ADHD at University

Image courtesy of xkcd, under Creative Commons license.

University is a challenge for everyone. People with ADHD have many characteristics that are critical for success at university: energy, creativity, intelligence. However, they also face specific challenges.

Executive function is the conscious control of thought and behavior. It is associated with the frontal lobes of the brain and is involved in working memory, impulse control, shifting attention, and planning.

Executive function is what allows you to stay organized, focused, and on task. People with ADHD struggle with many of these skills because ADHD is associated with neurological deficits in executive function.

However, there are strategies that people with ADHD can use to overcome these challenges! The following module on ADHD at University will guide you through strategies for time management, getting started on academic work, staying focused and sticking with tasks, focusing on what’s important in lectures and readings, and for maintaining motivation in university.


In this module, you will learn strategies and tips to help you with many of the skills with which students with ADHD have the most trouble:


Case Study: AidanManaging Your TimeGetting StartedStaying Focused & Sticking With ItLectures and NotesMaintaining Motivation
Case Study: Aidan

As a kid, Aidan was active and energetic. His parents often said he ran through his childhood like he was driven by a motor. He was highly distracted when faced with a task he didn’t like, but able to focus for hours on things he found interesting. In school, his attention often drifted, he sometimes forgot to complete homework and assignments, and he had to be reminded to study for upcoming tests. Around the middle of high school, Aidan was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Although ADHD could sometimes make school difficult, Aidan was smart. His high school teachers said that he wasn’t living up to his full potential, but his grades were good and he left high school excited to start university.

In his first year of university, Aidan was the life of the party. He lived in residence, and there was always a group of people in his room. People were drawn to Aidan. He made lots of friends, played intramural sports, and was active on campus. Although his grades were lower than they had been in high school, Aidan wasn’t worried.  He knew that most people experienced a drop in their grades as they transitioned from high school to university, and he figured he would be able to maintain decent grades without too much trouble.

In his second year, Aidan found it tougher to keep his grades up. The material he was expected to know increased, and the number of assignments increased as well. At first, he let a few, small assignments slip. But, they were only worth a small percentage and it didn’t seem like big a deal at the time. However, he was starting to fall behind on larger assignments as well, and found himself asking for last minute extensions and getting late penalties. Despite his best intentions to begin early, he often left his work until the last minute. He had trouble getting started and felt as though he was always up against a deadline. By the end of the year, he was frustrated and disappointed. He had dropped intramural sports to focus on school work, and was feeling like his university experience was not as he had imagined.

He was also worried about what would be next: how was he going to make it through third year?


NEXT: Managing your time


Photo courtesy of Mer Chau under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivations 2.0 license.

Managing your time

In university, there is a lot to get done. And only so much time to do it. When it comes to school work, you are in charge of your own time. You are your own boss. Managing your time effectively requires organization, planning, and self-discipline – skills that many people have trouble with, and can be especially challenging for those with ADHD. Planners and schedules can compensate for difficulties with executive function. These external supports can become an extension of your brain.

In this section:

  • Creating and using a planner
  • Creating and using to do lists
  • Using a weekly and daily to do list together
  • Finding the time
  • Catching up and keeping up
  • Creating rituals
  • Breaking down assignments
  • Multiple assignments
  • The Study Plan
  • Over-commitment

Download this section as a PDF.

Creating and Using a Planner
  • A planner is critical for staying on top of your work.
    • People with ADHD often have difficulty organizing, planning, remembering, and staying on task.
    • A planner can organize, plan, and remember for you.
    • Your planner, used properly, can become an extension of your frontal lobes.
    • Using a planner well requires developing a set of routines & habits.
  • Select a planner that will work for you.
    • It can be electronic or paper
    • It is often helpful if your planner has monthly calendars as well as daily calendars
    • A place to write ‘to-do’ lists
    • Space for reference information (e.g. confirmation numbers, professor’s office
  • Make this your only planner.
    • At the beginning of every term, review each syllabus from each class and write
      every due date/deadline/exam in your planner, including how much each test
      and assignment is worth
    • If your syllabus includes weekly readings, questions, or problem sets, record
      those on the relevant weeks
    • Write every appointment/event/activity in your planner as soon as you know
    • Use different colours for different classes and one other colour for non-academic
      and personal appointments
  • Always have your planner with you. Remember: it’s an extension of your brain!
    • If you use a paper calendar, keep it in a specific pocket in your bag
    • If you use an electronic calendar, make sure you have constant access to it
    • Back up electronic calendars at least weekly
  • Check the planner at least three times a day: morning, mid-day, and evening.
    • Use a wrist watch alarm (or an alarm on your phone) to remind you to check it
    • Associate it with regular activities or habits (e.g. meals)

Adapted from ADDvance & Help4ADHD.

Creating and Using To Do Lists

In university, it is common to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done. Students with ADHD may find it particularly difficult to stay organized and on top of things. Often, much of your time is unstructured. It is up to you to decide what needs to be
accomplished, and when. On any given day, there may be many things you could be doing. It’s up to you to decide. What needs to get done? What is most important? Some advance planning can help answer those questions. To-do lists can help organize, prioritize, and take the guesswork out of your life.

