ADHD and Task Initiation: Getting the Ball Rolling
Task Initiation is harder when you have ADHD. Here are some strategies that can help you get started
Maaya is an ADHD coach with a Master's in Psychology. They are the voice behind @StructuredSuccess
- It’s not just you. Task Initiation is harder when you have ADHD , because tasks take more energy to get started.
- While it’s tempting to rely on urgency and deadlines, overreliance on urgency can leave us feeling guilty, ashamed, anxious, or overwhelmed.
- Instead, try using creative problem solving to add interest, novelty, or challenge to give yourself more energy to start.
- Adding stimulation (that doesn’t interfere with the task) and using the momentum from smaller tasks to help push into larger ones can help too.
- Breaking tasks down can help. (Yes, really.) But consider breaking down only the next step or hiding the big list to avoid getting overwhelmed and paralyzed.
Recently, I asked ADHD Twitter what part of getting tasks done was the hardest for them. Between getting started, changing tasks, stopping tasks, and following through, a majority of the ADHD’ers who responded reported that starting tasks was the hardest part. Not only does this match my own personal experience, but this also matches the most common concern my clients identify in our first meeting. Whether it’s phrased as ‘procrastination' , ‘motivation' , or ‘executive dysfunction’ , it’s clear that Task Initiation is a serious and seriously common struggle for ADHD’ers.
Understanding Task Initiation
Imagine a task as a ball sitting on the top of a hill. To start the task and get the ball rolling, you need to put some energy into pushing the ball. Once started, the ball rolls down the hill picking up momentum as it goes. At the bottom of the hill, you then need to put some energy into stopping the ball or directing its energy towards a new task. Task initiation is the effort required to get the ball rolling.
This analogy is true for everyone. Neurotypicals and neurodivergents of all stripes need to put some energy into pushing the ball to start a task. However, for people with ADHD (and other people who struggle with executive function ), the ball is much bigger, meaning we need to put much more energy into pushing the ball to get it rolling. Unfortunately, the ball is often so big that our internal motivation alone doesn’t provide us enough energy to start.
Beware of Overreliance on Urgency and Deadlines
By far, the most common coping strategy for struggles with Task Initiation among ADHD’ers is an overreliance on a sense of urgency. When staring down a deadline with very real consequences, this sense of urgency is the thing that gets us moving . However, if there is no such deadline, or if the consequences aren’t scary enough, this extra sense of urgency is nowhere to be found. This can leave us feeling guilty, anxious, or overwhelmed, revealing the unhealthy nature of this coping mechanism.
The fact that missing one piece necessary for crafting this elusive sense of urgency leaves us feeling anxious is no accident. Just below the surface of urgency lies a fear or anxiety over potential negative consequences. When this urgency isn’t enough, or isn’t available, our mind can then turn to other emotions such as guilt, shame, or anger to fill the gap. Together, these emotions serve as a fossil fuel for getting started; an unhealthy source of energy that has seriously negative impacts when overused.
Tackling Task Initiation the Healthier Way
Strategy #1: add more energy.
- Interest - Many ADHD and/or autistic people find interest in a task to be the most powerful motivator for getting started. Because of this, trying to cultivate interest is a solid strategy for starting tasks more easily. However, I would guess that if you’re reading this article, the tasks you’re struggling to start are ones you don’t have a natural interest towards (or they’d probably be started by now). In these cases, finding the interesting parts of the otherwise boring tasks can offer some of the same motivational power, only in a smaller way.For example, spreadsheets are particularly interesting to my brain. Knowing this, any task I can reasonably build a spreadsheet for is inherently more motivating to me. While your interests are almost certain to be more fun than mine, finding a way to involve your interests in your tasks can be a worthwhile effort.
- Novelty - Similar to interest, novelty is particularly attractive to the ADHD brain. Tasks that we’ve never done before, or tasks that are leading us on a new adventure, can be especially motivating. While this can have negative consequences (I’m looking at you wikipedia rabbit holes) , regularly changing the types of tasks we’re working on, or trying to solve old problems in new ways, can make getting started just a little bit easier.
- Challenge - Inherent in both the strategies above is a need to use creative problem solving to find a way to build interest or novelty into a pre-existing list of tasks. This is something that ADHD’ers are particularly good at , and something that can be quite motivating in its own right. One way that we can use this skill to motivate getting started on tasks is to make the task a challenge or game . Of course, the goal isn’t to make the task harder, but to inspire creative problem solving in completing the task .For example, consider setting a timer for 25 minutes and racing the clock to get as much work as you can done. After the timer rings, take a break, reset the timer and try to beat your score. For long writing projects, this method helped so much with getting more written and made writing more rewarding at the same time.
- Adding creative constraints to your work is another way you could use this strategy. For artists, this may involve limiting their palette to a certain number of colours; while for writers, it could be including a specific piece of information. In either case, these limitations can inspire novel ways of completing the same tasks or get you to use information or techniques you’re particularly interested in.
- Stimulation - For ADHD’ers, there is often a strong connection between stimulation and energy levels. This means that, by providing sensation or stimulation, we can gain more energy we can use for all sorts of things, including getting started on tasks. One way of using this connection to our advantage is a technique I’ve named sensation stacking . In sensation stacking, we layer different sensations on top of what we’re already doing. The trick here is to add sensations that don’t involve cognitive processes we’re relying on for the task we’re trying to start. For example, if we’re working on a writing task, adding stimulation that uses language processing is likely to cause problems, while adding instrumental music or a tactile fidget are less likely to.
- Momentum - Oftentimes, we can use the momentum we’ve collected from a previous task to push us into action on a new one. A common way to do this is by starting a relatively small task that doesn’t take a ton of energy to start and then moving to progressively larger tasks as we pick up speed.While we do lose energy moving from one task to another, moving between more similar tasks is generally easier than moving between very different ones. For example, moving from a writing task to a writing task will generally be easier than moving from a writing task to a maths task. By stacking similar tasks together, we can minimize the energy we lose changing tasks and maximize the energy we can use to push the next task forward.
Strategy #2: Reduce the size of the task
- Break it down - Although this advice is often given to ADHD’ers by neurotypicals in a dismissive or patronizing way, the core advice is solid. Making tasks smaller does make it easier for us to start . Focusing on completing an outline to an essay is always going to be easier than completing the whole thing, and getting started in the first place follows these rules too.However, breaking tasks down can also be a problem for ADHD’ers, and this is often why we balk at this advice when it’s given by neurotypicals. Breaking every task down into tiny pieces is tiring and can lead us to feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks remaining. Add our weakened working memory to this, and this can be a recipe for rumination, overwhelm, and paralysis.
- Focus on the next step - One way to avoid this rumination, overwhelm, and paralysis is to focus on breaking down only the next step of your task. Rather than identifying all the tasks needed to complete your essay, for example, you can focus on identifying the first step , and breaking that step into smaller, more actionable chunks. This prevents us from getting lost in details that aren’t relevant yet and leaves space in our mind for the step we’re actually on.
- Hide the big list - Another way to avoid this overwhelm, rumination, and paralysis is to use ADHD's ability to forget anything we aren’t looking at. To do this, break down the task in the way that you normally would, creating the big, long list of steps as you do. Once this list is made, identify the next two steps you need to accomplish and then place the rest of the list out of sight . Writing down the big list helps us avoid ruminating on the tasks ahead , while making the next two steps visible directs us towards these short-term, actionable tasks.
Strategy #3: Get Help
Body Doubling - A couple years ago now, a client said something that got stuck in my head. They described themselves as being “buddy-buddy,” by which they meant they’re their most motivated when someone else is doing the thing with them. This perfectly captured my experience too! I don’t need someone to do my executive functions for me (okay, sometimes I do need that, actually), I need someone to do things with me. Just having someone else working with me immediately moves me into a people pleasing mode and I become eager to do the thing.
This is what body doubling offers: an ally who is doing a task alongside us. Whether in-person or over the internet (such as focusmate or ADHD hub’s co-working sessions ), having other people who are working with us can be a seriously powerful motivator for getting started.
As with most things, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for task initiation—what works will depend on the person and the task at hand. This list, however, offers a place to start in finding the strategies that work best for you and your tasks. Join the conversation and let us know on Twitter and Instagram what strategies have worked for you!
Maaya Hitomi is the ADHD Coach and Academic Strategist behind Structured Success , where they work with ADHD, autistic, and otherwise neurodivergent clients to develop strategies for better coping. They have their Master’s and undergraduate degrees in Psychology, and 4 years experience as an ADHD Coach. More importantly, they’re (probably) autistic, and definitely ADHD and dyslexic, and rely on their structures and strategies to support their own success. Connect with them & get in the conversation on task initiation on Twitter!
Daily planning designed to change your life.
Visualize time. Build focus. Make life happen. Tiimo is designed for people with ADHD, Autism, and everyone who thinks, works, and plans differently. Get started with our free trial. Cancel anytime.
Cooking with Autism: a neurodivergent guide
For the holidays and beyond, here at Tiimo we have put together a 101 whistle stop guide to cooking.
Effective Tools and Methods for Adults with ADHD
Understanding neurodiversity is essential in our diverse world. It includes conditions like ADHD and Autism, each with unique challenges and strengths. In this blog, we explore tools and methods for people with ADHD to combat those challenges.
Delvene Pitt | On being a Black Dyslexic ADHD’er in the Performing Arts
In this episode, we talk to puppeteer and actress Delvene Pitt (she/her) about her award-winning puppetry company Little Crowns Storyhouse, how she uses puppeteering to teach history and science to children, and how she’s navigated the performing arts industry as a Black dyslexic ADHD’er.
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Bipolar Disorder
- Kids Mental Health
- Therapy Center
- When To See a Therapist
- Types of Therapy
- Best Online Therapy
- Best Couples Therapy
- Best Family Therapy
- Managing Stress
- Sleep and Dreaming
- Understanding Emotions
- Healthy Relationships
- Relationships in 2023
- Student Resources
- Personality Types
- Verywell Mind Insights
- 2023 Verywell Mind 25
- Mental Health in the Classroom
- Editorial Process
- Meet Our Review Board
- Crisis Support
7 Tips for College Students With ADHD
Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD, is an award-winning physician-scientist and clinical development specialist.
