The topic of motivation often comes up when dealing with the issue of follow-through on plans. Many adults with ADHD may aspire to achieve a goal (e.g., exercise) or get through an unavoidable obligation (e.g., exam, paying bills), but fall prey to an apparent lack of motivation, despite their best intentions. This situation reminds us of a quote attributed to the late fitness expert, Jack LaLanne, who at the age of 93 was quoted as saying, “I’m feeling great and I still have sex almost every day. Almost on Monday, almost on Tuesday . . .”
Returning to the executive dysfunction view of ADHD, motivation is defined as the ability to generate an emotion about a task that promotes follow-through in the absence of immediate reward or consequence (and often in the face of some degree of discomfort in the short-term). Said differently, motivation is the ability to make yourself “feel like” doing the task when there is no pressing reason to do so. Thus, you will have to find a way to make yourself feel like exercising before you achieve the results you desire or feel like studying for a midterm exam that is still several days away. You “know” logically that these are good ideas, but it is negative feelings (including boredom) or lack of feelings about a task that undercut your attempts to get started. In fact, one of the common thinking errors exhibited by adults with ADHD when procrastinating is the magnification of emotional discomfort associated with starting a task usually coupled with a minimization of the positive feelings associated with it.
Adults with ADHD experience the double whammy of having greater difficulty generating positive emotions (i.e., motivation) needed to get engaged in tasks and greater difficulty inhibiting the allure of more immediate distractions, including those that provide an escape from discomfort. In fairness, from a developmental standpoint, adults with ADHD have often experienced more than their fair share of frustrations and setbacks with regard to many important aspects of their lives. Hence, our experience has been that various life responsibilities and duties have become associated with a degree of stress and little perceived reward, which magnifies the motivational challenges already faced by ADHD adults.
We have adopted the metaphor of food poisoning to illustrate how one’s learning history due to ADHD creates barriers to the pursuit of valued personal goals. Food poisoning involves ingesting some sort of tainted food. It is an adaptive response that your brain and digestive system notice the presence of a toxin in the body and react with feelings of nausea and rapid expulsion of said toxin through diarrhea, vomiting, or both. Even after you have fully recuperated and have figured out that you had food poisoning, the next time you encounter that same food item, even before it reaches your lips, the sight and smell of the food will reactivate protective feelings of nausea due to the previous association of the stimulus (i.e., the food) with illness and discomfort. You can make all the intellectual arguments about your safety, and obtain assurances that the food is untainted, but your body will have this initial aversive reaction, regardless. It takes progressive exposure to untainted morsels of the food (sometimes mixing it in with “safe” food, in extreme cases) in order to break the food poisoning association.
Similarly, in the course of your efforts to establish and maintain good habits for managing ADHD, you will encounter some tasks that elicit discomfort despite knowing the value of the task at hand. Therefore, it is essential to be able to manufacture motivation, just enough of it, in order to be able to shift out of avoidance and to take a “taste” of the task that you are delaying.
J. Russell Ramsay (The Adult ADHD Tool Kit)