Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that is characterized by symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. Unfortunately, adults and children with ADHD are often labeled as unmotivated, lazy, or even apathetic. These negative labels are unfair and hurtful.
Instead of simple laziness or a lack of motivation, this "immobility" or "sluggishness" often reflects the impairments in executive function that can be associated with ADHD. Understanding these impairments is important in order to correct common misperceptions about ADHD.
This article discusses how ADHD can affect motivation and how symptoms of the condition can often be wrongly interpreted as laziness.
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ADHD and Executive Function
Executive function deficits affect a person’s ability to get started, organize, and sustain effort on a task. The person may even experience a sense of paralysis associated with a task or project—wanting to get started, but unable to make progress forward in any manner.
These differences in executive function affect the person with ADHD, but can also result in negative reactions from others who become confused and frustrated by the inconsistencies in the person with ADHD who is able to perform well when the task is stimulating and interesting or when it is novel and exciting but does not perform as well when the task is tedious or repetitive.
Understanding Mental Fatigue in ADHD
While people who have ADHD are often good at making quick decisions in the moment, they may struggle when they are working on tasks that require organizing lots of information. They may feel like they are bogged down with too much information, which can feel overwhelming. Figuring out how and where to begin may seem impossible.
This sense of paralysis can quickly lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, procrastination, and avoidance, and ultimately results in problems with productivity.
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Boredom and Motivation
Even if the person is able to begin the task, they may have great difficulty staying alert and persisting in this effort. Though they may know what they need to do to get things completed, as hard as they try, they just can’t.
Boredom results in all sorts of problems for kids and adults with ADHD. Maintaining focus on a boring task may seem nearly impossible as their attention wanders away to more interesting activities and thoughts.
What can also happen is that after repeated frustrations, the child or adult with ADHD can begin to feel less motivated. It can be hard to get excited and hopeful about something and then crash down again and again.
Because ADHD causes problems with starting, organizing, and sticking with tasks, people often end up feeling bored or frustrated. Eventually, these patterns begin to affect motivation levels as well.
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Do I Have ADHD or Am I Lazy?
When you have problems concentrating or finding the energy to get things done, you might wonder if it might be ADHD or something else. You might even wonder if maybe you're just feeling lazy.
If you are wondering if you might have ADHD, you should talk to a doctor to learn more. While the condition is most often diagnosed in childhood, it is sometimes underdiagnosed and can continue into adulthood.
Symptoms in boys tend to include more hyperactivity and impulsivity and because such symptoms are more disruptive, they are diagnosed more frequently. ADHD in girls and women, however, tends to be marked by more symptoms of inattention. Since these symptoms are less obvious, the condition is often missed.
ADHD Symptoms Are Often Misunderstood
Because people who have ADHD often struggle with staying focused and completing tasks, others may incorrectly label the behavior as laziness. Unfortunately, people with this condition sometimes internalize these labels as well, particularly if they have not been accurately diagnosed.
Labeling people with ADHD as "lazy" contributes to mental health stigma. It's important to recognize that ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that is caused by factors such as genetic, brain abnormalities, and exposure to environmental risks. The symptoms of ADHD are not caused by laziness.
Other Factors That Affect Motivation
If you don't have ADHD and are experiencing a lack of motivation, there may be other factors that are making it difficult for you to be focused and productive:
- Anxiety: If you are experiencing anxiety, you might feel restless and find it difficult to concentrate. This may mean that you also struggle to stay on task and get things done, which can make it hard to stay motivated.
- Boredom: It might mean that you are feeling stuck in a rut and need to find some new strategies for getting motivated.
- Depression: Depression can lead to symptoms such as avoidance, loss of interest, loss of motivation, difficulty remembering, and problems concentrating.
If you are having a difficult time staying motivated, it may be worth talking to a doctor or therapist for further evaluation and advice.
Symptoms of ADHD are sometimes mistaken for laziness. If you are struggling with low motivation, it is important to get to the bottom of the problem. ADHD might be a factor, but it could also be caused by another condition such as depression or anxiety.
First of all, it is important to actively engage in treatment for ADHD. Connect with a doctor experienced in treating ADHD, and openly and regularly communicate with them about your symptoms.
Treatment for ADHD depends a great deal on your symptoms and individual needs. In many cases, it may include medications and behavioral interventions:
- Medications that are used to treat ADHD include stimulants, antidepressants, and non-stimulant ADHD medications.
