ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, can present a variety of difficulties, not least for students. For many of us, staying focussed when studying can be a real challenge; of course, you have a lot of work that needs to get done, but as a student with ADHD symptoms, the backlog of tasks can seem insurmountable. Some of the primary symptoms of ADHD that can cause you to be easily distracted include:
- Trouble focussing in noisy or busy environments
- Difficulty maintaining concentration on one task
- Not paying attention to details; what others might perceive as ‘making careless mistakes’
- Mood swings or emotional fluctuations (often when faced with time-sensitive tasks)
- A tendency to lose focus when there are other tasks waiting for your attention
- External distractions, such as movement or noise, which cause your focus to break
ADDitude reports that one in five students with ADHD don’t receive the help they need in school, and that up to 8% of college/university students self-report “significant symptoms” of ADHD. For students of any age, academic pressure can build up, and finding ways to manage distractibility is an essential strategy.
In this blog post, we’ll cover the ways ADHD can affect the brain’s ability to concentrate and why it can sometimes present challenges with distractibility. We’ll then examine some internal/external strategies to help manage the symptoms, and suggest other resources you may wish to explore if your distractibility starts to become overwhelming.
Why Does the ADHD Brain Sometimes Struggle to Focus?
ADHD symptoms can affect students of any age, making it difficult to complete tasks. Children, for example, might struggle with focus; or, as a teen or adult with ADHD, it may be challenging to limit distractions while at college or university. These difficulties can also present themselves later in life, if you’re trying to study a new skill or hobby.
The first thing to make clear is that finding it difficult to stay focussed does not mean you are lazy, listless, lethargic, or any other word that might indicate you have a poor work ethic. It’s just that the ADHD brain is wired slightly differently.
In the world around us, distractions exist everywhere – the hustle-bustle of the street outside, ringing telephones, the typing of a keyboard, doors opening and closing, background music – and these multiple stimuli can, quite naturally, cause your attention to break, or your concentration to ‘snap’ onto something new. The nature of ADHD means that factors such as these are more of a challenge for those dealing with the symptoms.
We can turn to brain chemistry for possible answers. The primary symptoms of ADHD can be broadly drawn into three categories: inattentiveness, hyperactive-impulsive, or a combined presentation. N. del Campo et al. suggest in their research that people with ADHD may have lower levels of norepinephrine and dopamine (neurotransmitters, or ‘chemical messengers’ in the brain, which are related to our ability to maintain focus and see tasks through). They act as a mental prompt, or ‘prod’, to help keep us on task and focussed.
Internal Tips to Avoid Distractions with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Fortunately, there are a variety of ways you can help yourself limit distractions and stay focussed. For the purposes of clarity, we’ve divided the most effective strategies into two groups: internal techniques – that is, practises you can put to work within your own body and mind – and external techniques, which refer to changes you can effect in the world around you.
First, let’s take a look at some internal strategies:
Practise positive visualisation
One great ADHD-focus strategy is to ‘see’ yourself completing tasks beforehand, in your mind’s eye. When we perform visualisation exercises, the brain may be able to take that information and utilise it as an actionable, lived experience, resulting in the mentality: ‘I know how to do this.’ Positive visualisation allows us to break a larger task – ‘study for test’, for instance – into smaller, more manageable chunks, such as ‘review module 1,’ ‘test myself on vocabulary for module 2,’ ‘do a mock test,’ and so on.
Reinforce productivity with positive self-talk
Similarly, it can be a powerful concentration aid to motivate yourself internally via positive self-talk. This works most effectively when you actually take the time to think the words – ‘tell’ yourself positive messages of encouragement, recount moments when you managed to complete tricky tasks, and focus on the best ways for you to navigate challenging activities. In this way, you can become your own ADHD coach.
Keep your emotions in check
Mood swings and fluctuating emotions are often at the root of concentration difficulties, among other symptoms. Clinging on to anger, disappointment, frustration and so on doesn’t allow you to move past these unhelpful emotions; rather, you’ll end up blowing them out of proportion, and lose a sense of perspective. Remember, failures do not represent who you are; they are valuable learning experiences. It’s how we process them that dictates the future. Consider looking into mindfulness and breathing techniques, such as yoga or the ‘5 second stop and think’ strategy, to stay in control of your emotions.
Strategise the order you tackle tasks
It’s often massively helpful to do the least-favourable task first, and use the activities you don’t mind doing as a kind of reward or motivator. For instance, if you feel OK about studying English Literature, but Philosophy is giving you a hard time, start with the Philosophy, and ‘look forward’ to the English. Sounds simple, but it works! Equally, it’s often helpful to switch between tasks semi-regularly, rather than demanding that one thing is 100% completed before the next can get underway. When you feel your attention drifting, work on something else for a while – as they say, a change can be as good as a rest.
