ADHD and Academic Procrastination: A Success Story
An undergraduate shares his story about ADHD and the path to academic success.
Posted Dec 29, 2018
In an earlier post this fall, Scott Taylor and I summarized his research on Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), executive functions, and procrastination. The research was excellent. In fact, Scott was awarded the 2018 Canadian Psychological Association Certificate of Academic Excellence for his thesis.
What I find just as, if not more, interesting than Scott’s research is his personal journey through public school and his bachelor’s degree. Scott has his own story of ADHD and academic achievement.
Below, Scott begins with his personal story and experiences as a student identified with ADHD. In the second part, Scott discusses what specific resources and strategies he used in order to succeed. The goal of this post is to provide you with a personal narrative of ADHD, and hopefully enough information to find your own pathway to success or assist loved ones on their way.
As a kid, I was diagnosed with ADHD and struggled with the various symptoms and functional impairments. I am sure that many of you reading this article are already aware of ADHD and the effects it can have on an individual’s life — so I will only briefly explain it.
ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder compromised of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Many individuals with ADHD display executive functioning impairments that can impair problem solving, emotional control, time management, and working memory. Some researchers, like Dr. Russell Barkley, even consider ADHD an executive functioning disorder or self-regulation deficit disorder. ADHD has been found to manifest throughout life and lead to functional impairment in multiple domains of life (occupational, school, social relationships, home).
It was not until recently that I learned to use ADHD as an advantage and not a weakness. In fact, I consider ADHD a blessing, not a curse. I would no more give up ADHD than Superman would give up his cape. I think it gives me a special ability to deal with people, to empathize with them, and to see the strengths in them, as I’ve learned to see them in myself. These are my driving factors for wanting to become a child psychologist for the next generation of children with complex learning needs, like ADHD.
Research has indicated that individuals with ADHD are very successful once they find a career trajectory or job at which they excel. These individuals just require help finding this path. Even savvy entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran from the popular show Shark Tank has mentioned that many successful entrepreneurs have some sort of learning impairment, such as ADHD. People who have self-identified with various challenges, like ADHD, include some of the most influential leaders, such as Albert Einstein, Sir Richard Branson, John F. Kennedy, and Michael Jordan, so we are in good company.
From a very young age, like most with ADHD, I was known as the “hyper kid” or “class clown,” and I did not have any understanding of what this entailed and whether it would have consequences for my future self. Throughout elementary and high school, I was constantly getting into trouble at school and with my parents. I was starting down a “dark path.”
Knowing what I do now from my recent research, this is particularly troubling. It is believed that the lifetime trajectory of ADHD is poor, including academic impairment, antisocial relationships, and substance abuse (Barkley, 2011). Developmental models recognize that socialization experiences may affect the development of self-regulatory capacities and compensatory skills, thus altering the course and outcomes of ADHD (Barkley, 2011)
In any case, as a teenager, I started to recognize I was heading down the wrong course and was scared of the person I was becoming. I know some of you must think I am being very pessimistic, but it is the truth, because from a young age, that is what we are told, so we must get used to it and learn how to overcome it.
I was told by my teachers and guidance counsellors that I would not amount to anything in life. They said that I may earn a college diploma or have a life in the trades (not that these are “bad” trajectories); it’s just that I was told that I had no choice in the matter! Certainly my dream of going to university was not realistic. These well-meaning individuals told me things like: If you go to university, your professors are not “going to be there for you,” and “it is a completely different world once you get out of high school and into university (if you can at all).” I say bull$h*t to that! High school administration, guidance counsellors, and teachers who hold this view need to rethink the message they are providing students. It’s unnecessarily discouraging, and I think it is simply wrong.
Being the resilient person I am, I did not take no for an answer, and I decided I would attend university even if it meant a long exhausting journey — Wow, am I glad I made that decision. Going to university allowed me to start fresh and not be that “hyper kid” or the “class clown” anymore.
In contrast to what I was told, when I got to university, I found lots of support. These supports included my family and friends, of course, as they had always been there. But there were important university support services as well. I think it’s important that I break some of these supports down and discuss how they taught me specific skills and strategies to become successful and finally combat my ADHD impairment and procrastination.
I would like to reassure you that university administration is there for its students, even at the highest level. In fact, at my recent convocation for my undergraduate degree, our new president gave his inaugural address after his installation at the fall convocation ceremony. Most surprisingly, in his address, Dr. Benoit-Antoine Bacon shared with everyone his challenges as a youth and the resultant struggles with mental health. This was very courageous of Dr. Bacon, but so important for a leader. His honesty and openness will aid in breaking down the stigma around mental health and increasing the number of students willing to voice their own mental health concerns. Moreover, his words provide hope that we can all reach our goals and fulfill our dreams, as he did with his appointment as a university president. Thank you, Dr. Bacon, you have taught me to not feel ashamed of “me” or my own struggles, and that it is OK to openly discuss it in this post.
