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10 Study Tips for the Student With ADHD

In high school, I was a D-student. I wasn’t unintelligent, quite the opposite, actually. Many of my teachers told me I was a joy to have in class discussions and once they explained the material in class, I had some pretty great contributions. So, why the low marks? Whenever I had to sit down and study, I would short-circuit. I just couldn’t manage to get through the homework. It drove my family bananas! They knew I could do better! I remember one particular evening my father offered me, I kid you not, $100 to read two chapters of a book due the next day and write the accompanying summaries, and I just couldn’t get through it. Tension headaches, not enough stimulation and low frustration tolerance all added up to me doing the exact amount of work I needed to finish high school in four years and not a single bit more.

When I got to college, however, I went to therapy, I did research on my own, I read books on attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and I tried and failed and learned until I finally discovered a method of studying that worked for me. I went from high school to the first college that would take me, and I was miserable there. But once I figured out how my brain worked, I left, did a year at community college and transferred to a top 100 university!

The moral of my story is it is incredibly easy to mistake a lack of understanding of the mechanics of the ADHD brain for inadequacy, especially because most versions of an American education is tailor-made for a neurotypical brain. As a result, most teachers are only taught how to instruct neurotypical brains. The unfortunate truth is, many of us with ADHD do better later in life than at the beginning because we are given a brain that operates considerably different than the type of brain we are taught how to use, and we have to pretty much figure ours out by ourselves. It is possible, though. I did it, and I’d like to share with you how.

Disclaimer: Everyone is different and so the methods I provide will not be a perfect fit for everyone, but even if they aren’t perfect, I hope they offer ideas and a place to start when it comes to conquering your own neurology and pursuing academic success!

1. My 10:3 rule.

Tasks can be big, scary, mysterious things. How long will they take? What if there are complications? Time, however, is finite and unchanging. I have always found I am much more focused and at ease when I measure my work with milestones marked by time spent on the task instead of by accomplishments. For example, if I have 20 math problems, instead of saying “I will take a break when I finish five problems,” I say, “I will work on this for 10 minutes and when that is over, no matter what I’m doing, I will stop and take a three-minute break.” I find ten minutes on and three minutes off is my ideal ratio, but feel free to play with those numbers! There is a certain comfort that comes with knowing no matter what, a break is coming. And besides, I can do anything for 10 minutes, right?

2. Take your breaks.

Trust me on this one, your brain needs breaks! Do not think of them as a luxury, think of them as a necessity! That is how you work! If you were driving a long distance on the highway and you noticed you were out of gas, would you consider pulling off and getting gas a waste of time because it adds to the trip? No! Of course not, your car needs to refuel and so do you. When you are on a break, make sure it is really a break. Don’t answer emails, don’t look a bit ahead in whatever you’re working on, do something you enjoy. Play a video game, watch a movie, walk, whatever — just do something stimulating! Refill the tank.

3. Explore options.

Reading is terrifying to me. When I see a page full of uniform text, I get really intimidated. I actually love to read, though. I love stories and fiction and getting caught up in another world! But the actual process of getting through the text is daunting to me. So, instead of brute forcing my way through the text, a method I have found accomplishes nothing, I do it in a way that works for me. Audiobooks, using a reading ruler to read line by line, using a text-to-speech software or reading out loud! All these have helped me accomplish the same task required of everyone in my class, but in a way that is manageable for me! Remember, it doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to get done!

4. “I’m gonna check my phone real quick then get right back to studying!” -Liars

When I have to do homework, I try to clear my environment completely. Bare necessities only. A fundamental truth of under-stimulation is if one task is stimulating and another is not, you will be attracted to the stimulating one. Exercising some control of your environment can keep you from getting caught up in tasks that seem fun and exciting, but keep you from getting work done. Lock up your phone, tell people you need quiet and make sure to have whatever supplies and snacks you need available so you don’t have to leave the environment and invite those distracting stimuli back in.

5. Shots!

Of gatorade! After doing a session of mentally taxing work, I often get really bad headaches and feel totally run-down. I find taking a shot glass worth of Gatorade gives me a little boost because the sugar metabolizes into glucose so quickly! You are going to want to keep it at only a shot glass, though.

6. Take notes (not fun, I know, but hear me out).

I’m sorry, folks. I know taking notes can be very hard for us, but it is a necessary evil. Reading comprehension can be very difficult for people with ADHD and despite its tedious nature, taking notes really is the best way to improve reading comprehension. You can try taking notes in different ways though, such as mind mapping or audio notes — that may make it easier!

7. Show “should” the door.

“Should” is not your friend. I know what it’s like to think, “I should be able to read this normally.” Or, “I should have the capability to just sit and do work like everyone else I know.” Trust me when I tell you your life becomes a whole lot easier when you let that go. I had a professor once say to me, “We are not human beings, we are human becomings.” People do things their own way, at their own pace, to achieve their own goals. A little friendly competition can be a great motivator, but stacking your life up against others is just probably never going to play out in your favor. You will never be a better version of someone else than that person already is and they will never be a better version of you. so the only person worth comparing yourself to is you from yesterday. There is no “should,” no “right” way or “wrong” way. Do yourself a favor and do not make the same mistake I did and assume there is a “wrong” way to be a person. Do what you have to do!

8. Find motivation and surround yourself with it.

Motivation for us with ADHD tends to be different than for people without ADHD. We crave stimulation and I believe the best way to make homework stimulating is to become personally involved in it. I like to write myself post-it notes reminding me of why I want to pass college and what awesome stuff lies ahead of me if I keep at it even when it’s hard! I surround myself with these because as soon as I feel like quitting, my eyes come off the assignment and are met with motivation!

9. Don’t think of it as homework.

Sometimes, when I’m really struggling with my ADHD, I have to really sell the idea of sitting down and doing work to myself and that can be a really  tough sell. So, at times like this, I throw out the idea of doing homework altogether and just play video games! For three minutes at a time! With 10 minutes of other stuff in between! It sounds like a cop-out, but it really does help! “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” This quote has been credited to too many people to mark, it’s like quoting. “Happy birthday” to one person in particular. But the sentence is so true! Giving importance to the enjoyable aspect of something gives you power and strength when approaching it, instead of fear and dread. When people with ADHD feel empowered, we can perform so much better!

10. Keep trying and don’t give up.

The really scary thing about having ADHD, in my opinion, is also the most exciting aspect of it. We are living in a time where ADHD is not fundamentally misunderstood as it has been for much of history! We have the opportunity to explore and try things and find ways for people like ourselves to succeed. So if something doesn’t work, think of it as an experiment that failed. Do not give up, review it and find out what happened and try again! You can find it! And when you do, make sure to pass it on!

Getty image by Motortion