Verywell / Laura Porter
Qualities for Student Success
- ADHD and College
- Academic Tips
- Social Tips
Every autumn, thousands of students move away from the structure and safety of home to the freedoms of college life. While it's an exciting time filled with many possibilities for learning and growth, it can also be challenging academically and socially—especially for college students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Learn some of the challenges that college students with ADHD face, as well as strategies that can be used to overcome these obstacles. This includes learning how to study with ADHD and taking certain actions to foster friendships with other students.
Sarah D. Wright , ADHD coach and author of "Fidget to Focus: Outwit Your Boredom—Sensory Strategies for Living with ADD," explains that successful students usually have four qualities that help them achieve their goals:
- Sticking with things even when the going gets tough (perseverance)
- Ability to delay gratification and focus on the big picture
- Time management and organizational skills
- Striking the right balance between fun and work
These particular skills, however, don’t come easily to people with ADHD. One of the hallmarks of this mental health condition is impaired executive functioning . This means that students with ADHD may struggle with staying organized, sticking to a plan, and managing time effectively.
How ADHD Affects College Students
College students often face more responsibilities, less structured time, increased distractions, and new social situations—all while lacking access to many of the support systems they had in high school. Impaired executive functioning can make handling these changes a bit harder for students with ADHD, resulting in:
- Poor academic performance and achievement : Students with ADHD frequently report feeling dissatisfied with their grades. They may struggle in their classes due to difficulties starting and completing tasks, disorganization, problems remembering assignments, difficulty memorizing facts, and trouble working on lengthy papers or complex math problems .
- Troubles with time management : Students with ADHD often have irregular lifestyles that result from poor time management. This can create problems with being on time, preparing and planning for the future, and prioritizing tasks.
- Difficulty regulating and managing emotions : Students with ADHD also often struggle with social issues, negative thoughts, and poor self-esteem. Some ADHD symptoms can make friendships and other relationships more challenging while worrying about these issues contributes to poor self-image.
The good news is that these areas of executive function can be improved. For most college students with ADHD, the problem isn’t in knowing what to do, it's getting it done. Developing strategies that focus on this goal can lead to positive academic and social effects.
Tips for Succeeding in College With ADHD
There are several strategies you can use to help stay on track if you are a college student with ADHD. Here are seven that Wright suggests.
1. Take Steps to Start the Day on Time
There are three main factors that contribute to being late in the morning: Getting up late, getting sidetracked, and being disorganized.
If Getting Up Late Is an Issue
Set two alarms to go off in sequence. Put the first alarm across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. Put the second where you know it will bother your roommates, increasing the consequences if you don’t get out of bed and turn it off. Set both alarms to go off early so you can take your time getting ready.
If Getting Sidetracked Is an Issue
If certain actions tend to derail you, like checking your email or reading the news, make it a rule that those activities must wait until later in the day so you can stay on task . Also, figure out how much time you need to dress, eat, and get organized, then set alarms or other reminders to cue these tasks.
Three options are:
- Use a music mix as a timer . If you have 30 minutes to get ready, the schedule might look like this: wash and dress to songs 1 to 3, eat breakfast to songs 4 to 6, get your stuff together during song 7, and walk out the door by song 8. This option works best if you use the same mix every morning.
- Use your phone or buy a programmable reminder watch so your alarms are always nearby.
- Put a big wall clock in your room where you can easily see it . If your room is part of a suite with a common room and bathroom, put wall clocks in those spaces as well.
If Being Disorganized Is the Issue
Create a "launch pad" by your door. Collect all of the things you’ll need the next day the night before (like your backpack and keys), and put them on the pad so you can grab them and go. Include a note to help you remember important events for the day, such as an appointment or quiz.
2. Work With Your Urge to Procrastinate
Though it may sound counterproductive, if you feel the urge to procrastinate , go with it. When you have ADHD, sometimes things only get done right before they're due. At that point, nothing has higher priority, increasing the urgency and consequences if you don’t do them now. These qualities are what can finally make a task doable, so work with them.
If you plan to procrastinate, it's important to stack the deck so you can pull it off. For example, if you have to write a paper, make sure you’ve done the reading or research in advance and have some idea of what you want to write. Next, figure out how many hours you’ll need, block those hours out in your schedule, and then, with the deadline in sight, sit down and do it.
Understanding your tendency to procrastinate with ADHD can help you plan ahead so you won't be left scrambling to finish projects at the last minute.
3. Study Smarter, Not Harder
Boredom and working memory issues can make studying a bit more challenging for students with ADHD. Rather than trying harder to force the information into your head, get creative with the learning process.
If you're wondering how to study with ADHD, research shows that multi-modal learning or learning via a variety of different methods can be helpful. Ideas include:
- Highlight text with different-colored pens.
- Make doodles when taking notes.
- Record notes as voice memos and listen to them as you walk across campus.
- Use mnemonics to create funny ways to remember facts.
- Stand up while you study.
- Read assignments aloud using an expressive (not boring) voice.
- If you can, get the audio version of a book you need to read and listen to it while you take notes and/or exercise.
- Work with a study buddy.
These won't all work for every person, but try mixing up your strategies and see what happens. Taking study breaks every couple of hours and getting enough sleep are also part of studying smarter, not harder.
Sleep impacts learning in two main ways. First, sleep deprivation has a negative impact on short-term memory , which is what you use to learn the materials when you study. Second, sleep is needed to move short-term memories into long-term memory, which is what you rely on when it's time to take the test.
Sleep is important for both short- and long-term memory, making it critical for both learning new material and recalling what you've learned.
4. Schedule Your Study Time
Many students with ADHD are highly intelligent. They can pull off a passing grade, or even a good one, in high school by cramming their studies in the night before a test.
This strategy doesn't work as well in college since cramming reduces your ability to retain what you've learned long-term . This can make it harder to remember what you need to know once you enter your field of choice.
One good rule of thumb for college students is to study two to two-and-a-half hours per week for every course credit hour. Put this time into your schedule to make sure you have it.
5. Plan and Prioritize Your Time
It may sound strange, but it's important to plan time to plan. If you don’t develop this habit, you may find yourself always being reactive with your day rather than proactive—the latter of which can help you take more control over your schedule .
Set aside time on Monday mornings to develop a high-level plan for the week, using Friday mornings to plan for the weekend. In addition, do a daily review of your plan over breakfast—possibly adding pertinent details—to make sure you know what’s coming your way that day.
When making your plans, differentiate between what you need to do and everything that can or should be done. Prioritize what needs to be done first, taking care of these items before moving on to lower-priority tasks on your list.
6. Implement Strategies to Stick to Your Plan
With ADHD, sticking to a plan is often difficult. If you like rewards, use them to assist with this. For instance, you might tell yourself, "I’ll read for two hours, then go to the coffee house." Having something to look forward to can make it easier to muster through your studies.
If you’re competitive, use this personality trait instead. Pick another student in your class whom you want to do better than and go for it. If you know that you respond to social pressure, make plans to study with classmates so you won’t let them down. Or hire a tutor so you have structured study time.
Research suggests that focusing on skills related to time management , target planning, goal setting, organization, and problem-solving can all be helpful for students with ADHD.
Hiring a coach can also be beneficial. There is growing evidence, both research-based and anecdotal, that supports ADHD coaching as a vital strategy in helping students learn to plan, prioritize, and persist in following their plans.
This type of coaching is sometimes described as a form of life coaching influenced by cognitive behavioral-type therapy , which helps people develop behaviors, skills, and strategies to better deal with ADHD symptoms. It can lead to greater self-determination and direction, reduced feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, and increased self-confidence and self-sufficiency.
7. Manage Your Medication
One study found that only around 53% of college students with ADHD adhere to their medication plan. Poor medication adherence can have serious consequences, contributing to poor academic performance and decreased graduation rates.
Steps you can take to stay on top of your ADHD medications include:
- Find a local healthcare provider : Regularly monitoring your medications helps ensure that you are at the best dosage for you. If you're going to school a long way from home, find a local healthcare provider to meet with regularly. You can also schedule regular visits with your university's health services.
- Find a local pharmacy : Determine where you'll order and pick up your medication. Set reminders on your phone so you know when to refill your prescription. You may also be able to sign up for text reminders.
- Store medications safely : Abuse of ADHD medications is on the rise on college campuses, even though this can result in high blood pressure, increased feelings of anger and distrust, trouble sleeping, and even strokes. Keep your ADHD medications in a safe location and never share them with others.
- Set reminders to take your medication : If you are struggling to take your medication as prescribed, consider using a reminder app or setting reminders on your phone.
Research points to medication as the most effective and available ADHD treatment option. However, it's important to talk to your care provider to decide the best treatment approach for your individual situation and needs.
Social Strategies for Students With ADHD
Interpersonal challenges are also common for college students with ADHD. While being out on your own for the first time can be exciting, this mental health condition can lead to difficulties in building and maintaining friendships .
CHADD—which stands for Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, an organization funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—offers these tips:
- Remember that you aren't the only one who feels the way you do . Other students may be feeling just as excited (and overwhelmed) as you. During orientation, help them feel more comfortable by being friendly and listening when they share their concerns.
- Look for opportunities to meet and interact with others . You might make new friends in class, in your dorm, at the school cafeteria, or at other places on campus. View each of these locations as an opportunity to expand your social network .
- Find activities or clubs to join. Colleges and universities are great places to explore hobbies and meet people who share your interests. Check out bulletin boards on campus or look at your school's website to learn more about the options that are available.
- Stay in contact with your current friends . Don't let your high school friendships fade into the background just because you're at college. While you're busy with new things and might not see each other every day, stay in touch by phone, text, social media, or email. Your current friends can be great sources of social support .
A Word From Verywell
Being proactive and getting strategies in place early on can increase your success as a college student with ADHD, both academically and socially. This can help make your transition to college life a happy, successful, and productive time.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. College students with ADHD .
