Content guidance: Mention of binge eating. Long read (5 mins +)
I’m having a huge dip in motivation at the moment. I don’t even want to do the things I love.
There are only two things that I want to do at the moment: eat junk food and go on holiday. I probably shouldn’t do too much of the former, and the current travel restrictions means a trip abroad is out of the question.
If eating my body weight in Chinese food is not the way forward, how can I get my mojo back and find the drive to do what I need to do?
First of all, we need to look at why motivation is always going to be a challenge for me. It’s a matter of chemistry…
Motivation, dopamine and ADHD
This is dopamine – the elusive molecule!
Everyone struggles with the will to do things at some point in their life. However, if you have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder like me, low motivation is painful and can have a profound impact on your mental health.
Humans have a chemical in their bodies called dopamine. Dopamine plays a role in helping us decide what we want to do and pushing us towards our goals.
The current science tells us that people with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine floating around in the brain. This means we often can’t ‘activate’ to do things…sometimes even things we love.
People who don’t have ADHD find it much easier to do things that they don’t want to do as long as they realise those things are important – either for their own goals or for the goals of other people.
If you have ADHD, you might know full well that something is important and should be done but you won’t do it.
You don’t have enough dopamine in the system to kick start you into action.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms
How do we get stuff done, then? Well, some of us develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. Fear of punishment and fear of shunning seems to work really well for launching ADHDers into action. This is why the ADHD person in your life only takes action when there’s an emergency or a deadline is about to hit.
Operating this way isn’t healthy, however. It’s chaotic and stressful – for us and the people around us. Furthermore, some people with ADHD cope by self-medicating through behaviours that generate the missing dopamine.
For me, this looks like binge eating. Recently, I stopped using Twitter and stopped eating my regular evening large bag of crisps. I went cold turkey on some of my favourite dopamine sources. After a few days, my brain ground to a halt. I couldn’t do…anything.
Work was slow. I didn’t want to talk to people. I couldn’t motivate myself to study topics that I find fascinating. I didn’t understand what was going on. I only knew I felt frustrated and…inert.
I cracked – I ate a huge bag of popcorn
Last night, I cracked. I ate a huge bag of salted and sweet popcorn. As soon as I’d crunched the last morsel, my brain came alive. I physically felt the lights go on. The cogs of my mind began to turn once more.
The act of eating a really stimulating and tasty snack had boosted my brain into action. I did some weights, journalled and tidied my room. Action, at last!
Binge eating to get dopamine is a maladaptive solution, however. That means that it WORKS but that, in the long run, it’s not a good strategy. For me, it really isn’t a good strategy because we have type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol in the family.
I need an ADAPTIVE way to generate dopamine. I need a healthy way to jump start my mojo.
Finding a solution to poor motivation
I’m a member of a couple of ADHD forums so I went to the largest one I know and asked people what to do. The most frequent recommendation I received was to EXERCISE. Now, I do indeed move. I walk three miles every day as part of a virtual exercise challenge. However, I don’t always get my heartrate up.
Vigorous exercise creates dopamine and other nice brain chemicals. To give myself a healthy shot of mojo, I need to increase the challenge of what I’m doing. Flat walking is good…but hill walking in the lush green valley is even better.
This morning, I did a three mile hilly walk – fast. I came back, sat down, and knocked out this blog post in one sitting. Hardly any editing was needed. It’s the most I’ve been able to sit still and do in several days. Vigorous exercise works.
Lists and accountability
What else can I do to get a boost? I am going to resurrect my massive daily to-do lists. Yes, you heard me right: a massive to-do list. Surely that seems counterintuitive… How would that motivate people to do things?
Dopamine helps us to engage in behaviours that are steps towards bigger and bigger goals. Whenever we complete a small step towards a bigger action, we get a boost of dopamine which tells our brain to keep doing the thing!
At the start of the day, take your goals and break them down into the smallest steps possible. Make these steps into a huge tick list. Every time you complete a tiny step, tick the action off the list.
You’ll get a little chemical jolt of dopamine and you’ll be onto your next task before you can even argue with yourself!
The type of daily list that I use
If you want a really big boost of dopamine, tell somebody about your progress.
Let trusted friends and colleagues know where you are at and what you’ve accomplished. I find that this kind of accountability helps me feel driven. It creates an element of challenge.
Talking to others is also a great way to receive feedback. ADHD brains work best with little-and-often rewards. A quick positive comment from someone you care about can be so helpful for spurring us on!
But if that’s not enough…
Treat yourself to some stickers…
If exercise and to-do lists don’t create enough dopamine for you, then get some gorgeous reward stickers and pat yourself on the back with your very own adult reward chart. Why should kids get all the fun? I love the stickers from Smooze.
Not wanting to do things is VERY frustrating. I have a great brain with fantastic and whacky ideas…but I can’t always translate that into action. This can make me feel very depressed at times.
Nevertheless, though it’s hard, it is possible to catch yourself in low motivation and do something about it. Yes, it could take a few days to get back into your groove…but you can’t stay in the doldrums forever.
Time to reflect and take some action
What have you read about in this article that might help you take action? What’s your top tip for motivation? Let me know! I am always looking for new tips to share with fellow neurodivergents.
What could you commit to doing right now to give yourself a healthy boost of dopamine? Give it a go!
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Zest consultant and life engineer @ Zest Academy