top of page

ADHD and Dopamine: Five ways to increase task motivation

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

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.


Feeling stuck and want to develop effective ADHD strategies?

Click here to book a free 20-minute consultation with Skye.

We are a team of coaches who have lived experience of ADHD and are passionate about providing you with strength-based, research-backed ADHD strategies and support.

Or click here to find more ADHD resources.


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

<