There is a ready source of motivation: The neurotransmitters in your brain — and there’s a brain hack that can turn those on.

Motivation. Why is it that sometimes you’re feeling it, and so much of the time you’re just not? And why does our willpower seem to be so short-lived? You get all fired up to jump into a project, the initial novelty wears off, you’re not that fired up any more…and soon it’s just another annoying entry collecting dust on your to-do list.

Of course, we ADHDers are particularly challenged when it comes to motivation. In part due to a low supply of the neurotransmitters that fire up our brains and give us more resilience in the face of flagging willpower — especially on big, complicated tasks: “Dang, I wish I had some of that initial go-get-’em energy. Hey — maybe if I take a break for a minute and just check my TikTok, that energy will come back!”

The Not-So-Effective Sources Of Motivation

There are many sources of motivation — both external and internal. Externally there is of course your looming deadline that’s very motivating at the 11th hour. But that’s not where or when or how you want to get your best creative energies. Fear, guilt and shame are good examples of internal sources, but not very healthy ones.

There’s what I call “rah-rah” motivation — where you or someone else delivers an impassioned pep talk, but research shows this boost doesn’t stick around very long. A similarly undependable source is novelty: How many times have you learned a new thing about procrastination or organization or time management and thought, “Holy cannoli, that is killer! I’m gonna do that!”?

Hopefully that happens a lot because you’re feeding yourself a steady diet of new ideas for improving the quality of your ADHD life. But how many of them are you doing now — as a habit? How many of them will you be doing — as habits — a month from now? A year from now? Don’t beat yourself up about it — fact is, we’re not all Tony Robbins types. And we’re certainly not brainiac machines that just automatically start — and then keep — doing the right things.

As previously mentioned, getting and staying motivated for the long haul doesn’t come naturally or easily for us. A fact explained in part with…

Some Science on ADHD and Motivation

Our will to put new learning into practice and to stay on a given course is far from dependable — in fact, research shows that willpower is very finite over any given period. It’s a fuel that, well, runs out.

Dr. Russell Barkley, an expert on Executive Function in the ADHD brain, talks about the mental skills housed in the frontal lobe that are responsible for things like organization, time management, planning and motivation:

“The frontolimbic circuit is the source of self-motivation. This is where you think about your goals, and it motivates you. It creates a positive motivation mood state. You will use that motivation to sustain action toward it over time — in the absence of external consequences. This is the source of drive, persistence, willpower and stick-to-it-ivenesss. The ability to chart a course, and dog it to death.”

Sounds almost inspiring, doesn’t it?

Alas, he goes on to say that we seem to lack the ability to engage in a self-disciplined, persistent course toward our goals in the absence of external consequences, meaning without some looming threat or other incentive. He says we’re “like a great cruise missile, with a brilliant computer system and a map of the enemy’s terrain — and the fuel tank is empty. The missile sits on the launching pad.”

But! There is a bottomless, available-on-demand source of motivation — a brain hack that turns on the neurotransmitters that fire up your brain to generate energy, resilience and traction toward your goals.

How to Get and Stay Motivated: Nagging Desires

Barkley says we most often “can’t fuel the fuel tanks,” but he also tells us that we can regulate our emotions to provide that fuel. And in my approach, the emotional fuel is desire. Nagging desire. Of which there are two varieties: A negative nag and a positive nag.

A negative nag pushes us out of old habits of the past, like a best friend gently but firmly reminding you that, “Your ex really was a nightmare — you don’t want to go back to that!” And you say, “Yeah, you’re right. Phew. Thanks, man.” Your negative nag should be rooted in the things you despise most about your past or present. Things that generate real emotion.  

In other words, if this is going to be a nagging desire that provides rocket fuel for the long haul, you need to define the aspects of your life that have given you the greatest frustration or pain: maybe it’s slow career advancement, embarrassment, letting others down, not enough quality time with your kids, the elaborate plans to do great things that now mock you as they remain undone.

I’ll tell you just two of my negative nags: I hate that it took me 10 years to finish a four-year degree. And I hate that I pretty much lost an entire decade of my life screwing around (booze, drugs, and worse) and not doing what I was truly capable of doing. Calling those up fires me up.

A positive nag is like a rope tied around your waist, gently but firmly pulling you into the future. A constant tug that reminds you, “I decided to change things because I want to move into a better future — and become the me I always thought I could be.” Maybe it’s spending more time with your kids or attracting an awesome mate. Maybe it’s financial freedom and whatever that might bring that’s important to you. It can be as grand a vision as you like, so long as you know you really want it and believe that it’s possible.

Whether you’ve had any success in the past at doing these things is irrelevant. You’re trying here to create an image of your future and of yourself that is so appealing it stays with you and drives you. Again — it needs to generate excitement and emotion.

A negative push. And a positive pull. These will be different for everybody, but powerful, emotion-driven desire is the common denominator.

Get Motivated to Take These Simple Action Steps

There are two action steps to take if you really want to consolidate this concept in your brain tissues.

  1. Make a list of everything you despise about past missed opportunities. Don’t overthink it — you can always tweak it — cuz the things that will come quickest to your mind will tend to be the biggest, most motivating negative nags.
  2. Next, you need to identify and articulate some of the things you want out of life that may seem unattainable if the status quo holds sway. In other words, have a vision of yourself 2.0.

The clearer your vision of a desired future and the stronger your desire for it, the more meaningful this list will be. Keep both of these lists with you or on your desk or nightstand to be reviewed occasionally — if not daily!

A Closing Quote

I’ll wrap this all up in a nice bow with what I call a Quote You Can Actually Do Something With*…

“Desire is the starting point of all achievement. Weak desires bring weak results, just as a small amount of fire makes a small amount of heat.” – Napoleon Hill

Without desire, nothing happens. Without a burning desire, nothing big happens. We must build a bonfire of intense desire to keep us moving in the right direction. A nagging desire.

And if you’ve got that, whatever’s in your way is yours to CRUSH!

[*I don’t like feel-good quotes. They’re a waste of time, e.g., “The stars shine brightest when it is darkest!” Ugh. I like quotes I can actually do something with — by provoking further exploration, questioning our beliefs, or giving a totally new perspective. I hope this quote fits that bill for you!]



Alan P. Brown, an internationally recognized ADHD/Productivity Coach, TEDx Speaker and #1 Best Selling Author, is the creator of the award-winning ADD Crusher™ ‘virtual coach’ video/audio program for ADHD teens and adults. Follow Alan on Twitter and on Facebook

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