268: What to Do When Importance Doesn’t Create Motivation

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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In this episode of Beautifully Complex, we’re examining a topic that really hits close to home for many of us — what to do when importance doesn’t create motivation, especially for our neurodivergent kids. I know firsthand how challenging it can be to get our kids started and keep them going on tasks that matter, but don’t necessarily excite them.

I break down why the ADHD brain is motivated by interest and urgency, rather than importance, and share actionable strategies to help bridge that gap. We discuss everything from providing external rewards to setting specific goals and creating a supportive environment. You’ll learn the importance of making tasks manageable by breaking them into smaller chunks and leveraging your child’s interests to spark intrinsic motivation.

Join me as I guide you through these practical tips and insights to help your child thrive, even when their brain just isn’t wired to find motivation in the same way. Remember, you’re not alone, and together, we can navigate the beautifully complex journey of raising neurodivergent kids.

3 Key Takeaways


Motivation Strategies beyond Importance: Neurodivergent kids, especially those with ADHD, often don’t have intrinsic motivation from the importance of tasks alone. Their brains are driven by interest and urgency. Therefore, leveraging interest-based motivation can be more effective.


Breaking Tasks into Manageable Chunks: Dividing overwhelming tasks into smaller, manageable steps can help neurodivergent kids get started and maintain momentum. This method also provides small successes along the way, which can keep them motivated and engaged.


Creating Supportive and Customized Environments: Providing a supportive environment tailored to individual needs will enhance focus and task completion. This might mean deviating from traditional strategies like a quiet workspace and instead allowing for methods that might seem unconventional but work for the child, such as allowing movement or background noise.

What You’ll Learn

The difference in motivation levels between kids with ADHD and other children, emphasizing that ADHD brains are motivated by interest and urgency rather than importance.

How to break tasks into smaller, manageable chunks or steps to alleviate overwhelm and make the task more doable and achievable.

The potential pitfalls of using external rewards or incentives and why intrinsic and interest-based motivation are more beneficial in the long term.

How to create a supportive and stimulating environment that caters to your child’s unique needs and promotes focus.


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Penny Williams [00:00:04]: When you break it down and you're very clear about each step or each chunk, that can really alleviate overwhelm for your kid and make that task much more doable and achievable. It can help your kid get started and also to maintain momentum. It also creates this ability to have small successes along the way. Welcome to the Beautifully Complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back, friends, to Beautifully Complex.

Penny Williams [00:00:56]: I am going to talk to you today about importance and about our kids' brain wiring. The ADHD brain is motivated by 2 things, interest and urgency. It is not motivated by importance. This is a difference in their brain wiring. Brain wiring, folks. It is not a choice. This isn't necessarily true for autism alone, but so many people have both ADHD and autism together now, so I think it's a crucial point for most of you to understand, and that's why I'm covering it for you here in this episode. When importance does not cause motivation, it can be really challenging to take action, and I like to use the example of doing our taxes.

Penny Williams [00:01:59]: Because most of us adults understand how much we dread and don't want to do our taxes, but we also understand how very important they are. And there are a lot of adults who wait till the last minute when it's urgent, and we're gonna talk about why that works for people later on. But just think about the fact that you know your taxes are important, and you still have a hard time getting started on it. Right? This is kind of like what it is like when you have a brain that has ADHD that just doesn't get motivated by importance alone. So what can we do when there are important things that our kids or teens need to get done, but they really aren't intrinsically motivated to do those things? What do we do when they struggle just to get going on something that is very important? In these situations, it's really essential to focus on building executive function skills and finding strategies that can help overcome that lack of that internal motivation. So let's talk about some of these strategies. The first one I wanna go through, I think, is the most common strategy that everyone just sort of instinctually relies on, but it is not my favorite. So we're gonna cover it and get it out of the way because I feel like there are better things to do.

Penny Williams [00:03:37]: So that first one is providing external rewards or incentives. Yes. This can motivate kids to take action. So you could set up a reward system where they earn something that they enjoy, like extra screen time or another preferred activity just for completing tasks. Remember that these rewards should be meaningful to your kid. It needs to be their currency, but it should not be seen as a bribe. If they feel like you're bribing them to do something or you feel like you're bribing them to do something, then it's really not the best thing to be doing. And here's why this isn't necessarily my favorite strategy.

