Reward Systems

Apr. 15th, 2019


Motivation is hard.

Reward system sections:

  • Record of work
  • Record of reward currency
  • List of things desired

Motivation is a tricky subject for human beings and as with everything it is even more so with ADHD. There seems to be a very small, and wildly shifting, list of things any given person with ADHD really genuinely wants to do in any given moment. Things almost never on that list include literally anything that helps someone function as an adult, such as housework or paperwork. If those tasks are routine, and therefore even more boring, left to our own devices, individuals with ADHD will typically do everything we can think of before we do that stuff. Hence the propensity for chaos in physical spaces, procrastination, and feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.

The other problem is that chaos, procrastination, and negative feelings do not motivate us very well. Certainly, time crunches and other emergencies often give us the spark our brains need to activate on tasks but overwhelm and anxiety often do the opposite. These can shut us down and make us seek even more frantically for any distraction from them.

So, what is motivating to those with ADHD?

This is both a difficult and easy question to answer. The difficulty lies in the fact that everyone is different and therefore there is no blanket answer. This is why it is also easy. Unless depression or some other problem is interfering, most people can easily point to things they want, like, and look forward to. These are the things that motivate us.

I’m reminded of a social media post I saw that said “Serotonin and Dopamine. Technically the only two things you enjoy.”

The belief that a certain action will produce positive neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine is one way to define motivation. We naturally want to do things that make us feel good. And housework and paperwork just do not. And furthermore, the knowledge that doing them will avoid pain or discomfort or even produce a positive result in the future isn’t good enough. That is “not now” and rarely feels real to the ADHD brain. For more on ADHD and time, see this blog post.

I have created a system (one of many in my life) to increase my motivation to do business tasks. This is one of those things that just does not feel real. Yes, putting my business up on a directory will mean more people will find me and as a result, I will be able to support those people in managing their ADHD better. That does not motivate me when I am staring at a blank form. I need a little more persuading.

Something that has been super effective in persuading me to do things like that is geek tee shirts. I once saw a tee shirt at a convention that was the Jurassic Park logo, but instead, the words read “Clever Girl” and the image was of a velociraptor. I remembered that tee for years and I got many hours of motivation to work out of the plan to purchase it for myself. Same with my “Wakanda Forever” shirt, the list of Dungeons and Dragons ability score shirt, and the “Maximum Effort” Deadpool shirt. Heart eyes emoji.

My system is a bit more complex than simply promising myself something for working. That wouldn’t be enough for me because it is far too vague. I decided what my time earns (currently one minute of work earns one particle of stardust, but a friend’s reward system is pirate doubloons), I keep track of how much time I spend working, and I decide how much each reward “costs” in work. My current reward goal is the first book in the Cat Who mystery series and it costs 3,000 stardust, which is 50 hours of work. This way I can track my progress toward my goal. I’m currently at 1,074 out of that 3,000.

I also give myself bonus stardust if I’m feeling particularly reluctant to do something. The friend who uses doubloons gives herself a few doubloons every time she starts working, no matter what, because activation is so difficult for us. I often use stardust to motivate myself to get up and out of bed, to end a shower, or to do a particularly disliked chore. Any time my motivation is flagging I can use bonus stardust to bolster it.

The difference between the feeling of beating myself up in order to do a task and getting excited about earning a reward cannot be overstated. I’ve also noticed that decreasing the amount I bully myself has improved my chronic, stress-related stomach condition. My reward system is a way I show myself kindness and bring joy into my life.

Other rewards I’ve used: adding to my collection of Mjolnir pendants, new D&D dice, expensive or unhealthy food I want to reduce eating but not eliminate (candy, gluten), fabric, a meal in a restaurant, coloured hair wax, DVDs, and Starbucks.

What kinds of things could you use a boost in getting to happen?