The link between ADHD and motivation is complex, involving the brain’s reward systems as well as an individual’s core psychological needs.

Motivation is what moves you to action, and it’s the driving force behind goal-related activities. Not everyone has the same level of motivation or motivation to do the same things.

When you live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), your motivation may differ from neurotypical people, but that doesn’t mean you’re unmotivated.

There are reasons why motivation deficits are seen in ADHD, and none of the reasons have to do with laziness or a careless mindset.

ADHD seems to be linked to specific types of motivation deficits but not the complete absence of motivation. There are three primary types of motivation: intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation.

Intrinsic motivation comes from your internal interests and desires (personal satisfaction). Extrinsic motivation is influenced by the presence of an external reward or benefit.

Amotivation is the absence of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation.

2021 research suggests people living with ADHD score higher on amotivation and extrinsic motivation and lowest on intrinsic motivation. These scores may reflect the fact that children with ADHD require a greater incentive to change their behavior and may find postponing gratification challenging.

Research from 2020 has also found that children living with ADHD may have lower academic motivation in all three types of motivation compared with neurotypical children. Additionally, the gap between students with and without ADHD is greatest for intrinsic motivation.

In other words, the research suggests that children who live with ADHD may need greater and more immediate stimuli to feel motivated.

What is ADHD task paralysis?

ADHD task paralysis, also known as “ADHD freeze,” is a state of overwhelm that can come when you need to get something done.

Dr. Jacques Ambrose, psychiatrist and senior medical director at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, explains that, for people living with ADHD, task paralysis is like suddenly feeling stuck.

“For individuals with ADHD a simple task can seem very daunting and requires a lengthy thought process,” he said.

Ambrose adds that a seemingly straightforward task can end up being viewed as an overwhelming series of steps when you live with ADHD.

Cleaning your room, for example, may turn into:

  • I need to find time to do this.
  • I then need to assess the cleanliness of the room.
  • I must pick where to start cleaning.
  • I must decide which items to clean first.
  • I found some dirty clothes, so I must stop cleaning and put them in the washer.
  • These pants are clean, so I must stop cleaning and fold them and put them away.

When suddenly faced with so many steps, you may feel frozen in place and unable to start at all.

From the outside, task paralysis can appear as procrastination or a lack of motivation when it’s really a state of psychological overwhelm.

From a physiological standpoint, the motivation deficits in ADHD can be linked to altered brain structure and function.

“Imaging studies seem to suggest that there may be differences in frontal-cortical regions and neural networks for individuals with ADHD,” said Ambrose. “These brain differences correlate with some of the executive functioning tasks, such as selective attention, planning, decision making, and motivation-related pathways.”

He points out that children living with ADHD appear to have unique reward system processes, preferring small and immediate rewards, for example, compared with larger but delayed incentives.

Dr. Tiffany Gishizky, a board certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner from Mindpath Health in Denver, Colorado, said that dopamine, a neurotransmitter critical to behavior reinforcement, may account for some of the motivational differences.

“ADHD brains have a baseline deficit in the neurotransmitter dopamine,” she said. “Amongst other things, dopamine is our ‘reward center’ in the brain and is therefore increased when we are engaged in something that is interesting or pleasurable.”

Not getting tasks done isn’t always related to motivation, either. Ambrose explains many of the core symptoms of ADHD, such as distractibility and impulse control, can directly interfere with completing tasks.

The role of self-determination theory

Self-determination theory is a framework developed to help explore the broader concepts of motivation.

The theory states that motivation is fueled by how well you can satisfy three basic psychological needs:

  • autonomy
  • relatedness
  • competence

According to a 2022 study, motivation levels in people living with ADHD are also improved when their needs of autonomy (feeling you have a choice), relatedness (feeling connected to others and a sense of belonging), and competence (mastery or successfulness in your activity) are met.

For people living with ADHD, meeting these needs may require different approaches than those needed to motivate a neurotypical person, especially in classroom settings where learning takes place under a universal structure.

More research is needed to understand how meeting the three basic psychological needs in children living with ADHD may increase motivation.

Improving motivation for people living with ADHD can come through two important adjustments that take ADHD’s underlying features into account: task restructuring and task enjoyment.

“If someone with ADHD is having difficulties with accomplishing school or work-related tasks, it can be helpful to break the tasks into multiple, smaller steps, with more frequent check-ins for support,” said Ambrose.

Gishizky recommends adding an element of fun to seemingly boring tasks, such as listening to music or turning the task into a game.

What motivates the ADHD brain?

Because external rewards are highly motivational for many people living with ADHD, adding small, frequent incentives may help you maintain your motivation.

In addition to rewards, external pressures may have a similar effect. Gishisky said creating pressure around a task can help increase motivation to get it done.

“This [external pressure] can come in the form of concrete deadlines that you set for yourself,” she said.

Depression and anxiety disorders are examples of other conditions that can cause symptoms that affect motivation.

According to Gishizky, the primary indication that lack of motivation is specific to ADHD is that motivation deficits are present regardless of mood symptoms.

If a lack of motivation is related to a condition such as depression, it tends to improve when you’re not in a depressive episode.

In general, signs that your lack of motivation is related to ADHD may include:

  • feeling primarily motivated by external stimuli
  • preferring small, frequent rewards to larger, delayed benefits
  • experiencing task paralysis
  • shying away from complex, lengthy, or seemingly boring tasks
  • motivation deficits present regardless of mood changes

Living with ADHD doesn’t mean you’re lazy or unmotivated. Different brain processes and unmet psychological needs may make motivation look different for people living with ADHD.

Focused approaches that make tasks extrinsically rewarding and reduce complexity can help improve motivation in ADHD.

Because ADHD can co-occur with conditions such as depression, speaking with a mental health professional may be an important step in understanding the origins of motivation deficits.