5 Tips for studying with ADHD blog post

It’s no secret that ADHD makes work difficult. Be that jobs around the house, or writing essays, ADHD can zap your focus or your energy and make it very difficult to stay on task and complete whatever it is you are trying to do.

For ADHD students, studying is particularly tough.

Why do ADHD students struggle to study?

When most people think of students they probably think of someone in a library, at a computer or reading a book. In our minds studying is quiet, tranquil, and completely submerged in whatever it is we are doing. This clashes with several ADHD traits which compel people to fidget, wander or to get distracted by everything (or even nothing!). 

For some ADHD students, studying presents a problem. It can be frustrating to try time and time again to work in a way that seems simple to others, but just doesn’t do it for you. It makes studying that much harder when the first battle is to stay focused, before you even begin your work.

Can you study with ADHD?

Whilst studying may be difficult for someone with ADHD, it is not impossible!

It simply requires some techniques and tools that will help you work with your ADHD.

5 Tips for Studying with ADHD

Here are five tips and tricks which I used during my degree to help me get through my studies by adapting to my ADHD, rather than fighting it.

1. Try different study methods, apps, and locations

If a “fad” style of working helped you get the bottom of even one project, then it was a success

There are numerous different aspects that are impacted by ADHD that need to be considered when trying to study. Where you’re studying, how you’re studying, and even what you’re doing with your phone whilst you’re studying can be really important.

For example, as ADHD may make you fidget, daydream or flick through thoughts and emotions like a flipbook, it often creates the need for multiple stimuli. This can be really difficult to manage if you’re trying to studying in a way that only involves one stimuli, such as sitting there reading from a book.

But on the flip side, this need for multiple stimuli can actually be harnessed for study; my University offered software which would read books out loud (wearing headphones in a library of course). My ADHD friend used this software to crochet whilst studying; feeding the ADHD need for multiple stimuli whilst auditory processing the information they were required to learn, stopping only to take essential notes.

There are also several apps to help with focus. Focus Plant or Forest are apps that helps to minimize the risk of being distracted by your phone. They work by growing a plant or tree whilst you avoid going on your phone; if you use your phone, the plant/ tree dies, and you must start again. I would allow myself tangents but would focus up every ten minutes to snap back to whatever I was doing; often I would set a timer. 

Sometimes, your headspace and where you’re actually studying is the most important aspect to work. I work so much better at a clean desk, listening to specifically string quartets. But on some days I feel more productive in a coffee shop, and sometimes in a library; I find it helps to vary my environment depending on how I’m feeling. 

Trying different methods and locations can be time consuming, and sometimes frustrating, but it can often lead to more productive work at the end of the line. And don’t feel bad if a system only works for a brief time; if a “fad” style of working helped you get the bottom of even one project, then it was a success.

2. Utilise Hyperfocus

To hyperfocus literally means to be so transfixed with something you cannot switch your mind to anything else. This isn’t always a positive; it’s not uncommon for people who are hyperfocusing to forget to eat or drink, and all other commitments can fly out of the window.

I find that whenever I am hyperfocusing on fabric crafts I look up and suddenly hours have passed, it’s nighttime, and I have a massive headache. It’s almost impossible to snap out of or even to appreciate some perspective during, so don’t feel too bad for not taking care of yourself.

But if you tend to hyperfocus on things, and you are capable of manipulating that, then why not use it to your benefit? During my music degree, I would lock my door, silence my phone, and spend hours writing compositions that should have taken months.

Please be careful if you are doing this; it is very important to take care of yourself and your health is more important than your studies. But why not get the best out of a deficit disorder?

3. The Checkbox Method

Ever ticked the box of a to-do list and breathed a sigh of relief? That’s because for many people with ADHD, ticking something off provides dopamine, a chemical in your brain which makes you feel good. It’s why checkboxes and to-do lists are such an effective method of organisation, particularly for people whose organising skills may not be their strongest suit.

Reducing a task or piece of work into smaller checkboxes and ticking them off as you go can not only help work seem more surmountable, it also gives you a little reward as you work. You can even plan breaks into these to-do lists (after three ticks, then I’ll go get my ice cream!).

This works on both micro and macro levels. You can do what I used to do and plan your whole day with to-do lists, from getting out of bed and showering to planned study sessions in the library, or you can break an essay down into subheadings, paragraphs, topics or readings all to be ticked off. Try to avoid putting timings down on to-do lists, or creating a to do list that’s miles long that nobody could complete; this could create too much pressure and reduce much-needed flexibility. 

4. Listen to Your Needs

There’s no point fighting what your body and mind are telling you. If you can’t get your brain to settle down and pay attention to whatever you’re studying, don’t force it. 

I often find myself reading things which make absolutely no sense at all while my mind is unsettled, only to revisit it later and discover it makes perfect sense. Don’t force yourself to do study when your brain isn’t working; you may end up getting no work done anyway, which is just a waste of your time.

What your ADHD requires is flexibility. For most ADHD people, the ability to focus comes and goes at will. So accept it, embrace it. Your mind is suddenly sharp as a point at 2am? Drink some caffeine, head to your desk and be productive when you can. 

Whilst the majority of people are required to stick to a 9 to 5, as a student with set deadlines, there’s slightly more flexibility as to when you conduct the work to meet those deadlines. Who cares what time the work gets done, as long as it gets done. 

Don’t force yourself to do work when your brain isn’t working; you may end up getting no work done anyway which is just a waste of your time.

5. Use your Peers!

What are friends for? When it came to essays and coursework papers, I found myself so burnt out after writing them that I never wanted to read them ever again. For some people, every proofread highlights more things that need to be adjusted, and the work never ends. Using friends to proofread essays and offer insight is a way to introduce patience that you may not have into a process that requires it. 

Friends are also typically good ears; rant to them! It’s good to check someone has the capacity to help you deal with your problems, but if so then unload how tough your work day has been. Got sucked into a Wikipedia hole while researching? Ended up cleaning your whole room instead of working in it? Sharing these things can be comforting and can also offer some perspective into studies which can sometimes feel completely overwhelming.

If you haven’t already, I recommend finding some ADHD friends who can further empathise with your struggles. Me and my friends used to share study tips as well as latest hacks for fidgeting, and which study spots offered peace compared to a more lively atmosphere. Advice and sympathy can sometimes make or break you, particularly close to a deadline. As a bonus, they can sometimes also help you navigate the support systems of your school/college/university.

ADHD Study Tips – Conclusion

Ultimately, there are a large number of hacks and tips for studying when you have ADHD, so hopefully at least one of these ADHD study tips will work for you. It’s okay to experiment with different studying tips and tricks; there’s no one-size-fits-all. It’s also okay to admit that it’s a struggle; ADHD is by definition a deficit, there is a reason it’s a disability. It can be disabling, and it can be incredibly frustrating or overwhelming to try and juggle these traits with your studies.

But you should never struggle alone. Support systems within your institution are required to help you with whatever is within their means, and don’t underestimate the impact of peer support. Studying with ADHD can be tough, but it can be done, and the toil makes the success that much sweeter.

References and Resources