I have a play-based motivational system
Productivity through joy, not pain
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how “accountability” does not make sense to my brain, and what sustainable and healthy motivation and creativity look like for me. Let’s talk about it. (Keep in mind this is written from a self-employed perspective, I can’t really speak to how to implement this in a job.)
So, the normative way of doing accountability seems to be something like this:
You tell someone (or yourself) that you are going to do something.
Then you do it.
If for some reason you don’t do it, you’re bad and wrong. Lazy. Unmotivated. Undisciplined. A slacker. An underachiever. You don’t love yourself enough to follow your dreams. You’re letting yourself down.
The solution for this, supposedly, is to add more external pressure. More deadlines. Higher stakes. More people to disappoint. More negative consequences. A “kick in the pants”. “Holding your feet to the fire”. Does anyone else notice how violent these motivational metaphors sound?
My system does not respond well to these approaches, whether from myself or someone else. My motivational system responds to more pressure by shutting down.
Also, me wanting to do something in the past doesn’t mean I’m going to keep wanting to do it in the future.
Allowing myself to change my plans is self-care.
Saying I want to do something in the future means my current best guess is that I’ll still want to do it when I get there. But I don’t actually know how I will feel in the future, which will affect whether I am still eager about the thing, or if it’s turned into a source of dread.
Trying to discern the subtle difference between, I’m excited about this right now, but won’t be in two weeks and I’m going to be into this for months or years to come is often impossible on a feeling level. Meaning, I will have to just find out by doing the thing, and seeing if it sustains my interest.
Which means I have to be able to change my mind. Otherwise I’m locking myself into a prison made of my past self’s excitability and whims. No thank you. Being able to change my mind without shame or self-blame unchains me from the past, and allows me to pursue what is presently exciting, which is the only way I can get dopamine and regulate my attention, motivation, and focus.
So, not holding myself accountable to my past plans (which were probably more like fantasies) is the difference between feeling alive and feeling dead.
This might sound like hyperbole if you are neurotypical. If you are ADHD, you know it is not.
There is a peculiar agony in trying to force myself to do something that my brain just does not want to do anymore. Words like boring don’t cover it. When I try to force myself to do things, everything alive in me just gets ground to dust. I’ve spent years in this self-induced hell because I thought there was something wrong with me for “not sticking with things”. There isn’t. I’m just not built that way.
ADHDers need to be interested in what they are doing. They need to get something from it. And urgency can work in a pinch, but it’s not the best fuel.
The best fuel for me is when it feels like play.
Play is (thanks ChatGPT):
intrinsically motivated (i.e. voluntary, self-motivated)
done for it’s own sake (not transactional)
enjoyable & engaging
creative & experimental
social (collaborative, cooperative—even if competing, we first agree to the rules and play by them)
free from serious consequences
flexible & adaptable
structured in a way that encourages spontaneity
The one that struck me the most is that play is free from serious consequences. Play is low stakes. The stakes are literally just: I want to be having fun right now. They are present-moment stakes, not future-consequence stakes.
It’s also social. You can play by yourself, but it’s not as much fun. Playing with friends also adds engagement, spontaneity, and enjoyment.
If I look back at my creative life, having all these things in place are absolutely key to my creativity. I’m guessing, “messing around with my friends” has been the source of many amazing creations in the history of humanity. And then we fuck it up by adding pressure to it.
We are told to take our art seriously. But what that means to me is, take my creative needs seriously. It means: stop thinking I can survive on motivational fuel that doesn’t fuel me. Stop forgetting what I really need to thrive. Creative pursuits feeling like play is what I need. It’s not optional.
Lastly, it can’t be transactional. I can’t live my life as a tool, and then sprinkle a little play in on the weekends. I have to make play a foundation of my relationship with work and creativity and life, or I will stop functioning.
Let’s talk about some practical strategies I’ve been using lately that have been working for me to keep work and creativity playful.
I mentally lower the stakes.
Growing my audience presents a conundrum, because it naturally raises the stakes. I’m pursuing something that I know will exert pressure on me, so I’m trying to work on this as I go. How could I have a large audience and not feel pressure? How do I internally sustain the feeling of play, no matter what?
So far what is working is returning to the goal, which is a process goal, not an outcome goal. My initial impulse in starting this newsletter was just to be vulnerable and stay current. I wanted to develop a practice of continually revealing what is currently alive for me. And when I feel a lack of motivation, I just come back to that: what is most vulnerably true for me right now that I could share about?
I also have a series of internal low-stakes affirmations that play in my head.
This is an experiment, we’ll see.
I can always change my mind.
If this doesn’t work out, it’s OK.
Whether I keep doing this or not, I’m learning a lot right now and that’s great.
The reality is that, no matter how much I’m into this right now, I never want to chain myself to anything. It’s OK to change my mind. I don’t ever want to dishonor what this newsletter means to me by turning it into a dreadful chore.
Writing here matters to me, but what matters to me about it is that I’m leading from my own edge. That edge might evolve in the future and look different. Reminding myself that I’m not committing to this form, I’m committing to my own process helps me stay grounded in what I’m actually trying to do here.
I have an Adventure Buddy who is also committed to play.
I want to be clear that this is NOT an “accountability partner”. This newsletter idea actually started with me complaining on Facebook about the concept of an “accountabilibuddy”, which is sometimes recommended for ADHDers:
My issue with calling it an "accountabilibuddy" is that accountability for me is a side effect of me being fully supported with celebration, acknowledgement, being seen, being cared for, give virtual hugs and high fives, etc. When I have a buddy showing up for me in those ways, I naturally do the Ambitious Creative Things I want to do. I don't need to be held to account. I need to be loved and seen and noticed and inspired by connecting in my real vulnerability. Then the accountability takes care of itself.