Pineda-Alhucema W, Aristizabal E, Escudero-Cabarcas J, Acosta-López JE, Vélez JI. Executive function and theory of mind in children with ADHD: a systematic review . Neuropsychol Rev . 2018;28:341-358. doi:10.1007/s11065-018-9381-9
Kwon SJ, Kim Y, Kwak Y. Difficulties faced by university students with self-reported symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: A qualitative study . Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health . 2018;12(12). doi:10.1186/s13034-018-0218-3
Ward N, Paul E, Watson P, et al. Enhanced learning through multimodal training: Evidence from a comprehensive cognitive, physical fitness, and neuroscience intervention . Sci Rep . 2017;7(1):5808. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-06237-5
Rommelse N, van der Kruijs M, Damhuis J, et al. An evidence-based perspective on the validity of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in the context of high intelligence . Neurosci Biobehav Rev . 2016;71:21-47. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.08.032
Walck-Shannon EM, Rowell SF, Frey RF. To what extent do study habits relate to performance? CBE Life Sci Educ . 2021;20(1):ar6. doi:10.1187/cbe.20-05-0091
Wennberg B, Janeslätt G, Kjellberg A, Gustafsson P. Effectiveness of time-related interventions in children with ADHD aged 9-15 years: a randomized controlled study . Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry . 2018;27:329-342. doi:10.1007/s00787-017-1052-5
Prevatt F. Coaching for college students with ADHD . Curr Psychiatry Rep . 2016;18(12):110. doi:10.1007/s11920-016-0751-9
ADHD medication adherence in college students-a call to action for clinicians and researchers: Commentary on 'transition to college and adherence to prescribed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication': erratum . J Dev Behav Pediatr . 2018;39(3):269. doi:10.1097/DBP.0000000000000568
Hall CL, Valentine AZ, Groom MJ, et al. The clinical utility of the continuous performance test and objective measures of activity for diagnosing and monitoring ADHD in children: a systematic review . Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry . 2016;25:677-699. doi:10.1007/s00787-015-0798-x
Stanford Medicine. Abuse of prescription ADHD medicines rising on college campuses .
Caye A, Swanson JM, Coghill D, Rohde LA. Treatment strategies for ADHD: an evidence-based guide to select optimal treatment . Mol Psychiatry . 2019;24:390-408. doi:10.1038/s41380-018-0116-3
McKee TE. Peer relationships in undergraduates with ADHD symptomatology: selection and quality of friendships . J Atten Disord . 2017;21(12):1020-1029. doi:10.1177/1087054714554934
CHADD. Succeeding in college with ADD .
Rotz R, Wright SD. Fidget to focus: Outwit your boredom: Sensory strategies for living with ADD .
By Keath Low Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.
By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts.
P: 323-325-1525 | E: [email protected]
- ADHD Coworking Sessions
- ADHD Coaching
- ADHD Coaching For College Students
- Strengths-Based Approach
- How To Get Started
ADHD College Students: Use This Strategy To Write Papers
ADHD College Students : Here at ADHD Collective, we love highlighting the experiences and perspectives of like-minded people with ADHD. Izzy Walker started attending the weekly coworking sessions we launched in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began. She showed up week after week and put in the hard work as she neared the semester’s end at University. When she accepted my invitation to share what she learned with our readers, I was thrilled, and I know you will be too. Please share Izzy’s helpful tips in your social circles, if you know a college student with ADHD who could benefit.
ADHD and College
Making it to university was a milestone I often thought I would never make. However, my experience was gloomy. Everything was disproportionately difficult, lectures were a confusing din, and every assignment was a mammoth struggle.
I changed university naively thinking it would be different somewhere else. It wasn’t. But it was there at my new university that my story of hope began, as one friend saw the immense struggle I was having and suggested that it could be ADHD.
This conversation was a catalyst for change, and set the ball rolling for me in my journey. It led to a heck of a lot of personal research, but also a meeting with an Educational Psychologist who after a series of testing gave me the diagnosis of ADHD and Dyspraxia .
When I read these words I felt an odd, overwhelming sense of relief. I wasn’t dumb, lazy, incapable, or ‘just not cut out to study’.
School reports year after year would echo the words, ‘distracted and distracting’, ‘capable but often off-task’, and ‘constantly questioning’. On paper I was doing well, the product of my work was good, so no flags had been raised, but deep down behind closed doors I was not doing well, the process was far from good. This has been the case throughout the whole of my education, and I just put it down to my capability.
Since diagnosis I have finished my 1 st assignment, and then my 2 nd , and then my 3 rd , and I am now looking onwards to my final year before being a qualified teacher. This time with hope and acceptance of who I am and who I can be with the right strategies and support in place.
Here are some that I have found the most game-changing when working on projects/assignments:
Give Yourself a New Deadline
I set myself a deadline a few days (at least) before the actual one. I have a real tendency to be scrambling right to the last minute and this helps avoid a lot of stress.
The whole point of this was to prevent a lot of unnecessary scrambling and stress. This also gave me time to edit (more on that later).
As much as you can, it’s helpful to treat this earlier date as your actual deadline. One way I did this was only scheduling this earlier date on the calendar so it felt more real.
By finishing 5-6 days early, it offered me a window of time for editing and getting it ready to turn in. It also gave time to improve the paper should I have any middle of the night revelations…which I so often do!
Break Your Paper Down into Smaller Pieces
When I was presented with a 5,000 word assignment I felt immediately overwhelmed. I broke the assignment down into sections and assigned a word count to each one.
when I considered what my paper actually entailed, it didn’t seem so bad. Here's what the requirements consisted of:
- Introduction - 1 section
- Argument FOR - 3 sections
- Argument AGAINST - 3 sections
- Conclusion - 1 Section
- Total length of the paper had to be 5,000 words.
It may seem very overly meticulous, but by spending 30 minutes doing this prevented what could have been HOURS of cutting back word count in the editing stages, and could also run the risk of having no clear structure.
I am a waffler, so without this structure, I would probably have gone WAY over the word limit anyway.
I also went one step further by writing a title for each of the points (on my plan only) and any key things I wanted/needed to mention.
For example, in an assignment on why outdoor learning should be a part of the primary curriculum, my points would be titled ‘educational benefits’, ‘health benefits’ and ‘social benefits’.
The contrary points could be titled ‘behavioural issues’, ‘lack of funding’, and ‘lack of training’. By breaking it down into bite size chunks I felt it was much more manageable.
Focus on One Section a Day
After breaking it down, I dedicated a day to each of the sections. For example, intro – Monday, section 1 – Tuesday, etc.
From my experience, I have found that having a specific measurable target makes it almost like a game. I found it very motivating watching the word count for that section going down as I typed.
By scheduling the sections out and putting them in my calendar, it allowed me to know when this assignment could realistically be finished by, rather than taking a guess and hoping for the best.
When I woke up, I was thinking, 'I have to write 650 words today!’ rather than ‘oh my goodness 5,000 words!?
I would recommend doing this step as soon as you get the assignment and the deadline date…even if you do nothing else towards it, so that you know when you must start.
Set a Mid-Way Checkpoint
it will save you a LOT of time in the editing stages if you do a little editing as you go along.
With the word count on this particular assignment being so big, I thought it would be wise to set a mid-way checkpoint to read through everything so far and make changes as necessary.
Normally, this would be done at the end but I knew I would have lost all interest and motivation by this point…so it would be better to save myself such a huge job. This also filled me with confidence because when I was writing the second half of the assignment and needed the extra boost, I knew that the first half was to a good standard.
Do Something Every Day (No Matter How Small)
I’m not going to lie, not everyday was as straightforward as ‘write one section a day’.
Some days I was crippled by demotivation, lethargy and not wanting to do ANYTHING.
The key times I noticed this was if I had worked too hard the previous day or if I had hit a difficult part. Believe me, working TOO hard is a THING.
My biggest piece of advice is…know your limits!
I’m no ADHD scientist, but I find my brain must be working harder because of the increased effort I am investing to even stand a chance of being able to concentrate.
Whilst I may feel just about fine at the time, the next day it takes its toll…big time…and maybe the work I did in my ‘overtime’ wasn’t even of the best quality anyway.
"If you just aren’t feeling it, do just one sentence, or find just one piece of theory. Just do one something ..."
This is another reason why my structured plan was really useful because it prevented me from unnecessarily going overboard…and meant that there was no real reason to anyway as I was already on track to finish on time.
If it’s the latter reason, that I’ve hit a difficult part, then there is nothing worse than putting it off another day because this ‘mental wall’ will just get HIGHER.
What did I find useful? If you just aren’t feeling it…do just ONE sentence, or find just ONE piece of theory you just use. Just do ONE something…so then you can feel at least partially accomplished and it’s not a blank section for when you do get back to it.
Best case scenario…that ONE something, could roll into TWO or THREE or FOUR somethings…and before you know it that section is done. Often it is just starting that is the difficult bit.
But worse case scenario…you tried and you can give it another shot tomorrow when your brain is a bit fresher. Productive days happen, utilise these and ride the waves…as do unproductive days…don’t allow the guilt to creep in.
Declutter Your Workspace
I even went to the extreme of removing the pen pot off the desk…in front of me all I had was paper, 1 pen, my lamp, and my laptop.
Minimalism has been a saviour for me during this time of discovering what works for me and what doesn’t. I’ve come to the conclusion that reducing physical clutter consequently reduces mental clutter. I also found the inverse to be true too, clearing my physical space gave me mental clarity.
Whilst this is a visible practice in much of my life, it is especially apparent with my workspace . You’d be amazed what I can get distracted by when writing an assignment…even something as small and monotonous as a pen pot!
Firstly…I would recommend to ALWAYS have a work station with a proper chair when you are writing an assignment and never work from your bed. You must set yourself up for success.
Secondly, I have only the bare essentials in front of me…a pen, a lamp, paper, and my laptop. By keeping it minimal it also means it is easily portable if you want to ‘hot seat’ in your own house if you get bored of that scenery!
Use ADHD Coworking Sessions (and the Pomodoro Technique)
At the start of lockdown I stumbled upon a weekly coworking group ran by Adam from ADHD Collective. I can honestly put down a lot of my success to this…it was amazing!
Firstly, I felt so understood because the group was aimed at people with ADHD. This meant that everyone could share their experiences and not feel judged, but instead find themselves in a supportive community where they could also ask advice.
Each session was 2 hours long and attracted between 4 and 12 people, depending on the week.
It would start with each person sharing (with specifics) what task they wanted to achieve within the next 25 minute block.
By being specific it allowed for a strong element of accountability because at the end of the block, Adam, the ADHD coach and group host would check your progress and whether you had achieved what you wanted to achieve.
Working in 25 minute blocks is often referred to as the Pomodoro Technique . Whilst everyone else in the group is sharing their progress, it gives your brain the opportunity for a short break before starting the next block.
