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How to Stay Productive in College with ADD

Navigating college life is exponentially more difficult for those of us who live with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Many women experience worsening ADD symptoms  as they get older, which can sometimes make college feel like an impossible feat. Everyone around you seems to have endless energy for assignments, nights out, part-time jobs, internships—and you’re struggling to finish one assignment and keep your bedroom clean at the same time.

Here are ten tips for staying productive while living with ADD.

Be Upfront and Honest About Your Struggles

None of this advice is worth its weight in ink (pixels?) if you don’t become an advocate for yourself first. Nobody can help you if they don’t know you’re struggling. It can feel shameful to ask for help, and it can feel like you’re using your ADD as an ‘excuse.’ But everyone has their own struggles, and people will be much more understanding of yours if you’re honest and upfront about your ADD and how it affects your school, work, home, and social life.

Actively Prioritize Your Responsibilities

The ADD brain sometimes creates rules instead of priorities: can’t do homework in a messy space, can’t clean your room unless you’ve washed the dishes, can’t start that article for Her Campus until you’ve done your reading for class. Try to prioritize everything on a deadline over anything that has a less urgent timeline —I personally dislike doing homework in a messy space, so sometimes that means going to the library instead of working at home to avoid wasting my afternoon cleaning instead of completing important assignments.

Writing down everything you have to do is a great place to start. It can be hard to remember all of your tasks, and having a visualization of what you need to do can be extremely helpful in starting the process of prioritizing. Checking stuff off a to-do list can also make you feel more productive, even with the smallest of tasks.

Create Structure

Creating structure can be difficult for someone who struggles with ADD. It can be difficult for us to create routines, and exponentially more difficult to stick to them. Certified ADD coach Dana Rayburn suggests making lists: to-do lists, shopping lists, “don’t forget!” lists. If planning for the entire week is too overwhelming, try to make a  day-to-day  plan. By breaking down big projects into more manageable tasks, you can avoid getting overwhelmed. This will help you prioritize the right responsibilities, and will alleviate that ever-present “I’m forgetting something” feeling.

Find a Body Double

Research shows that, sometimes, just having someone in the room with you when you need to accomplish a task can be helpful. There are a few working theories as to why having someone else, a ‘body double,’ can be effective. One theory is that the body double serves as the extra stimulus the ADD brain seeks when doing mundane tasks; if your friend is sitting on your bed talking to you while you fold your laundry, you’re less likely to give up, or open TikTok, halfway through. Another theory is that the body double serves as a mirror, a calming presence that the ADD brain subconsciously tries to model. So next time you have no motivation to complete an assignment, invite a studious friend to Fogler’s third floor (the quiet floor, so you won’t be tempted to get chatty) and let their productivity inspire yours.

Utilize Your Phone Alarm

Most adults develop an innate ability to mentally track the passing of time. People with ADD sometimes suffer from something called ‘time blindness,’ which means there is no inner clock keeping us on track for the day. This is what drives us to try and accomplish too many things in a short amount of time, what makes us late all the time, and what causes us to mindlessly scroll through social media without realizing that hours are passing by. You can combat this by setting alarms and timers—set alarms to remind you when to leave for class or work to get there on time, set timers when you open apps so you don’t get sucked in and accidentally scroll for hours.

Otherwise, Put the Phone Away

Everyone is guilty of wasting time on social media. ADD brains thrive off of constant stimulus, which is exactly what social media gives us: a constant stream of new ideas, thoughts, and images. Checking one text message often turns into a 30-minute Instagram discover page scroll, and can make a task that should only take 20 minutes last two hours. Put your phone on “do not disturb” mode whenever you need to focus. If that doesn’t do the trick, try leaving your phone far enough out of reach that you need to physically leave your seat to check it. This will force you to be consciously aware that you’re losing focus.

Eliminate Distractions

Your smartphone is most likely your biggest distraction, but there are surely countless others. In a medically reviewed article for Healthline, Crystal Raypole suggests playing simple, instrumental music, and even white noise, in the background while you work. I find that when my brain already has an external stimulus, like music, I experience fewer distracting thoughts when I’m trying to complete tasks I find mundane.

Take Your Meds

When we’ve had a great streak of productivity we sometimes want to stop taking our medication—but that’s only because it’s been working. There’s no shame in taking medication. The side effects of stimulants can be difficult to deal with: appetite loss, jitters, cold extremities, occasionally increased anxiety. It can be tempting to occasionally take a break from stimulants, or go on a ‘drug holiday,’ when we’re on a break from school or find the side effects are getting overwhelming. It’s important to consult your doctor before making any changes to your medication intake.

Be Kind To Yourself

ADD can mean extra years of college, retaking hard classes, losing jobs, damaging relationships… the list goes on. According to CHADD (Children & Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder), 1 in 3 people with ADD experience depression as well. Depression can be just as detrimental to your productivity, and overall quality of life, as ADD itself. It’s important to forgive yourself for your shortcomings rather than dwell on them. Remember that even if you occasionally fail, you are not a failure.

Give Yourself Time to Rest

For people with ADD, every part of the day requires conscious effort: getting out of bed, showering, getting dressed, actually putting our dirty clothes in the hamper, packing our backpack, making sure we have everything we need before leaving the house. That can be exhausting and lead us to burnout. Carve out a few hours a week when you can zone out and recharge, however you like to do that.

If you’re struggling with ADD, learning more about the disorder can be extremely beneficial for developing your own strategies for productivity. If you’d like to learn more about ADD, I suggest reading Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell, MD, and Professor John D. Ratey, MD. This book taught me so much about the learning disorder I struggle with everyday, and empowered me on an emotional level as well.

    Productivity and success look different on everyone. Sometimes, those of us with ADD need to play little tricks on our brain–like the body double, or keeping our phone physically out of reach–to convince it to be productive, and that’s okay. Some days, we won’t achieve productivity at all. That’s okay too. The important thing is that we keep trying.

Anika Chamberlain is a journalism & communications major at the University of Maine. Avid re-watcher of the same five TV shows.
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