  • On Sunday night, sit down and create a weekly To-Do list.
  • List all the things that must get done during the week:
    • Errands, chores: Grocery shopping, dentist appointments
    • Personal activities: A friend’s birthday, dinner plans
    • Extra-curricular commitments: Activities, meetings
    • Keeping up with classes: Reading, note-making, review questions
    • Project-specific for that week: Labs, research papers, midterm prep
  • Make the items specific tasks:
    • Vague: “Study Biology”
    • Specific: Read Biology Chapter 4 and complete chapter review questions 1-20
  • Transfer as many activities as you can to daily To-Do lists.
  • Each morning, when you first check your planner:
    • Review your To-Do list for that day
    • Add any items that have come up since Sunday
    • Check to see if there are any remaining items from your weekly list that could or
      should be done today
    • Cluster tasks together that can be done at the same time
  • Example: stop at the grocery store and the dry cleaners on the way home
  • Prioritize the items on your To-Do lists in terms of importance.
    • Put high priority tasks early in the week so you are more likely to complete them
    • Is it more important to study for Bio or work on your Chem lab?
    • Depends on the due date, the value of the assignment, the mark you want to
      achieve in the course, etc.
    • An assignment worth 5% is not as important as an assignment worth 30%
    • If you want to raise your mark in a course, you may prioritize assignments for that course higher than others
    • Place higher priority on courses that are particularly difficult, or courses you are
      behind in
    • If you can’t complete everything on your list, do high priority items first
  • Be realistic about what you can accomplish.
    • Estimate the time required for each task (see page 12 for more information on estimating time)
    • At the end of each day:
      • Move unaccomplished tasks to the list for the next day
      • Record the actual time it took to complete each task
      • Compare the estimate time to the actual time
      • Over time, your ability to make realistic time estimates will improve

Monitor your accomplishments! When reviewing your planner at the end of each day, make note of what you accomplished and
congratulate yourself.

EXAMPLE: Using a weekly and daily to do list together

Weekly To Do List

*** = High priority
** = Medium priority
* = Low priority


  • Grocery shopping *** (2 hours)
  • Buy a gift for Mom’s birthday ** (2 hours)
  • Call landlord to repair door * (10 min.)
  • Call dentist to make appt * (5 min.)
  • Clean kitchen ** (1 hour)


  • Dinner with Roopa (Friday night)
  • Patrick’s birthday (Saturday night)


  • Write minutesfor club meeting * (1 hour)
  • Volunteer ** (2 hours)

Keep up with classes

  • Read Bio chapter 5 and do 10 review questions ** (3 hours)
  • Read Chem chapter 3 and do 10 review questions ** (3 hours)
  • Read Psych chapter 4 and make notes * (2 hours)
  • Do problem set (15 questions) for Math *** (3 hours) –> behind or having trouble in a class? Make it a priority!
  • Read Physics chapter 6 and do 15 review questions (3 hours)
  • Review weekly notes *** (1 hour)


  • Complete Chem Lab ***
    • Due Friday, worth 15%
    • Data & Observations (1 hour)
    • 4 Questions (1 hour each)


Daily To Do List

Day of the Week Tasks
Monday Grocery shopping (Schedule chores when it makes sense! No food in the house? Grocery shop on Monday!)
Math questions (put high priority tasks early in the week)
Chem lab data & observations
Tuesday Psyc chap 4
Chem Lab Q’s 1 & 2
Wednesday Clean kitchen
Bio chap 5 + review questions
Chem lab Q3
Thursday Call landlord and dentist (cluster tasks that can be done at the same time)
Physics chap 6 + review q’s
Chem Lab Q4
Friday Write minutesfor club meeting
Chem chap 3 + review q’s
Dinner with Roopa
Saturday Volunteer
Review weekly notes
Patrick’s birthday
Sunday Buy gift for mom
Make weekly to-do list (Set aside time each week to make your to-do list)


Finding the Time

University is a big investment. Part of that investment is time. School is your full time job. Students should expect to spend a total of about 10 learning hours per course per week, regardless of the structure of the course. 5 (6 unit) courses x 10hrs = 50 schoolwork hours a
week. So, school is a full time job!

A weekly schedule can be helpful in organizing your time. After drafting a schedule, each block of time devoted to schoolwork can be used to accomplish an academic task. Each morning, when you check your planner, it can be helpful to assign each work block to a specific task from your to-do list.

Tips for creating a schedule

  • Be flexible
    • If you have trouble following a schedule, be sure to build in some flex-time
    • Leave some time unaccounted for
    • This time can be used to relax, or as a reserve bank of time if something unexpected comes up
  • A schedule takes time to become a routine
    • Anticipate that it will take effort and practice to develop a new “schedule habit”
    • Persist!
  • Be realistic about how much time activities will take
    • For example, when thinking about how much time it takes to eat lunch or dinner consider:
      • The time it takes to walk home or to the cafeteria
      • Preparation time
      • Clean up time
      • Consider how much time it takes to travel to class, to the library, to your work or volunteer commitment
Catching Up and Keeping Up

Sometimes it can be difficult to juggle everything we have to do. Even with careful planning, most students will find there are times when they fall behind on schoolwork and have to catch up.
When you have catching up to do, it is important to continue to keep up with your classes. It can be helpful to think of catch up time separately from keep up time.
When you find you have fallen behind, estimate how many hours it will take to catch up. Then, distribute those hours across times you do not normally spend working.
For example, if you normally use weekdays to keep up, schedule your catch up sessions on evenings or weekends.

