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ADHD and Dopamine: Five ways to increase task motivation

Updated: May 28

You’ve been here for too long, but you can’t seem to pull yourself away. Slumped on the couch, scrolling through Instagram, you reach the end of your notifications and hit explore. Maybe you’ll find something here. You can’t even really explain what you’re looking for. It’s 2:00 PM, you’re supposed to be getting back to work, but you feel like you need something more than editing spreadsheets. “Come on!” you tell yourself. “It's only another two hours. We can do this!". Your body refuses to budge, and you continue to scroll away.


You might have heard that ADHD affects motivation. You might also have been frustrated at being labelled lazy or seeing another ADHDer get that label when you know how much you're trying. And you'd be right. ADHD can't simply be discussed as a lack of motivation or indolence. Instead, it is often described as difficulty with dopamine regulation (Tripp & Wickens).


Dopamine is a neurochemical associated with rewards [1], [2]. When functioning in a neurotypical brain, dopamine is part of a system that provides a surge of pleasure or good feeling, motivating and reinforcing completing a task. But, when operating in an ADHD brain, this process is disrupted [1], [2]. Academics are not yet clear on exactly why ADHD brains differ. Possibilities include differences in our dopamine receptors, the dopamine (DAT1), or differences in parts of the brain itself [3]–[6]. But essentially, what these observed differences have resulted in is a general understanding that people with ADHD do not seem to receive the same positive feeling and reinforcement for task completion compared to neurotypicals [2]. This might be why the phrase, "you'll feel better once you've done it," doesn't always work for us.


So what can we do about these dopamine differences? Not feeling as good about completing tasks can definitely affect motivation. One of the solutions proposed by Tivers [7], and expanded on by McCabe [8], is to create a list of things you enjoy, which can act as external sources of pleasure and reward. This can be set out like a menu you use to support your dopamine when you don't feel the same sense of reward as neurotypicals. Below I've outlined each part of the menu and which type of dopamine they include. I've also included some examples to get you started and space below to fill in your own. Have a try and don't forget to choose things you enjoy. Sometimes our guilty pleasure activities or special interests are the best rewards.


1. Starters

These activities give you a quick boost or help you get motivated to begin a task. If you read about the get-in-focus routine, you will see that we begin with this starter dopamine. Options include:

  • Making a beverage

  • Watching a YouTube video

  • Reading a magazine

  • Doing sudoku or a small puzzle

  • Colouring

2. Mains

These are the activities that really help you go from bored to engaged. Like the main meal, it should leave you feeling satisfied but not overstuffed. Options include:

  • Watching your favourite movie or TV show

  • Doing a craft activity (ideally, in an area you can permanently set up for that)

  • Playing a game (alone or with friends)

  • Going to a coffee shop or other regular events

  • Engaging in movement you enjoy. For example, dance practice or a walk

  • Reading a book in a hammock

3. Sides

These are activities you can do while completing a boring task. We talk about these a lot in ADHD coaching as they can be a helpful way to help keep you stimulated. Examples include:

  • Listening to music or white noise

  • Listening to a podcast on a topic of interest

  • Using a fidget toy

  • Chewing gum

4. Dessert

Desserts are probably what comes to mind when you first think of dopamine. They are items that provide an easy rush of stimulation but aren't going to be good for you if you use them all the time. Examples include:

  • Social media

  • Phone games

  • Sweets or actual dessert foods

  • Online shopping

5. Specials

Specials are events you might do as a once-off. While they can be very stimulating, like desserts, it's good not to rely on them. Not only can that make it difficult to complete tasks, which needs sides or starters, there is some evidence that our brains don't always view these specials as rewards for a job well done, but more as isolated events[2]. Examples include:

  • Going to a concert

  • Going on a holiday

  • Making a large purchase


Hopefully, this article provides you with a better understanding of what dopamine is and how you can add more to your day. Take a look at the dopamenu image below and see if you can add some more of your activities to this list. Remember that although it can sometimes feel like you don't deserve these activities, you do! Your brain is set up differently, and you ought to have the same feelings of positive reward as neurotypicals throughout the day. So print out your menu, add some tasks, and get started!


