If you are a graduate student struggling with ADHD and/or difficulties regulating your attention, you may find this post helpful. Also available here on Medium.
🚨 Help! I have a lot to do but I can’t focus.
In January 2020, I was officially diagnosed with Combined Type ADHD. Contrary to popular belief, there are 3 types of ADHD: (1) predominantly hyperactive/impulsive, (2) predominantly inattentive, and (3) combined type. ‘Inattentive’ is a bit of a misnomer in the case of the second type as ADHD is more about having difficulty regulating attention than it is about a lack of attention. As a first year graduate student, my diagnosis came as a relief to me because I knew it meant some very necessary help was on the way. That said, I lived nearly 30 years without this diagnosis. In that time, I learned essential coping strategies that made my educational, professional, and personal goals achievable when they otherwise may not have been. I’m writing to share some of my go-to tricks and tips for maximizing focus in graduate school and beyond.
A disclaimer: The recommendations below come from my personal experience with ADHD and my life as a graduate student. I sought the help of a neuropsychologist to determine my diagnosis. I use both medication and therapy to effectively manage life with ADHD.
OK – let’s get into it.
1. Put your phone away ☎️
I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, dad 🙄” – but I’m serious. One of my best and easiest tricks to help manage focus and inattention has been to put my cell phone in another room from the one where I am doing my work. If that is not possible, put your phone in a box, under a pillow, up on a bookshelf, or some other place where it is hidden. Out of sight, out of mind!
2. Use the Pomodoro Technique ⏲️
Check out my blog post here or here for more detail on how this technique has assisted me in getting my work done in graduate school. The Pomodoro Technique works like this in order to help improve focus, time management, and productivity: (1) set a timer for 25 minutes, (2) focus on your work/task/hobby until the timer goes off, (3) take a 5 minute break, (4) rinse and repeat. On every 4th round of this sequence, take a 15 minute break, and then get back to it. I use the free version of an app (installed on both my computer and phone) called “Be Focused.” It helps count and keep track of intervals for me, and I can label tasks to stay on-track.
3. Lock down your browser and apps 💻
To do this, I use the free version of an app called 1Focus. It allows me to enter websites and computer apps I want to block myself from and to set a custom timer for how long the access will be restricted. If I get distracted and attempt to navigate toward those websites or utilize those applications, the app blocks my attempts and presents me with a cheesy-yet-delightful philosophical quote. I usually roll my eyes, chuckle, and go back to what I was doing before.
4. Utilize text-to-speech software 🗣️
ADHD is accompanied by executive functioning issues. One of mine is an encoding issue in my brain that sometimes makes it difficult to process things like run-on sentences, large volumes of text (hello, graduate school!), certain mathematical formulas and symbols, and even information that is not difficult to understand but only sticks with me after repeatedly reading or hearing it. I compensate for this with a variety of techniques, particularly by using the free version of 2 awesome apps: (1) NaturalReader, and (2) Read&Write.
NaturalReader allows you to upload OCR-formatted PDF, Word, and other documents. The free version comes with several voice options, and the program reads the text aloud while I follow along in my own physical copy. I recently learned about Read&Write and have been using that more often. It allows me to take screenshots of any document (usually PDFs in my case), and it converts the screenshot to a readable format. It uses the built-in accessibility features on my Mac, and, as is the case with NaturalReader, I can control the speech, volume, and available voices from my own computer. These programs have been instrumental in enabling me to read my assignments and complete my work on-time in graduate school. Prior to using them, a 25-page reading assignment took me approximately 4.5 hours to complete due to needing to read and re-read much of the text. Yesterday, with the help of these programs, I finished a 65-page article and detailed reading notes in 3.25 hours. You can do the math.
5. Listen to white noise or binaural tones while working
There is some science (#googleit) that suggests that people with ADHD may benefit from listening to white noise or binaural tones while doing work that requires focus. I often listen to this glorious 10-hour-long youtube video of ✨ celestial white noise ✨, and I recently discovered this Binaural Beats playlist on Spotify. Binaural sounds combine two slightly different frequencies (one in one ear, the other in the other ear) to create the perception of a single frequency/tone which is equal to the difference in the 2 separate tones. This is typically most effective when the hertz are less than 1000 and when the difference in the two tones is 50 hertz or fewer. You can read more here.
6. Communicate your needs and boundaries ✅⛔
If you have roommates, family, a partner, or other folks living in the physical space where you also work, take the time to clearly communicate your needs and boundaries. If you need a quiet space, ask for that. If you need to be alone, ask for that. If you need to leave your current physical space to go be in another, more productive space, communicate that. You are your own best advocate.
7. Get professional help (#endthestigma) 👩🏿⚕️
ADHD is life-long. You are born with it, and while it may be more or less manageable depending on the scenario, you cannot force it to go away. There are doctors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, life coaches, yoga instructors, massage therapists, and others who want to help people struggling with attention management difficulties. Whether you have or will have an ADHD diagnosis or not, you deserve to struggle less than you do today. It is possible! Remember: you are your own best advocate. No one else can do a better job than you of communicating your difficulties, seeking help, and building the most supportive environment possible.
8. Sleep. I repeat: you. need. sleep. 💤
There’s a fascinating relationship between ADHD and sleep. I am unqualified to explain that relationship, but there’s a great Twitter thread here from Erynn Brook that gets at some interesting points. Prioritizing your sleep is absolutely fundamental to managing attention irregularities and a host of other issues both short and long-term. If you need to, consider adopting specific behaviors to help you get better sleep. These may include reducing caffeine intake, developing a nighttime routine to tell your body it’s time for bed, avoiding blue light devices an hour before sleep, exercising regularly, and a host of other sleep tips. If those things do not work, don’t hesitate to discuss your sleep norms with a doctor who can help navigate potential issues.
9. Miscellaneous recommendations 🧺
Some additional things you might try if you haven’t already:
- Keep a master To Do list on your computer or someplace handy for all the random (and usually non-urgent) things that come to mind when you’re working
- Turn your phone on grayscale (how-to here for iPhone and Android) to limit its ability to stimulate your brain with pretty colors and notification reminders
- Meditate before starting your work (try free apps like Insight Timer)
- Create a mantra for yourself – mine is: “I am safe, I am smart, and I’ve got this!”
- Listen to your body. If you need to eat, stand, use the bathroom, etc. – do it!
- Say no when you need to whether that is to social invitations, requests to take on additional work, or offers that entice you but ultimately make things harder for you
10. Lastly, don’t suffer alone 💛
If you are struggling, no matter how much or how little, tell someone. It might be scary or embarrassing at first, but I’ve found that my friends, my partner, my classmates, and my professors really want to support me. I can empower them to empower me by letting them know what my needs are, what my triggers and difficulties are, and what sorts of encouraging words help me get and stay on track with my work. You have resources around you and you are entitled to finding a way forward with less struggle.
Thanks for reading!
Note: This post assumes a certain level of privilege and access to professional resources, health care, ability, supportive friends and family, safe and affordable housing, technology, and mental wellness. Managing attention irregularities is infinitely more difficult the more precarious a person’s position becomes. In every case, a multiplicity of factors contribute to ADHD and/or attention management difficulties. Wherever you are, I see you, you are valid, and you deserve safety, stability, and whole health above all.