Time of Day Task
Daylight Hours / Business Hours Keep up with regular class
Evening Catch-up (if behind)
Weekend Catch-up, Study
Creating Rituals

Morning Rituals

Creating morning and evening routines can help you transition in and out of activities more easily. Having a morning routine that you enjoy can make it easier to get the day started. Take half an hour in the morning to do an activity that you like. It may be reading the news, writing your blog, listening to music, or exercising.

Make it an activity you enjoy, but not something that you are likely to get totally pulled into. Create your new ritual by doing your new habit (e.g. a morning walk) before an existing habit (e.g. drinking coffee).

Use a timer to help you transition from your morning ritual to your next activity.

Starting the day with an activity you enjoy can make it easier to get up in the morning and help you to start the day feeling energized.

Evening Rituals

Developing an evening ritual can help you make the transition to sleep, as well as help prepare for the next day. Try some or all of the following steps in creating an evening ritual:

  • Start your ‘down time’ ritual at least 30 minutes before bed
  • Check your planner to remind yourself of the next day’s activities
  • Add any additional activities to your to-do list
  • Pack what you will need for the next day (Notebooks, computer, pens)
  • Place easily misplaced items in one spot (Phone, keys, wallet)
  • Decide what you will wear the next day
  • Prepare any food or snacks you will bring with you the next day (Water bottles, snacks, lunch)
  • Right before bed, do something that relaxes you
  • Do yoga, listen to music, read, take a bath
  • You will go to bed feeling relaxed and ready to begin the next day.

Adapted from Thrive With ADD.

Breaking Down Assignments

Often, large assignments can seem overwhelming. You have instructions and a due date, but planning how and when to get the assignment done on time is up to you. When there is so much to do, it can be difficult to get started. It can be helpful to think about big projects as a series of smaller projects. Writing a 10 page research paper can seem overwhelming. Spending an hour doing background reading doesn’t seem so bad. Before beginning a project, break it down it down into smaller pieces.

For some assignments (e.g., essays, lab reports), the Assignment Calculator can help. Enter the date you will start your assignment and the date you want to finish. The calculator will break down the assignment, complete with due dates!

Steps in breaking down tasks

  1. Pay close attention to any instructions provided by the professor or teaching assistant. Make note of:
    • How many pages are required
    • How many and what kind of sources you are expected to use
    • What topics you are expected to cover
    • What you will be graded on
  2. Write out each step of the project.
    • Each step can be as small and specific as you like
    • See below for an example, or use the Assignment Calculator.
  3. Estimate how much time it will take to complete each piece of the project.
    • People with ADHD often underestimate how much time tasks will take. Estimate approximately 25-50% more time for each task than you think you will need. Worst case scenario, you finish earlier than you thought!
  4. Work backward from the due date to distribute the work and assign deadlines for each step of the project.
    • Be realistic about how much time you will spend on the project each day, and if there are days that you know you will be unable to work.
    • Leaving time between tasks can give you space to get a fresh perspective
  5. Transfer your deadlines to your planner, daily to-do lists, and weekly schedule.
    • At the end of each day, review your progress
    • Reward yourself for getting things done.
  6. Record how long it actually took to complete each task.
    • This will help guide your estimates in the future.

Breaking a project down into smaller pieces and distributing the work will help you feel less overwhelmed. You are less likely to leave the work to the last minute, minimizing stress and maximizing the quality of your work.

EXAMPLE: Task Analysis

Resource: Task Analysis Chart

You have been given a 15 page case outlining a failing small business. You must write a 5 page report detailing your analysis of the problems within the organization and your recommended solutions. You are expected to include figures/appendices/exhibits. It is due October 31 and you plan to begin on October 11.

Step # Task Time Estimated Actual Time to Complete Deadline
Step 1 Read the assignment carefully and skim the entire case 1 hour Oct 11
Step 2 Read the case again carefully, making note of important information 3 hours Oct 12
Step 3 Brainstorm ideas, plans of action 2 hours Oct 13
Step 4 Review ideas and select the best for use in your final report 2 hours Oct 15
Step 5 Write a rough draft of your case analysis (2.5 pages) 3 hours Oct 17
Step 6 Write rough draft of your recommended courses of action (2.5 pages) 3 hours Oct 20
Step 7 Determine which figures, appendices, exhibits you will need. 1 hour Oct 22
Step 8 Read and revise your report. Re-read original assignment to ensure all elements are included. pay close attention to whether your analysis and recommendations are supported by evidence from the case. 3 hours Oct 24
Step 9 Create figures. 3 hours Oct 26
Step 10 Final revision of report text. 2 hours Oct 28
Step 11 Combine report and figures, appendices, etc. Do final formatting. 1 hour Oct 29
Step 12 Build in a one day buffer for computer problems, printer problems, or other unexpected issues. Oct 30
Step 13 Submit completed report! Oct 31
Multiple Assignments

University is a balancing act. You have to balance your coursework, your extra-curricular commitments, and your personal life. Often, multiple assignments are due at the same time, or multiple exams have to be written in a short period of time. People with ADHD may have trouble balancing multiple demands on their time. Breaking down assignments into smaller tasks and creating a plan to get everything done can help you avoid stress and procrastination.