By having short bursts of activity I was able to concentrate and thus achieve more than I would have done if I tried to work for hours without breaks.
Additionally, having the accountability was an incentive for me because it was motivation and almost turned it into a game to try and get the activity finished in time.
I hope these college writing tips give you several options that might help you with your ADHD experience.
Now over to you!
Share the tools, strategies, and tips in the comments below that have helped you in your own journey with ADHD and college writing!
Izzy Walker is a trainee teacher in her final year at University in Newcastle, UK. When not studying, she can be found on spontaneous adventures, and meeting new people! To follow her as she navigates through the adventures of ADHD, student life, and teacher...find her on Instagram at @if.walker
Thank you so much.
I am an over 50 returning student trying to finish my undergraduate degree. I never knew I had ADHD until I started taking classes that required retention, organizing, and WRITING. At times, I even wondered if I lacked the skills to even finish. I, at times, self sabotage myself of success because of my struggles. I truly appreciate you sharing your experience. I’ve become desperate and will try anything at this point. I’m just glad to know that others understand my journey. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for this! In addition to these, I also find it really helpful to keep a “Random thoughts” notepad near me to jot down unrelated urges as I have them. Things like “refill water bottle” or “text Casey back” will still be there in 25 minutes, and knowing in advance that thoughts like ‘this will only take a second’ are lies makes them easier to put on the back burner.
Wow. Thank you, so much, Izzy. I developed ADHD only 3 years ago from a medication. I also decided to go back to college as a mom of 3 boys and the mental exhaustion and burnout is no joke. Papers have been the most challenging and this is the single most helpful tool I’ve found yet. I could feel the relief wash over me as I read through your guide. I feel inspired to tackle my papers in a new way now.
Hi, I am a mid-career student here going back for an MA part-time, while also working. I’ve never been formally diagnosed, but I tick all the boxes and I know now it is why I struggled with papers in college the first time around and why I developed so many systems to be organized in my work life. Was feeling a little burned out today while writing an academic paper and was looking for advice. I was amazed to see that your system is very similar to what I’ve been doing for myself to get through paper-writing! It’s reinforcing in a very good way. Thank you for sharing this. Best of luck to everyone with finding the solutions and tricks that work for them.
Hi Espy, appreciate the comment. Very cool to hear your intuitive system is similar (nice intuition!). If an additional accountability/community component would ever be useful, you’re always invited to our Wednesday ADHD Coworking Sessions. They’re free and we do them every Wednesday (you can sign up for upcoming sessions here: https://adhdcollective.com/adhd-coworking-session-online/ ). Would love to have you, Espy!
Leave a Reply Cancel reply
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
Overcoming Task Initiation Challenges in ADHD
Initiating tasks is often a significant hurdle for those with ADHD , largely due to difficulties with executive function and motivation. This challenge manifests as a delay in starting important tasks, leading to procrastination. To tackle this, breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps and creating a structured approach with clear deadlines can be effective. Additionally, using external motivators like timers or rewards can help kickstart the process. Developing strategies for task initiation is crucial in managing ADHD, enabling individuals to engage more effectively with their responsibilities and goals.
Visualize your ADHD traits
Learn where you land in the ADHD spectrum, by answering 28 questions inspired by the Adult Self-Report Scale (ASRS).
Visualize and assess 25 ADHD traits and understand how they affect your life.
Are We Lazy to Start Doing Tasks?
Did you know that it took me almost two months to start doing the illustration for this topic to be posted on the Instagram account of The Mini ADHD Coach? 😨 Add another three months of waiting for the right motivation to write about this specific ADHD trait. Now that I remember, I can conclude that we seem to have trouble sustaining our interests and finishing our tasks. But why does starting something new give us such difficulties? 🤔
Doing something for the first time can be a struggle for many people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder 😞. They may have been having difficulties initiating one task at a time because they may either have a disorganized schedule or too many distractions that can quickly pull their focus away. Getting started with other tasks can also be hard for us, especially when we aren't interested in doing them in the first place.
Every ADHD struggle that we experience related to our urge to do tasks may boil down to our ability to handle our executive functions. Executive function is an umbrella term for the cognitive processes 🧠 that help us plan, remember, pay attention, and control our behavior. This can also involve self-monitoring , an essential skill to have when it comes to finishing tasks on time.
However, why do we postpone tasks until we are pressed with a deadline? 📅 Do we tend to start slow, or is there something behind our struggle to initiate tasks promptly?
Task Initiation and ADHD
We might already have a slight idea about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. For those who don’t have any, ADHD is a neurodivergent disorder that affects our ability to stay focused, control impulses, and maintain attention 👌. Sometimes, ADHD can also give us poor working memory, affecting our daily functioning. It can also impact our ability to plan and prioritize tasks - including the lack of motivation to initiate doing them.
Task initiation is our first step in doing specific tasks. These are the things that we need to do to propel ourselves in continuously being productive and, if we're lucky, be able to finish them as well 👍. However, an ADHD brain can sometimes be tricky to understand.
When it comes to task initiation, we tend to feel the overpowering need to push things off until the last minute due to our inability to focus and organize our thoughts for that specific activity 😅. This can be pretty challenging for us as we cannot commit ourselves even with the limited tasks. There's also a bigger chance for us to procrastinate, even if we don't have anything important to do at the moment.
Why Do We Struggle in Task Initiation?
There may be several reasons why many individuals with ADHD find it hard to start doing anything . Though neurotypical people may experience these kinds of struggles, some adults with ADHD continuously face the consequences of “failing” task initiation , even if they know that their strategies regarding starting a task are sometimes inefficient 😢.
They say the most challenging part of anything is having the urge to start doing them. This may be the critical part of a task, as it can determine the pace, mood, and even project outcome. Sometimes, there are a few good reasons for some adults with ADHD who feel they need to set aside an activity. But, there are also moments when we don't want to do something due to our mental fatigue or feeling overwhelmed with too many tasks 😭.
Boring Tasks Goes Last
One common way of determining if a task should be done first is our level of interest in doing them. Without our keen interest and focus on something, our strategy to fully devote our time and attention cannot be sustained even if we have enough energy 🔋. There's also a bigger chance of getting distracted when we aren't motivated to do things.
Starting tasks with little to no interest in doing them may be a massive factor for us not getting into the business of task initiation. Therefore, if we have plenty of tasks, completing the boring and uninteresting stuff should be last , even if there'll be consequences for putting it off.
Need Extra Effort? Nope!
Completing arduous tasks that demand too much attention , energy and focus can be tricky for an adult with ADHD. These tasks sometimes make us feel too overwhelmed , and as much as we can delay them, we'll do anything to create a reason not to accomplish them 😥.
Many adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder will try to avoid doing a task requiring extra effort. Those activities that we think will only give us too many struggles are hard to start and complete. Even though finishing them may provide beneficial outcomes or a reward, our urgency to start doing them cannot be matched .
Activities with Less Stress, Please
Since we are usually dealing with a lot, some people with ADHD tend to hold off stressful tasks on their priority list📝. We look for activities we can quickly check off on our to-do list and have fun doing them since it is one of the ways to keep us going and complete our tasks, too. Those we find stressful may get stuck at the bottom of the list.
We all seem to have enough difficulties in our lives. Sometimes, we think that our already-struggling brain cannot handle stress further. We might sense that starting off tasks that can only produce complex difficulties can cause anxiety 😨 or even make it harder for us to start something else.
Take our fun online quiz to visualize your ADHD traits and learn more about your brain!
The Consequences of Putting Off Tasks
Putting off an activity doesn't just affect our mental health but some of our goals as well. We might forget these activities and risk the consequences of not doing what is expected, like missing deadlines or failing to complete tasks with high priority 📅. Sometimes, when we try to create an extension for these crucial tasks, it can lead to having an ADHD tax.
An example of the recent ADHD tax I paid was my procrastination in meeting my clients. I was having a hard time that day, and the situation was going against me (that's how I would like to think) So, I planned my day, but it suddenly rained 🌧️. My energy was down because I felt that I should have prepared for this kind of weather or done something else that would make me ready. I should have grabbed any rain gear, gotten off, and just went on with my day.
But what I did was wait a bit more for the rain to stop. I started to watch the television 📺 and became so engaged that I forgot the whole thing I was supposed to attend. My easily distracted ADHD trait and executive dysfunction made me miss my meeting . I missed the chance to see the importance of finishing massive projects that time, and I wonder even more if I can make it up for the next time.
The fear and anxiety inside my head were a bit intense. I thought that I'd lose the chance to smoothen things next time. Lucky for me, the clients I met with were very understanding 🤗. What would happen to me if they were different people?
From Task Initiation to Task Completion
Since we often have difficulties getting started with our tasks, completing them may be challenging. When we are overwhelmed with what we're supposed to do, we'll most likely choose to have a break and not worry about them until needed. But for me , this may not be the right approach .
Here are some of the key factors to remember during task initiation and improving your executive function skills:
- In doing big projects, break down tasks into more minor, manageable activities so that getting started won't be a huge hindrance.
- Making a to-do list 📝can also help people with ADHD to remember every task that needs to be done. In the same way, when we write these tasks, the brain tends to commit and process better.
- Setting up a timer or using the Pomodoro technique. ⏲️ Taking a break is a necessary part of accomplishing projects. However, it can be hard again to start when you take too many breaks often. This technique can reduce distractions as it utilizes timeboxing, and it separates someone's professional agenda from his personal life.
Having a body double or a friend 🧑 that can help you with your agenda keeps you accountable and can help you finish things faster. Having them around may give better support and reminder to complete a task.
ADHD and Task Initiation: FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What is task initiation.
Task Initiation simply refers to our ability to get started on a task. It may involve several things, like our interest in the activity or our energy level.
Do people with ADHD have difficulties in Task Initiation?
Some people with ADHD do have problems initiating tasks. However, note that anyone can have problems with it, too. It’s just that when you have ADHD, your symptoms may get in the way of getting things started. For instance, being easily distracted can make you put important things off.
What helps with Task Initiation?
A lot of things can help with getting activities started. Breaking goals into smaller tasks is one, so that they wouldn’t be overwhelming. Setting a schedule or deadline for yourself may also work, with the help of timers or an accountability buddy.