For me, a great Adventure Buddy relationship is someone you can:
share your creations with
celebrate achievements with (especially the small daily ones!)
complain and vent to occasionally
exchange emotional support with
nerd out with on topics of mutual interest
encourage and cheerlead each other
Your relationship is going to be unique to you, but you might do some combination of:
Zoom or in-person synchronous meetings
Asynchronous chat, like with WhatsApp or Signal
Using a collaboration app
My cardinal rules of Adventure Buddies:
Do not put pressure on each other.
Do not put pressure on yourself and then project that onto your buddy.
Keep the relationship fun, so you look forward to it and easily keep engaging in it.
I think of this relationship with accountability as All carrot, no stick. You could also call it Friends first or Play first. It involves trusting that we all have an inherent desire to contribute and create—it doesn’t need to be forced out of us.1
I cultivate a playful milieu in general.
Here’s what I mean by that...
I let myself follow my inspiration, try new things, experiment, and it’s OK if it doesn’t work out. I can always turn around and try a different route.
I avoid rigid schedules or over-scheduling, which leaves room for spontaneity.
I add play breaks throughout the day, especially if I’m doing anything difficult or dopamine-draining. I do this right now by periodically playing Beat Saber (VR), and messing around with Midjourney.
I build unpredictability into my day. Long term, I’d like this to be by setting up my home office by a window overlooking a busy street, but right now it means being active on social media, because the periodic “distractions” help me feel engaged.
I guard my autonomy fiercely. Autonomy is the foundation of play.
I celebrate small wins all day long (with a buddy if possible).
I take the time to learn the rules when I try to play a new game. i.e. I don’t expect myself to be good at something I just decided to start doing. In other words, I try to figure out how to give myself an onramp of appropriate challenge, the way good computer games do.
I set up my environment to remind me that playfulness is an option. For me, that involves a lot of stuffed animals.
I lean into the parts of apps that let me customize colors, aesthetics, and add meaning and metaphor to my planning or organizing process.
Lastly, I’ve learned to accept when something is dead, and gracefully move on from it.
There is a huge difference between these three things:
Something you have a lot of energy for, but you are struggling to maintain consistent motivation around.
Something you no longer have energy for, but you feel wrong for quitting, so you are trying desperately to force yourself to keep working on it.
Something you don’t have a lot of energy for, but for whatever reason, you have to keep doing it.
These all require different responses.
If you still love it, then this is an accessibility issue. Keep working on your relationship to the thing. Remind yourself why you want to do the thing, trust that intrinsic motivation is there, and let yourself find your natural pace and what supports you to work on it.
If it’s dead, just stop. Allow yourself to accept reality. It’s not the right thing anymore, and that’s OK. Grieve, adjust, accept, whatever you need to do, but let it go. Forcing yourself to continue is self-harm.
If you wish you didn’t have to keep doing it, but you do, then do as much as you can to automate it, reduce the stress it puts on you, and chart your path free of it. But don’t try to make yourself like it. Cultivate neutrality.
This doesn’t just apply to big things like jobs or businesses or projects. It’s a daily practice.
I used to hold onto productivity systems and note-taking apps, or feel like I had to import all my old things into the new thing. I don’t. It’s OK to just say, “This old thing wasn’t working, and this new thing is” and keep walking.
Making new stuff is more fun than organizing old stuff. I’ve accepted that I’m going to leave a certain amount of creative chaos in my wake, and that’s OK.
I mentally say, Good enough a lot. I say it every time I send this newsletter. It keeps me from endlessly fiddling for diminishing returns.
With ADHD, I can’t afford to waste time with things that are not giving me any more juice, cause I’ll just run out and start staring at the wall. 😂 So, I’ve learned to notice this isn’t fun anymore, and move on faster.
Some final thoughts on work and play.
I kinda want to rant about capitalism and productivity here, but that doesn’t really feel aligned with play right now. So I’ll just leave some breadcrumbs for you to think about:
Our relationship to work has been shaped by the same systems and ideas and that invented colonialism and are currently destroying the planet we all live on. So of course they don’t work for you out of the box. It’s not an accident that you feel you have to earn your right to exist or enjoy yourself. That shit did not start with you. It is a form of internalized oppression, and you can de-internalize it.
You have every right to shape your own relationship with work and creativity.
Finding new language helps. "Generative" feels like I'm being an artist, "productive" feels like I'm being a tool. I was born to be creative, I was not born to be “productive”.
It has helped me a lot to observe how my cats just exist, they don’t need to produce anything.
Rest is not “doing nothing”. It’s resting. Look carefully at what things have become defined as unimportant and ask who decided that and who benefits from that.
Everything in nature works in cycles. Sometimes I’m super generative, and sometimes I’m less generative, and it’s totally fine. I am not a machine, and I don’t work like one.
Anything in my mind that says I’m not OK the way I am, or that my needs are not OK, did not come from me. I give myself permission to not agree with it, not listen to it, not follow it, and find and create belief systems that work better for me.
OK, that’s it for today. Have a playful day! 💚
I think of this as analogous to the NVC idea of putting connection first. It takes as a given that we all have a desire to connect and contribute, and it’s just our language and communication habits that get in the way of that. But it’s a transformational shift to learn to actually trust that this is true, when we have been surviving with the idea that we have to either dominate or submit to get our needs met.