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How the Reward System in ADHD Affects Motivation

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How the Reward System in ADHD Affects Motivation

We all struggle with motivation from time to time, and we all benefit from seeing rewards for our behaviors or actions when we are trying to achieve goals or make lifestyle changes.

A woman is standing in her home surrounded by a mess. There is a bucket next to her feet filled with cleaning supplies. On the floor there are clothes and dirty dishes.

What sets you apart if you have ADHD is how much a reward system can impact your ability to get going or to stick with a project. An ADHD brain is not as easily adaptable as a non-ADHD brain; what might stimulate a non-ADHD brain can go almost unregistered to someone with ADHD. ADHD brains also lack sufficient dopamine levels, which means that any behavior that causes dopamine to surge will strongly appeal to you if you have ADHD. The downside is that any behavior that doesn’t create an increase in dopamine might as well cease to exist.

When you have ADHD and struggle with motivation, an underutilized, misunderstood, or non-existent reward system may have something to do with it! A Reward System is a vital part of functioning, as it supports discipline and behavioral modifications necessary to keep moving, keep trying, or start in the first place. These systems can motivate desirable behaviors and play an integral part in continuing motivation. When key aspects of the reward system are underactive in ADHD brains, it makes it challenging to derive rewards from ordinary activities.

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We see many people for ADHD treatment here at our therapy practice in Woodland Hills who speak about the pain and shame of feeling physically unable to complete mundane tasks or start something they really want to start. Many people who grow up unaware of their ADHD feel “lazy” or out of step with their peers who seem to have no struggle accomplishing everything on their lists. It can be discouraging and stressful to know what needs to be done but find that starting or finishing a project is almost impossible.

3 Motivation Issues when you have ADHD

1) Inability to focus on important tasks:
Individuals with ADHD struggle to focus on one thing for an extended period of time if it is not stimulating them in the proper way. This can cause issues in completing important daily tasks for these individuals, negatively impacting their career and personal life. As soon as the dopamine begins to drop, a person with ADHD will reach for anything that will stimulate the brain again: a puzzle, a game, or social media. Something that is immediately engaging has far more appeal than slogging it out through a tedious task.

2) Mood swings and/or heightened emotions: We can all relate to how hard it can be to accomplish something when you don’t feel strong and positive. ADHD can cause heightened emotions such as

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increased anxiety, anger, and/or low self-esteem. One’s emotional state can exacerbate the lack of motivation to pursue a task or overwhelm the person so that they can’t focus on anything else.

3) Difficulty with prioritizing:

For people with ADHD, all tasks can seem equally important, creating stress in organizing their activities and deciding where to start. This can occur when all tasks stimulate an equal chemical response, such as a list of chores. It can also occur because of the interconnectedness of the ADHD brain; to begin a task, you must first make space, which is another task, but where to put what you moved is another task, and so on and so on. It’s like a ball of yarn where every task on the list has to happen for one to happen. It becomes difficult for people with ADHD to decide which task is important and which one can wait.

3 Ways to Improve Motivation in ADHD

1) Create a reward system:

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If you have been diagnosed with ADHD since childhood, you probably have many memories of having charts with stickers to help you track your progress and earn rewards. It may seem like we are asking you to use a child-like tool here, but consider the importance of giving yourself a reward. If you remember the chart, you probably also remember how satisfying it was to watch those charts fill up with stickers. Tracking progress, marking achievements, and celebrating are all positive lifelong habits that help us achieve our goals and feel good about our work.

By creating your reward system, we ask you to identify pleasurable activities or experiences that you would gift to yourself only after completing certain tasks, either daily or weekly. However, you want to track your habits is up to you; maybe you even want to bring the sticker chart back! Maybe you want to make a digital chart. A monthly BINGO card with a series of tasks you want to achieve; a reward for each line, for an X, and for the whole card. If you want to make sure you attend one yoga class per week, that’s four or five of your monthly squares right there. Do you want to read a book a month? That’s another. Why not enjoy the process of going through the process?

The way an ADHD brain perceives rewards is different from a non-ADHD brain. ADHD brains need stronger and more frequent rewards in order to register the positive impact. This means that mild rewards and/or rewards that come at the end of a long buildup aren’t useful for an ADHD brain. Behavioral rewards – such as music, exercise, sex, food, and competition – have been shown to increase dopamine production. The trouble is that high-risk behaviors such as gambling, risky sex, physical risk-taking like reckless driving, and opiates amplify dopamine even more. They also reduce serotonin, the chemical that regulates impulse control. Creating a reward system means making space for rewards that serve and nurture you, as opposed to leaving gaps where the compulsive options are accessible and easier to reach for.

Your reward system should reinforce that you are deserving of your rewards. The feelings of low self-esteem that can accompany ADHD are common. A lot of that stems from being misunderstood by others and “punished” in formative years for needing a different process to achieve things. Your rewards should be fun and reflect who you are and what you value. You need not apologize for how you choose to reward yourself or why those rewards are effective for you. The important thing is that they work.