When trying to balance multiple, competing tasks:

Projects: Break down each assignment into smaller steps
Exam Prep: Divide the material you need to study into chunks (e.g. topics, lectures chapters)

Estimate how much time you will spend on each task
Identify blocks of time in your schedule available for work

Working backwards from the due dates or the exam dates, distribute your work over several

Work on more than one thing each day.
Set specific time limits to avoid getting stuck on one task.
Take breaks in between work sessions to help transition between tasks.

Working on more than one subject in a day can help to prevent boredom and ensure you are able to complete everything on time.

The Study Plan: Midterm Prep

Need to balance midterm prep with your other coursework? Follow these steps to organize a study schedule.

Estimate time needed to prepare

  • How much time will you need to study? Consider the following questions: Are you up to
  • What is your mark goal?
  • Do you understand the material? Are your calculations fast? Accurate?

Hours Estimated ÷ 3 = Number of Blocks Needed

General Guideline:

  • For midterm prep, 8-10 hours is a common estimate
  • If you are behind in a class, or find the material difficult, you may need more time

Divide course material into chunks

Divide the course material into chunks that can be covered in 2 to 3 hours. This may be topics, lectures, or chapters.

Number of chunks = Number of study blocks

+ 1 chunk for final self-test

+1 (optional) chunk for a final review

Distribute your study sessions

  • Distribute your study sessions over a minimum of five days (if you are behind in a course, more than 5 days may be required)
  • Review your weekly schedule and find a 2-3 hour period each day you can spend studying
  • In order to keep up with your ongoing classes, you may have to schedule your study sessions during times you do not normally work (e.g. evenings and weekends)

Plan your study activities

Studying effectively involves structuring your study time. During each study session, spend the first part of the session reviewing what you have already done.

Then, study the new material for that day.

Self-test at the end of the session to ensure you have understood the material. Self-testing could include:

  • Doing practice questions (from study guides or past exams) Generating and answering your own questions
  • Writing what you know about a topic without reference to your notes
  • Setting yourself a time limit and working through a problem without reference to your

Review –> Study –> Self-Test

Extending the Study Plan for Final Exams

When you have final exams coming up, expand the plan! Follow these steps to organize your final exam study schedule.

Estimate the time needed to prepare (See Task Analysis Chart)

General Guideline:

For final exams, 10 – 20 hours (4 to 7 three hour blocks) is a common estimate

Divide course material into 3 hour chunks

Divide Days into 3 Periods & Distribute Study Sessions

Three Possible Study Periods Each Day: Morning, Afternoon, Evening

1 Block = 3 hours

1.5 – 2 hours in between blocks

Enter times on a calendar

Working backwards from the date of the exam, distribute your study sessions


Time of day Activity
9 a.m. – 12 p.m. Study
12 p.m. – 2 p.m. Gym, eat, email
2 p.m. – 5 p.m. Study
5 p.m. – 7 p.m. Eat, email, TV show
7 p.m. – 10 p.m. Study

Include breaks in your study schedule!

Design your calendar

Divide each day into thirds
(Three 3 hour study sessions with 2 hour breaks in between)

Add the times of each study period

Add exam schedule & value of exams

Add any other obligations


Draft study schedule
Start with your scariest course
Estimate time & blocks needed per course

Assign Study Blocks
Study same time of day as exam is scheduled
Work backwards from exam date

Tips for the 5-day study plan

  • Schedule study sessions for a course at same time the exam will be written
  • 9 am exam = 9 am study sessions
  • Study 2+ courses in a day
  • Allow time for relaxation, even whole days off
  • Leave some blank sessions to allow for damage control

One of the biggest challenges of university is finding balance, and getting the most out of your university experience. You want to be involved and engaged with life on campus, but you also want to have enough time to devote to your academic work.

Getting involved in extra-curricular activities is a great way to make friends, experience new things, develop skills, and feel as though you are contributing to the university.

However, taking on too much may leave you feeling over-extended and over- committed. You may not have the time and energy to devote to any one of your activities or commitments, leading to missed classes, appointments, and deadlines.

Before taking on new commitments, it isimportant to carefully consider the consequences.

  1. First, take time to think about it:
    Example: “That sounds like a great opportunity – I’ll need a little time to think about it”
  2. Then, ask yourself the following questions:
    • Do I have enough time to devote to this?
    • Can I say a ‘qualified yes’?
      Example: “I can start this once midterms are over”, or “Is it possible to work with another person on this?”
    • Are there other commitments I can discontinue or scale back before taking on something new?

Adapted from Kolberg, J., & Nadeau, K. (2002). ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.


NEXT: Getting Started


Getting Started

One of the hardest parts of getting things done is getting started. Often, students have every intention of starting things early, with lots of time to finish. However, many students, especially those with ADHD, find it hard to get started. Here are some tips & tricks for taking those first steps toward getting things done.

