Understanding how to deal with my ADHD as a PhD student

For as long as I’ve known about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I’ve suspected I had it. I would make jokes about it and downplay how much it really affected me.

In 2021, as a 29-year-old, I threw in the towel and went: “What’s the harm in getting tested?” and voila – I was given the shiny new title of someone with ADHD.

It was another diagnosis I could add to the list of disorders or illnesses I had – chronic depression, chronic anxiety and now ADHD. A lot of behaviours I’d attributed to laziness, procrastination, boredom or random bursts of excitement and anger started to make sense.

I read and researched more about how ADHD is underdiagnosed in women and girls, how it impacts different genders and what my ‘combined type’ meant.

It led me to start thinking about how it had impacted my entire educational journey, my relationships with others and myself and my overall outlook on life.

Suddenly, pieces were clicking into place. I started realising why every time I sat down to write my thesis, I got the sudden urge to clean my wardrobe or do the dishes or do online shopping; why I couldn’t sit through a pomodoro (a time management technique) session without getting distracted; and why I couldn’t prioritise my tasks or finish what I had started.

I realised why I would always put my PhD last, even though it was the most important task of all; why I constantly suffered with sensory overload and anything and everything could distract me; why I always seemed to either interrupt others, share everything and anything I knew about a given topic or not listen at all.

It could be debilitating, and heighten my feelings of impostor syndrome, self-imposed isolation and an omnipresent sense of dread and stress. The diagnosis has been liberating and challenging. Not only because I finally knew what was ‘wrong’ with me, but because I felt validated.

I started listening to podcasts about ADHD in adults, reading books and blogs and joined groups on Facebook and Discord to share my experiences with others who were in the same boat.

Solutions to enhance productivity

Now that I’ve received a diagnosis for ADHD, I’ve been working on finding solutions that can enhance my productivity, as well as self-care practices. Below is what I’ve found so far that works for me:

• The mind is fickle, and I can trick it. Once I register that something is difficult, I automatically want to avoid doing it, so now I always have multiple tasks scheduled for the day. If one task is difficult, I change over to the other difficult task.

• My PhD is not one big project; instead, it’s multiple little projects that can be further broken into smaller bits. I went from tackling each of my chapters as a whole to breaking them down into manageable smaller tasks so that I wouldn’t overwhelm myself.

• I’ve acknowledged and accepted that my ADHD and PhD student burnout is real. I’ve always had too much on my plate; I rarely ever truly rest or take a break and I overcompensate to avoid being labelled as lazy and careless. Acknowledging this unending sense of tiredness and exhaustion helped me to get into exercising self-compassion and scheduling self-care into my everyday routine.

• Breaking down my tasks using the ‘important and urgent’, ‘not important and urgent’, ‘important and not urgent’ and ‘not important and not urgent’ methods has really helped me prioritise my day, because otherwise I would always be on top of my admin, my emails and all of the other mundane tasks that aren’t my PhD.

• Pomodoro doesn’t have to be in 25- or 45-minute intervals. I started doing my pomodoro sessions in blocks of 10 minutes of work with five-minute breaks or even five minutes of work with a one-minute break.

• Sensory overload is real. It’s difficult to explain sensory overload and it works differently for everyone. I now use noise-cancelling earmuffs to avoid noise and disturbances or listen to binaural beats as I work.

• I need to be aware of my ‘time blindness’ and be realistic in my predictions of how long it will take to complete a task. My perception of how much time has passed during the day isn’t the same as everyone else’s.

• Some progress is better than no progress. Having no words on the paper one day doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. Every day’s progress looks different. On days when I don’t want to get out of bed, I cannot expect myself to do work. The guilt is always there, but I’m trying to extend to myself the same understanding I would extend to my colleagues experiencing similar difficulties.

• Meditation, mindfulness or paying attention to my breathing in silence actually works. I know, I know – mindfulness is overdone, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But some days it does work for me, especially on the days when I’m in a constant state of panic and anxiety – similar to my fellow PhD colleague who recently wrote this brilliant article.

• I remind myself that I shouldn’t feel ashamed or weak to seek help and comfort from within and outside my support network.

Do I follow all of these tips every day? No way! But have they come in handy on days when I can apply them? Very much so.

I’m my biggest critic and my inner voice can be cruel – but that doesn’t mean it has to be the loudest voice.

It’s OK if there are days where I don’t make any progress or I sit and stare at my screen and seriously consider dropping out of my PhD. But I won’t let my PhD be added to the list of hobbies or tasks that were started but never finished.

Amarpreet Abraham is a PhD candidate and teaching associate in the faculty of arts at Monash University, Australia. This article was first published on the Monash Lens blog here. Note: These are not universal solutions, and what may work for me may not be helpful for another person. I also acknowledge that not everyone can afford to seek diagnosis and-or therapy.