Studying as an ADD/ADHD student can prove challenging. Three of the biggest struggles for an ADD/ADHD student are organization, the wandering mind, and sitting still. Thankfully, with today's technology, there are a lot more options than a trapper-keeper calendar to help you stay on task.
For many, teachers and parents provided an external structure during high school. In college, it is assumed that you possess the skills necessary to organize your own time and materials.
Many students, though, struggle to focus and stay organization. Fear not! There are many tips and tricks for keeping yourself on task and organized.
1. Use your smartphone
Smartphones are built with every organizational tool imaginable. At the beginning of the semester, put all the important dates into your calendar and use the alerts to remind you in advance. Set reoccurring alarms to wake you up or remind you to go to class.
ADD students have the unique ability to hyper-focus. As such, you run the risk of finding yourself so caught up in a task that you completely miss your 2 o'clock class. Set alarms for everything! Click here for a more comprehensive list of how to use your smartphone. Also, when studying, put your phone in airplane mode to minimize distractions like emails, texts, or social media pushes.
2. Identify what distracts you
As Socrates echoed, “Know thyself.” Does your mind wander in utter silence? If so, avoid the library. For some ADD/ADHD students, a quiet room with the occasional sound, like coughing, page turning, or whispers is more distracting than a noisy environment where they can tune everything out. If this is you, find a restaurant, café, or coffee shop that has Wifi and study there. Only, make sure you are respectful and buy something.
Do you need utter silence? Find a private study room in the library. If you have a hard time sitting still, a private study room will allow you to pace while you study without feeling like other people are looking at you.
Do you find yourself remembering other tasks, like mailing a letter or washing the dishes? If so, studying at home or in your dorm may not work well for you. The key is to figure out what distracts you and avoid those environments. It may be a trial and error process, but keep trying different settings while evaluating your productivity.
3. Break up your study times into chunks
The thought of studying for hours at a time can be daunting. Set a timer for increments of dedicated study time and be sure to include short breaks. If you find yourself “in the zone” and want to go longer than the dedicated study time, keep going! Just remember that when you take a break, set an alarm so that you don't accidentally spend and hour Facebook or Pinterest.
4. Make lists
Studies show that the ADD/ADHD brain has a difficult time prioritizing. Sit down and make a list of everything that needs to get done. Don't worry about the order. Go over your list a second time and number the tasks in order of importance.
If you have a large assignment, write out all the steps. This will help divide the task up into manageable chunks so that you are not overloaded with everything all at once. This will help you set realistic goals for yourself.
5. Save the best for last...or maybe not
There are two opposing strategies that work well for students, ADD or not.
The first way is, if there are multiple assignments of equal importance, do the ones you like least first. Starting is often easier than finishing for an ADD/ADHD student. After a certain amount of time, your attention will wane. But, if you are heading toward an assignment you want to do, it can help you stay focussed while you get there. Also, the victories you earn as each assignment is completed will fuel you to keep going. You may be more productive if you save the best till last.
On the contrary, some students find it best to start with the easiest tasks first. Going this route can help you get the juices flowing. Also, it may very well be the case that you cannot concentrate on the less appealing tasks because your mind keeps going back to the more favorable assignment. If you struggle to get the ball rolling, do what's easiest first. The same principle as stated earlier applies: the victories you earn as each assignment is completed will fuel you to keep going.
6. Write down stray thoughts
Our natural instinct is to find an escape route from unpleasant tasks. Menial things, like thinking about returning an email, or wondering what your dog is doing at home, pop into our minds and it is a temptation to do them “real quick” so that we don't forget. Don't fall into the trap.
Write down the fleeting, distracting thoughts. The brain is programmed to keep things that we don't want to forget in the forefront of our mind, which crowds out the information you are trying to learn. These thoughts can easily bounce around, distracting you from the task at hand.
Any stray idea that you feel the need to address, just write it down. Get it all out. It'll clear your mind so that you can concentrate on your work; if it's written down, it won't have to stay on your mind!
7. Find out what accommodations your school has
Traditional students can find a variety of resources at their schools, and many online programs are beginning to offer learning accommodation for students in need.
Learning accommodations counselors will help you find access to disability counselors or doctors who can prescribe medication. Your school might have accommodations for students with formally documented learning differences, including extra time for tests.
Find a counselor on campus to learn about your options. Several online schools like Oregon State, University of Connecticut, or American University offer academic support. These are only a few; there are more. Research your school and make some phone calls to determine what resources are available.
8. Get the correct diagnosis
If you struggled less (or not at all) with ADD/ADHD in high school, don't immediately assume that that is the problem now. Many of the symptoms of ADD/ADHD mimic the symptoms of anxiety. Medication like Ritalin or Adderall will actually make the problem worse instead of better.
General practitioners can help, but it's best to meet with a mental health counselor who will take the time to appropriately identify what is holding you back. It may be that talk therapy can help, or medication may be required. Most colleges provide mental health services for students, at no cost. It's best to take the time to fix the problem right the first time.
9. Move around!
This is a particular problem for those with ADHD---sitting still can be hard. When studying, find a place where you don't feel self-conscious moving around. Repetitive movements, like pacing back and forth or rocking in a chair can help you to concentrate and better retain information.
If you are attending classes in person, talk to your professor at the beginning of the semester and explain that you might need to stand at the back of the room occasionally. However, avoid doing anything that will distract the other students, like tapping your pencil or sitting in a squeaky chair if you have keep changing position.
10. Talk to yourself or others
If you are an auditory learner, don't be afraid to read information aloud to yourself. If you retain information better by talking through the concepts, study with someone else from the class. You can pace your study so that you alternate personal study with discussion.
College is a time for learning about yourself, among other things, and developing habits that you will take into the workforce. Often, individuals to whom things come easily get blindsided when they are finally faced with a task that doesn't. Learning how to overcome personal challenges now will make you that much more prepared to tackle challenges in the future, and with less frustration.
If organization seems more difficult for you than others, just remember that overcoming a difficulty makes you stronger than someone to whom it comes easily, and more able to overcome challenges in the future. See our article: How to stay organized in college with your smartphone.