Focusing on a topic you’re not interested in or find stressful is no easy feat. If you’re neurodivergent or have ADHD, then it’s even more difficult. Those with ADHD often have trouble staying focused for long periods of time, procrastinate, and can suffer from depression.
The CDC says that around 9.8% of children ages 3-17, or six million, were diagnosed with ADHD using data from 2016-2019.
ADHD has often been considered to be more prevalent in males which has led to a possible underdiagnosis of ADHD in females. There’s research now that looks at the effects of late diagnosis and how that’s harmed women in society today.
What we do know is many people experience ADHD differently. Some use therapy, medication, or a combination of the two to deal with symptoms. Like most things, it’s not one size fits all.
While having ADHD can make studying harder, there are some techniques and skills to set yourself up for success.
Why focus is so hard
Research suggests that the levels of dopamine and noradrenaline in our brains can be related to ADHD. Lower levels of these chemicals can be considered part of the physiology for those with ADHD. That doesn’t mean that every person with ADHD definitely has low dopamine and noradrenaline levels, but the research suggests that it’s a common factor.
Both dopamine and noradrenaline are neurotransmitters created by the brain. They send messages throughout our bodies. Dopamine is most commonly referred to as the ‘feel-good’ hormone. When you play a game, pet a dog, or see a loved one, your brain releases dopamine.
If a brain is under-releasing these feel good hormones, it’s understandable that focusing would be even more difficult than normal (your brain isn’t rewarding you).
So, how do you fight your brain?
6 Strategies for better studying with ADHD
1. Spaced repetition
We talk about this a lot in our blogs, and for good reason. Spaced repetition is a superior method to cramming, every single time. For people with ADHD, cramming is even less effective. Cramming requires several hours of uninterrupted and intense focus. For someone with ADHD, this is unrealistic. Taking three hours worth of study time and spacing them over a few days vs. the day before an exam is going to yield better memory retention and less stress every single time.
2. Start easy
Being overwhelmed can put a major dent in your ability to focus. If you’re stressed or worried about your topic, start with something easy and small. Building up your confidence will help you focus and get into the swing of studying.
3. Factor in extra time
If you estimate something will take you thirty minutes, factor in forty for potential distraction time. It also gives you a ten-minute buffer to get into or out of your mental study mode.
4. Interacting with your material
Techniques that require you to focus more precisely on the material you’re studying can help ward off distractions. An example could be reading a lecture while listening to the recording.
Another option is letting yourself doodle while listening to material. A study asked 40 participants to listen to an audio recording. Half of them were asked to doodle and half weren’t. When asked to recall the information, those who doodled recalled 29% more information than those who didn’t.
5. Accommodate your sensory needs
Some find specific stimuli extremely distracting when trying to focus. Libraries are great options for some, while others find the lights and smells agitating. Alice, a comparative literature student at the University of Central London, has ADHD and is autistic. She found a great way to minimize sensory distractions but still hold herself accountable was to do a Zoom study session with a friend.
“I find the Student Centre and the cold libraries too noisy, the constant typing on laptop keyboards agitates me, the lights are exhausting and I tend to get lost in daydreaming. I get nowhere with my essays, if anything I get tired and somehow feel even more lonely and isolated. When working from home I get distracted, lack motivation, panic and often struggle with sleepiness because of emotional exhaustion. During the pandemic, I started video-calling some friends for study sessions. We are sometimes a street apart or continent apart and none of my study buddies study a topic even remotely close to my degree, but it doesn’t matter. We meet up everyday at 8 or 9 am on Zoom, and study together all day with the camera on to keep each other company. Online study-buddying motivates me a lot and helps me stay focussed. It helps me cope with loneliness which has dramatically worsened throughout lockdowns.”
6. Document your start and stop
It’s common for those with ADHD to struggle with memory. Writing down where you left off with your studying and what you plan to do the next study session can help. You don’t have to waste time figuring out where you left off.
ADHD makes focusing especially difficult. But, learning what works for you and what you need from your study environment is incredibly important to finding success. It takes practice, planning, and the willingness to know it won’t always be perfect.