If you have ADHD, you may be struggling to understand why you can’t get started on tasks even when you know they are really important, but you can eagerly spend hours in a rabbit hole. Or why you always wait until the last minute to do projects that others do ahead of time. The reason is that your ADHD brain is motivated differently from a neurotypcial brain. For us, strong emotions tend to be associated with motivation. Specifically, key motivators are interest, novelty, competition/challenge, urgency and play.
The first motivator is interest. For us, the feeling of being engaged in a task is a big motivator. One big strength for many people with ADHD is our enthusiasm and energy for areas that capture our curiosity. This is because we have interest-based nervous systems, rather than the importance-based systems that drive neurotypicals. It’s not better or worse — we tend to be very creative because of this — just different. To me, it’s mystifying why anyone would choose to keep doing things just because someone else says they are important. But if it’s interesting, then it is important.
Another motivator is novelty. This combines the excitement of starting something new with interest, since new things tend to be more interesting than old things. This could be a reason why so many lawyers have ADHD — law is a field that lets us use many different skills on many different fact patterns. It also suggests one way to make work more interesting may be adding novelty; if the work itself isn’t new maybe you can try working in a different place, or in a different way.
People with ADHD are also motivated by competition and challenge. This is a bit of a mix between the positive emotions of the previous two and the adrenaline rush some people feel when thinking about winning/losing. Competition can make an otherwise boring task interesting, as it provides new factors to be curious about (e.g., can I do this faster or better than I did last time?) and raises the stakes. This also fits well with at least the litigation side of law practice, and may be another reason we’re drawn to legal practice. Again, you can use this to make your work more interesting by adding a challenge or competition element to your work. For example, maybe you can have a friendly competition with someone, or maybe you can think about “beating” your past performance on something. You can also try adding a challenge by thinking about designing a more efficient way to do something, or codifying it into a repeatable list of steps where each time you do it you’re refining your list.
Urgency is another big motivator. If you’re like me, you’re probably very familiar with this one from the nights before papers were due or the nights before deadlines. Unlike the others, this doesn’t rely on positive emotions for motivation. Instead, it’s all about the negative adrenaline rush we get from the anxiety of rushing to get something done. So while it works, it’s usually not sustainable as we crash when we’re done and don’t look forward to the anxiety tornado coming back again. This can be a harder one to work with, since we tend to see through fake deadlines. Still, it may help to create real lower-stakes deadlines. For example, maybe having to update an accountability partner on your work by a certain day provides just enough motivation, without depleting you.
The last motivator is play, which I’ve also seen defined as humor/creativity. This mixes many of the others, as play and humor are often interesting and novel, and often have challenge built in. Here you may find tasks easier to start if you can exercise your creativity, or maybe having co-workers who can joke around with you while you work will make the hours go by faster.
Whatever you choose to do, it’s all about finding the right ways to use these factors to motivate your unique brain. Coaching can help you — click here to book a free introductory call with Sara.
Sara Jeruss JD