Ask the Experts

Q: The Sustained Focus Required in College Is Physically Painful

For the ADHD brain, procrastination is not a sign of laziness. Chances are, you are putting things off because those things so heavily tax your executive functions and attention that they are physically and emotionally overwhelming. What to do when the work makes you want to cry.

Q: “I’ve had serious problems with sitting down and getting my homework done since I was 13. It’s like a wall goes up in my head that prevents me from starting my work, no matter how much I need to get it done, or how bad the consequences of failure. Even once I’ve started, I feel so overwhelmed that I find it easier never to finish, and feel miserable the entire time I’m working. This led me to underperform throughout high school because I often submitted my work very late or didn’t submit it at all. I am now 28 and still struggling to finish my undergraduate degree after taking years off of school because of these problems. I have a crying meltdown every single time I have to write a paper because exerting the sustained mental energy it requires to do research, plan out a topic, organize my thoughts, put them into words, and format my paper correctly feels unbearable the entire time I am doing it — and I won’t start until the very last minute as a result. Though I’m finally almost finished university, I’m afraid this problem will continue to make life difficult for me in future job settings. Why do I get this mental block, and how can I overcome it?” Reluctant Student


Hi Reluctant Student:

Thank you for being so honest with your struggles. Let me assure you that you are not alone on this one.

Always relying on our internal motivation is exhausting and leaves us drained and unmotivated. For this reason, I teach my student clients to use the external motivation of their environment instead. Environment plays a HUGE role in how we get things done.

[Free Handout: How to Focus (When Your Brain Says ‘No!’)]

Have you tried different locations? Does spending time in a colorful room or even outside make you happy? Do you have a favorite food? Sometimes pairing something we desire (frozen yogurt for me) with the undesirable (like homework) provides that “boost” we need to get going.

Have you tried a study soundtrack? Music helps the brain plan, focus, initiate, and calm down. So perhaps listening to music while working on your papers could help prevent meltdowns. Create a playlist of music you love. The key is to play the same playlist every time you sit down to work. Eventually the music will act as a motivator; when you hear the music, it will signal your brain that it is time to get work done.

When I am feeling overwhelmed and in a state of paralysis, I have two strategies that always work for my students and me: First, I get started on something that is so small and so easy that success is virtually guaranteed. Research shows that even the worst procrastinators or perfectionists can improve by creating a very small goal to begin. One sentence to write. One resource to find. You get the idea. Once you start, you can probably keep on going. Second, I use a timer. It’s one of the simplest yet most powerful tools we have to get going. Setting aside a predetermined but small amount of time to work might help you not feel so overwhelmed.

Have you tried the concept of body doubling? A body double functions as an anchor. The presence of another individual focuses a person and makes it possible for them to get started and stay focused. Perhaps you can enlist a friend in one of your classes to work with you?

[Free Resource: 19 Ways to Meet Deadlines and Get Things Done]

Have you taken advantage of your school’s academic and tutoring resources? Most universities have office hours where you can go for writing support, organizational and time management, and tutoring as well as academic assistance. They would be very helpful in working with you on planning, researching and writing.

And lastly, have you considered working with an academic/life coach? I work all day long with students and see first-hand the benefits that a coach can have in helping students feel more empowered and in control. The right coach can teach you the skills you need to succeed in learning and in life. If you are interested, check out ADDitude Magazine’s directory listings for coaches and other ADHD professionals.


Organization guru Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, answers 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.

Submit your questions to Dear Organizing Coach here!

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