Settling in for a successful fall semester: Overcoming 3 common challenges for college students with ADHD

Now that the rush of moving into dorms, finalizing schedules and purchasing books and supplies has waned, the real work of being in college begins. For students with ADHD, this usually means settling down to business: figuring out how to manage your workload, stay up-to date with assignments and 

use your time effectively. If you add seeing your friends, extracurricular activities, eating, sleeping and doing laundry, it all seem daunting. The trick is creating systems that make sense to you and help you overcome the temptations that lead to procrastination, avoidance and exhaustion.

Many of the college students I speak with struggle most with the ‘When, Where, What and How’ of budgeting their time, especially about studying. Questions such as “When to do assignments? Where should I study? What need to be prioritized? and How long can I really work?” can be so daunting that folks will avoid doing anything and opt for surfing the net or hanging out with friends. Unfortunately, procrastination often leads to panic, all-nighters, exhaustion and further procrastination. What else can you do?

To get yourself going, you’ll need a doable plan: one that involves making lists, using calendars and breaking things down into chunks. There’s no other way around these things. Yes, they’re tough–tough for everyone I’ve ever met with ADHD because of the executive functioning challenges that come with this diagnosis. Developing these skills requires time, practice and, above all, compassion. Accepting your ADHD brain and making lasting changes for academic and life success begins with having compassion for yourself. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses–things we like about ourselves and things we want to change. If you can shift your mindset from criticism and negativity (“What’s wrong with me?” and “Why can’t I be more like so-and-so?”) to one of curiosity and openness (“What could I do differently here?” and “Who might be able to help me?”), you’ve made a giant step in the right direction.

Here are 5 common challenges for college students and practical steps for overcoming them: creating your path to success this semester:

PROBLEM 1: Lack of motivation to do your work:  It’s easy to do something you like and MUCH harder to do something that you don’t. When a task feels big and is fundamentally unrewarding, no matter how important, and you avoid doing it, you lack internal motivation. Even if you like a subject, doing the reading or problem sets might be uninteresting sometimes. When a task doesn’t have meaningful deadlines or immediate consequences to get us started, it lacks external motivation. In both cases, we have to find something to get us going. Procrastination occurs when tasks are both unrewarding and daunting.

Solution: Break things down and use incentives: You’ll need to take two important steps. First, create meaningful incentives to get yourself going. These will be your rewards for finishing something that is difficult to do. Make a list of things you enjoy doing and attach them to things you have to do but don’t love. For example, if you turn in a statistics assignment on time, you go for a run or treat yourself to a cappuccino at your favorite cafe.

Secondly, it’s hard to begin something that seems unpleasant when the task seems very large. Create chunks of time to study smaller amounts of work. You want to finish things so you feel a sense of completion and success. Decide on your overall work period and how long you want your breaks to be. Let’s say you can work for 45 minutes, break for 10 and work for another 45 before you call it quits. Set your timer on your phone for your work periods and your break. If you’re studying with or near friends and need some help, ask. They want you to do well and will probably be more than happy to assist you. 

PROBLEM 2: Overwhelmed by too many responsibilities: College is a time filled with many demands on your time. You likely have multiple deadlines for different classes, a campus job, extracurricular activities, social events: it’s a lot to keep track of. Things can easily slip through the cracks, causing difficulties with professors, employers and friends.

Solution: Create a visual map of your life: People with ADHD respond well to visual cues so laying things out in a way that’s easy for you to check on what’s happening and what’s due is essential. Whether you do this on your computer or the old-fashioned way with a planner or calendar is up to you. Sometimes a combination works best. One of my clients likes to put her academic assignments on a paper calendar so she can look at a month and see what she has to do but puts all of her social and medical appointments and shifts at her job in her phone with alerts. Another student created an Excel spreadsheet while a third uses Google calendar for everything.

Take some to reflect on what makes the most sense to you. Write down everything: the big picture of when classes, your job and non-academic activities occur and the due dates of assignments, papers and tests. Make sure you schedule study blocks and meals too. This map will help you navigate your days more smoothly.

PROBLEM 3: Losing things and disorganization: If you have trouble keeping track of your stuff or making sure the clean laundry doesn’t mingle with the dirty stuff, you are not alone. Losing keys, your identification card or a favorite jacket seems to happen to many college students. It can be frustrating and embarrassing, not to mention costly.

Solution: Make sure everything has a place: Whether it’s a designated shelf for your phone or purse or a particular file for returned assignments and tests, you’ll perform better when you know where things should go. The trick is developing a habit of putting them. Think about what’s helped you in the past and what seems natural to you. Could this be useful now or do you need a new option? Create a routine where you come into your room and drop your stuff immediately in its special place. If you try a system and it’s not working, regroup and try something else. It’s not a big deal; it’s just information about what’s most useful.

Sometimes it’s tough to do these steps on your own. If you think outside support would be helpful, seek it out.  Whether it’s another student, a learning specialist, an ADHD coach or a therapist, you may well benefit from teaming up with someone. Remember, everyone needs assistance sometimes. There is no reward for struggling on your own.