Download this section as a PDF.


Find your motivation

  • What do you want to get out of university? What are your short and long term goals?
  • Do you want to avoid the stress of leaving things until the last minute? Do you want to
    maximize your grades to get into a graduate program or to get a great job?

Write out yours goals somewhere you can see them often. Motivate yourself by thinking about how your daily tasks relate to what is important to you. For example,

In five years, I will be a high school teacher.


Reward yourself

Give yourself rewards for finishing specific tasks. Make the rewards motivating, but be prepared to follow through if your tasks are not accomplished. For example,

After I read Chapter 5 in my Psychology text, I will watch one episode of my favourite television show.


Energize yourself

When people with ADHD are energized by a task, they can be extraordinarily productive. What kind of environment gets you energized? Find ways to make your tasks enjoyable. Study with friends, study outside, or find a research topic that really interests you.


Think in small pieces

Students with ADHD often feel overwhelmed by large projects, or by the prospect of long
periods of time studying.

If the thought of working for long periods makes it hard to get started, think smaller:

  • Can you work for 5 minutes?
  • Can you do 5 pages, 5 paragraphs, or 5 problems?

Commit to completing 5 minutes, 5 problems, or 5 paragraphs. At the end of each five, stop. Decide whether you will keep going or take a break. Sometimes, once you have started, continuing on doesn’t seem so bad. Or, you can stop and take a break. You have a choice.

If you spend an hour working for five minute blocks, followed by five minute breaks, you will have worked for 30 minutes you might not have otherwise.

It may be more productive to work in short bursts followed by breaks than to spend the time you had intended to work frustrated by your lack of concentration.


NEXT: Staying focused and sticking with it


Staying Focused & Sticking With It

One of the core difficulties people with ADHD face is staying focused. For people with ADHD, it is important to create an environment, both internally and externally, that will support concentration. It is also important to work within the limits of your attention.

Studying for hours on end without a break is not a realistic or productive goal (for anybody!). Smaller, more specific goals will help you to be productive and reduce frustration.

Download this section as a PDF.


Work within your attention span

People with ADHD typically have difficulty focusing their attention for long periods of time. Rather than becoming frustrated about lack of focus, learn to work within the limits of your attention span.

First, find the limits of your attention for a particular task or subject. Can you stay focused for 10 minutes? 20 minutes?

Once you have established your attention span for a course, divide your work into chunks that will take that long to complete.

Take 5 minute breaks between work sessions.

Use a timer to keep you on track, both for your working sessions and for your breaks. You can set up your phone to help you, or search for an online timer that will time your work sessions and breaks.

TIP: Do your hardest work (the most difficult stuff, the boring stuff) at the time of day when you are most alert.


Study with a friend

Sometimes, students with ADHD find it useful to have someone else help them stay on task. Studying with someone else can help you to re-focus if you find yourself distracted while studying.

Just seeing a friend working can be a great way to stay aware of the task at hand. A friend can also help you stay on task when you have a project to complete.

During weekly check-ins, he or she can hold you accountable for your progress. Tell them what you have done over the week, and what you want to accomplish next week.


Use self-talk to stay on task

Self-talk is one of the most powerful tools you can use to get started and stay on track. Congratulate yourself for staying on track, or remind yourself where your attention should be. Practice is the key to using self-talk effectively.

Over time, you can develop a habit of talking to yourself that keeps you motivated and focused. Examples:

  • If I get started now, I will feel less stressed later in the term.
  • I’m really making progress on this paper.
  • I have been on task for 10 minutes without distraction.
  • What is most important right now?


Stay active

Move your pencil as you read, tap your fingers, sketch in the margins, or go for a walk during your break. Physical, tactile activity can help people with ADHD maintain focus.


Analyze your work area

  • Do you have a place where you can work uninterrupted (other than for scheduled breaks)?
  • Are your supplies close at hand?
  • Are you comfortable (but not too comfortable)?
  • Good lighting and a comfortable chair.
  • Don’t study on your bed – it will make you sleepy!
Tips for making your work area distraction-free

Turn off technology.

  • This includes your phone, iPod, and wireless connection
  • If you need to be online to complete your work, block distracting pages or use a tool such as ‘Pageaddict,’ ‘Self-Control App’ or ‘Time Doctor’ to help control online distractions.
  • Put everything you do not need (phone, music) out of sight

Set specific times to check texts and emails.

  • When you are working, check your phone and email only at specific times during the day, such as after breakfast, lunch, and dinner
  • Set a timer to remind yourself to return to work
  • You may want to combine your email check with your planner check
  • Let friends and family know that you are busy with school and will only be in contact at certain times of day.

Use white noise to minimize distractions (e.g., Simply Noise

Keep everything you need close at hand (supplies, snacks, etc.).


Distraction pad

Use a distraction pad to write down wandering thoughts. Getting distracting thoughts out of your head by writing them down can help you focus on the task at hand.

Set aside a specific time each evening to review your distraction pad.

  • Some items may be trivial and can be forgotten.
  • Some items may be important – turn these into specific actions and add them to your to-do list.
  • Discuss ongoing, distressing thoughts with someone.

