How to help an ADHD brain to do things

All brains have a harder time initiating action without reward. And by reward, I don't mean treats and stickers, I mean neurochemical rewards. And by neurochemical rewards, we're talking dopamine.




Dopamine gives us that feeling of completeness or done-ness. It's not necessarily pleasure (that's what seratonin and oxytocin are for), it just resolution. When we are motivated or compelled to do something, it's usually because our brain wants a little hit of dopamine. If we do something for the first time and it fires dopamine, we'll want to do it again. It's how we learn. It's a vital part of the neurochemical mix contributing to drive, achievement, learning, motivation, and consistency.


However some brains are especially dopamine dependent when it comes to motivation, and for those brains it can be difficult to get anything done unless there's a neurochemical pay off. For this reason, people with ADHD tend to find tasks that are new, interesting, or urgent much easier to do. Other things, no matter how desired the outcome is, can be just plain impossible to get started on. Even if there will be a dopamine payoff in the future, it's probably not immediate enough to produce motivation.


For this reason, we need strategies that work with this particular motivation style. Say goodbye to the 'normal' (read: neurotypical) ways to do things. Instead we can get creative, use specific tools, and work toward finding just the thing that will manipulate dopamine in order to get things done. Contrary to popular belief (and what it may sometimes feel like), this cognitive style is not always a liability. We just need to be prepared to be creative, and to shift strategies regularly to keep it fresh.


Here are a few common motivation issues, and some suggested strategies. This list is by no means exhaustive. Consider it a start, and perhaps it will inspire some unique strategies of your own.


Problem: I keep putting things off


Try:

  • Make a habit of starting every day with your task prepped - ie. computer set up and on, bottle of water, notebook out etc. Even if you have no intention of working that day, set it up. The mood may strike. The same goes for any kind of task - gym, craft, cleaning. Prep for it early. It eliminates a step and makes it more likely you'll do it, maybe even as a distraction from something else.

  • Accountability can help. Try scheduling 50min sessions with focusmate. I've tried it, and it may seem strange at first but it's amazing and it works at keeping you accountable and on task. It utilises the principal of 'body doubling', and it's not limited to desk work - people use focusmate for all kinds of tasks. Sometimes just having someone there at a prescribed time can not only get you going, but help you stay on task.

  • Set a rewards list for each milestone (ie. a certain number of pages written, tasks completed, jobs done). Pre-write the milestone list and make the rewards desirable- ie. buy something online, go do something, minutes of rest, pages of reading, whatever is appealing. Keep it up on a wall in front of you, or posted on a door that you use daily. Don't hide it in a book or in your phone.

  • Find a planner/scheduling tool that works for you and your brain. I use this electronic to-do list that is customisable and changeable and can also be used for planning, or otherwise use a diary or paper planner (if you prefer paper, I recommend planners that have the week down one side and a blank page down the other side for a to-do list, like this one). But you have to find what works for you. Here's the hot tip though - only schedule the things that can't budge (appointments, deadlines) and then list all of the other tasks that need to be done. Group by the tasks by subject, or project or whatever works, and pop an estimated duration beside each task. Which then brings us to...


Problem: I never stick to my plan


Try:

  • Quit writing 'my perfect week' plans, ie. every week I will go to the gym on Monday afternoons, write on Tuesdays and Thursdays, do this on this day etc etc. Perfect weeks are never perfect, something always comes up, then the whole utility of the plan is out the window so there's no chance of sticking to it. Instead, only plan one thing. Plan a 'planning session' at the beginning of each day. Then in that hour, sit down at your computer or notebook, look at the day and week and think about what's on. What events, what are likely to be low energy/ high energy days. Slot in self-care exercise. Then schedule your tasks. Revisit it each day, based on the particular circumstances of that period. Use some of the suggestions from this list when scheduling the working blocks.

  • If you never work for hours at a time, don't expect that to change just because you have the time free. You're probably better off scheduling shorter blocks. Think of what you tend to do, rather that what you'd like to do.

  • You will do more if the system is varied, if you're not a routine person so don't expect yourself to be one even if it feels good to imagine sticking to a routine. If you use some techniques one week and others the next week, that's ok. Don't aim for the safety of same-same, try to let that go.


Problem: I am paralysed by perfection, and it puts me off starting


Try:

  • Try scheduling some sprints. Set at least some (but not too much!) of your work time as sprints. When working in a sprint, stick to these rules:

  • set a timer (15-20mins is good to start, keep it short),

  • no editing/formatting/distractions checking mail. It must be strictly task-focused only - stream of consciousness style. Just work, stay on task.

  • if you reach a block which requires a call, or question or some research - write it down for later. Continue with the task only.

  • For writing tasks (reports, content etc) try schedule editing and revising time separately to writing time. Sometimes it's easier to work up the motivation to edit words that are already down, as opposed to writing them. Keep sprints and edits as two separate tasks in your head, resist the urge to do both at once.

  • Tell yourself the goal is to just to do the thing badly. Write a crappy draft. Put together a rough plan. Do a half-assed attempt, clean up a little bit. Often it's easier to initiate a task when your expectation is lower. Throw away the expectation of perfection, leave that for the 2nd or 3rd look over.


Problem: I'm not consistent


Try:

  • Set a low-cost daily minimum threshold. The key is to make it so low-cost you wont avoid it. Start with 10mins. Commit to do 10mins each day, set a timer, when the 10mins mins is up you can stop, guilt free. It's not hard to make yourself do 10 minutes of most things, even if it's the LAST thing you feel like doing. If you're on a roll and feel like going, go for gold, but absolutely no guilt if it's just the 10mins. Do enough of these and you'll start receiving little dopamine payoffs that can build momentum and motivation.

  • Visual timers are amazing. Try one like this.

  • Track your streaks. If the goal is to do something daily, put up a small whiteboard with a mark for each consecutive day you do, and note your current 'longest streak' on the side. Make it visual.

  • Similar to above, use a habit tracker if you think it will help. Something like this.

  • If the things you want to do really don't feel all that rewarding no matter how you hard you try to hack the system, then try attaching tasks to things you already do. At some point you get up in the morning, so trying finding something you can do daily directly after waking up. Something else can be attached to teeth brushing (medication is a good one for this). When you get in the door of an afternoon or evening, have a set of things you do before anything else. Essentially you're building on a habit you already have in order to do the things that don't muster up much motivation even at the best of times. Start with one thing and build.

Hopefully some of the above helps. But do not try it all at once! Trying something new each week will give an ADHD brain more novelty. Try rotating strategies as soon as the novelty wears off. Good luck :)


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Article author:

Elizabeth Talbot

Clinical Psychologist

B Psych (Hons), M Psych (Clin), MAPS


Elizabeth Talbot is a Clinical Psychologist and the Principal Psychologist at Clinical Therapy. Whilst Elizabeth enjoys her clinical work, she is also a lover of behavioural science and has a keen research interest in the psychology of decision making, moral reasoning, cognitive biases, magical thinking, and conspiratorial beliefs.

Content note: Unless otherwise labelled, all blog posts are intended as discussion pieces, and are not academic texts. Articles pertaining to research or making an academic argument will be labelled as such and include supporting evidence/references. All examples (including client names) are fictitious, to illustrate a point, and are not based on actual clients.