis en place. Breathe. You can do this. The timer will ding. You now give yourself 5 minutes to breathe, feel present, and let your mind feel rewarded for attempting goals. Your next pomodoro can be real work. Repeat this pomodoro cycle (25-5-25-5)to get work done until you enter hyperfocus flow state, after which you will not need the timer.

    Procrastination: is like dodging a bullet? Really? Then dodge a different bullet. Your penalty can be to pay for it – with money. There are apps and website that let you pay your friends for not making good on a goal/deadline. Or ask a good friend You know in person! Make it sting. How much stings? $25? $400? something you can’t hide from.
    You’re allowed to hack your brain. If you can’t control the monkey mind, make it work for you.

    Anger: is a response to a perceived threat, and quite often is self righteous. Ask yourself what’s the threat? (Is it really threatening or just annoying? Will not mitigating it harm a loved one?) Ask yourself what exactly is inconveniencing you. How can you remedy this? Get some steps going for it, you’ll feel better for having started at all. For the record though, angry IS actually an emotion that allows you to protect yourself and the ones you love, so if they are actually in harm’s way, quit guilt tripping yourself for saving them.
    Since we are known to have anger issues, train yourself to ask yourself what’s the threat every time you feel that pop up. Once you can label it, you can feel confident tackling it. And I know you can tackle it or you wouldn’t have gotten riled up.

    Self-loathing: the article was right. This will mostly give you more fuel for anxiety and anger down the line. It’s misleading. It causes you to destroy yourself and sabotage future opportunities you think you don’t deserve. Your going to have to let this one go. Easier said than done. I feel ya. Researchers Firestone and Firestone developed some methodology on deducing and rewriting the negative narrative that can lead to insecurity and self hatred. Feels like a longish process, but maybe worth it.

    I told you every one of these tactics requires mindfulness. I know its hard, but what the article doesn’t say is we’re going to need mindfulness to get to and through ANY of this. Scoff if you need, but I can’t be a pinball stuck in the machine of my mind any longer.

    Also, you will try these tactics and sometimes life won’t work out perfectly. Please accept that life is screwy like that, stop yelling at yourself, and forgive yourself.

    THIS is my response to all of that.

    Sources: YEARS of dialectical behavioral therapy

    For the record, our idea of how this plays out neurologically may not actually be as simple as the limbic system picking up the PFC’s slack. I see the correlation, but just watch what you believe. Don’t limit yourself. Reading the defeatist articles on this website make me want to crawl away. I KNOW I’ve achieved so much more than this old story will ever make it sound.

  7. Okay, here’s a more positive one: bargaining. I use a Pomodoro timer for work. It’s a great bargaining tool.

    “I feel awful today. I don’t want to work.” – We can do just one Pomodoro if nothing else, right? (I have to feel REALLY horrific for it to end up being just one Pomodoro, btw.)
    “I don’t feel like doing X.” – We can do X for one Pomodoro and then switch to something else. Hey… variety!
    “My brain really wants to focus on doing or reading [insert fun thing here] instead.” – Sure. When the Pomodoros are up, we’ll spend the breaks doing or reading [insert fun thing here] before we get back to work.

    Pomodoros are also good for breaking hyperfocus, improving your time sense, and planning and estimating work. If I want to estimate time on a task, I can look back at a similar task and how many Pomodoros it took to complete. There’s also still a lot of “OMG! I got that long, tedious task I knew would take all day done in ONE Pomodoro! Holy crap!”

  8. Procrastination definitely did not help me get anything done. When it got to the point that the anxiety was overwhelming, I would shut down completely,and the only type of “tasks” that would boost my dompamine enough were things like watching TV and eating junk food. Has anybody else had this experience? It doesn’t happen to me anymore now that I take ADD medication, but it was very common before I was diagnosed.

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