As an alternative, keep a running tally of when you find yourself getting distracted

  • If you notice yourself off task, make a check mark.
  • Drawing attention to off task thoughts and behaviour in a concrete way can help avoid them.

Look for patterns. Do your thoughts wander when you are tired? Hungry? Restless? Worried?

Think about your improving your health habits and/or talking to someone about your anxiety.


Engage with your work

Sometimes, when students with ADHD are interested in the task at hand they can maintain intense focus. You may be able to harness this concentration by getting interested in your courses. Active studying can improve your concentration as well as improve the quality of your studying.

  • Ask yourself questions.
  • Relate the information to your personal experience.
  • Think about the real world implications.
  • Make up your own examples.
    • This reminds me of…..
    • This is similar to what I learned in my other class…..
    • I wonder what would happen if…….


Stay healthy

Your sleep, eating, and exercise habits will affect your ability to concentrate. Eat three meals a day at regular intervals.

  • If you find yourself skipping meals, carry healthy snacks you can eat on the go: fruit, yogurt, crackers, etc.

Make time to exercise several times a week.

  • Include exercise in your weekly schedule

If you find yourself staying up later and later each night, try moving your bedtime earlier by 20 minute increments and getting up at a consistent time.

  • Set a timer or ask someone to remind you when it is time to start getting ready for bed.
  • Develop a routine before bed to help relax.


Online tools to help you stay focused

Self-Control (

  • Blocks access to distracting websites, etc. for a set period of time that you choose – while still allowing you to access the internet
  • Available on OS X only
  • Free

Time Doctor (

  • Monitors & tracks computer usage, including time spent on ‘unproductive’ sites
  • Sends messages to user if work seems to have slowed down
  • Free trial for 30 days but requires a low subscription afterwards

Focusbooster (

  • Helps you time and set goals for work sessions
  • Counts and tallies all complete sessions
  • Free

Time Out (

  • Set a pre-determined amount of time and Time Out will remind you to take a 5-10 minute break at that time
  • Macs only
  • Free

Simply Noise (

  • Blocks out noise to minimize distraction
  • Variety of sounds available: traditional white noise, thunderstorm, waves
  • ‘Pay what you can’ donation requested at time of download

Many other apps and software are available online. Time yourself for 20 minutes and see what you can find!


NEXT: Lectures and Notes

Lectures & Notes

The amount of information you are required to learn in university can sometimes seem overwhelming.

  • What is important? How can I focus in lecture?
  • How do I make summary notes without missing something?
  • How can I make notes efficiently when I am reading or in lecture?

There are different ways of taking notes that may appeal to different kinds of learners. For people with ADHD, using different styles of formatting can help organize your thoughts and highlight what is important.

Download this section as a PDF.


Does this sound familiar?

After his last semester, Jake was frustrated. He loved his program, and spent a lot of time studying, but his grades didn’t reflect the work he was doing. Having ADHD had been a problem throughout high school, but he could always manage to learn the material, even at the last minute. Now, at university, the amount of information was overwhelming.

Jake attended most of his classes, but he found it hard to make notes. He tried to write what the professor was saying, but he would get lost and quickly give up. After a while, his concentration would wane. He wasn’t getting very much out of his classes, and it was tempting to skip them.

When he tried to study, it wasn’t much better. He always felt like he didn’t know exactly what he should be studying, and that there was just too much information to process. Often, he would spend hours making notes that were virtual copies of the textbook, and not that useful when it came time to study for the exam.

Jake needed to be able to use his class time and his study time more effectively.


Taking notes in lecture

Taking lecture notes is important to help you stay engaged during the lecture and for studying later on. People with ADHD often find that concentrating in lectures is difficult. Students may feel as though the instructor is speaking too fast and going into too much detail, or they may find it difficult to get everything down.

Taking notes in lecture is a skill that is developed over time, through practice. Here are some suggestions to make it a little easier.

Be prepared

Before you go to class:

  • Knowing what the lecture is about can make it easier and faster to process information
  • If the professor posts the lecture slides before class, read them ahead of time
  • Skim the relevant textbook chapter:
    • Read the introduction
    • Read the chapter summary & review questions
    • Skim the headings
    • Skimming gives you a preview of the most important concepts, which helps you listen more effectively in lecture
  • Go in with a positive attitude
  • Lectures are an opportunity to learn new things & prepare for exams

Concentrating in lecture

  • Go early and sit up front
    • Sitting up front in a lecture makes it easier to stay engaged – you are less likely to let your attention wander the closer you are to the instructor
  • Concentrate actively
    • Monitor your concentration and make it a priority
    • Keep a record of when your mind wanders
    • Make a check on a separate piece of paper when you find your attention shifting
  • Using a specific signal (like making a check mark) can help you to be more aware of your need to re-focus


Effective Note-taking

  • Keep all your notes for a particular subject in one 3-ring binder
    • Using a 3-ring binder allows you to insert handouts and keep everything in one place
    • Number & date each page, so you can put things back in order if you need to
    • Use only one side of the paper and leave white space
    • This allows you to fill in things you may have missed, or add ideas you have later
  • Use colour codes
    • Identify key terms, headings, new sections using different colours
    • This can be done after the lecture
  • Use the Cornell Method of note-taking in lectures
  • Find a friend in class
    • Compare notes after class and fill in important points you may have missed


