Robert Merki@robmerki

You might not have a motivation problem

July 07, 2020

I have ADHD, which gives me frequent bursts of hyperfocus. To outsiders, this just looks like I'm very motivated. I work all weekend on a project while forgetting to eat or sleep. Almost everyone has some periods of hyperfocus, they're just more common with ADHD.

I had assumed hyperfocus was a good thing. I was able to learn new skills and build things at a furious pace. High productivity feels good. I suspect this is why some people call ADHD a "superpower".

These burst of hyperfocus never lasted more than a weekend or two. I would inevitably burn out and abandon the project. I could only explain my loss of interest in the following ways:

  • I got lazy
  • I wasn't passionate about this project
  • I can't "complete things"
  • I have a "procrastination" problem
  • I get distracted easily

None of these are true. My problem was that I kept burning myself out with unsustainable, intense periods of work, so I assumed my "motivation" was the problem.

I was not motivated, I was obsessed.

Sustainable motivation feels like you're "kind of hungry". You should work on a project because it's interesting and you enjoy the work, not because you have acquired a magical "passion" that's finally rescued you from a productivity abyss.

Being "kind of hungry" means that you get satisfied when you work on it, that's it. There seems to be a prevalent idea that ideas are only valid if they are so utterly compelling that the founder/creator/artist goes into an obsessive manic phase to work on it.

If that was the solution, then I would have dozens of highly polished, fully complete side projects to show off by now. But I don't.

Find something that makes you feel "kind of hungry", and then do consistently. Two months of steady, healthy progress is far more valuable than two weekends of obsession. If you feel yourself getting obsessed, stop. Use your hyperfocused state to write down notes, do a few hours of work, and then go take a break. If you're truly "motivated" to work on something, you'll be back tomorrow.

Here's a few graphs to explain it:

Progress diagram when relying on ADHD Hyperfocus

Progress diagram when being mindful about hyperfocus

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