Utilise the Pomodoro Technique
Originally developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, this is a time-management strategy that uses a kitchen timer to split work into achievable intervals. Each interval usually lasts 25 minutes, and is known as a ‘pomodoro:’ Italian for ‘tomato.’ There are six steps:
- Establish the task that needs to be done.
- Set the timer for 25 minutes.
- Work on the task.
- When the timer sounds, put a small mark on a piece of paper.
- If you’ve ‘collected’ fewer than four marks, take a five-minute break, and return to step 2.
- After you’ve ‘collected’ four pomodoros, take a longer break – up to 30 minutes – and return to step 1.
External Tips to Avoid Distractions with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
With some internal concentration aids at work, it’s time to consider how your external environment can be altered to help you complete study tasks. The chances are this won’t necessitate any dramatic overhauls – often, it’ll be small adjustments that can make a big difference to your productivity and ability to study effectively.
Head-off distractions before they happen
It’s often the case that prevention is the best form of managing a problem, and the same is true of distractibility. Rather than waiting for potential distractions to interrupt your workflow, and dealing with them as they happen, you might consider taking steps to ensure things never get that far. As Additude puts it, “positive assertion wards off unnecessary interruptions.” This could mean a ‘do not disturb’ note on your office door, or a ‘low comms’ tag on your work chat channels; alternatively, you may be able to physically remove other distractions, such as objects that encourage you to fidget, or your phone, to somewhere other than your workspace.
Don’t wonder in silence – ask for clarification
Daily life consists of countless conversations and interactions, whether with a boss, a teacher, a spouse or a loved one. These interactions may concern a specific task but, often, instructions and directions aren’t put in the clearest possible way. Ambiguity can be one of the toughest things for a person with ADHD to navigate; if you aren’t clear on what exactly you should be doing, how can you get on and do it? Instead of disappearing down this distraction rabbit hole, nip it in the bud, and simply ask for clarification. It’s amazing how much good this can do. Often, a quick ‘I’m sorry, could you repeat that?’, or ‘apologies, I zoned out for a second – did you say this assignment is due on Monday?’ will be enough to overcome the distractibility inherent with ADHD.
Place visual reminders in places you can see them
If your mind begins to wander, you can often bring it back on task by actually seeing something that motivates you to keep working. Take the example: you’re trying to work out a revision plan, and pencil in all of the subjects you need to review before exams. Clearly, this task involves processing a considerable amount of information, and it would be easy to lose focus. But if you had a to-do list placed close to your desk, with ‘draw up revision plan’ written at the top, you might be reminded to stay on track; similarly, a calendar on the wall next to you, with the dates of each exam clearly marked, it may help you find the motivation necessary to stay focused.
Work out an effective study space
The environment you choose to study in can sometimes be the most crucial factor of all. It’s extremely important to find a space that you can work in effectively. If you find that the library is too busy for you to focus, consider somewhere a little quieter; if you can’t work at home because a housemate is playing loud music, it might be worth finding a calmer environment – or, perhaps you can speak to them about it. Chances are, they’ll be understanding. Ideally, you’ll have somewhere clutter-free, quiet and comfortable to work in.
Move around once in a while
Sometimes, it’s best not to fight the urge to fidget, but to just go with it. Meditative and/or repetitive movements can actually help us enter the state of hyperfocus, and that can be like a productivity superpower. Allow yourself to rock backwards and forwards in your chair, for instance, if that helps you ‘zone in;’ or you may find that spinning a pen actually benefits your concentration. Similarly, sitting in one position for extended periods is bound to have a negative impact on your ability to focus. You could look into a standing desk, and a dynamic/wobble stool for example; or, if not, simply switch between sitting down, standing up and walking around every half an hour or so. Whatever you need to do in order to keep your mind aligned with the task at hand, allow yourself to do it.
When to Speak to a Mental Health Professional
And, of course, don’t deny yourself the freedom to take a break every now and then! Fresh air, light exercise and periodic relaxation are things that everyone needs in order to study and work effectively. Allowing your mind to decompress is vital for a balanced study life, and foregoing breaks can quickly lead to burnout.
However, if you find yourself easily distracted even after you’ve spent some time practising these techniques, or you just can’t seem to stop overthinking while you study, it might be a good time to seek the guidance of a professional ADHD coach.
Here at The ADHD Centre, we’re experienced specialists in helping students with ADHD deal with the unhelpful symptoms in the most effective ways possible. We’ve established links with most major academic institutions, for example. We can help you procure the accommodations you need, such as extra time for exams, extended deadlines, support sessions or help to prepare study materials. Our free ebook can also help to guide your studies: Practical tips and techniques for students with ADHD.
If you’re interested in a student assessment for ADHD, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today. You can book an ADHD assessment online, or face-to-face at our facilities in London and Manchester.