Ask the Experts

Q: “What Essential Study Habits Does My College Freshman Need to Adopt?”

A college student with ADHD struggles to build and stick to a study routine. How can her mother help her devise a daily schedule and get unstuck?

This is too much work to take in
This is too much work to take in

Q: “My daughter is a freshman in college. She’s getting her assignments done and studying, but not without a struggle. She calls me crying and complaining about how she can’t figure out a routine or ritual that will help her get her work done. When she was in high school, she followed a routine during the week that helped her a lot. I wish I could help her now, but I don’t know how to help her figure out a study ritual she can follow.”

Your daughter is not alone in her struggles to find a “study ritual” that works in college. When you’re in high school, your days tend to follow a similar schedule and they are “bookended” – beginning and ending at the same time each day. Once you’re in college, each day may start at a different time or bear no similarities to the day before. Therefore, a regular routine is tough to pin down.

A funny thing about rituals and routines is that they can naturally form without deliberately thinking about them — like brushing your teeth before washing your face — or they may take some major thought and effort. At the beginning of each semester, when my students receive their new schedules, we sit down to figure out the structure and routine of their days.

[Free Download: Get Control of Your Life and Schedule]

I suggest your daughter do the same when she returns to school for her second semester. Have her think about what kinds of routines and rituals she can develop that will reduce her mental effort, create time by saving time, and help break that study logjam. Here are my guiding principles:

1. Look Around for Routine Synergies.

Is her psych class located right next to the library? Is calculus across from the student union? She might not have thought of this, but she already has part of a routine in place. It’s always easier to follow a routine or stick to one when the physical path is established.

2. Block Out Your Schedule.

Perhaps she has an available block of time on Tuesdays between classes when she can hunker down to work on a certain subject. The key to a successful routine is not only setting aside the time to study but taking it one step further and creating a Tuesday afternoon routine of working on a specific subject. By committing to the when and what beforehand, she’ll know that Tuesday afternoon is her time to focus on that subject and that subject only. She won’t need to juggle her schedule around to make time for it. And since the time is dedicated to only that subject, no other work will get in the way. Otherwise, deciding what to do during a specific time is confusing and overwhelming at best and leads to procrastination at worst.

3. Create a Pre-work Ritual.

Most procrastination occurs just before you sit down to tackle a task or prepare your brain for deep work. If your daughter can use that time to perform several actions that support her work and eliminate distractions, she may have a smoother transition into work mode and cut back on wasted time and frustration.

[Read: “I’ll Study Later! Really!” How to (Actually) Study Effectively with ADHD]

Let me explain it this way: The brain is a muscle, and it needs exercise. Working is exercise! But before we can exercise, we need to warm up our muscles. Think of a work ritual as warming up your brain to do the heavy lifting. Here are a few of my students’ favorite pre-work rituals that help them get unstuck and started:

  • Going to the gym
  • Drinking coffee
  • Taking a walk
  • Taking a shower
  • Lighting candles
  • Playing invigorating music
  • Meditating
  • Writing priorities
  • Eating
  • Dancing
  • Praying

Which ones do you think she might put on her list? She doesn’t have to pick them all — just two or three before she starts a study session.

Good luck to your daughter!

Study Habits for College Students with ADHD: Next Steps

ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer 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.

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