Activation can be difficult for people with ADHD, and procrastination is a recurring pattern in our lives. It’s a reason the word “lazy” is often tossed in our direction, and often it’s how we label ourselves.
One thing that a lot of people get wrong about ADHD is that we only avoid things we perceive as boring, and that’s just not true! Often, a person with ADHD may struggle to activate themselves to do something they actually view as interesting or desirable. It can be even more frustrating because you want to do it but you feel like you just can’t.
Then, there’s the paradox of hyper-focus or hyper-fixation – when a person with ADHD gets going on something they find rewarding or motivating, they can really get going!
Essentially, with ADHD, activation and motivation are often at the center of our struggle because we have little control.
What’s the Cause?
I do quite a bit of research for this blog because I want my information to be as accurate as possible with the most recent research available (and yet remain digestible).
This one was tricky though, because I found a few different answers and I’m not sure there’s a consensus on just one being the cause. So below are a few reasons why activation can be difficult for people with ADHD.
Dopamine Feeds Interest
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or a chemical messenger that transfers messages between nerve cells. Many researchers agree that low levels of dopamine, or specifically low levels of a protein called dopamine transporter density (DTD), may be a leading factor in the causes of ADHD.
When a person with ADHD encounters a task they perceive to not be interesting, their coincidingly low levels of dopamine makes it more difficult to begin the task, because dopamine may regulate motivation.
An Unconscious Emotional Response
Humans aren’t necessarily logical or rational beings – we’re often guided by our emotions, which aren’t always conscious and clear to us.
When we genuinely want to do something but can’t seem to get motivated to act on that want, there may be an underlying emotion associated to the task at hand that isn’t able to be recognized by conscious thought. This may prevent someone from taking action even when they logically want to or believe they should.
No Clear Reward System
For most people, they can get themselves to perform tasks they deem boring or unnecessary by tapping into their rewards system – which may be external or internal.
External would be something from a source outside of yourself – for example, “If I don’t get this report done on time my boss will yell at me”. Internal comes from within – for example, “If I exercise, I’ll feel good”.
For people with ADHD, the reward system isn’t that simple. I think Additude Magazine, in their article “Never Enough? Why ADHD Brains Crave Stimulation”, explains it best:
“Key aspects of the reward system are underactive in ADHD brains, making it difficult to derive reward from ordinary activities. These dopamine-deficient brains experience a surge of motivation after a high-stimulation behavior triggers a release of dopamine. But in the aftermath of that surge and reward, they return to baseline levels with an immediate drop in motivation.”
Essentially, if you can’t comprehend that an activity will in any way be rewarding, it’s much easier to avoid it altogether.
There may be a multitude of reasons why you’re having trouble activating. However, there’s one trick I’ve always used (even well before the diagnosis!) that helps me to activate when it seems insurmountably difficult.
Just Do One Thing
It’s as simple as it sounds: Just Do One Thing. Wash one dish. Read one page. Perform one exercise.
No pressure to do more; don’t think about finishing it all. Just think about getting through One Thing.
When you’re done, think briefly about how it made you feel. Do you feel a little accomplished? Do you feel a tiny weight came off your shoulders? Do you feel proud?
If so, harness it, then Just Do One More Thing – you already started, maybe you can do one more. Wash one more dish. Read one more page. Perform one more exercise.
If you’re done at this point, you’re done. But hopefully, because you did the thing that was the hardest part – activating yourself To Do – you’re able to continue a little bit more. Maybe you can finish the dishes, or read a whole chapter or finish your workout. But if you can’t, don’t be hard on yourself. You can try again later to do Just Do One Thing.
Alternatively, if you’re more time-focused, you can try to Just Do Five Minutes. This applies to anything – five minutes of cleaning, five minutes of exercise, five minutes of work. Evaluate how you feel when your time is up and see if you can go another five minutes.
What are your favorite tips for activation and motivation? I’d love to hear them!