Share this article on Social Media
Help us raise awareness around ADHD, let's spread ADHD love and support to all that need it.
If you liked this article you are going to like these ones:
Check out more content about similar topics:
ADHD & Creativity: Reasons Why We Think Outside the Box
If you are struggling with ADHD, don't despair! There are many ways to capitalize on your creative strengths. In this blog post, we will explore how ADHD can lead to increased creativity and offer some tips for making the most of your unique thinking style.
What to Do When ADHD Struggles Emerge in School
ADHD may not be a learning disability, but it can affect our education. Here’s how.
Overcoming Morning Challenges: ADHD and Rising Early Simplified
Struggling to wake up with ADHD? Discover the connection between ADHD and sleep, and learn effective strategies for easier mornings in this article.
The mini adhd coach
Celebrating 25 Years
- What Is ADHD?
- The ADHD Brain
- ADHD Symptoms
- ADHD in Children
- ADHD in Adults
- ADHD in Women
- Find ADHD Specialists
- New! Symptom Checker
- ADHD Symptom Tests
- All Symptom Tests
- More in Mental Health
- Medication Reviews
- ADHD Medications
- Natural Remedies
- ADHD Therapies
- Managing Treatment
- Treating Your Child
- Behavior & Discipline
- School & Learning
- Teens with ADHD
- Positive Parenting
- Schedules & Routines
- Organizing Your Child
- Health & Nutrition
- More on ADHD Parenting
- Do I Have ADD?
- Getting Things Done
- Time & Productivity
- Health & Nutrition
- More for ADHD Adults
- Free Webinars
- Free Downloads
- ADHD Videos
- ADHD Directory
- eBooks + More
- Guest Blogs
- News & Research
- For Clinicians
- For Educators
- Manage My Subscription
- Get Back Issues
- Digital Magazine
- Gift Subscription
- Renew My Subscription
Q: “Where Do I Start?!? How to Organize and Initiate a Big Project”
For students with adhd, long-term projects can be daunting and frustrating. here, learn how to help your child organize and initiate work on a big assignment..
Q: “My daughter has a real problem when it comes to working on projects. She doesn’t know how to get started and ends up getting frustrated, wasting time, and having meltdowns. It became really obvious this past spring when we were doing distance learning and her teachers assigned more long-term projects than day-to-day homework. Now that we are going to be doing online learning again, I’m really nervous this will become more of an issue.” – ADHDMom
Nothing brings on a meltdown faster than trying to tackle a long-term project or paper. They are difficult from an academic standpoint, plus keeping track of all the steps involved can be a time-management and executive-function nightmare!
I’ve got you covered. Feel free to download our free Project Planning Guide from my Order Out Of Chaos website or have your daughter follow the steps outlined below.
1. Break the assignment into small, actionable tasks. I can’t stress this point enough. Breaking down things into manageable parts makes working through them less overwhelming. Have your daughter write out an outline of the steps necessary to complete each assignment. Make sure each task is manageable and specific. For many students, it’s easier to write one paragraph every afternoon than it is to complete the entire research paper in one night.
2. Estimate how much time it’s going to take to do each step. Work backward from the due dates to figure out how much time is needed to accomplish each task. Always build in extra padding. I normally tack on an extra 25 percent worth of time to act as a buffer against false starts, interruptions, and unanticipated problems.
[ Read: The ADHD Homework System We Swear By ]
3. Assign deadlines and schedule appointments for each task. Assign “due dates” for completing each step and have your daughter record them in her planner . Schedule them as regular assignments so she knows exactly when she has time to work on them. This step is critical. Most students know how to get homework that is due the next day done. However, making time for long-term assignments and projects can be more challenging. She should plan on finishing two days in advance of the due date.
4. Allot time for hidden tasks. The devil is in the details! Purchasing materials, watching a movie, getting together with her group or proofreading drafts are all steps that are easily overlooked when factoring in time.
5. Schedule “Are You on Track?” days. Even the best laid plans go off the rails. That’s why I always suggest planning days to get them back on track! When entering tasks into the planner, add a few “are you on track” days (3 to 4 days apart). You’re not scheduling any actual work, but leaving a designated check-in to make sure she’s on target. If she’s not, then this is the time to get caught up. And if she is? She gets a free pass!
6. Focus on the first step. Trying to visualize a whole project all at once can leave your daughter not knowing where to start. So begin with asking this one question: What is the first step you need to do to begin? See if asking this question brings her focus to a manageable starting point and eliminates all barriers to entry.
Where Do I Start? Next Steps
- Read: Preventing Procrastination 101
- Learn: 12 Schoolwork Shortcuts for Kids Who Hate Homework
- Troubleshoot: My Child is Resisting Homeschool Work More and More Each Day!
ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos , will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.
THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF ADDITUDE’S FREE PANDEMIC COVERAGE To support our team as it pursues helpful and timely content throughout this pandemic , please join us as a subscriber . Your readership and support help make this possible. Thank you.
More Articles Recommended For You
Your Executive Functions Are Weak. Here’s Why.
ADDitude's Top 10 Webinars of 2022
Top 25 Downloads from ADDitude’s First 25 Years
Top Webinars in ADDitude's History
Free newsletter, success @ school, strategies for homework, accommodations, ieps, working with school & more..
- Skip to main content
- Skip to primary sidebar
Home » Changing Behavior
Task Initiation Made Easy: 8 Ways to Start Tasks with ADHD
Published: May 9, 2023 · Modified: May 25, 2023 by the Honestly ADHD team · This post may contain affiliate links.
The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not meant to replace professional or medical advice. See our full disclaimer .
Task initiation is, simply put, getting started on something. If you or your child has ADHD , you probably know that certain tasks seem incredibly overwhelming . Sometimes you just can't start tasks .
This could apply to a straightforward task like changing clothes or showering. Or a more difficult task like starting a research paper or finishing homework.
To those with ADHD, it can feel like there's a brick wall between us and the task at hand. It seems impossible to climb that wall, and we'll do almost anything to avoid trying. This can lead to waiting until the last minute, task avoidance, and letting people down.
Well, today we're talking all about Task Initiation and ADHD , and (more importantly) 8 proven steps to help.
Let's dive into the solutions so you can finally start those tasks you don't want to do.
1. Break it down into the smallest possible task
3. task pairing, 4. set a timer, 5. create a ritual, 6. count down from five, 7. start in the middle, 8. find an accountability partner, why do we avoid tasks, what does executive function have to do with task initiation.
In ADHD land, all tasks, easy or complex, can feel like a looming mountain. So what's the trick? Break tasks down into the smallest possible steps.
Imagine brushing your teeth broken down into mini-tasks:
- take out toothbrush
- squeeze toothpaste on the brush
- turn water on
- wet the toothbrush
- start brushing
This might seem like we're oversimplifying, but with a child with ADHD, it can work wonders.
Transforming a seemingly overwhelming task into manageable, bite-sized pieces can reduce anxiety and make task initiation easier.
When it's bedtime for my 6-year-old son, I guide him through each step, making sure he's engaged (remember, kids with ADHD can have an executive age 30% behind neurotypical children ).
For example, to get him into his pajamas, I'll say:
- "Take off your shirt, put it in the hamper, and give me a high-five."
- After he does that, I'll say, "Great job! Now take off your pants, put them in the hamper, and give me a double high-five."
Eventually, he'll have his p.js on without any moaning and groaning. This step-by-step approach works much better than a blanket command like "Change into your pajamas."
This task breakdown works for adults, too. You can break down big projects into smaller parts.
For example, here are some manageable steps for a research paper:
- Turn on your computer
- Go to your favorite search engine.
- Type in your topic.
- Read through a few articles.
- Take notes on the most important points.
- Decide on the main points you want to cover.
- Note down the order in which you want to present them.
- Plan for a brief introduction and conclusion.
You get the idea! Our free daily planner sheets and our printable ADHD to-do lists help create achievable goals using this method. It encourages realistic time management and won't let you put too many tasks on your plate.
Another point to note is, it's best not to do too large of tasks all in one day. For instance, instead of cleaning out the entire fridge (which would take hours), it's best to tackle one shelf at a time. Split it up between several days!
This is much less intimidating and easier to start. (Not to mention, this prevents us from getting overwhelmed halfway through and not finishing).
We always recommend a small reward or treat when you've completed your task(s). That brings us to number two.
Rewards, big or small, can be the key to getting both kids and adults with ADHD to start a task.
For my son, something as simple as a high-five works wonders (as noted above). More complicated tasks can be rewarded with some screen time or a treat. The thought of the reward can be a powerful push to get started.
As for adults, a reward could be your favorite latte waiting for you after you complete a report or a piece of chocolate after doing the laundry.
The proper reward will give you that hit of dopamine that makes the idea of starting a task all the more worth it. Keep a picture of the prize in your mind as you work on the task. That latte will taste so much better after a job well done!
A great hack for task initiation is task pairing. This is when you combine a less pleasant task with something you enjoy.
Let's say you're an adult who detests washing dishes. Let's pair it up! How about watching your favorite Netflix show as you wash the dishes?
Suddenly, the dishes don't seem so bad while I'm watching an episode of The Great British Bakeoff. It's a win-win.
For kids, it works just as well. If the bedtime routine feels like a chore, make it enjoyable for them.
Turn on their favorite music as they brush their teeth, change into their pajamas, and prepare their backpack. Upbeat music for ADHD can make the boring routine more lively and engaging.
Task pairing can make the mundane seem less overwhelming, and in some cases, even fun!
Sometimes, rewards and task pairing might not cut it. This is especially true for tasks that require your undivided attention. We don't want to distract our ADHD brain from something important.
For example, replying to emails or doing homework may not pair well with a TV show in the background. In these cases, timers can be your best friend.
Here's how you do it: set a timer for a small, achievable chunk of time, like 15 minutes. This short commitment feels less intimidating and can kickstart the task.
Work for a short time, then take a small break. The thought of a mini break right around the corner can make the task at hand feel less daunting. Rinse and repeat.
This strategy is often called the Pomodoro Technique . It's a simple (but highly effective) method of breaking work down into manageable chunks with regular breaks in between. 1 Pomodoro Technique It works wonders for ADHD and task initiation.
Here's how it works:
- Choose a Task: Select the specific task you want to work on. This could be anything from answering emails, studying for an exam, or writing a report.
