For Parents

Want the Secret to Motivating Teens? Start with These Three Questions

By Wes Crenshaw, PH.D.

Getting a teen with ADHD out of bed is hard enough. Getting them to plan for the future? Next to impossible. Get your teen on track by encouraging them to ask themselves these questions that make them more productive — and motivated — in just five minutes.

For those with ADHD, managing every object, idea, obligation, event, relationship, deadline, to-do, and expectation is overwhelming. Even if you use lists and apps to keep track of your day, getting things done comes down to how you bring your brain to bear upon the problem you need to solve when you need to solve it.

Whether it’s completing a daily assignment, making a major life decision, or just getting up in the morning, problem-solving requires mindfulness — being aware of yourself, your thoughts, and your intentions. This is where many folks with ADHD glaze over. Being “mindful” brings images of staring into an imaginary abyss, meditating, or following the chants of a guru. That’s not what I’m selling today.

Meditation is beneficial, but achieving mindfulness is more practical and less complicated than you might think. You can live a more mindful existence by asking yourself three questions:


You need to ask yourself this question 20 times a day. Too often we stumble through life without asking ourselves what we’re involved with and where we’re going with it. Yes, some people get by on intuition alone, feeling their way from one situation to the next. But for the ADHD crowd, that’s a setup for a bad day. Better to step back and consider what’s happening in the moment to you, your environment, and those around you.

Sit in your car in the morning, or before you leave the house to catch the bus, and ask yourself if you have what you need to accomplish your tasks for the day. Think through what you have on your agenda and look through your backpack or briefcase. I touch my phone, wallet, reading glasses, and med-bag to assure myself that all is well. When you know what you’re doing, you can ask yourself the next question.



This question is the root of what we call “intentionality,” which is required for decision-making, planning, goal setting, and achievements, big and small. To make anything good happen in your life (getting up, going to college, picking a dating partner, keeping a job, deciding to have sex), you have to know what you want and pursue it. That sounds straightforward, except that humans aren’t animals acting on instinct alone. We have conflicting thoughts and emotions that influence our behavior. Sorting those out is an organizational nightmare for those diagnosed with ADHD. A great start to make some inroads is to answer the third question.



Doing what you mean to do turns out well only if it adds meaning to your life. You know how parents always say, “We just want you to be happy!” That sounds sweet, but, trust me, they don’t mean it. What they really want for you is a life that matters — to you and to those around you. To get on the road to mindful living, ask yourself why it matters that you get up in the morning, study biology, go to work, or buy something. Many things matter in your life, and you need to find them.

For people with ADHD, ascertaining meaning can be hard. For some, too many things matter, and it’s hard to sort them out and prioritize them. For others, nothing matters enough to make a difference. In either case, the answer is to ask yourself if what you’re doing will make a critical difference today, and to pursue that difference.


Another trick to building a daily meditation practice is to limit the time you spend on it. If you set aside, say, an hour to ponder the three questions, you’ll give up because that’s not an efficient way to spend time. Instead, give yourself between one and five minutes several times a day. I don’t send out a major e-mail without asking the three questions.

Everyone has trouble with the intensity of life. Because organization is hard for folks with ADHD, that struggle seems insurmountable. It’s not. Ask yourself the three questions and take a few minutes to listen to your responses.