Penny Williams [00:04:22]: It's probably my least favorite strategy for helping kids to get things done, because it ends up often setting up a transactional system for our kids. You do this. I'll give you that. And that prevents them from learning how to get things done themselves. It becomes the only way to get motivated is to get something for doing something, and that doesn't work long term. I prefer that extrinsic motivation, like those rewards, are limited to working on goals with your kids. So something like putting your clothes in the hamper each day before you leave for school, brushing your teeth each morning before you come to the kitchen for breakfast, You know, that thing that your kid's struggling with that you're working on, make it the one goal that you're working on, and you can attach rewards to that. Because the goal is that it's a short term rewarded task that becomes a habit.

Penny Williams [00:05:30]: The the external rewards. Then they're not helpful long term. Let's talk about strategy number 2. Break tasks into smaller, manageable chunks or steps. Make it doable if it feels overwhelming. When you break it down and you're very clear about each step or each chunk, that can really alleviate overwhelm for your kid and make that task much more doable and achievable. It can help your kid get started and also to maintain momentum. Right? It also creates this ability to have small successes along the way.

Penny Williams [00:06:22]: Make it a checklist so that every time they complete one of those smaller manageable chunks or steps, they get to cross it off, check it off, whatever it is. If you do them on Post its, they get to take that Post it and throw it away. Right? That makes them feel like they are making progress. Often, progress isn't that tangible for a neurodivergent brain. So this can be really, really helpful, because when we remove the overwhelm and we add in those very clear points of progress and achievement, it really helps to get things going and to keep going. Strategy number 3, set specific and very clear goals, instructions, and deadlines. When we set clear goals and deadlines, we are providing a sense of one direction, which is helpful. Right? If you don't know how to get started, direction is helpful, but also urgency.

Penny Williams [00:07:27]: Remember, I said we were gonna talk about this. The ADHD brain is motivated by urgency. Remember? Urgency and interest, but not importance. But I wanna caution you about using urgency for motivation. It is another unsustainable strategy. Everything can't be urgent, and we can't always wait until something is urgent. That is very stressful. That is very disregulating.

Penny Williams [00:08:03]: So when we are stressed out and disregulated, that thinking brain isn't as accessible. So by using urgency for motivation, sometimes it removes or lessens lessens doability. So be careful there. Some people do completely thrive on urgency. Their brain gets locked in and their all systems go, but that is not true for everyone. So you need to be careful in using urgency for motivation. It cannot be your sole strategy for motivating for important tasks. Number 4, create a supportive environment that minimizes distractions and promotes focus.

Penny Williams [00:08:54]: Now this can include the traditional ways of promoting focus, like organizing their workspace, having a specific spot at a table or a desk, turning off their phone or putting it away somewhere, finding a quiet place to work, those are fine and good strategies if they work for your kid. Only if they work for your kid. And I'm really stressing that, because for most of our kids, it does not. It is too still, too boring. They need more stimulation and movement to focus, which is the opposite of what we are taught about focusing. So you need to really get creative and lean into what works for your kid. So this could be laying on the floor under the dining room table to do their homework. It could be jumping on the trampoline while practicing their math facts with you.

Penny Williams [00:09:58]: Anything. My kid, when he had to read chapter books in elementary school, he literally stood on his head on the back of the sofa and kicked his feet in the air in order to focus to read pages of text. It worked for him, and so that's what he did. I didn't tell him, oh, no. You have to sit at a desk in a chair. You have to be still. It has to be quiet, because that did not work for him. You have my permission to not do it like everyone says you're supposed to.

Penny Williams [00:10:36]: It is okay to do things differently, people. I even celebrate it. We have to get to a point where we don't have these, air quote, norms anymore. We do what works for each individual. You have my permission to do that, and I want you to lean into it. Strategy number 5, use visual aids and reminders. Make things visual. Even for older kids and teens, visual helps most of us.

Penny Williams [00:11:18]: So visual aids like to do lists, calendars, reminders, those can serve as visual cues and really help your kid to stay on track. They can provide a visual representation of progress, which helps us keep going, and it keeps up that motivation. Just as I was talking about a minute ago, Make that progress visual. You know? Fill in that thermometer chart. Throw away that Post it for that task. Whatever it is, make it tangible, visual, physical. Go all in on it. These visual representations of progress help us keep going, help us to be motivated, and they should be something that your kid can use independently at some point.

Penny Williams [00:12:09]: So it should not be mom or dad as the walking to do list and the reminders. That doesn't work anyway, and it stresses you out, and it doesn't give your kid a strategy that they can use on their own later. So we choose strategies that our kids can use on their own later, and we are there to support those until they can use them on their own later. You can't be your kid's frontal lobe forever, so make sure that you're creating these strategies that you can remove yourself from at some point. Last strategy I wanna talk to you about, number 6, is finding that intrinsic motivation. How do we spark the motivation for an ADHD brain? Remember, that brain wiring is sparked by interest and urgency. We talked about using urgency interest to get their brain going and motivated and, you know, locked in so that the task is doable to them. So tie your kids' interest to the things that they have to do because they're important.

Penny Williams [00:13:33]: If they're into Harry Potter, use Harry Potter terms in the instructions that you give them, or I don't know Harry Potter myself. My kids were never into Harry Potter for some reason, and so I haven't read it. I haven't watched the movies. I don't know how to connect that, but I know for sure there are plenty of ways to connect Harry Potter to different tasks and getting different things done. If they're into games that have quests or books that have quests, make math homework a quest. You know? The first target point in that quest is, you know, the first line of problems on that work sheet, and then they get maybe a break. You know? And that break is like going off and, you know, building their house in Minecraft, whatever it is. Right? Whatever your kid's always talking about and spends their time doing, Find a way to incorporate it in these important tasks that your kid can't just automatically find the motivation to get done.

Penny Williams [00:14:45]: Again, you can be so creative with this, and I encourage you to be creative. Go way beyond what you would think is the norm. Right? Again, air quotes with norm. Because here, beautifully complex, we're not doing the norm. Right? Let's just throw that out altogether. I want you to go all in on linking your child's interests to find some motivation for important tasks. I wanna tell you one story quickly about my son and what his 5th grade English teacher did that really made a world of difference in incorporating interests. So in 5th grade, they had 2 teachers.

Penny Williams [00:15:26]: 1 was for English and, I think, social studies, the other was for math and science. And so his English teacher was just phenomenal in helping kids with, especially, creative writing. So my son has dysgraphia and written expression disorder. Writing was honestly a nightmare for him. You couldn't read his handwriting for 1, but, also, he could tell you the most brilliant, colorful story verbally. And then when you said, okay, let's write this down, blank. Just blank. Completely and utterly blank.

Penny Williams [00:16:03]: It was very, very, very hard. And so he started bringing home these writing papers with As on them, which had never happened before 5th grade, and even his handwriting was more clear. And I honestly this sounds so horrible, but I honestly questioned if they put some other kids' work in his backpack. That's how much different his work was, and here's why. Because when they had to do creative writing, there was a giant box of laminated pictures and illustrations for them to choose from. So they went through this box, and whatever got them excited, they took that picture out of the box, they took it to their desk, and they wrote something about it. So they were able to choose what was getting them excited and use it to do that nonpreferred but important task, and it made a monumental difference. It made so much of a difference in his performance and his grades that year that they wanted to remove his IEP, which I didn't allow because that was why he was doing so well, that and this particular teacher.

Penny Williams [00:17:24]: And so that just illustrates for you how much interest can change everything. So really tie it in. Remember, folks, you can't change your child's brain. They have the brain that they have. It can make new wiring. It can make new neural connections. We can teach skills and habits, but not being motivated by something being important may be a lifelong struggle. And so part of our job as parents or educators is to help them use these type of strategies to overcome that in their day to day lives in the future.

Penny Williams [00:18:13]: So all the reminders in the world of how something is important and how important it is is not going to, by itself, change their ability to just do it. Just do it probably doesn't work for your kid if you're here listening to this podcast. So I want you to try to really use some of these strategies. Let's implement them in your families. I would love for you to come to the show notes page at parentingadhdandautism.com/268, And leave a comment. Let me know what you've tried, how it went. Would love to hear from you and how things are going in your own family or your own classroom. And be patient with yourself and celebrate the small victories along the way with your kids.

Penny Williams [00:19:10]: Of course, be patient with your kids too. That goes without saying. Right? I will see you on the next episode, everyone. Take good care. Thanks for joining me on the Beautifully Complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share, and don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingadhdandautsism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com.

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That’s what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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About the show...

I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

My approach to decoding behavior while honoring neurodiversity and parenting the individual child you have will provide you with the tools to help you understand and transform behavior, reduce your own stress, increase parenting confidence, and create the joyful family life you crave. I am honored to have helped thousands of families worldwide to help their kids feel good so they can do good.

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