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3 ADHD Tips for Studying

ADHD study tips. A woman wearing glasses looks intently at her laptop and is biting a pencil placed horizontally in her mouth.

Trying to brain but can’t? Trying to get down to study when you have ADHD can feel downright impossible. To me, it feels like having a car that’s got the engine running but a knackered clutch. No matter what you try, it WILL NOT get into gear and you are going NOWHERE. Usually, the study methods that most of us pick up are geared to neurotypical (or at least, non-ADHD) brains. Our brains work differently, it’s not a matter of “effort” or “willpower”. Fun fact - trying to focus harder results slower processing for those with ADHD (I know, seems cruel right? The harder we try, the more difficult it is). This means we need ways that will work for our brains, not against, them! Luckily, there are such strategies out there and I’ll go over some of them in this article on Three ADHD Tips for Studying (if you’re not a student, fear not – these tips can be applied to other kinds of desk work!).

Before we start, a disclaimer. There are similarities in the way ADHD brains work – but that doesn’t mean that we are all the same. What works for one person may not for another (and what works for you one day may not work so well on a different day). Evidence-based means there is research to show that something is effective, but it’s not a guarantee of 100% for everyone all of the time. Give it a go and see what works for you.

ADHD Tip for Studying 1: Get Moving

You may already know that aerobic exercise (brisk walking, running, jumping up and down etc.) can increase brain volume which, in turn, enhances cognitive abilities, but, there is a wealth of evidence that shows that exercise benefits people with ADHD in particular in both in the short term and over a longer period.

For example, exercise before completion of a task that requires attention has been shown to increase accuracy on that task in people with ADHD while, interestingly, DECREASING accuracy in people without ADHD. Researchers think that this due to exercise raising the levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are lower in people with ADHD. Raising these levels means we can focus and direct our attention better – but for people without ADHD who already have an optimal level of these in their system, the extra from exercise impedes their focus.

ADHD tip for studying - a pair of legs covered in black leggings and mid-step are visible from mid-thigh downwards. The person is walking along a path, there is grass in the foreground and background.

Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash

How can you use this as an ADHD tip for studying? If you have an upcoming task, do a bout of aerobic exercise beforehand – around 20 minutes, so enough to get your brain moving but not enough to make you tired – and then start your task.

ADHD Tip for Studying 2: We Need Structure

I know, sounds boring right? Structure is a bit of a paradox for those of us with ADHD, because it can feel stifling – where’s the novelty?! But, no structure at all makes organization even more difficult as we have nothing to work around (like the pressure from immovable, external deadlines to get assignments done!) – we free float, start to drift and then often feel like we’re sinking.

Start by looking at what structures exist already that you can borrow. For example, when I was doing my Master’s degree, my university was brilliant at putting every single thing in a central point on Moodle, our learning management system. I took my structure from there, which meant I only had to check 1 place every week to know what I had to do and when – every assignment, lecture, seminar, all the notes and handouts I needed was in this one place. I was so organised that, for the first time in my life, others were asking me what they needed to plan for (I know, can you imagine?!).

If you’re struggling with how to manage unstructured study time, have a look at your course handbook and see how they recommend you break it down (it may be given as a total time, or as an amount for each module you’re studying) then, look at what commitments you have and schedule around that. This is where existing structure in the form of immovable commitments wins out over masses of unstructured free time – it gives you a hand in planning and also avoids the “I have all day free, I can start this anytime!” trap. Yeah, THAT one.

Next comes the detail – when you’ve decided what to study and when, look at the where and how. This may take some playing around with to see what works best for you, i.e. do you work better at home or in the library? Alone or with study buddies? The main point of this is to think about what you’re going to do BEFORE it’s time to start doing it to avoid burning through your study time and mental spoons trying to set up for work.

Lastly, if trying to do the above seems overwhelming, colleges and universities have student support and disability support services (whether you view your ADHD being a disability or not, in the UK it is covered under The Equalities Act (2010), which gives you protections under the law) which can provide you with extra support.

ADHD Tip for Studying 3: Get It Out

For a while now, the world has been moving to paperless, digital versions of documents, and while this may be great for the environment, it’s not always good for those of us with certain neurodivergences – and is why I think this ADHD tip for studying is one of the most important!

Studying tips for ADHD. Yellow and pink post it notes with writing on them are being arranged on white paper.

Research, which has compared groups of people who read the same story either from a physical (paper) book or on a Kindle, showed that those who read from the paper books could better recall the order of events in the story. This is due to the haptic and tactile feedback – essentially, the information our bodies get from touch – which helps with the organisation and memorising of information. The move to make everything digital has removed this tactile feedback, making it a lot harder to “map” information in our heads.

Now, I have a background in IT so have no problem organising computer files and folders, but when I came to my Psychology degree, I printed paper copies of lecture notes and research papers, and made essay plans by putting actual pen to actual paper and laying out sections in order (remember – tactile feedback!), because having a ton of information stored in the cloud made it seem a bit unreal and hard to remember what I had to keep track of. It felt like I was having to keep everything in my head, which is taxing on Executive Function and Working Memory – two things that are already under a heavy strain with ADHD! Dr. Russell Barkley, a well-known expert on ADHD, emphasizes the need to externalize information for this very reason.

Getting things out doesn’t just apply to study materials. Anything that requires memory or sequences of steps can benefit from this.

In a Nutshell?

In short – there are ways of studying that can work for people with ADHD, the trick is to use science to your advantage. If standard study tips haven’t worked for you so far, don’t try to force it as “trying harder” can result in slower processing. Physical activity can increase the levels of neurotransmitters needed to focus and you don’t have to do a huge amount of strenuous exercise. Using existing structure can give you a framework which will making planning far less daunting and study commitments easier to stick to. Lastly - my favourite of these Three ADHD Tips for Studying – get as much information out of your head as possible! Your working memory and other executive functions will thank you for it.


For more tips on getting your brain moving, read this blog post, 3 Tricks to Get Your Brain Moving or, find out more about me.

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