- Set a Timer for 25 Minutes: The traditional length of a 'Pomodoro' is 25 minutes, but you can adjust this to fit your needs. The aim is to focus solely on your task for this period without any distractions or multitasking.
- Work on the Task: Immerse yourself in the task for the duration of the Pomodoro. If you have an unrelated idea or remember something you need to do, write it down to deal with later.
- Take a Short Break: Once the timer rings, stop working and take a short break of about 5-10 minutes. This let your brain rest and recharge.
- Repeat: After your break, set the timer again and dive back into your task (or a new task). After completing four Pomodoros, take a longer break of about 15 to 30 minutes.
The Pomodoro Technique is effective for several reasons. The time limit can create a sense of urgency, which can help you to start tasks and stay focused.
Breaks also help prevent burnout and maintain high energy levels for extended periods.
Be sure to fully disengage from your work during your break - stand up, move around, do some light stretching, or meditate. This helps ensure you're ready to dive back in fully refreshed for your next timed session.
A ritual for ADHD is like a hybrid of task pairing, rewards, and task breakdown.
We're not talking about the ceremonial stuff tied to religion or culture. A ritual for ADHD is all about crafting a unique habit loop that speaks to you.
It's doing things in a specific order but with a touch of fun or meaning that makes it special for you. It's not just going through the motions; it's about making it yours.
This is super helpful for folks with ADHD because it's like a roadmap for your daily life. No need to stress about what comes next.
Here's how you could turn house cleaning into a Ritual:
- Fancy Smells: First, you get your candle warmer going, making your home smell like a cinnamon wonderland. This isn't just for the pleasant smell - once you do this enough times, it signals to your brain that cleaning time has started.
- Task Pairing: While you clean, you listen to your favorite podcast or audiobook and sip on a green tea latte .
- Happy Thoughts: As you put away the clean laundry, you imagine how happy your kids will be to have everything in place. They have more room to play when there aren't toys on the floor. I am proud of myself because cleaning makes my whole family happier.
So, your cleaning ritual is really a bunch of smaller tasks (cleaning stuff) paired with fun stuff (podcast) and all tied together with something meaningful (happy family).
For a kid, a morning ritual could be like this:
- Task Pairing : Your child pairs brushing her teeth with a fun activity. The beginning of the day starts with her favorite "good morning" song while she gets dressed. Then she listens to her favorite cartoon theme songs while brushing her teeth. This makes the whole experience more fun and less tedious.
- Rewards : After each step, your child gets a little reward. After brushing her teeth and washing up, she gets to choose her breakfast.
- Meaning: The last step is completing two quick meditation exercises with Mom or Dad, where she gets to pretend to be a growing plant or a fluffy cloud. These free meditation exercise cards encourage self-confidence and increase dopamine levels. Quality time with family provides a great start to the day.
So, remember, a ritual is not just about ticking things off a list. It's about making the process fun, meaningful, and even calming, no matter what you tackle.
Once you do this enough times that it becomes an effortless habit, like brushing your teeth in the morning or walking to the coffee maker.
You might have heard of the "5 Second Rule" by Mel Robbins. This isn't about picking up food from the floor! It's a simple trick to jump-start your brain into action.
This technique distracts your mind from the barriers and helps you get started on a task before overthinking kicks in. Here's how it works:
Start counting down from five: 5-4-3-2-1. And then you just GO, starting on the very first step. It sounds crazy simple, but this short countdown can create a sense of urgency and trick your brain into getting started.
The trick here is not to overthink it. Don't allow yourself to reach zero without moving. It's like a rocket launch - when you hit one, you've gotta blast off. This works well for kids as you build the excitement around the countdown.
Once you get going, you may find it hard to stop. It becomes easy and enjoyable (or at least not nearly as bad as you expected).
You may quickly find yourself in a "flow" state where you are transfixed by your task and shut out everything else for an extended period. The key is to find what strategy works for you and that particular task.
Starting a task can sometimes feel like standing at the foot of a giant mountain. Where do you even begin?
Here's where "starting in the middle" comes in handy.
You start working on any part of the task , not necessarily the beginning. Find a piece of the project you feel comfortable with, something that doesn't feel daunting , and start there.
This technique is about tricking your brain into breaking past that initial barrier of procrastination or overwhelm.
For example, writers of dictionaries tend to start with a letter in the middle of the alphabet to find their rhythm before returning to A later.
Let's say you have to write an essay. Instead of fretting over the perfect introduction, you could start by writing out the main points of your argument or even the conclusion!
The idea is to reduce that initial resistance to starting the task by choosing a part of it that seems less intimidating. Once you've begun, the momentum often helps you tackle the other parts, and the rest follows more easily .
There is nothing wrong with starting with the easy parts of a task to get you going. But on other occasions, you may prefer to get the worst part out of the way at the beginning and know that it is all uphill from there. Find and use what works for you.
If you struggle with many task initiation problems, you may want to look into an "Accountability Buddy" or ADHD coach. An accountability buddy could be your spouse or a friend with similar goals.
When you tell someone, "Hey, I'm gonna do this thing ," you have an extra layer of motivation. Suddenly, it's not just about you and the task but also about keeping your word .
Plus, when they check in on you, it's like a gentle nudge - a reminder that says, "Remember that thing you were gonna do?"
You're then more likely to get moving and get it done. It's kind of like magic, but it's just the power of accountability !
Professional ADHD coaches can provide weekly or monthly virtual visits to ensure you achieve your goals. Having someone to talk to about your ADHD can also help with your self-confidence and mental health.
A coach can also help you find the internal motivation you need to start tasks, which can lead to greater success over time.
You may wonder why you find it hard to start a new task, even something you know you will enjoy doing. You are not alone – this inertia is common in ADHD and neurodivergent people.
One possible explanation is the generally high levels of anxiety and overthinking in ADHD brains , combined with negative experiences in the past. The fear of failure overwhelms us.
We spend so much time thinking about what might go wrong that we build an insurmountable barrier to cross before even getting started.
Making it even more difficult, people with ADHD struggle with perfectionist tendencies (often to the extreme!). So our barrier may be taller than neurotypical folks because we put extra pressure on ourselves.
Neurotypical people may say this is a lack of motivation, but it's much more complicated in the ADHD brain. There is science behind ADHD and task initiation, and it's related to different areas of the brain.
ADHD may stand for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but it's mostly about our "executive dysfunction." Executive functioning affects many areas of our life, like impulse control and emotional regulation. 2 Executive Function & Self-Regulation And it makes it incredibly hard to start on tasks.
In everyone's brain, there's a kind of boss, a manager if you will, called the executive function. Its job is to help us get things done . It organizes tasks, manages time, pays attention to details, and switches focus when necessary.
Now, for those with ADHD, their manager (executive function) isn't quite as efficient. It's not because they're lazy or not trying hard enough, but because certain brain chemicals aren't flowing as freely as they should be.
These chemicals, called dopamine and norepinephrine, play a key role in our feelings of focus, motivation, and the enjoyment we get from rewards.
When we start a task and stay focused, dopamine rewards us with feelings of pleasure. But in folks with ADHD, since there's less dopamine activity, the motivation to start a task just isn't as strong. 3 ADHD: The Role of Dopamine
The reward doesn't feel as rewarding, which makes the current job harder to start.
So, imagine you're supposed to start a task. Normally, dopamine and norepinephrine would step in to motivate you and keep you focused.
But with ADHD, they're not as efficient as they should be. This is especially challenging when the task at hand doesn't instantly gratify or excite us. Hence, starting tasks can feel overwhelmingly difficult.
In summary, our brains crave constant stimulation, so we need more excitement or reward to get the gears grinding.
This is a simple explanation, but ADHD brain science is complex and still being studied. Still, these are key pieces to understanding why starting tasks can be challenging for those with ADHD.
The good news is that the more you complete tasks (and feel that sense of relief and dopamine boost), the easier it will be to start next time.
We hope these tips will improve your task initiation skills and prevent task avoidance. By using these techniques, you'll be better equipped to overcome ADHD symptoms every day.
Did I miss any task initiation strategies? Let me know in the comment section below!
- 1 Pomodoro Technique
- 2 Executive Function & Self-Regulation
- 3 ADHD: The Role of Dopamine
More Changing Behavior
We'd love to hear from you cancel reply.
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.
- Adults with ADHD
- Children and teens with ADHD
- ADHD is more common than you think
- Why it's good to have ADHD
- Inspiring stories from people with ADHD
- News and Research on ADHD
- Think you're an adult with ADHD?
- Think your child has ADHD?
- Getting an assessment and diagnosis for ADHD
- Self screening assessment tool for adults who suspect that they have ADHD
- The Different Types of Healthcare Professionals
- Products and Services
- Join ADHD NZ's community
- Tips on how to support children with ADHD
- Parent Support is a Phone Call Away
- ADHD eLearning module FAQs for staff at primary and secondary schools
- Feedback from school staff about ADHD course
- FAQs for staff at tertiary education organisations
- Feedback from staff at tertiary education organisations
- Tips for adults managing life and ADHD
- ADHD Support Organisations
- ADHD Stimulant Medication
- ADHD Non-Stimulant Medication
- ADHD Anti-Depressant Medication
- Vlogs and blogs on ADHD
- ADHD Ambassador
- Help Us By Volunteering
- ADHD Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP) in NZ
- ADHD NZ 2021: past, present and future
- ADHD NZ in the news
- ADHD Research Institute of New Zealand
ADHD Coach and Productivity Consultant
Why ADHD Adults Have Trouble Starting Tasks
June 12, 2022 by Marla Cummins
How ADHD adults start with greater ease may be one of your most pressing questions. As is true for many ADHD adults, you might find the most challenging part of completing a task is starting it. And, while not always the case, once you get started, you might find it’s not that hard to continue working if you can just get started. But, since initiating can feel so daunting for reasons I’ll cover below, you may often procrastinate.
And, because you’re used to doing things at the last minute, you might have convinced yourself that that’s how you operate best. It’s become a habit. ADHD expert Dr. Thomas Brown explains it in the following way:
Often, they will put off getting started on a task, even a task they recognize as very important to them, until the very last minute. It is as though they cannot get themselves started until the point where they perceive the task as an acute emergency.
Now you’ve decided you’re tired of operating this way. That’s why you’re reading this article. Read on to see why it is so hard for ADHD adults to get started.