Sample note-taking

September 28, Page 1

  • Definition: characteristics ways of responding to the environment that are consistent over time
  • Thomas & Chess:
    • 3 Broad Categories of Temperament:
      • Easy
      • Difficult
      • Slow to Warm Up


Determine what is important

Prepare ahead of class and bring PowerPoint notes. Actively process what the professor is saying. Think of:

  • How lecture relates to learning objectives or course goals
  • Questions
  • Other Examples

How a professor signals something is important:

  • Writes on the board
  • Reads something (wants to get it exactly right)
  • Repeats information
  • Tone of voice changes (louder, slower, more excited)
  • Spends a lot of time on a point
  • Explains a sequence
  • Explains how or why something happens
  • Word signals:
    • “There are two points of view….”
    • “There are 3 reasons why…”
    • “The most important point to remember….”
  • Highlights information at the beginning of class & reviews it at the end of class


Keep things brief

Use the minimum words possible to get a point across. Develop a system of abbreviations that works for you.

Symbols and graphics

= equal

≠ does not equal

≈ approximately

* important

** very important

> greater than

< less than

& and

+ in addition

# number

$ cost, money

w/ with

w/o without

b/w between

vs. versus, against

(), [ ], {} information that belongs together

↑ increase

↓ decrease

∆ change


C “Compare”

feg “for example”

i.e. “that is”

mx “maximum”

mn “minimum”

Use only the first part of a word

pols “Politics”

dem “Democracy”

lib “Liberal”

cons “Conservative”

subj “Subject”

assc “Association”

biol “Biology”

info “Information”

gov “Government”

Omit vowels

Bkgrd “Background”

Pprd “Prepared”

Estmt “Estimate”

Rdng “Reading”

EXAMPLE: The benefits of abbreviating your notes

Notice the difference between the following two note samples (both include exactly the same information).

  • Dimensions of Parenting
    • There are three common dimensions of parenting:
      • Support
      • Behavioural Control
      • Psychological Control
  • A dimensional approach to parenting is in contrast to a categorical approach
  • Hypothesis: Each dimension has distinctive outcomes:
    • Support is associated with increasing social competence and decreased depression
    • Psychological control is associated with increased antisocial behaviour and increased depression
    • Behavioural control is associated with less antisocial behavior

Same idea, much shorter:

  • Dimensions of Parenting
    • 3 commons Dmens:
      • Support
      • Beh. Ctrl
      • Psych. Ctrl
    • Dmens vs. categories
    • Hypothesis: each dmen has distinct outcomes
      • Support -7 ↑ soc competence; ↓depression
      • Psych Ctrl -7 ↑antisocl beh; ↑depression
      • Beh Ctrl -7 ↓ antisocl beh.


After lecture


Once a week, review your lecture notes for that week.

The most effective review happens close to the time of learning. You will retain more information if you review your notes shortly after class rather than waiting until the exam to begin your review.

Pick a specific time for a weekly review of your notes, and include that time in your weekly schedule.

Make note, using a particular symbol (such as ??) of anything you do not understand.

  • Look for more information in the textbook
  • Ask someone for clarification (instructor, teaching assistant, classmate)

Mark the most important ideas in your notes.

  • Read through your notes and put a star by the most important points (*)
    • There could be several dozen stars in your notes
  • Read each of the notes you marked with a star again, putting another star by any ideas that seem particularly important (**)
  • Finally, do one last read through of the notes with two stars, and add an additional star (***) by the most critical ideas
    • At this point, there should only be a few triple star points
  • This system helps you pick out the most critical concepts in your notes
    • Provides a guide for strategic studying

If you have time, review lectures or *** ideas from previous weeks.


Summary notes

Making notes can sometimes feel like you are just copying the textbook.

How do you figure out what is important, and how do you organize that information so you remember it? Instead of making paragraph styles notes, try doing different things with the information in your text books and class notes.

Making different kinds of notes can help you figure out what the key points are, as well as organize the information in a way that is easy to retain.

The more you do with information, the more likely you are to understand it and remember it.

Cornell Note-taking Method

The distinguishing feature of the Cornell system is the layout of the pages on which you take your notes. The page layout includes large margins on the left — the ‘Cue Column’ at 2.5 inches — and the bottom of the page there are 2 inches in which to write a brief summary. To the right of the Cue Column is the Note-taking Column, comprising 6 inches.

In the Cue Column write a key word, phrase, and/or question that will serve to toggle your memory of the ideas you wrote in the Note-taking Column.


Charts are a good way to organize a lot of information efficiently.

Charts are particularly helpful when you are learning the same patterns of information about different things (e.g. theories, stages,systems).

Charts also allow you to think flexibly: You can study across rows for depth or down columns for

Mind maps

Mind Maps help you to get a big picture view of a course, to identify main points and secondary points, to make associations between different topics, and to identify recurring ideas.

Mind maps are often very effective for people with ADHD: they are highly visual, and do not need to be done in a sequential order. Use colours and shapes to make it more fun!

