Want to Get More Done?

3 practical tips for becoming more productive with ADHD.

Posted Jan 30, 2019

As students head into spring semester, most are optimistic and excited about starting new classes with fresh energy and positive perspectives. Some people are already knee-deep in homework while others are still working out the kinks in their schedules. Are you overwhelmed already? If so, I'd like you to consider changing how you approach studying and doing your work.

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Source: iStock photo ID:932274694

In today's constantly connected world, our brains are overloaded by information coming at us 24/7.  Daniel Goleman, author of books including Focus and Emotional Intelligence, has suggested that people are processing five times more information today than just 20 years ago. We are all hijacked by our devices into thinking that we can do several tasks simultaneously. However, our brains are not fooled. Multi-tasking raises our stress hormones with every text or email alert, exhausting the connections between different parts of our brain and increasing our susceptibility to illness, accidents, and inattentiveness. While we may think the constant stimulation is appealing, multi-tasking contributes directly to feeling overwhelmed and over-extended. 

It's tough to cut back on multi-tasking when everybody does it. But, when brains can focus on one thing at a time, they perform more efficiently. If you stop switching screens as you're studying, you'll increase your persistence on a given task. Productivity also improves when you plan your work time with a do-able checklist and study periods with scheduled breaks. Follow these practical steps to change your work habits (whether you are a student or not).

1. Notice when you are doing a few things simultaneously and pause to stop engaging in one of them. Examples would be texting while driving (a cause of over 300,000 accidents last year) or checking social media while writing a paper. Recently I saw someone talking on his cell phone when he was biking. Yikes! These activities make it even harder for kids with ADHD to focus on what they're doing and stick with it until completion. Interestingly, listening to music while doing something doesn't seem to be included in the multi-tasking/information overload processes.

2. Set up a tech-free work period and begin by making a list of no more than three things you wish to accomplish. Too big a list leads to incompletion and a feeling of failure. Create work blocks of 30-60 minutes (based on how long you can concentrate before you become distracted). Open one browser, maybe Google, for school-related items and start the timer on your phone. When it goes off, write a Post-it of where you are in your work so you can return to that place exactly (e.g., reading about Martin Luther King on page 75 or making a chart about water levels in New Orleans).

3. Take a timed break of 5-10 minutes. This is when you can open a second browser such as Safari or Firefox to check email, Facebook, Youtube or other sites or you look at your texts, Snapchats or Instagram.  When the timer alerts you that the break is over, check your Post-It for the reminder, return to what you were previously doing and set the timer again. Do this two or three times, depending on your capacity for concentration and your energy. Then stop for a longer break (upwards of 30 minutes) to give your brain time to synthesize information and integrate what you've already done. Check finished items off your list. If you want to work more later in the day, repeat this process. 

If you find it helpful to study or work around other people, then make a time to get together with friends. Sometimes friends can help keep you on task, support you when it's time to get back to work or their concentration inspires you to focus. One senior in high school told me that she likes studying with her boyfriend because "when I space out, he snaps his fingers at me to come back." Other folks find it tough to be around people: They may feel more distracted or put themselves down for having different work habits. Do whatever makes the most sense for you; there are no right or wrong options here.  

Stick with your plan for a week, assess how it's working and make any necessary tweaks to improve it. Give the benefits of doing fewer things simultaneously a chance, even if it feels weird to try it. Notice if you feel less overwhelmed and more productive by the end of a homework session. I suspect that you'll see an improvement in cognitive strengths like better attention, memory, and performance. Start slowly and be patient—changing habits takes time and practice.