If you live with ADHD, studying might feel like an overwhelming task. But trying some new study tips could boost your mood — and your grades.
There’s no denying that attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can make studying a challenge.
For starters, ADHD can prime your brain for procrastination, so you might put off your work until the last second. And when you finally sit down in front of your assignment, you might find your focus slides away from the page, like water off a duck’s back.
But difficulty studying and completing school assignments on time can have long-term effects on your academic performance.
For instance, in one 2016 study, middle school students with ADHD turned in about 12% fewer assignments each quarter than their peers, according to their teachers, and they earned lower grades overall. The researchers also found earning lower grades made it less likely that students with ADHD would complete future assignments.
To put it simply: If you have a hard time studying, the thought of cracking open your books might create plenty of stress — especially if you’ve earned lower grades in the past. You might doubt your abilities or think, “Why bother? I won’t do a good job, anyway.”
But a number of strategies can help interrupt this negative feedback loop and revamp your study sessions, including the eight tips below.
Everyone experiences ADHD differently, so you may find some of these tips more helpful than others.
Keep in mind, too, there’s no single “correct” way to study — go with what works for you personally.
Do you notice your homework always seems to take longer than expected? According to one 2019 study, kids and teens with untreated ADHD spend more time each day studying than their neurotypical peers, or kids without ADHD.
The planning fallacy may help explain why it’s not always easy to tell how much time you need for a task. In a nutshell, the planning fallacy refers to a tendency to underestimate how long a project will take. You might focus on the duration of the actual task but forget to budget in time for breaks or setbacks.
If you live with ADHD, you might get distracted easily and find your concentration drifting away from the task at hand. So, giving yourself a bigger time “buffer” could make a difference.
The size of your buffer will probably depend on the assignment’s size and importance. For instance, if you think you can complete a take-home worksheet in 30 minutes, you may want to add a buffer of 5-10 minutes. On the other hand, if you think your term paper will require about 20 hours of work total, you might want to budget for at least 30 hours.
When it comes to bigger projects, one roadblock can cause a domino effect that delays your whole timeline.
If you have ADHD, you may find it harder to focus on things that don’t hold your attention. This isn’t a matter of willpower, but of brain chemistry.
People with ADHD tend to have lower levels of dopamine, a chemical that helps you stay motivated and on task. With less dopamine in reserve, your brain may flutter from distraction to distraction, trying to find something naturally rewarding to engage with. Tasks you find interesting, challenging, or new can boost low dopamine levels.
You can’t always make algebra homework fun, but you can make it feel novel by engaging your senses as you work. A few ideas to try:
- Highlight key vocabulary or concepts in bright colors.
- Take a pen and underline each word as you go.
- Read each question or formula out loud.
- Write comments in the margins of your notes.
Many people with ADHD have trouble with prospective memory, or remembering to follow through on plans — which can also complicate the studying process.
For example, say you mentally promised yourself to start writing an essay after completing your chemistry lab write-up. But you get so focused on chemistry that your brain drops your plans from its memory storage. When you wrap up your lab report, you take the rest of the night off because you forgot about the essay.
In situations like these, reminders often come in handy. You can set yourself up for success by:
- Setting an alarm on your phone: Giving the alarm a name, like “history essay,” can help you remember what it’s for.
- Using sticky notes liberally: Try attaching notes to your TV, gaming console, refrigerator, bathroom mirror, or other visible locations. It might also help to put the sticky note in a new place each time so your eyes don’t learn to skim over it.
- Recruiting an accountability buddy: This person can check in with you and offer vocal reminders to get started on your work. It helps to choose someone who will actually hold you accountable and not take, “I’ll start in a few minutes” at face value.
Absolutely, ADHD can make organization difficult, but you can learn to develop this skill. What’s more,
- managing schedules and tasks
- keeping track of papers and school supplies
- inattention symptoms
- overall academic performance
Clutter and chaos in your environment can both add to your stress and serve as distractions, but these ideas can help you find a more orderly middle ground:
- Folders are your friend: Folders give you a general idea of what assignment goes where, so you don’t have to flip through every single paper you own to find what you need. You can also label folders with the class or project name so you don’t need to keep track of what goes in the green folder and what goes in the yellow one.
- Keep a planner: As soon as you get your assignment, write the due date in the planner. It may also help to highlight the most urgent assignments.
