For most of my adult life I’ve had a challenge starting and staying on task, especially in terms of studying or getting work done. The form it takes is not so much being easily distracted but rather as an internal resistance at the start, and then at every moment along the way.

While later (very late) in life I would discover that I have a pretty severe flavor of ADHD, this diagnosis is mostly talked about in terms of executive function issues like processing speed, working memory, and concentration. But motivation issues are most often associated with depression, and even then motivation is treated like a matter of will power, and is underplayed when it comes to seemingly functional adults.

For years I wondered if I am just lazy or spoiled, and if so, why do those things appear to be hardwired and hard to overcome. I did not want to simply blame my difficulty in taking action on some external factor and have tried taking responsibility, as successful people kept saying “you shouldn’t wait to have the motivation to start taking action” or that “if you can’t overcome a lack of motivation, you don’t want it badly enough“. They would boast about how they sit down and work even when there is no motivation. I couldn’t help but conclude that I am an exceptional failure or an inadequate human. If others can take action while feeling the way I do, I must just not have a strong enough will or truly want to accomplish something badly enough. Yet it still felt like being told to walk it off when your legs seem broken.

It took me years of observation and developing more self-awareness to begin to realize I wasn’t simply lacking Motivation, but rather I’ve had the active presence of Resistance. That motivation isn’t either present or absent, at zero or at a surplus. Motivation is the positive side of a spectrum on which mental resistance is the negative side.

It was the language and framing we use around motivation that has set an unrealistic expectation for people whose cognitive issues put them on the negative end of that spectrum. Someone who says you shouldn’t wait to have the motivation to take action probably doesn’t know what the negative end of the spectrum feels like, or that it even exists. It’s true that you shouldn’t wait to have ample motivation to take action, but if you have extreme resistance, you are dealing with a different issue and will have a hard time taking action. There is a big difference between pushing a car in neutral or pushing one in park with the hand break on.

I’ve come to think of it is in terms of another metaphor: The slope of the ground you are walking on.

Having motivation is like walking downhill. Walking is not only effortless and gravity acts like the wind at your back, but if the grade is steep enough downwards, you have to make an effort to slow down or stop moving.

Having neither motivation nor resistance is like a flat surface. Walking isn’t hard, and all you have to do is simply start moving and you’re making progress with minimal effort. There’s no impediment to getting started and no difficulty keeping pace.

Resistance is like an uphill climb. It not only takes effort to get started, but it also takes constant effort to continue taking each step, producing increasing unpleasantness all of the way up. And depending on how steep the incline is, it can feel like a herculean effort to even attempt the first step making it so hard you simply rather not suffer through it.

Taking my first medication for ADHD was the thing that finally made this truly clear. It didn’t give me motivation, I know what having motivation feels like and still occasionally experience it. Instead, it eliminated resistance and brought me back to baseline, and placed me on a level grade on this spectrum. I didn’t suddenly feel any more motivated to take action, but i felt no resistance to take the first step if and found myself moving effortlessly with each addition step. It is as if someone has flattened the mental hill in front of me and eliminated any pain incurred by attempting to move. I didn’t feel energized or amped, as with caffeine, I just no longer felt as if gravity has been cranked up to 11. This experience didn’t feel additive, it felt subtractive. It removed the friction, the unpleasant internal experience that activates with the mere thought of taking action.

We underestimate what bad neurochemistry can manifest as, whether its root cause is genetics, trauma, disease, or some other form of bad luck. We should change the way we talk about motivation, and acknowledge the existence of internal states that produce so much mental resistance that it is unreasonable to expect people to overcome by sheer will power. Then we can provide people the understanding and tools to put them on a level playing field.

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