- There are a variety of behavioral interventions that can be helpful including psychotherapy, parent training, school interventions, and learning interventions.
Interventions focused on improving executive functioning can be helpful for improving motivation and productivity. Strategies like using reward charts, daily planners, and daily checklists can help people better plan, organize, and carry out tasks.
How to Improve Motivation When You Have ADHD
Finding ways to manage the symptoms of ADHD can help you feel more motivated and be more productive. The next time you are struggling to get started or stay on task, try some of these ideas:
- Break down projects into smaller, more manageable chunks
- Delegate some tasks
- Incorporate physical movement into your day
- Reward yourself more immediately for little steps taken towards reaching goals
- Set smaller goals
- Set aside a short, less overwhelming time period (for example, 10 or 15 minutes) to commit to working on the activity that has you feeling stuck
A Word From Verywell
ADHD can have an impact on your motivation, making it more difficult to initiate and maintain tasks. When you have ADHD, it can be helpful to find strategies that will help you get started and sustain focus on a task that is overwhelming or just plain boring.
If you're worried that your lack of motivation might be related to ADHD, consider talking to a doctor. They can help determine what factors might be affecting your motivation levels, whether it's ADHD or something else, and suggest solutions that might help you get back on track.
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
National Institute of Mental Health. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Brown TE. ADD/ADHD and impaired executive function in clinical practice. Current Attention Disorders Reports. 2009;1(1):37-41. doi:10.1007/s12618-009-0006-3
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data and statistics about ADHD.
Quinn PO, Madhoo M.A review of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in women and girls: Uncovering this hidden diagnosis.Prim Care Companion CNS Disord.2014;16(3). doi:10.4088/PCC.13r01596
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What is ADHD?.
McGough JJ.Treatment controversies in adult ADHD.AJP.2016;173(10):960-966. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.15091207
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Parent training in behavior management for ADHD.
By Keath Low
Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.
Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."
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How ADHD Impacts Motivation. Executive function deficits in ADHD can affect the person's ability to start, organize, and sustain effort on a task or project. They may want to get started but are unable to make forward progress in any manner, which can impact their motivational levels.Do people with ADHD struggle to find motivation? ›
It also helps your mind recognize a reward and want to find a way to reach the reward. Adults and children with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine, which limits their brains ability to both recognize rewards and seek them out. This results in a lack of motivation.How does ADHD reduce motivation? ›
Differences in brain chemistry
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There is research that suggests that people with ADHD are lacking dopamine, which causes issues with executive function—self-motivation and directing focus. By finding ways to infuse more joy and excitement into your day and improve your levels of dopamine, these strategies can help you increase and sustain motivation.Why is it so hard to stay motivated with ADHD? ›
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INCUP is an acronym that stands for interest, novelty, challenge, urgency, and passion. The term was first proposed by psychologist William Dodson, who suggested that these five things are the top motivating factors for someone with ADHD.What are the 4 motivators for ADHD? ›
This is where understanding what motivates you and your ADHD brain comes in handy because you can leverage the 4 pillars of motivation: novelty, interest, competition, and pressure, to get yourself into action.What does an ADHD shutdown look like? ›
Differences in emotions in people with ADHD can lead to 'shutdowns', where someone is so overwhelmed with emotions that they space out, may find it hard to speak or move and may struggle to articulate what they are feeling until they can process their emotions.Does Adderall help motivation? ›
Adderall is an amphetamine, so it raises the dopamine and norepinephrine levels in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the brain's reward and pleasure centers. Basically, it creates the feeling of motivation that makes us want to take action to achieve our goals.What does ADHD prevent you from doing? ›
ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It's caused by brain differences that affect attention and behavior in set ways. For example, people with ADHD are more easily distracted than people who don't have it. ADHD can make it harder to focus, listen well, wait, or take your time.
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ADHD medications and motivation
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Bored or under-stimulated ADHD brains may become restless and demand an immediate reward and more stimulation. While you may think your child's fidgeting, noise, laughter, yelling, or conflict-making behaviors are inappropriate and unprovoked, their under-aroused brains, needing stimulation, are demanding it.Does Adderall help with motivation? ›
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1) Don't make things harder than they need to be; complete tasks by breaking them into small steps. 2) Give yourself small rewards as you achieve your intermediate goals, don't wait until the end. 3) Don't give up right away when you don't feel motivated.