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How to Prioritise Workload at University When You Have ADHD

For students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some aspects of traditional learning can be more difficult. For example, some people with ADHD have difficulty focussing on one task at a time, whereas others struggle with sitting still to complete something without getting distracted.
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How to Prioritise Workload at University When You Have ADHD

09/12/2022
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For students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some aspects of traditional learning can be more difficult. For example, some people with ADHD have difficulty focussing on one task at a time, whereas others struggle with sitting still to complete something without getting distracted.

It’s fairly common for people with ADHD to find organisation and prioritising tasks hard. This is because ADHD affects executive function and can have an impact on how you’re able to navigate and work through tasks. This leads a lot of people with ADHD to forget things or hand things in late, and whilst at university, this can be a problem. For this reason, it’s important to try and nail down those organisational skills in order to prioritise workloads effectively.

In this article, we’re going to look at some of the ways in which university students with ADHD can better prioritise and manage their workload whilst studying.

How does ADHD affect organisation and prioritisation skills?

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Before we share organisation tips for ADHD, let’s first take a closer look at how the disorder impacts your ability to manage your workload. As mentioned, ADHD affects executive functioning skills. Executive function is what helps you to stay organised and stay focused. There are lots of things that can cause issues with executive dysfunction, including ADHD. If you have executive dysfunction, you may find that you get overwhelmed easily, have issues getting motivated, struggle to keep focused, and find it hard to organise things.

Some people are naturally more organised and efficient than others, but no matter who you are or what you do, being able to manage your time and your workload/tasks is highly important. So, it’s important that you try and learn new habits and change the way you think. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one course of action you can take if you struggle with distractions and unhelpful thoughts, and ADHD medication can help with focus, but the rest is a bit of trial and error.

It’s very common for people with ADHD to feel like they’re behind their peers in education settings or like they’re not good enough, especially if this is the feedback they’ve frequently received at school or if their ADHD was undiagnosed for a long time, but this isn’t the case. If you have ADHD, it does not mean you aren’t as smart or capable as your classmates – it just means you might have to rethink how you approach tasks and make more of a conscious effort to try and curb some of your ADHD symptoms where possible.

So, how do you do this? Well, here are six tips that can help you prioritise tasks better and ensure you stay on track and flourish whilst you’re studying at university.

1. Make a to-do list

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To-do lists are usually the first port of call for most things organisation-related. If you have ADHD, you might find that you have lots of different thoughts whirring around in your head all at once, so rather than trying to pick out what’s important and what’s not, have a brain dump. Whether you choose to do this to sort out your daily priorities, your weekly tasks, or your monthly to-do lists – find a frequency that works for you. It could be an idea to do all three to make sure you have no conflicting priorities before agreeing to take on more work or help out a friend on a whim (many people with ADHD struggle to say no to things).

Get a piece of paper (or an online document) and write down everything you can think of that needs to be done. This means writing down any assignments that are due, reading or seminar exercises that need to be done, meetings or lectures, and other things that require your attention, such as a food shop or paying your bills. After all, university is about more than just studying; you’re responsible for being self-sufficient and maintaining your place of residence, so it’s important to factor this into your list and write down all your tasks, too. This way, you can get a better grip of your work-life balance and manage multiple priorities across all aspects of your life. Just because something isn’t directly study related, doesn’t mean it’s not an important task.

2. Sort all the tasks by due date and importance

Once you have your list, go through and sort things by date and importance. You might find it useful to adopt a colour-coding system to differentiate the urgent and important tasks from the rest. For example, anything that’s due within the next week should be high priority and might be highlighted red, things that are due the week after can be orange, and anything else can be green as it’s not immediately needed.

If you’re struggling to determine urgent tasks, you can ask yourself three questions:

  • What happens if I complete this task?
  • What are the consequences if I don’t complete this task?
  • Which tasks do I want to avoid?

Oftentimes, if you can identify the consequences of something, i.e. missing a deadline or putting your group in a compromising situation, this can help you to identify what needs to be done sooner rather than later. On a similar note, you might have a natural avoidance for things that are due soon but that you don’t particularly want to do because you don’t know how to start or because you don’t have the motivation. There’s a good chance that you might want to avoid important tasks based on this.

Filtering tasks by importance and due date is a good way to see what’s most vital. It can also help you keep on track. People with ADHD can get distracted easily and want to do the first thing they think of rather than the most important thing, but having a visual grid of what is most important is a good way to remind yourself that there are more pressing tasks instead of the one you’ve just thought of.

3. Read through tasks and estimate length of time

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Another facet of prioritising is being able to determine what will take you the longest. If you’ve got three tasks due in a week, two of which are small and fast, and one which is long and may overrun, it’s a good idea to get the smaller ones done first. This is because if you run over with the big one, you risk not getting the smaller ones done. From this point of view, it’s best to get two things done and handed in than none. However, getting smaller, easier tasks done leaves you with more time to do the bigger one and takes the pressure off because you’re not staring down the barrel of a big task that’s overwhelming and several smaller ones, too.

As someone with ADHD, it might be hard for you to estimate how long tasks take you, and this is where reading through what’s expected is essential. If you know you have to write a 3,000 word essay, you can try and think how long it usually takes you to write 500 words. Then, you can estimate how long it will take you to complete the 3,000, plus time for research and edits.

By knowing what will take more time, you can more carefully map out your schedule and prioritise your time according to your availability each day.

4. Create step-by-step instructions for each task

A big issue a lot of people with ADHD have when knowing how to prioritise tasks is how to get started. If something seems big and lengthy, or if it’s not entirely clear, you might feel overwhelmed and then put it off entirely. Alternatively, you might think a task seems simple and therefore push it to the bottom of your list, but when you get round to it, it might require more time than you thought and therefore should’ve been higher on your priority list.

Once you have your to-do list and a rough idea of what is most important, go through each task and create step-by-step instructions on what you need to do. Not only does this minimise the chances of you getting overwhelmed, but it can help you get better prepared for planning your time, too. If you know there’s six steps to a task, you can go section by section and do a little bit at a time.

5. Work within set parameters for each task

Speaking of timings, it’s a good idea to set timed parameters for each task. What we mean by this is using timers to work on tasks a little at a time. People with ADHD often get distracted, so rather than working against it, try and work with it. If you struggle to focus on something for more than an hour, make sure that after an hour you stop and do something else; be it go for a walk, work on another project or simply have a break.

By allowing yourself the time to move around and focus on other things, when you come back to the task at hand, you’ll be in the right mindset and may find you make more progress by doing a little a lot rather than a lot all at once.

Student ADHD help from The ADHD Centre

At The ADHD Centre, we recognise the unique problems ADHD can pose for university students. Our team of experts are dedicated to ensuring you get the support and advice you need to be successful in your studies. If you’d like to find out more about our private ADHD support, please call us on 0800 061 4276, or email us at enquiries@adhdcentre.co.uk.

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