The scales of motivation

Imagine the statue of the Scales of Justice. Now just imagine her scale. Or if you’ve ever used a really old school baking scale, imagine that. Let’s call that the scale of motivation. Everything we do or don’t do has motivating and demotivating factors. Something as simple as getting up to pee when you’re reading an amazing book or can’t take your eyes off Stranger Things.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I hold it for quite a while if I’m doing something interesting. In fact, this can often make it harder to potty train ADHD kids. They tend to have accidents when they’re doing things that they don’t want to stop doing because they hold it for too long.

But let’s get back to the scale analogy. On one side, I have to pee. On the other side, I want to keep watching stranger things. When my sense of having to go to the bathroom begins, it’s not pushing hard enough down on its side of the scale to make me stop doing my “preferred activity.” But, eventually, as the pressure builds, having to pee will be more unpleasant than it is pleasant to continue watching. Add in the factors of how good is the episode, how close I am to the end of it, how far away the bathroom is, how tired I am… And even deciding when to get up and pee is a reasonably complex equation. And that’s about as easy as it gets.

Of course, this is a basic human situation. But it is dramatically magnified by how our brains are wired. Our threshold for boredom is lower. And we are constantly fighting the battle to do the “non-preferred activity” that we need to do in the face of other “preferred activities” that we want to do. These are often invisible forces on our scale. If we don’t fully understand our add and how our brain works, they can seem mysterious, even unknowable.

A note on the words want and can. I have always thought that we missing a word in English between want and can. There are many instances where we default to saying I don’t want to do something when the reality is we can’t do it… At that moment. We often fail to take into account our attentional resources. Just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean we can do it at a specific time if attentional resources aren’t available. But it feels strange to say something like, I can’t do the dishes now. So we frame it as I don’t want to do the dishes now. That puts us in an entirely different light, both to ourselves and to others.

Nobody wants to do the dishes. But we all want to have clean dishes. And to a neurotypical person, who does the dishes every day without enjoying it but without experiencing soul crushing tedium while doing it, another adult saying I don’t want to do the dishes sounds immature and petulant.

But really it’s a question of threshold on that scale. Having clean dishes for that ADHD person, in that moment just isn’t important enough to push down on that one side of the scale and overcome the big rock of boredom sitting on the other side. That rock may be real. It may be imagined. It may be exaggerated. But in that moment, it very much exists for us. And it probably is real to some extent. Our past history informs us about what the cost of doing things is.

I think that’s about enough for today. I think creating awareness of this issue is a good place to start. Perhaps next week or soon I’ll throw out a few strategies to manage this.

Standard disclaimer: I promised myself when I started this blog that I would post regularly, hopefully weekly. In order to achieve this goal, I have to fight against my own perfectionists. That means I edit very little if at all. I’m focusing on content not on detail. So please forgive any mypellings grammatical / punctuation mishaps, and anything Strange like weird capitalizations due to my using voice recognition.