2) Use visualization to activate your reward system:

Most of our clients with ADHD report back to us that when they complete a task, they don’t often feel a sense of positive emotions such as pride or confidence but often feel a sense of embarrassment

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that it took them so long to accomplish this one task. They also report feeling a sense of shame that their delay in completing a task caused disruption in their relationships with others, such as coworkers or family members. It can be discouraging, to say the least, to feel negative emotions in response to achieving something! And rightly so!
In response to this, in therapy, we guide our clients to engage in a visualization exercise where they re-write what it could feel like to finish a task that embarks more positive emotions. We have seen that when one is visualizing and therefore anticipates experiencing more positive emotions, they are more motivated and likely to complete a task. They are also more able to experience those positive emotions when the task is done. We human beings like familiar patterns and predictable situations. When you expect a positive response to doing something and take the time to visualize how that will look to you, it is far easier to do so than live that experience.

Outside of visualizing more positive emotional reactions to your achievements, you can also visualize how the pursuit of your goals will look. You are picturing how you will feel, what the results will be, and the different paths you might take to get where you want to go. When you visualize, you also strategize. Determining what might occur allows you to problem-solve it in advance.

Don’t get too hung up on imagining all the ways something can go wrong. Visualize as if there are no obstacles. What steps do you need to take to achieve your goal? Break it down into a process. Determine where you will do this work and visualize that space. If possible, visualize what is in your control: what you will wear, which candle you will put next to you and the light, and which lamp you will turn on. Visualize as many actionable steps as possible, and allow yourself to experience feelings of happiness and pride accompanying accomplishments.
Because your ADHD can cause you to feel intense emotions, try to create and visualize the calmest and safest environment possible. There is no guarantee of avoiding triggers in this life; where you have the choice of where to be and with whom to surround yourself, choose what is most likely to bring you peace and stability.

3) Lean on your values to guide your motivation and focus:

Did you know that most people would rather avoid pain than pursue pleasure? That is how strong fear is; a guaranteed neutral is more appealing than trying for something we want that could possibly have a negative outcome. This means that most of the time, we are driven by our fears and not our values. Therefore, identifying our values can be a great compass in deciding what to focus on and turning our thoughts away from fear. Allowing our minds to become absorbed with fear is not productive or beneficial.

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When you consider your values, you are able to see how they connect to rewards. The reward system we are trying to utilize here is not the reward of “avoiding pain” – we want the reward to be bigger and better than that. What is most important to you at any given time? What does a reward that relates to that value look like?

For example, if your highest priority is your family, and you value being a dependable and contributing member of your family, you can promise yourself a reward to do with them. Your first thought might be that you want to be able to spend quality time with them. You might even take it further to come up with special ideas for outings or activities you can all participate in together. Where does making time for your family fit into your current schedule? The great thing about your ADHD brain is that you are probably used to letting deadlines motivate you. Usually, this means that you procrastinate until the last possible minute, then make it happen for yourself. But what if you decided to create a time crunch by making plans with a loved one? Say you have three household chores you want to get done. You realize they’ll probably take an hour to complete, but you can’t make yourself start. What if you give yourself between an hour and an hour and a half to get them done, and if you achieve it, you’re going for dinner with your loved one? Now, all of a sudden, there is a reward that creates a deadline. And this reward aligns with your value of family time.

Sometimes, your awareness of your values will be used as a tool to sit yourself down and have a talk with yourself about what you are trying to do and why. This kind of approach only works if you are able to increase stimulation for yourself on your task; bullying yourself is not the answer. Don’t let your value system become another reason to berate yourself. Always seek ways to combine your values with your ADHD toolkit. Bring in visualization and reward and apply them to what is most important to you. Find ways to connect as many mundane tasks and activities with your value system as you can. Recruit a support network to cheer you on!

The reward system in ADHD affects motivation in a major way. Your brain doesn’t want to achieve mundane tasks for you, which leaves you relying on the adrenaline of last-minute work to get things done. It is important to remember that your brain’s dependency on stimulation isn’t all bad. When you are engaged with something, your ADHD can be your superpower! Yes, hyperfocus can also have negative consequences. This is why we use tools to motivate an ADHD brain to complete tasks that don’t offer a dopamine reward and also tools to keep us from forgetting to eat, attend appointments, or engage with other important factors of our lives. The great news is that we do have these tools. They take practice and support, and that is out there. Whether you utilize a therapist, connect with others online or in person, or both, you are able to create more success and happiness for yourself if you put in the time and effort to create and maintain your own techniques. Be consistent with them and gracious with yourself.

Let’s Work on Managing Your ADHD Together Here At Embracing You Therapy 

ADHD Treatment isn’t just about learning better time, stress, and/or task management skills, but also about improving your relationship with yourself. Because we know that challenges with ADHD can take a toll on your self-esteem, goals, and relationships. ADHD treatment can help to befriend your ADHD and we are here to work together. Contact us today for your complimentary 20-minute phone consultation with our Client Care Coordinator.

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