Pursuing Your Passion or Purpose When You Have ADHD

One common experience at the beginning of a new year is to evaluate what we are doing, where we are now, and where we hope someday to be in our lives. Some people advocate that you “find your passion,” and other voices say “develop your purpose.”

ADHD symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and the need to chase novelty can help you find your passion or develop your purpose. Taming those symptoms, and working with them, can help you design a life you enjoy.

Passion or purpose?

“It’s universal to want to have a sense of meaning in our lives and feel as if we are making a valuable contribution,” says Laurie Dupar, a nurse practitioner and ADHD coach. “For people with ADHD, this is especially important, because what we are passionate about truly contains the answers to what will hold our attention and interest. When something holds our attention and interest, we are more likely to experience success and feel happier. The positive experience of success and happiness then spills over to positively influence other areas of our ADHD lives.”

Your passion is the endeavor in your life that seems to give you energy when you think about it or engage in it. It may be something that brings you joy or contentment. It can be a self-focused way of thinking, though many people have channeled their passions into activities that also help to better other people’s lives.

Your purpose is the goal that directs your life and helps to guide many of your decisions. It reminds you to stick with the gritty parts, because there is a reason for what you do. Often it is an other-focused way of thinking, though one can be passionate in pursuing a purpose, or purposes, in life.

Most adults with ADHD experience excitement in a new hobby, job or career, or organization to join. For many of them, that excitement eventually decreases, and they lose interest. It’s natural to wonder if the newest exciting “thing” is really a passion or purpose when other passions and purposes have been left behind. Which to pursue is a question only you can decide. Research indicates, however, that satisfaction comes from pursuing the goals you care deeply about—these are often the purposes in life that you are most passionate about.

“The reality is that passion wanes over time, so if you just focus on following happiness, you might not stick with an endeavor like you would if you focused on how it helps you achieve what you care most about,” says researcher Jon M. Jachimowicz, PhD.

Harnessing ADHD symptoms

The common symptoms of impulsivity, inattention, and novelty seeking can be strengths in finding the passion or purpose that motivates you. ADHD symptoms can help to spark creativity or curiosity, and a good treatment plan can help you to follow through on the new ideas that bubble to the surface.

“Adults with ADHD may succeed professionally despite significant symptoms of inattention and executive dysfunction. They do so by appropriately using effortful strategies of compensation,” says researcher Andre Palmini, MD, of Brazil’s Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul.

Working with your ADHD specialist to design a treatment plan that is best for you is an important strategy in pursuing your passion or your purpose. Adding lifestyle supports, such as organizational systems and schedules, routines, and reminders, and working with someone who supports you, allows you to follow your strengths.

Habits for success

Writer Emily Sinclair Montague spent much of her life slogging through her ADHD symptoms, until she took her first writing class.

“Emotional intensity and mind wandering gave rise to some of my most creative and unexpected ideas, which blossomed into stories and prose when I was given the guidance I needed,” she says. “I simply needed to learn how to direct my passions in productive ways.”

Finding passion and purpose in writing was more than stumbling into creative writing. It was building a structure that worked with her ADHD symptoms. Behavioral scientist Katy Milkman, PhD, says the idea of using willpower is mistaken. Building habits and lifestyle supports, such as scheduling regular times for writing, leads to success in pursuing passions or purposes.

“Autopilot takes over, eliminating temptation from the equation. Having established good habits, little to no willpower is required to choose wisely,” says Dr. Milkman. “Sounds great, right? The only catch is that building good habits takes effort and insight.”

Her steps for building habits that work with and around ADHD symptoms:

  • Set a specific goal. Setting a clear, tangible goal can guide you in forming a plan.
  • Create a detailed, cue-based plan. A step-by-step approach or a schedule with target dates for smaller accomplishments moves you along the path of your purpose or passion.
  • Make it fun to repeat. Enjoyment and novelty are great ways to boost the ADHD brain to want to do something again and again.
  • Foster flexibility. If the first approach isn’t the right one, try something else. Forcing yourself to do the same task the same way each time ends with abandoning the habit.
  • Find the right kind of social support. Having people who enjoy what you enjoy, who share the same goals or purpose, and who encourage you is one of the greatest keys to success. This may be joining a new club or taking a class, or it could be more formal, such as working with an ADHD coach or a specialist in your new habit. Find your cheering squad and look to them for support.

“When I embraced writing as the greatest love of my life, I began to see more and more positives to the way I am wired,” says Ms. Montague. Her support system helped her to create the routines and gain confidence. “Therapy and personal education have certainly helped me to frame my ADHD in ways that make sense of it and untangle the symptoms. Talking to a psychologist has guided me toward unlocking some of the self-esteem issues that have haunted me due to my strange brain and all of its quirks.”

Once you have an idea of your passion or your purpose, and you’re ready to create new habits, remember that it is never a straight line from start to finish—and often there is no finish line. Living passionately and pursuing a fulfilling purpose is the ongoing journey.

“It’s important to bear in mind that resilience is key, because the pursuit of passion is an ongoing—and challenging—process,” says Dr. Jachimowicz.

Looking for more on finding a purpose or a passion?

Join the discussion: How are you pursuing a passion or a purpose?