Crunch Time Self-Care Tips for Students With ADHD

While it can be easy to skate by in the early weeks of the semester, it all comes out in the wash during finals season. Students must balance personal responsibilities with numerous culminating projects, papers, and tests, leaving little time for relaxation. Without good habits in place ahead of time, the lack of structure and level of stress associated with finals season can send a student spiraling. This is especially true for me, as I am a student with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

I always talk about ADHD’s impact on my life as both a blessing and a curse. It’s easy, of course, to focus on the negative impact it has had on my academic performance. I struggle to properly place my priorities when it comes to school work. Rather than working on the assignments that are due the soonest, I tend to “follow the dopamine,” hyper-focusing on whatever task is the most interesting and stimulating for me. When I’m lucky, the task I choose is my homework. However, more often than not, I will justify my procrastination by hyper-fixating on an irrelevant task; for example, I recently avoided starting a paper for an entire day by meticulously organizing my dresser drawers, going grocery shopping, and making an elaborate dinner. (If I’m being honest, I am currently writing this piece to put off working on a few assignments due in the next few days!).

While it’s easy to generalize my experience with ADHD as a negative one, I am careful to remember the benefits I reap from having a brain that works like mine. ADHD has made me a highly creative thinker. It’s the reason I had a million hobbies growing up and the reason I can hold my own in a conversation with any stranger. It’s the reason I can write a 10-page paper in one night and still get an A. It’s the reason I’m me; I would be a completely different – and probably much more boring–  person if I didn’t have ADHD. When I am able to focus my energy on something and follow through, I am unstoppable; the key is finding the best ways to make this happen. 

I am not an expert on ADHD by any means; while I have had symptoms for as long as I can remember, I was first diagnosed as a first-year student just two years ago. That being said, I have spent the last two years learning how to adjust my daily routines and study habits to accommodate the unique way my brain works. These are some strategies that have helped me to meet the demands of finals week without sacrificing my mental health:


  • Set rewards for yourself

The ADHD brain thrives on rewards. Rewards trigger the brain to release dopamine (also known as the happy chemical), and the ability to take advantage of the brain’s reward center can be the difference between success and struggle for students with ADHD. These rewards will look different for everyone. One of my go-to rewards is fast food. I will often make a deal with myself that sounds something like this: “If I finish my paper for my English class tonight, I can go to Wendy’s for Frosties with my friends tonight.” More often than not, the promise of a reward is enough to keep my motivation high until my work is completed. 



  • Try body doubling to stay on task

One of my biggest struggles as a student with ADHD is my inability to hold myself fully accountable for staying on task during homework sessions. Like many with ADHD, I struggle to see myself as an authority figure; in other words, it is almost never realistic for me to set a deadline for myself without any external accountability. I am also very extroverted, meaning I feel energized by the time I spend with others. While this can be a curse when I prioritize my social life over academics, it can be a blessing in disguise when I find ways to combine the two. 

When I am feeling unmotivated, I ask a friend to come over and do work with me. This works best with people who understand what I need in a study buddy: minimal conversation, accountability, and a positive atmosphere. I have found this to be the perfect balance between spending time with friends and prioritizing my schoolwork; who with ADHD doesn’t love multitasking? 



  • Keep a schedule- even if you think you don’t need one

I didn’t start keeping track of my assignments and commitments in any concrete way until my sophomore year at Fisher. Back then, I survived by making “mental notes” of every assignment, meeting, and due date. This worked for me in high school, and I assumed college would be no different. By the end of my first semester, I quickly realized that mental notes were not enough. I found myself missing important meetings and being the person in class saying, “Wait, we had an assignment?”

Since I realized the mental note system wasn’t cutting it, I’ve tried everything from elaborate paper planners to websites like Notion on my journey to give my life some semblance of organization. So far, I have had the most success with the Stickies app that came with my Macbook. At the beginning of each week, I write down my schedule in detail, including every class, meeting, and any plans I might have with friends. I even write down when I plan to eat– especially on days when I take ADHD medication, I find myself forgetting to eat if I don’t feel any physical hunger cues. As I check each item off of my list, I delete it from the note; this helps the list feel less daunting as I approach the end, where I usually reserve time for major assignments in the evening. 

If one organization system doesn’t work for you, don’t make the mistake of assuming that nothing will. It took me months of trial and error before I found my perfect fit; every brain needs something different to work at its full potential, and that is OK!



  • Experiment with study music to find what works best for you
Original art by Juan Pablo Machado

For people with ADHD, the key to success lies in tricking your brain into releasing as much dopamine as possible when you’re doing what experts call a “non-preferred task”. For me, a surefire way to get the dopamine flowing in a study session is to turn on one of my go-to study playlists.

More often than not, I find it much easier to focus with instrumental music playing than with my standard playlists on. Like many college students, I am partial to the “chill lo-fi study beats” genre– I don’t know about you, but there’s something about that picture of the girl with her nose in a book that makes me want to be my best. 

To give a more unorthodox recommendation, I have had a lot of success with video game soundtracks as my study backdrop. The music is designed to keep listeners focused on a task (traditionally, the game) for a long period of time without pulling much focus. Although I’ve never considered myself much of a gamer, it can be fun to dig up soundtracks from games I played on the Xbox 360 as a kid (any Viva Piñata fans out there?)



  • “Embrace The Suck”

Even with a study buddy, the perfect playlist, and a cozy study setup, there will always be days when the mere task of opening your laptop feels impossible. On these days, even though it’s hard, I try to alter my mindset from “This sucks” to “This sucks, and”.

For example:

“This sucks, and I know it will suck much less once I’m finished.”

“This sucks, and I know I’m not the only one having a hard time right now.”

“This sucks, and I am one step closer to reaching my long-term goals with each word I write.”

“This sucks, and I am capable and smart enough to do it anyway.”

“This sucks, and this will pass.”

With full transparency, this mindset can be tough for the ADHD brain to commit to. If you haven’t gotten the hint already, it can feel impossible to go against what your dopamine receptors want you to do. But if I were to follow the dopamine all the time, only doing what I wanted to do at any given moment, I know that I would never reach my full potential in life. It was a surprisingly hard pill to swallow, but I had to accept that not every path on the way to my goals would be pleasant. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to “embrace the suck” and force yourself to start. 



  • Stay true to what works for you

It can be all too easy for me to compare my study habits to the study habits of a neurotypical student. When I go too far down this rabbit hole and start questioning my intelligence and worth as a student, I have to be careful to stop myself and reframe my thinking. I spent years trying to break my habit of procrastinating major assignments, mostly because of pressure from professors and classmates who saw my habits as chaotic and unorganized. 


When I came to terms with the fact that my brain works differently and I need to use different study strategies than many of my peers, I began feeling much more proud of my work. I still procrastinate, but I have accepted that I do it because it’s what works best for my brain, not because I’m lazy or a bad student. I work well under pressure; it allows me to hyperfocus on a task and produce better work than I do in a relaxed environment with no time constraints. Accepting this shortcoming as a superpower has revolutionized my self-perception. I love the way my brain works, and I feel so lucky to finally understand what a superpower ADHD is.