What Is Motivation?
When you’re motivated, you have the energy to engage in doing what it takes to make a change. It could be ordering food to satiate your hunger or looking for a new job when you’re unsatisfied with your current one. While there are many definitions of motivation, here is how I define it.
Motivation is the desire to make a change, coupled with the necessary energy to take persistent action to make that change.
You have the first part in spades. You want to make changes in your life , perhaps, many. But what frustrates you is that, despite wanting these changes, you get stuck because you can’t persistently create and sustain enough energy to take action .
Sometimes I bet you are dumbfounded at your inability to start on something you say is important to you. Before you decide it is because it is not that important to you, consider how your ADHD and emotions might be getting in your way.
Dopamine and The ADHD Brain
When you don’t start on what you say is important to you, you (and others) may think you’re choosing not to do it. If it is important to you, so the thinking goes, you would power through and start, right? After all, it seems easy for you to engage in tasks that interest you.
Sure, sometimes, just like anyone else, you choose to attend to what interests you at the expense of doing other important tasks. We all do this! But you also want to be intentional about starting and following through on what’s important to you , whether it’s intrinsically interesting to you or not.
One of the reasons for your inconsistency in starting your important work is that there is insufficient dopamine released in the executive function networks in the ADHD brain. Y our brain is just not stimulated enough. So, you don’t start.
If you are interested in doing a task because of a perceived reward or avoidance of something negative, dopamine is released. It’s important to note that this is not voluntary, though! To paraphrase a patient of ADHD expert Dr. Thomas Brown , “Either you can get it up or you can’t.” Enough said.
The ADHD Interest-Based Nervous System
Because of your particular brain wiring, as ADHD expert, Dr. Dodson, points out you have an interest-based nervous system , “ activated only by a fleeting sense” of interest , competition , novelty and, yes, urgency . Think about the times when you’re able to focus well recently. I bet one of these conditions are present.
So, telling yourself you should do something, trying to force yourself, just won’t work. In fact, you likely feel more resistance when you try to force yourself, right?
But when you wait until the last minute and there is an impending consequence, like getting in trouble at work, you might become really interested in doing the task. 😉 Dopamine is released and your brain gets the stimulation it needs. That is why urgency works .
How Unconscious Emotions Impacts Your Motivation to Start
The other factor that gets in your way of starting is the emotions attached to the task . Think about a task you are putting off right now. Write down all the thoughts that come to mind when you think of this task. What did you notice about the negative thoughts associated with the task? These thoughts are bringing up emotions that are contributing to your challenges starting.
Let’s see how that might work in the example of what might seem like a straightforward, simple task.
Cari is co-authoring a paper with her colleague, Naseer. As she is replying to some emails, she sees the one he sent her a week ago. She can’t believe she hasn’t responded yet, and tells herself that she should reply to him today! After all, he’s so good about replying right away.
Then she gets stuck trying to formulate a response. She remembers she promised to send her section to Naseer last week. But she didn’t. And she’s still not done with it. Cari decides she doesn’t want to give him an update until she can send the promised section. She doesn’t want him to think she’s a screwup.
Cari starts down a shame spiral, and can’t even think about what to write in the email. She wonders if he regrets ever deciding to work with her. Then she decides she’ll answer the email later because she has to go to a meeting.
I know there’s a lot to unpack there. But you get the idea. Emotions can get in the way of starting a task , even those that appear straightforward and simple.
Waiting for Motivation Is an Unreliable Strategy
Like Cari, you may often say to yourself about an important task, I’ll do that later. But you don’t mean that. That is, you don’t decide when you will do it. You’re just not going to do it in that moment.
But promising you will do it later minimizes the discomfort of putting it off. After all, Cari would not decide not to write the email. Similarly, you would not tell yourself you’re not going to do an important task you’re putting off, right? Instead, you promise yourself to do it later. Right, later.
When procrastinating, though unconscious, there is often an underlying belief that you’ll feel like doing it later. That is, something will magically change to make it easier to do. But you don’t know when that will happen or what will change.
Again, think of a task you’re putting off starting. When are you going to do it? You probably can’t answer that because you don’t want to do it. The task is uncomfortable to do now and won’t be any more palatable at some point in the future.
Waiting for motivation becomes even more of a slippery slope when you feel shame . Because your self-esteem takes a battering, and then you feel even less motivated to tackle the task. So, you may either avoid doing it or wait until there’s some external pressure, a sense of urgency , that forces you to do it.
The Cost of Over Relying on External Pressure
When confronted with the challenge of getting started, you may have developed a habit of relying on urgency for motivation. Because your work gets done eventually, you may even believe that is how you work best.
But, while the task gets done, I know urgency does not really work for you. Because relying on the pressure of deadlines comes with costs for you . These may include overwhelm, poor health, sleep deficit, mediocre work, mistakes, and not completing work when the pressure becomes too great.
You may expect yourself to create enough internal pressure on your own to get started. Because, your thinking goes, that is what adults do, right? In those moments it’s important to remember it will be a challenge when you just can’t muster the interest to get your brain fired up and/or your emotions get in your way.
Next – How To Make It Easier to Start
Because of your brain wiring and emotional responses, which can be related to your brain wiring, you’ll need to figure out a different way to operate. The standard way neurotypical people operate just won’t work for you. And that’s OK!
In Part 2 of this series, 6 Tips ADHD Adults Need to Use to Make It Easier to Start , I’ll suggest various strategies you can try to make getting started easier. And as you experiment with these, you’ll be able to figure out what works for you. So, you don’t have to only rely on urgency to get started.
Do You Have Trouble Following Through?
Get your FREE special report now and learn about Six Common Planning Mistakes Adults with ADHD Make (and how to fix them).
You'll also receive ADHD management tips in the ADDed Perspectives Newsletter.
5 secrets to studying better with ADHD
Studying for exams can be a very daunting and stressful experience when you have ADHD . You may spend much more time studying for exams than your friends, yet your grades do not reflect your efforts. This can leave you feeling disappointed, irritated, and disheartened.
Luckily, there are ADHD friendly tips and techniques to help learning and studying easier.
What is ADHD? Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – or ADHD – is the term given to a common behavioural condition that is defined by problems with attention, hyperactivity or impulsiveness that are extreme for a given age. The illness is most common in children; however, up to 50 per cent of people affected will continue to have symptoms throughout their lives. Check out the latest UQ Contact Magazine article ‘Embracing adult life with ADHD’ .
Getting creative can really help!
ADHD is associated with ‘short-term’ or working memory problems. This makes it difficult to hold information in mind for long enough to do something with it. So, rather than trying to remember all your study materials in your head, try using some creative strategies. Not everything works for everyone, so experiment with a few and find what works best for you.
- Use movement to keep you alert (e.g., stand up, take a short walk).
- Remove distractions from your workspace (e.g., turn off phone alerts).
- Highlight important text with different-coloured pens.
- Take notes or create mind-maps with the most relevant information.
- Recording notes as voice memos to listen to as you walk across campus.
- Create reminders for tasks you need to achieve.
- Try reading an assignment aloud to yourself.
- Try working with a study buddy with good study habits.
Planning is key
Actively plan time to plan! This is a useful habit to get into as it will train you to be proactive rather than reactive with your study. Planning a weekly schedule which includes time for study, work, fun, and other activities can help you get into a routine and keep on track. Refer to your schedule regularly so you know what’s coming up. Be clear on what you ‘need’ to do (e.g., exam, work) versus what you would ‘like’, or ‘hope’ to do. Remember to make time for self-care to avoid burnout.
Check out the article ‘ How to avoid and deal with university burnout ’.
Don’t wait until you 'feel like' doing something
Whether you realize it or not, when you avoid something and put it off for later i.e., procrastinate, you are essentially letting your immediate desires to do something interesting or fun, get in the way of doing what you need to do. It goes without saying that everyone procrastinates at times, but for people with ADHD, procrastination can be a particularly challenging obstacle. If you have ADHD, you may find it difficult to start studying for an exam or hard to start a new assignment, or to even stay on track once you’ve started. Remember that procrastinating isn’t the same thing as laziness or lack of intelligence. It’s simply a challenge that you’re doing your best to overcome.
Here are a few tips to help you manage procrastination:
- Set a deadline . This will help you manage your time and get things done on time.
- Do one thing at a time . Rather than tackling multiple tasks simultaneously, do one task at a time. This can help focus your concentration.
- Study during short periods of focused time . Set a timer for three 30-minute sessions of focused work with short breaks in between. Choose a regular time of the day when you are most alert for focused work.
- Set small, achievable, and realistic goals . When you achieve multiple small goals that you set for yourself you will feel motivated to continue. Setting large unrealistic goals can be de-motivating.
- Break up larger projects . Big projects can feel overwhelming. It can be easier to get work done in small, realistic tasks.
- Use lists . Try using a time management or list app. These can be helpful for structuring your day’s activities.
- Take breaks . Do some exercise, stretch, relax, or phone a friend. This will refresh your mind and help you focus better when you return to the task.
- Reward yourself . When you complete a task, give yourself a small reward such as a hot bath, or watching an episode of your favourite show on Netflix.
Learn more tips to manage ADHD procrastination .
Physical activity can improve study efficiency
Physical activity and exercise aren’t just good for keeping fit and toning muscles. It can help keep your brain in better shape too, which is particularly important during exam periods. When you are physically active or exercise, your brain releases chemicals called neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which help with attention and clear thinking. Physical activity is strongly linked to better academic performance.
Check out article ‘How physical activity can help you manage your health while studying’ .
Sleep is critical
Sleep is important for both short and long-term memory, so be sure to get enough sleep if you want to get the most out of your study time. Sleep has two key effects on learning. Firstly, the short-term memory (used to learn material when you study) is affected negatively by lack of sleep. Secondly, sleep is necessary for the transition of short-term memories into long-term memories which is what you'll be relying on when it’s time to take the exam.
If you have been affected by the topics covered in this article, find help and resources via:
- UQ Student Services Counselling Team on 1300 275 870
- Black Dog Institute
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- Brain-boosting foods for exams
- What can you do with an exercise physiology degree?