Just as our new president achieved one of his goals, I clearly see potential for me to achieve mine as a child psychologist. However, this gets me a bit ahead of my story, because it's not just inspiration that is important: It is the specific types of support I used that made such a big difference. At first, I did not use these supports, but like Dr. Pychyl says, you must get started on that dreaded task, and for me that was seeking help. I am asking you as readers to just get started on finding your own path or assisting a loved one by using your support networks and resources.
I was very hesitant to disclose in this blog post whether I take medication or have ever seen a psychologist for my ADHD. I feel I would be giving you as readers a false story of how I coped with ADHD and procrastination if I was not fully honest. I am only hesitant, because from a young age, I grew up with people constantly commenting on my ADHD and whether I took my medication that day. If I was having an off day, my family, teachers, and peers would joke or ask, “Did you take your meds today?” If you have been asked this question before, you know how frustrating it is to have people assume your behavior is solely due to a lack of medication and not that you are having an off day instead. This had made me very reserved about discussing ADHD and my medication, but I recalled the president’s speech at my convocation, and that self-disclosure is nothing to be ashamed of.
So, yes! I do still sometimes take medication for ADHD, and as a kid, I saw a psychologist for my behavioral difficulties. If I only mentioned the resources and strategies used without including my thoughts on medication and therapy, I would not be giving you the whole picture. In fact, medication and therapy were very important factors in my success.
I know many people do not support medication for treating ADHD symptoms, but it is important to note that ADHD is in fact a neurodevelopmental disorder comprised of executive functioning deficits, and one of the most effective treatments is a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and medication. It has been found that individuals with ADHD can have up to an 89 percent improvement in executive functions when on medication. Executive functions (EF) are important for self-regulation — a key aspect in procrastination — and having these impairments targeted was effective for me.
As a kid, I was very impulsive and emotional, and I needed this medication to help with my impulses. As an adult, I mostly use the medication for higher-order executive functioning deficits, because I can still struggle with these as an adult. Today, I have found that a low dosage of my medication combined with exercise and meditation, as well as many other supports and strategies, create the balance I need.
My family had a difficult time with me when I was young, because of my combination of ADHD symptoms and being the middle child craving constant attention. Research has suggested that strong parenting is very important with managing ADHD, as well as preventing children from going down what I called a “dark path.” My parents "got what they signed up for with me" and always had their hands full. I am thankful for their perseverance and dedication to raising me and encouraging me to follow my dreams with university.
That being said, the most effective strategies my parents helped me develop were self-regulation and social skills. My parents would frequently remind me of my social skills when I would intrude on people, talk too much, and not take turns (all common symptoms of ADHD). This reinforcement was a slow process, but now I have learned to internalize my mom’s voice saying, “Social skills, Scott, social skills.”
In addition, my brother Ryan was a huge resource for me, especially in my first year at university. He was in his last year of his studies when I was in my first year, and he helped me turn my life around. After a poor first semester and not using my support network or resources at university, my brother stepped in and gave me some resources to use and motivation to get going every day.
To this day, I find the library my safe haven, and like Einstein has said, “The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.” Although Einstein certainly had that right, I learned that I needed others too.
Peers and Pro-Social Relationships
ADHD affected my social interactions and overall social skills. I still can have trouble maintaining relationships. As much as I am a master of hyperactivity and concentration problems, I am also a master of hyper-focus. As a result of this, I tend to push others away when immersed in a task. A combination of my adrenaline-seeking behavior and hyper-focus can still affect my social life greatly, especially friendships and dating.
In university, I started to “put myself out there” and get involved on campus with the Psychology Society and student government. I met a lot of students who shared the same interests and developed friendships that will last a lifetime. Putting myself out there was a huge hurdle for me, because I was always labeled by peers as the "hyper kid" and isolated as such, and I did not want this to carry on in university. In fact, it was quite the opposite when I came to university. I had nothing to be afraid of, and I realized everyone was accepting of me. I developed many pro-social relationships that were crucial to my success.
Strong Role Models and Mentors
I have found throughout my life that I work best with strong mentors, and it goes back to my grade school teacher, Mr. H. (I haven’t used his full name so as not to “out him” on social media — if he reads this, he will know I am grateful). We made a connection through sports that allowed me to have a more positive perspective on my schoolwork and education. Overall, I believe my success was improved by having a strong role model/mentor throughout my education. I am also grateful to have worked with Dr. Pychyl this past year. His mentoring helped me in many ways, but I won’t embarrass him with more public thanks for his support.
Routine and Self-Care
With the tendency to hyper-focus and the various symptoms of ADHD, I needed to develop a good routine as well as self-care strategies. Even in my last year of university, while I was still succeeding in school and receiving good grades, I still sometimes sacrificed my own well-being and health, which I have learned is not good in the long term and, I expect, will really affect my success in graduate school. Having an exercise routine, sleep routine, and proper diet is very important in fostering success in anyone, specifically students with disabilities. Until recently, I did not have a good work-life balance; all I did was work, work, work (like Rihanna), and I did not incorporate much self-care into my routine. Here are some key aspects of my personal self-care routine.
