4 ADHD-friendly strategies to keep your term on track

student studying

If you often find yourself struggling to stay on task, feeling unmotivated, or noticing your attention wandering during a long lecture — you aren’t alone! Maintaining focus and attention can be a challenge for many students adjusting to the more independent learning style required at university, and may be particularly tough for students with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

The good news is that there are a number of simple tips and techniques that can make a big difference in helping you get organized and stay on top of your work this term.

We met up with professional ADHD coach Dan Duncan for some expert advice and strategies that can help improve study habits for university students with ADHD (and anyone else struggling with motivation). Here are his top tips:

1. Schedule, schedule, schedule (and schedule some more)

student writing in a planner

Instead of this: Trying to manage your workload day-by-day

Try this: Schedule all your work in advance so you can forget about things until it’s time to work on them

Scheduling time is a big part of university for all students, not just students with ADHD. Dan explains: “You want to be planning as much as you can for your entire semester, so that all you (with an ADHD brain) have to do is live one day at a time.”

If you spend time at the beginning of your semester scheduling your due dates and the time you need to work on assignments, you can forget about your future tasks, and focus on what you need to do day-by-day (without being distracted by the stress of a midterm that isn’t for another five weeks).

Build out your schedule:

  • Block out time for small tasks (attending lectures, doing readings, completing homework assignments, etc.) and for bigger projects (studying for midterms, writing lab reports and essays, etc.).
  • Smaller tasks require fewer time-blocks than larger ones.
  • An effective way to schedule your blocks is to input all your due-dates and work backwards to determine start-dates. (Dan recommends that you calculate a start date, and add twenty per-cent).
  • Once you decide how long a task will take, give yourself some extra time just in case you need it (and let’s face it — we almost always do).

Dan recommends an electronic schedule that sends reminders to your phone: “The idea of being scheduled well is that you want to be able to forget what’s coming, so when it’s time to do it, it needs to come to you— which means it needs an alarm.” If you prefer a written calendar, try setting up regular reminders in your phone to check that calendar.

“One of the big reasons we’re distracted is we think being organized is only about planning when to do work, so while we’re working, we’re not really sure when we’re going to have fun, so our brain tries to fit fun into our study time.”

—Dan Duncan

“ADHD brains do not correlate time and task together very well, so you have to pick one or the other. Pick an amount of content (the amount of task), or an amount of time, but don’t say ‘I’m going to work for three hours, and in that time I’ll do chapters one, two and three.”

2. Can’t focus? Don’t forget the ‘fun factor’

students playing soccer

Instead of this: Planning to work for long stretches of time with no breaks

Try this: Schedule break times throughout your study session

It may seem counterintuitive, but a big chunk of your schedule should be dedicated to having fun. “One of the big reasons we’re distracted is we think being organized is only about planning when to do work,” says Dan. “So while we’re working, we’re not really sure when we’re going to have fun, so our brain tries to fit fun into our study time.”

Whether your fun involves choreographing a new TikTok dance, taking a quick nap, or slipping outside for a game of frisbee, you’ll enjoy it much more when it’s built into your schedule as a guilt-free break.

Planned breaks help you manage distractions, so you can work hard for a specific chunk of time knowing that you have a break coming up.

Plan for fun:

  • If you’re not sure where to start when scheduling your fun time, start with the Pomodoro method, and customize from there.
  • Work for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break.
  • Fun time equals interest, and more fun time equals more interest, which equals less stress to induce motivation.

The idea is to try to think of study time and fun activities as two things that can exist together. If you think of them as opposites that require opposing sides of your attention, you will to correlate the fun activities with interest and studying with stress. That correlation between study and stress will then cause you to procrastinate more, so you can build up enough stress to accomplish your studying (in a last-minute rush).

Instead, incorporate fun into your study breaks. When you know your study time has fun built into it already, you’ll have something to look forward to and will be less likely to put it off.

3. Switch it up

computer and coffee on a desk

Instead of this: Working from your bed

Try this: Change your environment when shifting between “work” and “fun” tasks

Work with an interval timer as your alarm to designate your fun time from your work time, and every time that timer goes off, change your environment, even just a little.

Make the switch:

  • Getting up off your bed and moving to your desk when your work time starts will help your brain realize it’s time to shift into work-mode.
  • If you can, study with someone else and both use the same timer — this will help keep you accountable for your time, since you know that you’ll be connecting regularly with someone who is on the same timer you are.
  • Recognize this switch between environments as its own task, even if it only takes three seconds.

Dan says, “The magic is all in the fact that the switch is not negotiable. You have to switch.” Even if you can’t bring yourself to work when you get to your desk, that’s okay. Leave the timer on and switch back to your desk every time the alarm goes off. The repetition will help you build the motivation to work, even if it takes a few tries to kick in.

“The idea of being scheduled well is that you want to be able to forget what’s coming.”

—Dan Duncan

4. Zoning out in lectures? Utilize your input/output cycle

students discussing lecture material

Instead of this: Trying to complete a long lecture or reading session all at once

Try this: Incorporate pauses so you can process the information in smaller pieces

It can be really hard to stay engaged for a full ninety-minute lecture, even if you don’t have ADHD. You’re taking in so much information, sometimes your brain can’t hold it all in. It’s important to let that information out in the form of a question, explanation, or discussion—this is your input/output cycle.

Give it a try:

  • Instead of thinking about your lectures as ninety-minute blocks, break them up into fifteen or twenty-minute blocks of input, then a minute or two of information output as discussion or questions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or get clarification by talking about the concept.
  • If your professor incorporates discussion into their lectures and you feel like you can’t take in any more information, raise your hand and offer a brief summary of your understanding of the concept and ask if there’s anything you’re missing.
  • Or, you can even mute your mic and explain all the new information to yourself to free up space for more input.

The input/output cycle is also useful to keep in mind when doing your readings. Break up your thirty-page reading into smaller chunks by stopping every few paragraphs and explaining out loud to yourself the key points the author is making. Explaining it to yourself in your own words will help you understand the concepts better, and stopping to output the information every so often will make it easier to stay focused on your reading.

ADHD brains also tend towards kinesthetic learning, so if you can incorporate motion into your lecture (turning off your camera and walking around your room as you listen to the lecture), you can extend your executive function for a longer period.

“ADHD is actually not about any kind of skill deficit — it’s about low-motivation, and so that low motivation doesn’t kick the skills in when we need them to.”

Remember to be kind to yourself even when you feel unproductive, and don’t hesitate to access the supports you need to maintain your wellbeing and academic success.

If you have ADHD, consider contacting UBCO’s Disability Resource Centre (DRC). Many UBCO students with ADHD register with the DRC for support each year, so the accessibility advisors are well equipped to help you develop a plan to succeed in your studies. We recommend getting started early to make the most of your academic plan.

The Student Learning Hub can also help with strategies for improving time management, managing procrastination, and other good learning habits.

Additional ADHD resources:

  • The CADDAC website is a great resource for understanding ADHD.
  • Dan also recommends the How to ADHD page on Facebook which has lots of posts and videos about resources for living with ADHD.
  • Check out ADHD Inside Out for more ADHD information, tips, and coaching from Dan Duncan

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