- Anxiety Disorder
- Bipolar Disorder
- Adjustment Disorder
- Antisocial Personality Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Childhood ADHD
- Dissociative Identity Disorder
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder
- Panic Attack
- Postpartum Depression
- Schizoaffective Disorder
- Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Sex Addiction
- Social Anxiety
- Specific Phobias
- Teenage Depression
- Black Mental Health
- Emotional Health
- Sex & Relationships
- Understanding Therapy
- Workplace Mental Health
- My Life with OCD
- Caregivers Chronicles
- Empathy at Work
- Sex, Love & All of the Above
- Parent Central
- Mindful Moment
- Mental Health News
- Live Town Hall: Mental Health in Focus
- Inside Mental Health
- Inside Schizophrenia
- Inside Bipolar
- ADHD Symptoms Quiz
- Anxiety Symptoms Quiz
- Autism Quiz: Family & Friends
- Autism Symptoms Quiz
- Bipolar Disorder Quiz
- Borderline Personality Test
- Childhood ADHD Quiz
- Depression Symptoms Quiz
- Eating Disorder Quiz
- Narcissim Symptoms Test
- OCD Symptoms Quiz
- Psychopathy Test
- PTSD Symptoms Quiz
- Schizophrenia Quiz
- Attachment Style Quiz
- Career Test
- Do I Need Therapy Quiz?
- Domestic Violence Screening Quiz
- Emotional Type Quiz
- Loneliness Quiz
- Parenting Style Quiz
- Personality Test
- Relationship Quiz
- Stress Test
- What's Your Sleep Like?
- Find Support
- Suicide Prevention
- Drugs & Medications
- Find a Therapist
11 Study Tips for People with ADHD
People with ADHD may find homework, assignments, and studying for exams challenging. Luckily, there are techniques you can use to make learning easier.
If you or your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may not know where to begin when it comes to studying.
No matter your age or grade, there are some tried-and-true methods and study skills that work well for people with ADHD . Doing them regularly can help you create good habits that will lead to improved grades and less overall stress.
Before we list our top 10 study tips, we want to remind you that sleep is also a very important part of studying, especially if you have ADHD.
Research has found that the more sleep problems a person with ADHD has, the harder it is for them to remember things.
So, try to get good rest every night, and especially before a big test.
Moreover, if you follow these tips, a late-night cram session won’t be as important.
Study tips for folks with ADHD
Here are some effective methods people with ADHD can use to manage challenges at school.
1. Do a body check
“I always start with the body check,” says ADHD coach and tutor Kit Savage . “You don’t need to have a dedicated environment to study, like your bedroom or the kitchen table. It just needs to be an environment where you’re comfortable and feel safe.”
“Once you’ve found your spot, do a body scan,” Savage suggests. “Literally go through your body and ask yourself: Am I hungry? Am I thirsty? Do I need to use the bathroom? What am I going to need for my body?”
You can’t study well if your body isn’t well nourished and comfortable.
2. Do a mind check
Next, do a mind check. That means check in on your feelings. Are you mad, angry, happy, or sad? If you’re feeling strong emotions, address them.
“Write out your emotions or chat with someone like your parent or a tutor,” Savage recommends. “Whatever is on your mind has to come out before you start your studying. Now is not the time to fix the problem. It’s just time to get it out.”
After you’ve expressed what’s on your mind, consider doing a few minutes of deep breathing exercises to release the rest of your tension, Savage suggests.
Your mind and body check will probably take about 10 minutes.
3. Be honest about what scares you
Whether you’re studying for a test, writing a paper, or going through your homework assignments, there’s likely one thing about the work ahead that seems to be the scariest.
The best way to tackle that? Say it out loud.
“What’s your worst fear right now?” Savage asks. “Are you afraid you’re never going to finish that long-term project because you’re so far behind? Are you afraid you’re going to fail because you just don’t understand the subject? Write it down.”
That fear is preventing you from getting started. But, once you’ve expressed it out loud or in writing, you’re no longer blocked by your fear, and you can get started.
4. Get organized
Make a plan. Start by looking at everything you have to do and make sure you have all the necessary materials.
Then, take out a piece of paper and make a chart with three columns:
- In the first column, write down what you need to do.
- In the second column, estimate how much time it will take you to do it. Consider allotting yourself a little more time than you might actually need for each task.
- Leave the third column blank for now — it will be for the actual amount of time it takes.
Then, figure out the order of the tasks you want to do, writing numbers beside each task.
5. Do an easy task first
“If you’re struggling to get started, you need to be successful right away because it’ll motivate you,” Savage says. “So, do any easy project at the beginning of your study session. I call it taking the win.”
6. Reread your assignments
“You can’t start unless you understand the expectations of the assignment. That’s huge,” Savage says. “Often, people with ADHD just dive in. But you need to know what’s expected of you — what you need to know, what you need to write, etc.”
“Then, once you know the expectations of the assignment, you can figure out how to achieve them,” Savage adds.
Before you get started, consider making a list of all the criteria you need to meet, such as word count, number of pages, number of references required, and so on.
You can refer to this list as you’re doing the assignment and check off these criteria as you complete them.
7. Begin as soon as you know about the assignment or test
Folks with ADHD may tend to wait until the last minute. But starting earlier can save you a lot of stress and improve your grades overall.
In fact, researchers have found that while cramming for a test can help you remember information in the short term, you’ll quickly lose it.
Studying over time will help you remember the information in the long term. This is especially important for subjects like math or science, where your knowledge builds on what you’ve previously learned.
“Work backward,” Savage recommends. “Look at when you’ll have your test or when your assignment is due, and plan to do a little each day. Make sure you include time to review everything before an exam, or write and edit your paper.”
8. Know yourself and what will work best for you
Everyone works differently, and it may take some time to get to know how you work best. Consider taking notes on what works for you and what doesn’t.
You might find it helpful to ask yourself questions like:
- Can you hyperfocus on anything you do, or does it have to be something you’re interested in?
- Do you work better if you begin as soon as you get home from school?
- Do you need a 30-minute break to relax before you begin?
- Does exercising help you focus?
- Can you focus better after dinner or late at night?
- Do you get easily distracted by your phone or other screens? If so, consider removing them while you study.
- Do you need to get the thing you fear most out of the way after an easy win? That is, does it help you to do the easiest task first so you feel good about it, then tackle the task you’re dreading?
- Do you study better when you save it for last?
- How have you overcome writer’s block in the past?
For example, do you find it hard to start writing essays? Many people do! However, there’s no rule saying you must write your introductory paragraph first — and that can be the hardest part.
In fact, many people write their intro and conclusion after they’ve written the rest of the essay.
So, if it’s easier for you to write the supporting paragraphs and then write the introduction, do it that way.
You might also find it easier to start by freewriting with no expectations at all. You might be surprised by what comes out.
9. Repetition, repetition, repetition
“Studying is about performance, so repetition is key,” Savage says. “Many people with ADHD [may have issues with] working memory , which means you can’t easily retain what you’ve learned. So, take notes in class, read the chapter more than once, and review everything over and over again.”
“I like the three times rule: Make sure you go over everything at least three times, even if it’s a subject you’re good at,” Savage says.
10. Request appropriate accommodations
In this context, “accommodations” means any methods your teachers or school use to accommodate your needs, such as setting you up in a private room for an exam or providing more time.
For example, if you have trouble remembering math formulas, consider asking your teacher to provide them for you during the test, suggests Savage.
“Accommodations aren’t giving you an advantage — it’s leveling the playing field,” Savage explains. “Tests should measure your ability, not your disability.”
“If you don’t have those accommodations, then all you’re testing is your disability,” Savage says.
11. Reward yourself
Each time you check a task off your list, write down how long it took, and then reward yourself.
“I like immediate rewards and long-term reinforcement,” Savage says. “The immediate reward can be a quick dance party, a walk around the block, texting a friend — whatever you’d like. But it should be a short break, just a few minutes.”
How to help a loved one with ADHD study
If your child with ADHD is in elementary school, you can help them study by sitting with them and encouraging good study habits.
Go through each step together. Guide them when they’re younger, and gradually allow them to show you how they can do the steps themselves.
Once they reach middle school, let them do this on their own. Create a checklist for them if they need it, but don’t hover.
“By middle school, it becomes a power struggle between parents and students if you try to sit with them,” Savage advises.
“Instead, be their guide,” Savage says. “Ask them if they’ve met with the teacher, but try not to get involved unless it’s necessary.”
“They need to learn how to fix their own problems. If they don’t, they’ll have a very difficult time when they’re on their own in college,” Savage says.
You can learn more tips for succeeding in college with ADHD here.
Along the way, reward your child as their grades begin to improve. Celebrate the small victories, too, such as completing an assignment and turning it in on time.
Developing good study habits is about much more than just sitting down with a book. It requires careful planning and assessing your body and mind before you begin.
Good preparation for your study session can take up to 30 minutes before you even crack a book open — and that’s OK.
Once you’re fully prepared, you’ll be able to confidently work through even challenging tasks.
So, what are you waiting for? Go find a comfortable spot, do your body and mind check, get organized, make a plan, and start studying!
Last medically reviewed on August 9, 2021
3 sources collapsed
- Roediger HL III, et al. (2018). Remembering what we learn. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6353106/
- Savage K. (2021). Personal interview.
- Sciberras E, et al. (2015). Association between sleep and working memory in children with ADHD: A cross-sectional study. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1389945715008230
Read this next
College is a big transition for any student. If you have ADHD, there might be added challenges.
Do you know the signs of ADHD in children and adults? Here's a list and how to get help to manage them.
Lack of focus is a telltale symptom of ADHD, but there are ways to help you sustain attention, even during boring tasks.
Having ADHD and not completing tasks sometimes go hand in hand. But there are ways to help you stay on focus and finish what you start.
Here’s a guide to managing your ADHD effectively, from productivity tips, app recommendations, and articles to read. Find the methods that work best…
People with ADHD can find it challenging to stay on task with day-to-day activities. Creating a routine can help you stay on task and be more…
If you have ADHD challenges with organization, focusing, or staying on task, you may be living with ADHD inattentive type. But treatment can help you…
Why is ADD/ADHD a controversial diagnosis and what can you do about it? Inside Mental Health podcast delves deep. Listen Now!
Neurofeedback is a noninvasive therapy that may reduce symptoms of ADHD. We look at how it works and its effectiveness.
Drivers living with ADHD can improve their driving skills by practicing safe driving tips, such as avoiding cell phone use and trying to drive a stick…