- Start each day’s notes on a new page: If your notebook is nonstop text with no line breaks, you may have trouble finding where one day’s notes end and the other’s begin. Using dates, headings, and extra space between your notes can help you set each day’s work apart.
- Put away finished projects: Once your teacher returns a graded assignment, put it aside in a “completed” folder or box at home. That way, you have the assignment if you need it, but it doesn’t take up space in your binder or backpack.
- Pack your bags in the evening: It often proves much less stressful to pack your bags at night when you aren’t racing against the clock. If you try to cram everything in your backpack while rushing out the door, you might leave an important assignment behind.
Ever read through your to-do list and just sat there, staring, unable to get started? You know you should start something, but you have no idea where to begin?
This kind of executive dysfunction is common enough in ADHD to have its own unofficial name: ADHD paralysis.
Creating a regular routine could make it easier to get started. If you have classes every morning, you might create an afternoon schedule along these lines:
- Lunch (30 minutes)
- History (30 minutes)
- Break. Get up and stretch! (10 minutes)
- History (20 minutes)
- Chemistry (30 minutes)
- Break. Snack time! (10 minutes)
- Math (30 minutes)
- Break. Take a walk! (15 minutes)
- Math (30 minutes)
You can even set timers with an alarm clock or your phone to remind you when to transition to the next activity.
A routine may not completely erase executive dysfunction, but it can help. ADHD paralysis has its roots in indecision, and knowing you’ll do the same thing at the same time every day frees you from having to make choices about what to do when. So, your brain may click over into work mode more smoothly.
You may need to practice your new routine for a while before it feels automatic. But habits generally become easier the more you practice them.
Keep in mind
When building your routine, it’s important to follow your own natural rhythms.
Research from 2017 suggests many people with ADHD are “night owls,” or more alert in the evening. If that’s the case for you, then you may find evening study sessions more productive than morning or afternoon study sessions — just as long as you set aside enough time for quality sleep.
For some people, absolute silence makes an ideal studying soundtrack. But if you have ADHD, some background noise could help improve your focus.
One 2020 study had preteen students study with and without music. For students with ADHD, music added extra stimulation to keep them engaged, so they had improved reading comprehension and focus.
But students with typical development — those without ADHD — found the music overstimulating. They had worse focus and reading comprehension while listening to music.
A 2022 study found similar results for white noise. In fact, students with ADHD performed even better on cognitive tasks with white noise than they did with music. Students with typical development, on the other hand, worked best in silence.
Nearly everyone procrastinates on occasion, but — as noted above — you might procrastinate
You might put off studying for your midterm, sure, but the date of the test probably still lurks in the back of your brain. As the test draws closer, you might worry about how little time you have to study, and anxiety about your performance can make studying feel even more daunting.
Try these tips to break the cycle:
- Divide big assignments into chunks: The idea of reading a 300-page novel may feel intimidating. Reading the 15 pages of the first chapter, less so. But if you read 20 of those chapters, you’ll eventually finish the book.
- Gather all your materials ahead of time: Nothing ruins the flow of work like having to get up every 10 minutes to search for another book, pencil, or notepad. Gather everything you need in one place so you can access it easily.
- Follow through on missed work: If you put off an assignment, do it first thing the following day. This teaches your brain that it can’t avoid difficult tasks indefinitely.
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes: No one, not even Shakespeare himself, ever wrote a flawless first draft. Remember, you can always go back and edit your errors later. It’s usually much easier to find and fix mistakes typed on a page than to edit ideas floating half-formed in your brain.
If you live with ADHD, you may have a looser sense of time than people without ADHD. The future might feel a little less solid for you, so you might find it harder to motivate yourself to do boring, difficult homework in order to earn a good grade several weeks or months down the line.
One way to get around this issue? Offer yourself smaller rewards more frequently to keep your motivation high. For example, after every page of math equations you finish, you might reward yourself by:
- calling or texting a friend
- playing with your pet
- scrolling through your social media of choice
- watching a funny video
If you tend to get wrapped up in an activity, setting a timer can help remind you when to get back to work.
Studying can pose ongoing challenges when you live with ADHD. But making adjustments to your homework routine and trying out a few new approaches to studying may help you manage your workload more effectively.
If you consistently find it difficult to stick with a routine or keep up with your schoolwork, a mental health professional can offer more personalized guidance. They can help you explore options for addressing ADHD symptoms, which can help reduce their impact on your everyday life.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.