What Defines a Project: Appearance or Underlying Motivation?

As an adult with ADHD, you’re probably aware that one of the side effects of this fun little disorder is having a lot of things going at the same time. The ADHD brain thrives on stimulation. It generates ideas upon ideas and gets excited to start something new—sometimes multiple things—all at the same time. For someone with ADHD, generating ideas and seeing the potential of them produces dopamine that “lights up” the pleasure center of the brain, just as food, chocolate, alcohol, and addictive behaviors do.

But there can be a challenge to having what looks like a lot of balls in the air, and that is being judged by society. We are a society that is very appearance-based and quick to judge. More often than not, appearance-based judgments are misguided. Let me illustrate by focusing on projects. What I’ve learned in coaching adults with ADHD is that many have an insatiable appetite to learn. That is, mankind used to forage for food because it was pleasurable; today, many people forage for information because it lights up the brain.

What lights up your brain defines what you do and why you do it. If we understand this concept, we can begin to understand that the definition of a project is defined by the motivation behind it, not by what it appears to be. Practically, let’s frame out an example to illustrate.

Let’s say a man with ADHD is fascinated with web design. Spending time on the Internet, he might be drawn to think of what would be the coolest website design on the planet, so he buys the books and sets out to learn to design with the intent of building a website. He reads the books, tinkers around, and starts the process. As he plays with the many different elements, he is caught up in the possibilities of it all. At some point, his learning slows. More and more effort is required to learn marginally more. At that point he has experienced what it is like to build and design a webpage, and the project is done. Mind you, the website is incomplete. The motivation was to learn what it is like to build a website. The learning is done; thus, the project is done.

An unfinished website is judged, especially by neurotypicals, as incomplete because their minds are set up to look at the website as a project, and to be considered finished, it must be completed. There, those with ADHD are judged as lazy… they never finish anything… they procrastinate. Society assumes the motivation behind the project was to build a complete website. Reminds me of a saying: Whenever you “assume,” you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”

In the context of the project being to learn what it’s like to build a website, everything changes. The project is complete. The person learned what it’s like to build a website, which doesn’t require the site to be complete. He isn’t lazy because the goal was accomplished. This is success! The difference is in understanding the motivation. Motivation defines what the project “is.” In this case, the project was to learn what it’s like to build a website… not to build a completed website.

Years ago, I coined the phrase, “It’s convenient for society if you do it their way.” Think about it. Society always wants you to conform to them. It is too much work for them to accommodate you. The same goes for their perception and judgments.

The insight I’m sharing here is twofold. Many with ADHD instinctively start projects, wanting to learn what it is like… to experience things firsthand. That is the motivation; that is the project; and more often than not, they are amazingly successful. No one realizes it because they are using the wrong context (a completed website) to judge the project (learning to build a website).

Secondly, if you look at all your “unfinished” projects in the context of learning the experience, you will see a pattern and realize you have been very successful because you achieved the goal of learning what it was like. You will have a new awareness to manage yourself with intent.

So, the next time you feel the urge to start a project, PAUSE, then ponder what is your motivation. Is it to learn what it is like… or something else? If you realize the real project is to learn what it is like, you now have these options to choose from:

  1. Don’t start, realizing that you’re really there just to learn what it’s like to do it.
  2. Start the project, understanding that you’re doing it just to realize what it’s like, but once you’ve done that, the final product won’t appear to be completed.
  3. Start the project and know you’re going to learn what it’s like to do it but with the awareness that you’ll need to find someone else to complete what you have started.

Now you can manage yourself with more intent and judge yourself via a lens of living in an experience and celebrate your success for what it is, not shaming yourself via the ignorant, appearance-based lens of society.


2 thoughts on “What Defines a Project: Appearance or Underlying Motivation?

  1. I think this is a great way to look at this – and helps solve a lot of my problems and frustrations. Helps me put so many of my different ‘projects’ into perspective.

    One thing that still needs to be addressed however – at least for me – is that these ‘learning’ projects if not properly followed through produce a lot of waste and chaos. Regardless of whether or not the project I’ve started is to build or create something, or whether the desired end goal is to learn something, the materials etc… still need to be picked up afterward and put away accordingly. This point is where I fall down. Marie Curie would never have gotten anywhere if she left her test tubes and radioactive material laying around on counters after she was done with any particular learning experiment, but for the life of me I can’t seem to address this last bit. Even imagining those things as radioactive (hence a driver for putting things away safely) doesn’t seem to help.

    It’s still difficult to follow through afterward and either discard things that are no longer in use, or put things away where they should go. Since reading your article I’ve tried thinking about some of the things I’m doing as ‘learning projects’, which has helped me better let things go once I’ve mastered the skill. However, that hasn’t helped me follow through to set things to right afterward. I think I still get stuck on seeing things to completion, or more accurately understanding what completion should look/feel like.

    1. Anne, I’m grateful you have put so much thought into this. We need to be careful of judgment. More specifically, the context used to judge. If the motivation is to learn and you learned, is it really a waste? One of my hopes people would get from the blog is that “motivation” to learn is a driving factor. At times difficult for many with ADHD to choose not to take on.

      If I’m understanding you correctly, you struggle with cleaning up after a project. That is a bit different. There are a number of factors that could make this challenging. Those factors are more than this forum allows, but I’ll offer this. Email me and maybe we can talk with the idea of possibly doing an interview on your experience and the challenge of cleaning up after a project.

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