Before being diagnosed with ADHD, I completed a 4-year degree and a master's degree, both in Linguistics. I also, more recently, completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Software Development. In hindsight, my ADHD always hindered my studying, so I found ways to get deal with my lack of focus in order to deal with the demands of postgraduate study. Here are 5 of my tried-and-tested study methods.
1. I Used a Pomodoro Timer for EVERYTHING
The Pomodoro Technique® seems to be gaining popularity recently and it’s no surprise.
In its most basic form, it follows this rule:
Work for 25 minutes
Take a 5 minute break
Work for 25 minutes
Take a 5 minute break
…and so on
When I say I used it for everything, I do mean everything. From writing papers, reading academic articles, programming, working on projects, to cleaning, and getting my life organised. The pressure of having to work to a 25 minute deadline makes me get stuff done.
This video provides a more detailed overview of how to use a Pomodoro timer:
Using this technique, I manage to concentrate on one thing at a time and I find I actually do those 'less-appealing' tasks.
We ADHD’ers need to procrastinate and, if you’re anything like me, without a deadline, you're lost. It’s this urgent deadline that gets us to do, well, anything (especially those things that we really don’t want to get started on).
The Pomodoro Technique® gives me that immediate deadline and creates the sense of pressure that is so vital when you really need to work but your mind is straying.
You can find out more from pomodorotechnique.com. Interestingly, as I was writing this, I checked out their website and actually came across an article in which the Pomodoro Team discuss its advantages for people with ADD. Which just goes to prove my point. (Thanks, guys!)
When I was doing my master’s degree in Linguistics, this was a total life saver. This really was the only way I managed to read (most of) those 100 pages of books and academic papers each week, get essays finished on time, and still managed to turn up to class.
You can find a ton of Pomodoro timers and apps online. I paid a little extra to use FocusBooster which is also perfect for my work as a consultant. This app allows me to allot periods of time to certain work and records the total hours and my pay per hour. That way, I can return to it later when I need to confirm my hours worked.
2. I Studied Something I Really Wanted to Study
This one should go without saying.
Okay, so you’ve got ADHD. You have so much focus and passion about certain things. So STUDY those.
I learned the hard way. After completing both undergraduate and master’s degrees in Linguistics (my all-time favourite), I decided to study for a second master’s in Software Development.
So, the course’s tuition was fully-funded by the government and there are so many software jobs in Northern Ireland right now that I was bound to get something and I thought, ‘hey, I like web design, maybe I’ll enjoy programming too’.
Turns out, I really need to be completely passionate about, and devoted to, my subject of choice.
Aspects of the software development course were enjoyable and I made some great friends, but I knew pretty early on that the course just wasn’t for me. Rather than put myself through the stress of getting the full master’s degree, I decided to settle on a Postgraduate Diploma (everything but the dissertation).
Even without the final dissertation, I spent 9 months commuting for 4 hours, 3 days a week. Then I had around 20 hours of classes and labs each week. I’m proud of myself for sticking at it for that long and I did learn a huge amount about software. However, I wasn’t that happy. By the time of my final exams, my anxiety was bad, I didn’t have the willpower to do my best at certain projects, and I didn’t really care how I did — as long as I passed.
My linguistics master’s degree was a different matter entirely. I felt so proud to be studying something I loved. I put in extra work. I hyperfocused on it, because I loved it so much. My lecturers were amazing (they made us coffee, I mean, come on, what’s not to like?) and writing my dissertation was kinda, sorta...fun? My graduation was also lovely and I was so happy to have achieved something so important to me.
Here I am geeking out next to the Rosetta Stone a few years ago, while I was still studying for that master's. I'm telling you, I really love linguistics.
My point is, don’t study something or work somewhere for the sake of it. Your ADHD will get so you darn far in life, as long as you’ve got that excitement and passion about what you’re doing!
3. I Took Physical, Handwritten Notes
And by 'handwritten', I don't mean on a laptop. This is real-life pen to paper.
Rather than typing my notes, or simply reading the handouts or slides, I wrote all my notes by hand. For me, this is the only way I can actively listen, understand, and remember, the points of the class. I wouldn't simply transcribe the lecture verbatim, I would need to think about what to write - which actually made me both concentrate more in class and learn more in the long run.
I would draw diagrams, write down my thoughts, and note anything I should google later.
My grades improved and I found myself actively listening in each class. There were entire two hour lectures when I wouldn't zone out because I was so busy writing everything down.
A recent study by psychologists, Mueller and Oppenheimer, found that students who handwrite their notes not only concentrate and learn better than their typing-counterparts, but were actually more likely to retain the information: even if those students don't re-read their notes after that class.
4. I Kept My Notes in One Place
(...Or at Least I Tried to)
Okay, I'll admit, my notes were everywhere.
Some days I forgot to bring my notebook with me to class. Some days I didn't bring a pen. I spent the first few minutes of far too many classes awkwardly asking classmates (or teachers!) for a few sheets of paper so I could keep track of the class (see point 3). Then there was the matter of bringing different bags to class - something I seemed to do quite frequently. At times I still discover dusty class notes at the bottom of long-forgotten bags.
This was before I even got to exam revision when I would frantically email classmates and lecturers for details about certain topics to figure out which notes I was missing.
But now, we have a solution! The best of these is the Scannable app by Evernote. This incredibly awesome app allows you to scan your handwritten notes using the camera on your device. Instantly, these notes will be filed away in your online Evernote filing system for safekeeping. I use the free version and it's all I need.
So before you have even left class, all you need to do is scan your notes, handouts, slides, or whatever, and you have instant organisation! An ADHD dream-come-true.
You can categorise these notes by tagging them and just search by tag when you need to re-read them later. Excellent!
5. I Asked For Help When I Needed It
Yes, this is admittedly a trickier subject. For many, it can feel like a sign of weakness or an excuse, yet, asking for help, additional time, or an extra meeting with a member of staff, shouldn’t be taboo. You’ve paid the tuition, you’ve turned up to class, you’re making the effort. Sometimes ADHD and mental health issues just get in the way.
Asking for help because of ADHD does not signify a lack of intellect; it shows that you care about the subject and want to make sure you’re in the right state of mind to give it your best shot. You could have just submitted scribbles on a page explaining that you couldn’t concentrate enough to even start the project, but you didn’t. Asking for help shows you’re actually trying and you want to succeed. If your lecturer has a problem with that, get your doctor to write a note to explain why sometimes your brain just can’t focus long enough to complete the task.
During my master’s, I decided to tell my lecturer after a seminar that I was struggling in class due to anxiety (this was before I was diagnosed with ADHD and, in hindsight, I was also hyperfocusing on the wrong things!) My inattentiveness made me get distracted with certain thoughts so I spent most of the class playing catch-up to figure out what the rest of the class were now talking about.
I guess I wanted my lecturer to know that I was still interested in the topic and I’d done the readings for that week — it was the ‘talking about the reading’ that was the hard part.
To my relief, he completely understood. He told me he could tell I’d prepared for class and asked if I’d like an extension on the upcoming essays. I took the extension (which he then gave to the rest of the class too) and I’d never felt so relieved. Once my anxiety dissipated, I worked harder than ever and was so grateful for that extra time.
Yes, not all lecturers may be this lenient, but there’s usually no harm in asking. After all, your mental health should always come first.