When Simply Having a Planner Doesn't Help: Studying With ADHD
2022-03-21

“I can’t focus if something is boring.” It may sound ridiculous, butthis is what I googled back in 2020 after I returned to my home country completely shattered as the university experience turned out to be far from what I have expected. A few moments after, a combination of four letters, previously unknown to me, caught my attention: ADHD. 

What is ADHD? 

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)is a neurodevelopmental disorder. ADHD is characterised by symptoms of inattention, impulsivity,hyperactivity and impaired executive functioning – the ability to organise and prioritise, manage time, regulate attention and emotions, handle frustration, inhibit habitual responses and utilise working memory.Around 3–4% of the population worldwide have ADHD.  

There are three types (or “presentations”) of ADHD: predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive and combined. Individuals with the inattentive type (mostly girls and women) get bored very quickly,are easily distracted and forgetful, prone to daydreaming, often procrastinate and struggle to pay attention and follow directions. The hyperactive-impulsive type, on the other hand, is much more visible. Hyperactive ADHDers act “as if driven by a motor” – they are impulsive and impatient, have difficulty sitting still and controlling their behaviour, may talk constantly and interrupt conversations, often feel restless, squirm and fidget. The combination type, as the name suggests, is a combination of symptoms from the other two types. 

Missing extended deadlines 

Getting back to my story, that strange Google search, which was inspired by a feeling that there is something wrong with the way my brain operates, lead to me hyperfocusing on the ADHD topic. The more I read, the more all my life-long struggles made sense – a poor perception of time, severe procrastination, anxiety, inattention, emotional dysregulation and constant brain fog.  

When I was still in high school, my days had a clear structure and not conforming to it meant immediate negative consequences. While I was still struggling, this pressure helped me to stay on track. However, as soon as I moved to Scotland and started studying at university, a whole new lot of responsibilities fell on my shoulders. I was now responsible for creating that structure and it all soon became too much, not to mention the unfortunate timing when things were getting worse with Covid-19. 

I would go to tutorials and sit there not knowing anything about what is being talked about, watching a 15-minute segment of a lecture would turn into an inexplicable 2-hour misery and climbing Mount Everest seemed a less tiresome task than submitting an essay on time without having to spend three nights without sleep and having a mental breakdown to be able to finally focus on it. At one point, all this and chronic insomnia made me consider dropping out altogether as I was not able to see myself pushing through it. 

Eventually, I found out about the possibility to get a diagnosis via the university Student Support service. My suspicion was confirmed – the root of my problems was ADHD.The diagnosis meant I was now getting extra time on tests and extensions to deadlines, which took some pressure off. One year later, I still do miss my deadlines, sometimes even the extended ones, and essay writing still feels like fighting a battle but at least I know better how to cope with the way my brain works, and I am no longer beating myself up for not always achieving what I intended to. 

How to get things done 

ADHD can feel like driving on a highway with no brakes, although sometimes you can’t even start the engine. However, there are some things that you can do to make your journey through lifea little easier. 

  1. Reach out to university 

ADHD is a real disorder but youdon’t have to suffer in silence. Our university has an amazing Disability Team who are happy to help students with ADHD and other conditions. If you are in the sameposition I was during my first year and suspect that you might have ADHD but don’t want to wait for a medical diagnosis, the Student Support team can refer you to an Educational Psychologist.  

As a student with a learning difficulty you can get extra time in exams, agreed extensions to deadlines for coursework assignments and other adjustments, which help immensely. If you need support, just send an email to student.support@abdn.ac.uk

  1. Figure out when you’re most productive 

Some people are night owls and some are early birds; getting up at 6 am and trying to watch your lectures if you can barely keep your eyes open is not going to do any good. I’m personally most productive in the evening – exhaustion after a long day makes me focus a little better. Figure out what works best for you and try to create your schedule based on it. 

  1. Find a study buddy 

Studying alongside another person may work wonders for ADHDers. Body doubling is a method when a person with ADHD works on frustrating tasks when there is someone else to keep them company. Having a body double relieves anxiety, provides accountability and improves focus. Even studying in a library where you are surrounded by other students might help to get that necessary pressure to get work done. 

  1. Break down long and tedious tasks into smaller parts 

Long tasks feel overwhelming and prevent you from starting. Knowing that you have to write a 2500 words essayseems a lot more daunting than having to write just 300 words per day. Breaking down your tasks into smaller ones and successfully completing them one by one may also help you to get motivated. 

  1. Do easy tasks first 

Attempting to start with the most difficult task might lead to not doing anything at all. Working on the easiest tasks first helps to build momentum and gives you a sense of achievement when you finish them which in turn motivates you to proceed further.  

  1. Use the Pomodoro technique 

The Pomodoro technique is a well-known time management method – you set a timer for 25 minutes, work on your task and then have a little 5-minute break. It works even better if you can see how many minutes you have left. This tool provides some structure and gives you a deadline as well as a break to look forward to. 

  1. Have a cup of coffee 

Research has shown that caffeine, as a stimulant, can improve concentration in some people with ADHD. However, since everyone responds to caffeine differently, it may also make your symptoms worse. 

  1. Exercise, exercise, exercise 

Work out is said to be the best natural way to alleviate the symptoms of ADHD. It helps to increase dopamine levels and thus improves your attention and focus and reduces compulsive behaviour. If you are like me who’s struggling in this aspect, make sure you walk or cycle instead of driving and taking a bus or try doing some yoga. Exercise doesn’t have to mean going to the gym and even a few minutes of stretching can make a big difference in your brain. 

  1. Reward yourself 

A lack of motivation is one of the greatest issues for people with ADHD. Whether that’s putting your favourite song on repeat or getting ice cream, rewarding yourself after working through some burdensome tasks can help you to stay motivated.  

  1. Chewing gum is your friend 

This might sound like rather strange advice but some people with ADHD may benefit from chewing gum. It has similar effects as fidgeting but is not that noticeable and can improve your ability to focus as well as reduce stress. Just make sure to limit it to a few pieces per day. 

  1. Find creative ways to study 

ADHD brains always seek novelty and excitement. Turn your study sessions into a game, change your environment, pretend you are a student in the 1800s, make flashcards or create a song – studying doesn’t always have to be tedious. 

  1. Be kind to yourself 

Let’s be honest, having ADHD and being a student with multiple other responsibilities is not easy. You will most likely miss a few deadlines, forget to attend that important event you had multiple reminders for and leave a careless typo in your essaybut that’s not the end of the world. Your disability does not define you and you should be proud of every little achievement. Make sure you get enough sleep and take care of your body and mind, don’t beat up yourself for the fact that your brain operates in a slightly different way. 

Published by Students, University of Aberdeen

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