1. Sleep — One of the biggest issues for me was sleep procrastination (for recent research on this, see this blog post), and lack of sleep is a major issue for many university students. I would stay up until 4 a.m. at times, binge-watching Netflix, and then wake up at 2 p.m. the next day. This was a major factor in my low marks that first semester. Sleep is especially important for those with ADHD to maintain glucose levels, executive functioning, and self-regulation throughout the day, and I have learned to incorporate enough sleep into my daily routine. Sleep hygiene is often forgotten as a key health behavior, and it has a major influence on performance and energy throughout the day.
2. Exercise — Exercise is often discussed as a key self-care routine, but for those with ADHD it can provide an additional benefit: It can be a form of medication. Exercise provides individuals with ADHD the avenue to release some of their unwanted energy and stress. Today I see exercise as a form of medication. I prefer to take it outside and get off of Netflix. Before learning how to manage my ADHD symptoms, I always waited until the last minute, or I would often forget things. Whether it's taking medication or doing jumping jacks to change your brain chemistry, you will find your own strategy that works. We have the ability to think and process information faster than most people, and we need to embrace it, not hide it.
3. Diet — Diet is useful for maintaining glucose levels, energy levels, and overall health. If you are not eating enough, how do you expect to have the energy to study and use that mental muscle known as self-regulation? As a result, psychologists like Dr. Barkley suggest drinking a sugary drink, such as Gatorade, to restore glucose/sugar levels throughout the day, since they are often involved with ADHD symptoms and low self-regulation, both of which are related to procrastination.
4. Mindfulness and Meditation — Meditation was a key factor that I included in my routine recently. Meditation has allowed me to let go and not hang onto unwanted thoughts and instead focus on the more important things in life. It has taught me to be forgiving of myself and to control myself when I get nervous or stressed. This is important, as self-forgiveness plays a big role in procrastination and was a problem for me. Self-forgiveness and procrastination are linked, because let's say, for example, that I do something wrong to you and make you upset, and you don’t forgive me. Are you more likely to approach or avoid me in the future? The answer is avoid. If you have a grudge or have a negative association with a person, you will avoid, but if you forgive, you will approach. If this is an issue for you, then you should start to consider procrastination as a transgression against the self, and if you forgive yourself, you are more likely to approach the task in the future. I started to adopt this approach, and it was an important step to combatting my academic impairment.
I found that mediation and self-forgiveness, paired with exercise, has allowed me to be a lot less stressed and have the ability to take a step back to deal with the task at hand effectively. In particular, most days before going somewhere or completing a task, I need to stop and take deep breaths. Taking deep breaths centers me like exercise does and allows me to go into the situation with a clear head. If you would like to try meditation, I use the app Headspace, which is in the app store.
Like many universities, at Carleton University, we have a variety of services available to students for academics and mental health. Sadly, and perhaps surprisingly, these services are widely underutilized by students. There are many resources available, so I will only explain the ones that targeted my ADHD and procrastination.
Bounce Back is a program where I worked one-on-one with an upper-year student to help address the issues that led to my academic hardship. In particular, we set new, reachable goals and strategies to achieve them. Our partnership primarily focused on effective learning strategies (i.e., time management, essay and exam preparation). I benefited greatly from this program, because I developed time management and organization skills that helped combat my ADHD and procrastination.
Paul Menton Centre (PMC)
Most universities have disability support services and at Carleton we have one of the very best with the Paul Menton Centre. The PMC offers a mentor volunteer program to assist first-year students in making a transition to post-secondary education. Mentors meet with students one-on-one to help them develop: (1) self-awareness, (2) self-advocacy, and (3) individualized learning strategies. In addition, every fall they offer workshops on topics such as time management and note-taking strategies.
It’s important to note that in my first semester at university, I did not use the campus centre, because I was worried about being labeled as a student with a disability and being isolated in classes, like in my earlier schooling. Being hesitant to use this service and receive my accommodations, my marks suffered in my first semester of university. In second semester, I met with a coordinator at the PMC to set up my accommodations, go over strategies, and have someone to talk to. Using the campus centre was useful, because it allowed me to receive the appropriate accommodations stated in my individualized educational plan. Overall, this service was a major factor in my success and can provide many benefits to students with disabilities.
Until recently, I was unaware of all of these services offered at my university. In fact, I would have not have been aware of any of the services available or participated in any if it was not for my brother knowing the “ins and outs” of Carleton University. With that being said, I think that we need to keep targeting students with ADHD as early as possible to let them know about these services to start school with the best foot forward. I think that any student with ADHD can benefit from using these services.
My transformation from class clown to successful university student was a long and challenging process that was fueled by my determination to prove I was not just a slow learner or hyper kid, but instead I, too, can be a university graduate. Today, I am very proud of where I am and what I have accomplished, and this is because of my great friends, peers, resources, and mentors.
If you would like to find out more about my research or specific services I used at Carleton you can email me at Scottjtaylor@cmail.carleton.ca. Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope you learned something today for you or a loved one identified with ADHD.
Barkley, R. A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD: The complete, authoritative guide for parents. New York: Guilford Press.