Quantitative concept summaries

In any subject, there are usually only a few basic concepts which are applied in a variety of ways or situations. If you are have a math, accounting, or science course that involves problem solving, use concept summaries to organize and think about the material.

Concept summaries help clarify the basic ideas and shift the information from working memory to long-term memory.

For more information, please see our Quantitative Problem-solving module.


NEXT: Maintaining motivation


Maintaining Motivation

One of the biggest difficulties faced by many people with ADHD is negative thinking.

Despite being smart & capable, many people with ADHD have experienced frustration because they have difficulty with many of the things they perceive as coming easily to others: organization, planning, and time management.

Many people, with and without ADHD, have trouble with these sorts of tasks.

Everyone uses strategies to stay organized and on-track, and everyone occasionally has difficulty. Being your own unrelenting critic can be one of the most difficult habits to overcome. Learning to quiet your inner critic can be one of the most powerful strategies to keep yourself motivated.

Download this section as a PDF.


Does this sound familiar?

Tarq was finishing his last semester at university. He couldn’t believe he was finally graduating.

Looking back at his four years of university, Tarq was proud of himself: finishing university with ADHD was a major accomplishment – one he had worked hard for.

The first couple of years had been rocky, no doubt about it. Learning to manage his time, keep track of assignments, and study effectively had been challenges. Like most people with ADHD, organization and planning were difficult for Tarq, and he had had to figure out strategies that would work for him. Learning how to schedule his time and use a planner had eventually helped to keep him organized.

But, he still ran into problems when he got behind or distracted. As prepared to graduate, Tarq felt that his biggest struggle was dealing with feelings of frustration and disappointment. Throughout university, no matter what he accomplished, Tarq had felt discouraged and dissatisfied. Although he was rarely critical of others, he was very critical of himself.

Now Tarq realized that he had to quiet his own inner critic, accept his mistakes, and face personal challenges head on.


Discouragement and fatigue

The symptoms of ADHD may make it harder to learn and use effective coping strategies.

As a result, people who have ADHD can have difficulty with various tasks, including school, and experience things they think of as ‘failures.’

Ongoing negative feedback can lead to negative thoughts and beliefs, shame, and self-blame.

Negative thoughts & beliefs can:

  • decrease motivation
  • increase procrastination
  • contribute to mood disturbance

What negative thoughts do you have?

Are they true, are they realistic?

If yes, develop an action plan.

If no, replace negative thoughts with more positive self-talk.


Positive self-talk

Think about your inner script – the voice in your head.

Is this voice positive and encouraging?

Is it helping your to be your best?

Think about how you would feel if the voice in your head was positive:

Negative Positive
“I’m going to screw up.” “I can do this.”
“Why do I even bother?” “I will try my best.”
“This is too hard for me.” “I have overcome challenges before and I can do it again.”
“I can’t do this anymore.” “I will take a break and come back to this with a fresh perspective.”

Try an experiment: one day allowing no negative self-talk.


Improving your mood

Feeling discouraged? Try some of these strategies for improving your mood:

Exercise: Try building exercise into your routine as a social activity. Join a team or arrange a pick-up game with friends.

Spend Time Outside: Take a walk or a bike ride. Research suggests that spending time outside makes ADHD symptoms less severe.

Connect with Friends: Remember to include time with friends in your weekly plan

Meet New People: Join a club, play on a team, or volunteer with a community organization

Use Your Strengths: To keep your focus positive, make a list of your personal strengths, and do something you are good at.


Strategies to keep up routines

New habits take time to develop.

Do not expect yourself to be able to adopt a new routine or strategy overnight: you will be setting yourself up for failure.

If you find yourself getting off course, try some of these tips to get yourself back on track:

Tie a new habit to an old one

(Example: check your planner at meal times)

Put reminders everywhere

(Phone, computer, post-its, planner)

Don’t expect to follow new routines perfectly

(Habits take time to develop)

If you get off track, fix it right away

(Even if it’s not convenient)

Problem-solve if something isn’t working

(Maybe you need to try doing something a different way – brainstorm possible solutions with a friend)

Do something daily

(Consistency leads to habit formation)

Get help from a friend or mentor

(Being accountable to someone else can be extra incentive to stick with a new routine)

Adapted from Kolberg, J., & Nadeau, K. (2002). ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.


References and resources

Canadian ADHD Resource Alliance. (2010). Canadian ADHD practice guidelines, Third Edition. Retrieved from

Kolberg, J. & Nadeau, K. (2003). ADD-Friendly ways to organize your life. New York: BrunnerRoutledge. See website:

Knouse, L. E., & Safren, S. A. (2010). Current status of cognitive behavioral therapy for adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33, 497–509.

Mincu, B. (2009). How to thrive with adult ADD/ADHD: Mind-mapping and rituals. Retrieved from

National Resource Center on ADHD. (2003). Time management: Learning to use a day planner. Retrieved from

Safran, S. A. (2006). Cognitive-behavioral approaches to ADHD treatment in adulthood. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 67, 46-50.

Weiss, M., Safren, S. A., Solanto, M. V., Hechtman, L., Rostain, A., Russell Ramsay, J. et al. (2008). Research forum on psychological treatment of adults with ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11, 642-651.


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