Talk to you next week.

Skye.


P.S.  Whenever you’re ready... here are 4 ways we can help you reach your goals with ADHD:


1. Download our free How to Set Goals With ADHD Playbook

It’s a step-by-step guide to finding focus and direction in a way designed for your ADHD brain – Click Here


2. Join the ADHD/ADD Strategies Support Group and connect with other ADHD adults trying to reach their goals

It’s our Facebook community where enthusiastic ADHD adults learn to build more focus, proactive momentum, and consistency. — Click Here


3. Join our Goals Achieved with ADHD Academy and start ticking off tasks.

If you're an ADHD professional with a goal you’d like to achieve within the next few months, we are currently working with a few of you to go from overwhelmed to focused and reach your goals - with only 30 minutes a week invested. If you'd like to reach your goal this month, book a free Get Focused Session – Click Here


4. Work with Skye Privately in Executive Coaching

If you’d like to work directly with me to help you take fast action on some of your biggest goals, click here to tell me a little about your goal and what you’d like to work on together. – Click Here



References

[1] S. DiMaio, N. Grizenko, and R. Joober, 'Dopamine genes and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: A review', J. Psychiatry Neurosci., vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 27–38, 2003.

[2] G. Tripp and J. R. Wickens, 'Neurobiology of ADHD', Neuropharmacology, vol. 57, no. 7–8, pp. 579–589, Dec. 2009, doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2009.07.026.

[3] N. del Campo et al., 'A positron emission tomography study of nigro-striatal dopaminergic mechanisms underlying attention: implications for ADHD and its treatment', Brain, vol. 136, no. 11, pp. 3252–3270, Nov. 2013, doi: 10.1093/brain/awt263.

[4] X. Castells et al., 'Efficacy of Methylphenidate for Adults with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder', CNS Drugs, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 157–169, Feb. 2011, doi: 10.2165/11539440-000000000-00000.

[5] D. D. Dougherty, A. A. Bonab, T. J. Spencer, S. L. Rauch, B. K. Madras, and A. J. Fischman, 'Dopamine transporter density in patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder', The Lancet, vol. 354, no. 9196, pp. 2132–2133, Dec. 1999, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(99)04030-1.

[6] T. Kasparek, P. Theiner, and A. Filova, 'Neurobiology of ADHD From Childhood to Adulthood: Findings of Imaging Methods', J. Atten. Disord., vol. 19, no. 11, pp. 931–943, Nov. 2015, doi: 10.1177/1087054713505322.

[7] E. Tivers, 128: How to ADHD with Jessica McCabe. [Online Video]. Available: https://www.adhdrewired.com/jessica-mccabe-how-to-adhd/

[8] J. McCabe, How to Give Your Brain the Stimulation It Needs, (May 27, 2020). [Online Video]. Available: https://youtu.be/-6WCkTwW6xg

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Guest
Nov 20, 2023

how do you prevent this from leading to a spiral of procrastination?

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Guest
Jun 09, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Finally a recommendation of tasks that acutally help the ADHD brain!! I'm sick of all the "eat healthy meals", "excercise regularly" and "get enough sleep" (my favorite..). Don't get me wrong, those are absolutely important, but are hard to maintain and sometimes you need instant help and just going to sleep is off the table when I'm at work xD I always felt bad for my habits, which are listed in this article, because people never understood how this helps me work. No I feel less bad, so thank you !

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Guest
Aug 17, 2022

I don't understand how to use these. Am I supposed to do these things after a task to trick my brain into feeling rewarded?

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Guest
Oct 12, 2023
Replying to

Great comment! I'm using this reply to get started on my actual task :)


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