ADHD and motivation: Why we get stuck
When you think of a new project or idea in your business, what happens?
Chances are you are on fire.
Or, more precisely – your neurons are. At least a little … you search the internet, find great inspiration, search more, are more on fire …
But you still haven’t done anything. You haven’t moved in the direction of what you want to do.
You probably hope for the day you jump out of bed with a motivational boost, hungry to get this new project going.
I used to do just that.
And as you probably also know, that doesn’t work. I piled idea over an idea, half-finished project over a half-finished project, and didn’t achieve much.
Until I figured out why it works differently – especially for ADHD and motivation.
Get yourself a coffee. I promise it won’t take long.
And I tell you my little, scientifically proven secret to get motivated – and to stay motivated.
Motivation comes after action, not before.
Before you say: That’s all? Stay with me a little longer because we humans tend to think that it must be complicated to fix a certain thing only because WE can not fix a certain thing.
Which is not true most of the time.
There is no difference between people who have ADHD and people who don’t have ADHD when it comes to motivation.
And this is the misconception about why we get stuck. We think we need to have that fire-in-the-belly feeling to take our first step.
But it is the other way around.
ADHD and motivation must not be hard when you change the order
And the physiological reason is this …
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter, the chemical in the brain associated with the feeling of reward or motivation. This wonder weapon helps us strive, be focused, and find things interesting.
It is there when we feel pleasure, when we hug someone or when we eat chocolate. And it also motivates us to work hard, earn money, to eat even nicer chocolate.
So, in a nutshell, here is how the dopamine cycle works:
You do something – aka act, after that, you get a reward – a flush of dopamine – and hence you are motivated to take more action. Because reward feels good.
Pretty straightforward, right?
But still, people think they must first feel motivated to act.
And that gets you trapped in something I call the hope-crushed-hope-cycle. Because over time, you get demotivated from all the waiting.
And besides – no reward comes to you: Bad.
Here is what helps you over this seemingly horrible big first hurdle.
You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems. James Clear
I love that quote.
Because it takes out all the willpower that even people without ADHD don’t have all the time. AND people with ADHD can use good, intelligent systems to do great work.
Let me tell you about the biggest mistake we all make, to diminish any feeling of accomplishment, no matter how much we work. Or how much we accomplish.
It is belittling.
It is saying to yourself – and to others – THAT thing that you did? … Is nothing.
That could make a 5-year-old do.
That is so … normal.
And not enough.
We all have our story by not letting our light shine. Or with shining our light on what we accomplished.
With ADHD, it is probably worse.
You are so used to not reaching a goal, not fulfilling your potential, not accomplishing that thing, not … that you don’t see what you have done. You have a history of being a failure.
Or better: Feeling like one.
So how could you possibly see anything as an accomplishment?
And here starts the vicious cycle: If you don’t see anything as an accomplishment, why even try? Why try harder? Why not give up when there is nothing to gain?
As a non-ADHD partner in this relationship, let me tell you: This is poison if you don’t have ADHD. And it kills you if you have ADHD. You accomplish something.
I know someone with ADHD who took her mother to her, and they live together. And it seems to work out very well.
I could not imagine doing that. I’m not sure if she recognizes it as something very, genuinely nice – and accomplished.
It is probably normal for her.
Nothing to talk about.
But here is the thing: You do not need to talk about it. But with that little voice of self-compassion, recognize that you have done something, even something nice.
This leads me to my first tip:
Tip No. 1 is: Honor your accomplishments.
Because minimizing them, crushes the cycle of reward and stops the dopamine from flowing.
And do you remember? Dopamine is that hugging-chocolate feeling you like. And that puts you on a much easier path to crack the ADHD and motivation code.
How can you do that?
- Keep a 3-win journal. Every evening, write 3 wins of the day in it. It does not have to be something spectacular. Just keep noticing.
- If that seems like too much: Think of at least one thing over your morning coffee.
Tip No. 2: Start small
You know, in the meanwhile, the way to stay motivated is all about reinforcing that cycle that keeps the dopamine flowing because that feels good.
Yes, I know.
That dopamine thing is different with ADHD. But you have dopamine. And you can do a lot to help it flow more willingly.
And you probably know all that, but you just cannot get motivated to do that, right?
The secret is to start building small, regular habits. And it is about choosing one small thing to act on.
Because action leads to reward, leads to motivation, leads to action.
First, choose one small thing to start with.
And then try to do it.
That can be something like making your bed. And then – pause and congratulate yourself for how nice it looks. Give yourself a moment to bask in that pleasure.
Now, if you cannot get yourself to start a big task that you are avoiding, you can start by moving in the smallest possible way.
Or take something like sports. Plan to have a 5-minute walk or a 5-minute YouTube fitness video each day.
5 minutes. Can you do that?
If not, choose 3 minutes.
If yes, do not choose more.
Go with 5 and stick to it.
Because that starts the dopamine, and then give yourself credit for doing that.
Tip No. 3: Keep track of your accomplishments.
This is a biggie, especially for entrepreneurs who have ADHD. You can read a lot about that from Dan Sullivan, a business coach, who calls it „The Gap and the Gain“. (See above his free resources.)
Here is the thing:
We have an ideal outcome or state that we want to reach. When we start to go there, it is as if we move towards the horizon.
The problem is: We never get there.
The horizon is an artificial construct. We will never get there because it does not exist. But when we look back, we can see how far we have come.
As entrepreneurs, we evaluate by looking at our ultimate goal, the horizon.
We are not evaluating the distance between the actual place we started – and where we are now.
And we don’t feel like we are getting anywhere.
Which is not a good cocktail for staying motivated, right?
That is why Mike and I use a big chart for business accomplishments hanging on the wall. And for personal accomplishments, another one, also hanging on the wall.
Does that mean we are always on track?
Of course not.
But if we see on paper that we fall behind, it helps us get back on track. Or – to be amazed at how much we have already done.
So, there you have it. ADHD and motivation can be challenging, especially if we fall into the trap of waiting for it to come.
- Don’t wait to take action until you feel motivated.
- Take a small step first.
- Take the time to sit with that feeling of accomplishment, enjoy it.
- And track what you have done.
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