Some people find it difficult to believe that ADHD is real. One reason is that ADHD is inconsistent. Not only does it show up differently in each individual who has it (“If you’ve met one ADDer, you’ve met one ADDer!”), but also it can show up differently in the same individual from day to day and even moment to moment (“If you can do that job so well now, why couldn’t you do that other job just like it yesterday?”)
I have been helped in understanding what is motivating to someone with an ADHD nervous system by the work of Dr. William Dodson. He explains that non-ADDers (he calls them “neurotypicals”) use three different factors in deciding what to do, how to get started, and how to stick with a task through completion:
- the concept of importance (they think they it is important for them to get something done);
- the concept of secondary importance (they are motivated by the fact that someone else thinks it is important for them to get something done);
- the concept of rewards for doing a task or consequences/punishments for not doing it.
In contrast, people with ADHD are not usually able to use the idea of importance or rewards to get started or to complete a task. Their nervous systems allows them to work perfectly when they are in what he calls “the zone,” but that can usually occur only under at least one of four conditions:
- They are interested or intrigued by what they are doing.
- They are challenged or in a competitive environment.
- They are given something new or novel to do.
- The task is urgent – such as a do-or-die deadline.
Dr. Dodson also says that procrastination is a problem for ADDers because they can’t get started on their work unless one of those four factors is present—the task has to be interesting, challenging, novel, or urgent.
ADDers can use Dr. Dodson’s information to try to create conditions of interest, challenge, novelty, or urgency in situations where they need to get started or finished with a project. It may not work every time, but I have seen it work. In any case, I find it very useful to understand the importance of those four conditions in helping an ADDer get into his or her “zone.”
This has also helped me to understand the inconsistency that people observe in ADDers’ behavior. When one task looks just like another task, an observer may not understand why the ADDer is highly successful in one but fails miserably in the other. What they don’t understand is that one of those tasks was highly interesting to the ADDer, and the other was neither interesting, challenging, novel, or urgent, so the results were completely different. This isn’t a matter of choice. It’s the way an ADDers brain works.