Getting up and Getting Going

(versus Motivation)

© By Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, A.C.T., MCC, SCAC
Foundational Concepts of the Intentionality Series


From my favorite illustrator, Phillip Martin

As I illuminated in three earlier posts of this Series of articles – ABOUT ActivationIs Activation “Seeking System” Dependent? and Procrastination: Activation vs. Motivation – struggles with activation are a common occurrence in the AD[h]D/EFD/TBI population (vs. garden-variety “procrastination“)

What’s the Difference again?

  • ACTIVATION refers to the initiation of an action — the process that gets you up and doing, apart from what inspires you to WANT to be up and doing.

Insufficient motivation – REALLY?

Many (if not most) of the “get it done” gurus believe that insufficient motivation is a primary source of the problem for individuals who procrastinate endlessly.

  • For them, maybe, but my extensive experience with hundreds of individuals with Executive Functioning struggles of all types doesn’t support that simplistic conclusion.
  • In the population I work with and support, I see more than enough motivation and way too much heartbreaking agony over struggles with activation.

According to Wikipedia, “Activation in (bio-)chemical sciences generally refers to the process whereby something is prepared or excited for a subsequent reaction.

Alrighty, as I’ve said before, that definition works for our purposes well enough – as do a number of explanations of terms outlined in various Wikipedia articles on the chemical process – so let’s explore their concepts a bit more.

Remember – links on this site are dark grey to reduce distraction potential while you’re reading.
They turn
red on mouseover. Hold before clicking for a window with more info


Briefly reviewing chemical activation

Another adorable Phillip Martin graphic

Another adorable Phillip Martin graphic

The chemical activation process is a good metaphor for neurological activation, especially since the former branch of science seems to be where the term “activation” originated.

In chemistry, molecular activation is where the molecules enter a state that allows for a chemical reaction. Since we’re looking at BRAIN chemistry, the concept is more apt than not as a way to describe what it takes to propel my fellow “alphabeters” forward.

The phrase “activation energy” refers to the energy the reactants must acquire before they can successfully work their magic spells on each other to produce a chemical product — in other words, to reach the transition state, the threshold where things begin to happen.

Frequently, molecules require the application of heat to reach the transition state. In other cases, the molecules may have enough energy from natural thermal fluctuations kinda’ like those “motivationally inspired” folks that have little in common with most readers of!

We’re more like the reactions that really, truly need a bit of “heat” (or help from another catalyst) to jumpstart the process, unless conditions are otherwise ideal for activation to occur on its own (as with perfect fit or fascination, for example).

What does that have to do with Getting Things Done?

Obviously, if you don’t start, you can’t finish. Understanding the rationale behind why you don’t start is the very first step on the road to getting things DONE. Unfortunately, brain-based struggles rarely provide clear illustrations! So let’s go back to chemistry for an analagous observation of what’s going on.

As I enumerated in Lowering Activation Costs, the main factors that influence a chemical reaction rate include:

  1. the physical state of the reactants,
  2. the concentrations of the reactants,
  3. the temperature at which the reaction occurs, and
  4. whether or not any catalysts are present in the reaction.

The main factors that seem to influence brain-based reaction rates include:

  1. the physical state of the person hoping to activate
    (nothing much can be expected to get done when we have the flu, for example)
  2. the concentration/distraction level of the person expected to activate
    (good luck trying to activate-on-purpose, for example, when you’re surrounded
    by others insisting that you do what they want you to do)
  3. the physical conditions in the environment in which the action is expected to take place,
    (it’s tough to focus on much of anything surrounded by clutter, or when heat or A/C is not working)
  4. whether or not any catalysts or impediments are present in the “formula.”

As promised earlier, it’s time to unpack those ideas.

Let’s Start Backwards – the others flow from there

Source: click HERE

I have long suspected that, more than the presence of “catalysts,” the factor that is most important in determining whether activation moves human beings to “the threshold where things begin to happen” is more likely to be the absence of impediments.

Motivation, cooperation, and physical assistance are catalysts.  Before they can be effective, however, we have to remove the brick walls.

What Brick Walls?

Besides subtle make-wrong, generally aimed our way as “helpful” advice, there is the downright censure of the many who think that, because we don’t work like they do, we’re deliberately refusing to take actions on our own behalf.

They seem to believe a bit of dutch uncle advice is in order, to kick-start our process – accent on the kick! Unfortunately, when the problem is activation, “tough love” strategies will only make things tougher.

Motivational pep talks at the wrong time will backfire.  The “activation impaired” are more likely to slide into hopelessness, concluding, “What’s the use – I’m worthless,” than to continue the struggle to embrace what has never worked before.

SEE: Until they believe they can, they can’t:
Expectations of success vs. expectations of failure.

Based on the comments many of us here in “Alphabet City” have received throughout our lives, rather than spending regular time on task, the assumption of the neurotypical world might as well be that all any of us want to do is stare into space, binge on internet offerings, or hyperfocus on our individual versions of sitting around dipping our paws into the honey jar.

  • Because we do seem to waste a great deal of time and don’t really understand why, we tend to internalize those negative comments as truths.
  • Those internalized negative comments are what self-help gurus and psychologists refer to as negative self-talk.  I prefer to think of them as internalized impediments.

Reducing – ideally countering – negative self-talk always makes activation easier.  It reduces otherwise “run-away” neurochemical production that exacerbates performance anxiety and decimates performance. In other words, where activation is concerned, positive feed back is the only thing likely to work.

Normalizing the situation, taking the smallest of baby steps, and rewarding accomplishment of any sort beats “It’s not good enough,” “What’s WRONG with me?” and “Why don’t I DO this?” rumination with a stick! Inner chatter like that is one of the quickest ways to tip the balance toward the task anxiety side of the scale, where very little beyond rumination or avoidance activities are likely to take place.

For some ideas of what needs to happen instead,
read 10 Essential ADD Coaching Concepts

Why Pressure Makes Things Harder

Cortisol – the stress hormone – interferes with activation neurochemistry.  It’s interesting to note that activation is an area where workers under chronic stress commonly struggle as well.  It is sometimes even MORE difficult for those with workplace situation/state-specific temporary glitches in neurochemistry to understand or accept what’s going on.

Understanding is a necessary first step toward returning to effective action.

There are even fewer resources available to help “occasional victims” understand what’s going on — resources that don’t come from the “overcoming procrastination with motivation” model, that is. Activation is a concept that few line or human resource managers are equipped to deal with, even among the rarer few who are aware of its existence, much less its impact.

Even though struggles with activation is common in the ADD/EFD/TBI population, too few coaches understand how to work with it either – even among those who claim to specialize in those populations!

Activation and Inertia

Inertia, in our case, can be loosely defined as the tendency for people to keep doing what they are already doing: to remain in motion or to remain at rest.

It can be problematic at either end of the scale.

  • Hyperfocus is tough to break out of, even when a break is clearly indicated, while starting tasks can feel practically impossible some days.
  • Both take a great deal of motivation toward intentionality, of course – but the determining factor is likely to be the ability to manipulate the activation response.

For the most part, we lack an effective model to help explain why activation is sometimes a great deal more difficult than “usual,” without resorting to the more common conflicts/blocks/resistance paradigm, rarely a successful activation mobilization strategy.

Awareness that activation glitches can be a legitimate source of lack of action, with sufficient understanding – neurological, not psychological – to be able to offer a cogent explanation and a couple of tips and tricks, can be a HUGE help getting those of us whose performance seems to be “slipping” back on track.


The activation/inertia continuum is a dense topic, and little has been written about it from a functioning perspective.  It is particularly needed to offer effective assistance to cope with what some in the motivational community refer to as “low-return activities.”

What I hear most often, in response from those attempting to help someone with the shut-down experience, is fear of “enabling” behaviors they’d like to see stopped.

Ironically, the very thing they are doing actually becomes part of the problem, “enabling” failure.

Empowering another individual is tricky, however. Future articles in this series will to attempt to take it on in greater detail.  I plan to share some things you could think about, embrace and implement to help with empowering yourselves.

Meanwhile, for those of you who LOVE to read, Sebastian Marshall’s much older series of articles are among the few I’ve located that provide more than a few ideas of some great ways to begin that are likely to work for US.

Below is a link to one that introduces the topic in his words. He also has an active community of followers who add content to his ideas, so be sure to read the comments.

Sebastian Marshall’s Activation Costs

As Sebastian reminds us, “Required activation energy can be adjusted over time – making something into a routine lowers the activation energy to do it.”

For some immediate help setting up those routines, check out Habits, Decisions and Attention here on – or click to pop open the  LinkList to the entire Habits, Decisions and Attention Series, with links to a great many articles with explanations and suggestions.

You might also find the following Time Management article helpful:
ADD/ADHD and TIME: 5 Systems Basics

© 2016, all rights reserved
Check bottom of Home/New to find out the “sharing rules”

As always, if you want notification of new articles in this series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too) STRICT No Spam Policy

If you’d like some one-on-one (or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this article (either for your own life, that of a loved one, or as coaching skills development), click the E-me link <—here (or on the menubar at the top of every page) and I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

Related Articles on
(in case you missed them in the article above)

BY THE WAY: I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.




About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

2 Responses to Getting up and Getting Going

  1. Pingback: Productivity, Focus & Follow-through | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Pingback: I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

And what do YOU think? I'm interested.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: